A mirror on to Rome

Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, [speculum image number, A29], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. (Click on the image to enlarge)

The current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Bruegel to Freud : prints from the Courtauld Gallery, which runs until September 21st, gives an introduction to the Courtauld’s wonderful collection of prints. Just one book is on display, the Courtauld’s copy of Speculum Romanae magnificentiae, open at a splendid view of the Colosseum by Ambrogio Brambilla. Occasionally nowadays – but only rarely – an exhibition curator has the opportunity to digitise lots of images from a volume, so that the visitor is given the chance to view all the content. More usually – as here – the visitor has to be content with one opening. Jotting down details of the publication, it was very satisfying to return to Cambridge, investigate on LibrarySearch, and find I had the opportunity to examine another copy of the Speculum Romanae magnificentiae at my leisure, and several related publications, albeit scattered across several of the University’s library collections.

Sometime around 1540 the French publisher Antoine Lafréry, a native of Besançon who had settled in Rome, began to produce prints of major Roman monuments, sculptures and other antiquities. These are notable for their accuracy and the scholarly knowledge they display. Some thirty years later Lafréry published a splendid title page engraved within an architectural and sculptural border and designed by Etienne Dupérac, and collections of his prints, bound up with the title page, came to be known as the Speculum Romanae magnificentiae or Mirror of Roman magnificence. This became one of the most celebrated print collections of the Renaissance, primarily trying to offer a comprehensive view of Roman antiquity but also including some depictions of contemporary views and architecture.


Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, [speculum image number, A109], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. (Click on the image to enlarge)

Even at the time such collections of large-scale prints could only have been in the possession of the wealthy. A single print might have been affordable to someone of moderate means, but the expense of binding, transporting and housing such a collection of prints would have been considerable. I was slightly surprised that according to COPAC there are no copies in National Trust libraries.

When these collections started to be integrated into academic library collections in the 19th and 20th centuries, because they had the superficial appearance of an item with a standard frontispiece, they were often catalogued as if they were a book with regular content. In reality, of course, no two copies are alike, since Lafréry’s clients would each have made a selection from his large stock of prints according to individual interests. There is a further complication in that the prints commonly exist in varying states. Many of Lafréry’s plates were republished with other publishers’ names and dates in the 1580s and 1590s. The image of the Castel Sant’Angelo incorporates the papal arms, so needed to be updated when it was republished under a different pontificate.

In 2005 an exhibition of prints from the Speculum Romanae magnificentiae was held at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. The University Library has a copy of the catalogue, Speculum Romanae magnificentiae: Roma nell’incisione del Cinquecento (2005.10.431), the introduction to which indicates that the Florence Speculum consists of only 84 prints. The British Library copy has 184 plates, according to a fairly rudimentary entry on COPAC. In the late 19th century Lord Crawford assembled more than 600 prints in his copy of the Speculum, which was acquired in 1951 by the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University. The content of this collection is itemised in the Catalogue of the Earl of Crawford’s “Speculum Romanae magnificentiae” now in the Avery Architectural Library (9850.c.2171). The University of Chicago has the largest version of the Speculum, 994 prints brought together by a 19th century collector and organized around a core of prints by Lafréry. All the content has been digitised, and it is a truly wonderful resource: http://speculum.lib.uchicago.edu/


Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, [speculum image number, C834], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. (Click on the image to enlarge)

The Cambridge copy of the Speculum Romanae magnificentiae is held in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum. An old bookseller’s label from the early 19th century describes the Fitzwilliam Speculum as “307 plates, many of them PROOFS BEFORE LETTERS, a copy unequalled in its extent and richness”, and the bookseller’s description of each image is pasted on the back of the print. There are, of course, many examples of Roman architecture – the print of the Theatre of Marcellus is now mounted, having evidently been used for an exhibition at some point. Many prints represent the buildings in cross-section. The scholarly nature of Lafréry’s approach is particularly suggested in the prints with elaborate Latin inscriptions, as depicted, for example, in the image of the tomb of Antonius Antius Lupus. Amongst the most eye-catching images of antique sculpture are a depiction of Pan and a shepherd, and a charming Little angler (boy fishing). The image of a Nile god has a magnificent border of crocodiles and (I think) hippopotamuses.

Notable amongst the more contemporary images is a print of Michelangelo’s tomb of Julius II and a print entitled Papal benediction, with a view of St Peter’s basilica as a still unfinished edifice with the population kneeling in the piazza to receive the papal blessing. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether the image is of the antique or the Renaissance. Three prints make up a composite image of the ancient Capitol, and these are generally regarded as representing a late 16th century stage design.

David Lowe

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