Thinking about the creation of ‘national literature’ and ‘national styles’ in art and architecture, most people will refer to the 19th century: the period of the rise of national states and the attempt to codify specific geographically and nationally defined identities in art, architecture and literature, based on models from a glorious past. Nevertheless, five hundred years before this era, humanist scholars, artists, monarchs and other political leaders all over Europe had already charged themselves with a comparable task. In late medieval and early modern Europe, c.1400–1700, authority was formally based on lineage, and in all countries political ambitions and geographical claims were supported by true or false historical reasons. Literature, architecture and paintings were also used to express these ideas of national or local history and that history’s oldest roots in the distant past.
Thus far, the strong and conscious interest in national and local history as expressed during this period in the arts has not yet been studied systematically in an interdisciplinary way. In art history most attention is still paid to the reception of the ‘international’ canon of Greek and Roman antiquities – like the well-known ruins in Rome and its surroundings – and of ‘classical’ Greek sculpture. And until rather recently, research on Neo-Latin literature was focussed on the reception of the classical Greek and Roman authors, whereas historical works on the ‘medieval’ or local past were neglected. The local or medieval past, however, played a pivotal role. In current mainstream interpretations of ‘Renaissance’ art as a ‘Rebirth of Antiquity’, antiquity has misleadingly acquired a standard definition based on the international canon. In this perspective, there seems to be only one ideal Antiquity and only one proper embodiment of Antiquity Reborn: the reception of Rome’s antiquities in 15th- and 16th-century Florence and Rome. Thus, the bias toward a ‘proper’ antiquity has created the idea of a ‘proper’ Renaissance. Consequently, most Antiquity-inspired architecture, art and literature in Northern Europe – as well as in Spain, France and the Italian periphery from Lombardy to Sicily – have been analysed and interpreted with Central Italian solutions as a single point of reference, and have not infrequently been seen as ‘provincial’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘still a little bit medieval’. As a result, the specific meaning of conscious references to local history also remained obscure. Instead of addressing incorrect or vernacular transformations of the Roman ideal, however, the research project will try to find a more positive explanation for those examples of the Antique that do not resemble the ‘standard’. Therefore, we must ask by what means – i.e. through which other models or interpretations of antiquities – artists and patrons created their reconstruction of Antiquity.
In the past few decades the concept of the Rome-centred Renaissance has been seriously challenged. Recent scholarship has stressed the important role assumed by non-Central Italian antiquities – such as those of Ancient Gaul and in the Low Countries – and by certain texts of antiquity that deal with the local past – such as Tacitus’ Germania – in the genesis of ‘Antique’ architecture that was not inspired by Central Italy. Moreover, the definition of the ‘Antique’ has turned out to be far more elastic: in fact, it encompasses more than ‘Rome’. This is true, for instance, of 15th-century Venetian architecture, where Byzantine antiquities were used as a primary source for the revival of all’antica design.
The current research networking program wants to unite scholars from different disciplines in order to map out the various strategies used in the period c.1400–1700 to construct an appropriate past in art, architecture and literature, and to examine how this past was used in the creation of ‘national’ or local identities in Europe. The historical eras used in such constructions could be rather diverse. Sometimes passages or episodes from classical historical writings were quoted and integrated into early modern national or local history, such as the tales of the Trojans who had left their destroyed city to become the founders of various peoples, cities or noble families all over Europe. In the construction of national histories, local tribes mentioned in classical texts sometimes played a central role as true and antique ancestors, like the Batavians in the northern Low Countries, the Goths in Sweden, or the Sarmatians in Poland. Historical myths and claims from Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (c.400–1100) also were used in these constructions of local history, with references, for example, to knighthood, chivalry, and the crusades. Sources were not only classical writers but also medieval chronicles (in both Latin and the vernacular languages), minstrels’ lyrics, (true and false) inscriptions and archaeological findings, and, above all, ruins and other architectural remains that the early modern intellectuals interpreted in a creative way. The project will focus on the strategies of the use of these sources for the construction of new local or ‘national’ identities.
The research project shall concentrate on the recuperation and use of both the ‘distant past’ of antiquity in all of its manifestations, and the ‘nearer past’ (‘medieval’). Humanist historiography, epics, political writings, and geographical and ethnographical treatises will constitute the central corpus of texts belonging to Neo-Latin literature. These texts are important for the visual arts and architecture as sources of inspiration. With few exceptions, humanist writings belonging to the above-mentioned categories have not yet been studied systematically. The same is largely true for most local architectonic remains that in the early modern period were ascribed to ‘Antiquity’, and for smaller archaeological objects, such as cameos or coins.