This modern infatuation with ancient Greece and Rome stems from a particular moment in European history, the so-called Renaissance of the fiteenth century, when a new myth of European cultural ancestry was constructed. […] The Renaissance was not so much a ‘rebirth’ as an invention, a self-conscious attempt to link the present directly to a long-dead and poorly understood period of the past by negating a millenium of intervening history and a wide variety of other cultural influences.
M. Dietler, in The Archaeology of Colonial Encounters, p. 36.
Upon reading this quote from Dietler’s article, I could not help thinking about Dante and Petrarch, the two men (especially the latter) credited for ushering the Renaissance. In the Inferno, Dante lost in the woods find in Virgil a guide to take him through the punishments of Hell. Doing so, Dante became the first man in medieval Europe to show a clear inspiration by the Roman–and to a lesser extent Greek–past. Petrarch, credited as the forrunner of Renaissance Humanism, wrote letters to Cicero, the man he admired most, and took great pains to imitate the Roman orator’s Latin. When Petrarch received the laurel crown from the Roman Senate on April 8th, 1341 (Easter Sunday), he was not only the first to receive such distinction since the fall of Rome in the West but also ushered in a revival of ancient practices and language that would be the hallmark of the Renaissance and the following periods even into the 20th century.
The works of both these Italian poets are milestones of literature, yet they seem to contain a struggle, often latent but always present, a struggle that seems to summarize European attitude for several centuries. Dante invented the first circle of hell especially for the pagan poets of the past who, as non-baptized, could not be in paradise, yet were too much of geniuses to be cast in the depth of hell. If the theme of the Divine Comedy is Christian, yet at times the poet seems unsure about how he must regard the ancient poets. The fact that Petrarch received Apollo’s crown on Easter day–the resurection, a sort of ‘rebirth’–also shows the difficulty with which the first humanists struggled to regain the prestige of an ancient institution that had not been practiced in a thousand years.
In one of his letters to Giovanni Colonna, Petrarch recalls his visit to Rome and the ruins that he saw:
Here was the castle of Evander, there the temple to Carmenta; here the cave where Cacus dwelt, there the She-Wolf nursing her twins…. Here the spot where Remus crossed over, there the site of the circus races and the rape of the Sabine women….
Quite interestingly, merely four centuries later, it is by observing the very same ruins that Gibbon started writing his book on the decline and fall of the Roman empire, where he developped the argument that the history of the later empire, after the “golden age” of Marcus Aurelius, was a thousand years of decline, due mostly to the expansion of christianity in the Empire. Gibbon’s work is a work of nostalgy, as if he were lamenting the fall of the empire, blaming some or other groups for its eventual demise. More and more, the ancient world, and Rome in particular, would be identified with purity and perfection, against which, in the colonial era, everything would be judged.