Rome: Nicolaes van Aelst, ca. 1589.
Single sheet engraving on paper. Sheet size: 554 x 416 mm.; Image area: 365 x 361 mm.
FIRST STATE (of 1). Marigliani (Lo splendore di Roma, II.49) gives the date “ca. 1589”. The watermark (apparently a shield with an indiscernible blazon) is obscured by the image.
A fine copy, rich in tone, with broad margins (including partial deckled edges), with a little light marginal soiling and a tiny hole in the blank margin. Very lightly creased at the center, with an original paper guard on the verso. The numeral “13” in early manuscript at lower right, indicating the print’s former position in a bound volume.
An attractive engraving of one of the most famous and most widely recognized monuments of ancient Rome, the pyramidal tomb of Gaius Cestius. The tomb, constructed sometime between 18 and 12 B.C.E., is the only sepulchral monument of its type still extant in Rome.
The Flemish émigré printer Nicolaes van Aelst arrived in Rome from his native Brussels sometime in the mid-1580s. He worked in Rome as a publisher until his death in 1613, at which time his plates were inherited by his son, Antonio Francesco, who continued to print in his father’s shop for several years.
This print is based on an engraving first published by Antoine Lafréry in 1547, which was re-issued by Antonio Salamanca (1549) and Pietro de Nobili (1584). The print was copied by Ambrogio Brambilla and printed by Claude Duchet in 1582. The anonymous engraver of the present version also based his print on Lafréry’s original, copying Salamanca’s publisher’s inscription from the 1549 issue: “Romae M.D.XLVIIII. A.S. Excvdebat” at the foot of the plate. Van Aelst’s name has been added at the lower right.
The pyramid is shown in a partly-dilapidated state (the tomb was later restored by order of Pope Alexander VII), with some of the marble revetment and bricks dislodged or missing, and vegetation growing out of the resulting crevasses. Two men, one of whom gestures upward, are shown in conversation at the foot of the tomb.
The two ancient funerary inscriptions are clearly visible on the façade:
G · CESTIVS · L · F · POB · EPVLO · PR · TR · PL
VII · VIR · EPVLONVM
[Trans. “Gaius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the Pobilia [voting tribe], member of the College of Epulones, Praetor, Tribune of the Plebs, Septemvir of the Epulones.”]
OPVS · APSOLVTVM · EX · TESTAMENTO · DIEBVS · CCCXXX
PONTI · P · F · CLA · MELAE · HEREDIS · ET · POTHI · L
[Trans. “The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by the decision of the heir [Lucius] Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman.”]
While both Lafréry’s original (1547) and Brambilla’s re-engraving for Duchet (1582) showed the monument in isolation, the engraver of this version has depicted the pyramid in its topographical context by adding the Aurelian Wall (Mura Aureliana) and, in the middle distance, the monumental Porta San Paolo (indicated by the words “San Paolo”). In the far distance, medieval towers and, to the far left, the hint of a cylindrical tomb, dot the countryside outside of the city.
These background elements are, however, somewhat divorced from reality. The pyramid was actually incorporated into the Aurelian wall and the Porta, as shown, is in the wrong location. In addition, the Porta itself is imperfectly rendered (the crenelated turret is shown squared, rather than as a cylinder), suggesting the draftsman was unfamiliar with the actual monument. Nevertheless, these elements add important context for the viewer and greatly enrich the atmosphere of the image.
Marigliani, Lo splendore di Roma, II.49; BNC (Biblioteca nazionale centrale) Rome 18.6.G3, f. 30; cf. Rubach, p. 314, no. 301; Hülsen, Speculum p. 150-151, no. 39
Nicolaes van Aelst and the tradition of the "Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae" (The Mirror of Roman Magnificence”)
“Arriving in Rome from his native Brussels in the mid-1580s, the Flemish printer Nicolaes van Aelst established his home and workshop in a house situated between the now-vanished church of San Biagio della Fossa and the church of Santa Maria della Pace, near Piazza Navona. The building was the property of the church of Santa Maria dell’Anima, to whom the printer paid an annual rent of 30 scudi.”(Lorizzo)
By the time Van Aelst printed the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the market for large engravings of ancient and modern Roman subjects had been thriving for decades. The print is representative of the vast publishing phenomenon that came to be known as the "Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae" (The Mirror of Roman Magnificence”). The “Speculum” had its genesis in the years following the Sack of Rome (1527), when the Spanish émigré Antonio Salamanca began producing engravings of Roman subjects with regularity (prior to the sack such prints were few and appeared sporadically). In the 1540s, another émigré printer, the Frenchman Antonio Lafreri (Antoine Lafréry), began a rival enterprise, copying many of Salamanca’s engravings. In 1553, these two competing Roman publishers entered into a contractual alliance for twelve years, “with the explicit purpose of printing and selling copper- plate prints of ancient and modern subjects… When the contractual agreement between Salamanca and Lafreri was established in 1553 the underlying principle of the “Speculum” was in place: it was to be a corpus of documentary prints of ancient and modern Roman subjects, mainly in folio.”(Parshall)
Lafreri’s and Salamanca’s engravings, illustrating the ancient and modern marvels of Rome (tombs, temples, palaces, baths, statuary, obelisks, columns, inscriptions, frescoes, etc.), were purchased by tourists as souvenirs, studied by antiquarians, used as models by artists and architects, and circulated as virtual visits for armchair travelers beyond Rome. By the late 1570s, collectors could also purchase an engraved title page while selecting prints for their own Speculum collections. As a result, Lafreri’s customers or those of his heirs (Salamanca had died in 1562 and Parshall suggests that the title was only in use after Lafreri’s death in 1577), collected images to suit their own needs or taste. After the death of Lafreri, two-thirds of the existing copper plates went to his heirs, and another third was sold to other publishers. These new owners continued to print the existing images while still producing new prints. Publishers who purchased or inherited earlier plates also inherited some print stock as well.
“Print collecting in the Renaissance is not very well understood, mainly because prints were numerous, comparatively inexpensive, and therefore rarely inventoried. They are less likely than other sorts of objects to come down to us with a clear indication of their original setting. Nevertheless, the evidence of a few large collections from the sixteenth century does suggest some consistent patterns, most notably that prints accumulated in substantial numbers tended to be compiled in albums where they were organized by subject- matter and scale…. There is still much to learn about how such collecting practices evolved and the development of a market to serve them.”(Parshall, “Antonio Lafreri's Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae", Print Quarterly , March 2006, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 3-28).
See also Lorizzo, Loredana (March 2014). "Nicolas van Aelst's Will and a List of his Plates". Print Quarterly. XXXI (1): 3–20.