Most of the woodcut illustrations in Albertini

Most of the woodcut illustrations in Albertini's book concern books and libraries.

Detail map of Roma, Lazio, Italy Overview map of Roma, Lazio, Italy

A: Roma, Lazio, Italy

Francesco Albertini Issues the First Guidebook to Ancient and Modern Rome: a New "Mirabilia Romae"

Title page of the 1520 edition of Albertini

Title page of the 1520 edition of Albertini's guidebook to Rome.

Since the early Middle Ages guide-books were written for the use of pilgrims to Rome. The Incunabula Short Title Catalogue maintained by the British Library cites over 100 different printed editions of the medieval guide known as Mirabilia Romae issued before 1501. Opusculum de mirablis novae & veteris urbis Roma first issued in 1510 by Francesco Albertini, a pupil of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio who became canon of the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence and chaplain of Cardinal Fazio Santoro in Rome, was the first guidebook to both ancient and modern Rome. It was well designed as a guidebook with a detailed table of contents of its three parts in the beginning and running heads relating to each section, making it easy to find specific sections of the guide.

Besides an account of ancient Rome, with information about excavations and archaeological discoveries, Albertini discussed the churches and buildings commissioned by Julius II and the artists who decorated them. In connection with the Sistine Chapel we learn about Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Lippi, and Michelangelo. This latter reference, together with another in Albertini’s Memoriale of the same year, represents the earliest printed notice of that artist. In the third section there is one of the earliest description of the Vatican Library in qua sunt codices auro et argento sericinisque tegminibus exornati, and mentioning the Codex Vergilianus (probably the Vergilius Vaticanus,) among other notable works. Albertini also refers to the Library’s collections of astronomical and geometrical instruments.

The final portion of the work is a laudatory account of the cities of Florence and Savona (the birthplace of Pope Julius II, to whom the book is dedicated). Here we also find mention of many eminent literary and artistic persons such as Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, et al. In this section Albertini refers to Amerigo Vespucci and his New World discoveries: Albericus Vespulcius of Florence, sent by the most Christian King of Portugal, but lastly by the Catholic King of Spain, first discovered new islands and unknown countries, as is plainly set forth in his book, where he describes the stars, and the new islands, as is also seen in his Letter upon the New World, addressed to Lorenzo de Medici the Younger. 

"By the begnning of the sixteenth century the collecting of statuary, inscriptions, and other antiques was being regarded with greater interest than hitherto. This is evident from the literary remains of Francesco Albertini. . ., which are also of some interest in showing how by this time the Mirabilia were no longer satisfying even those who were not professional antiquarians. Albertini himself cannot be consdiered a real scholar. He was in fact a gifted amateur with a flair for vulgarisation and an eye for works of art; not for nothing had been a pupil of Ghirlandaio in Florence, which makes one wonder whether he may have been the author of the drawings of Rome and Roman antiquities not at the Escorial, which clearly betray a hand trained by that painter. . . .

" It was in the household of Cardinal Fazio Santoro in Rome that Albertini composed his Opusculum novae et verteris Urbis Romae. But the suggestion to write it had actually come from Cardinal Galeotto della Rovere, who had expressed the wish to see a reliable and up-to-date guide of the city. While the Opusculum is invaluable for the information it supplies on contemporary Rome, it certain constitutes no landmark in the development of antiquarian science. Even its avowed aim to replace the Mirabilia had really been anticipated a couple of generations earlier by Biondo. What Albertini really achieved was a new Mirabilia, a handbook meant for the cultured visitor to Rome, where medieval legend was replaced by the new knowledge resulting from about a century of humanist investigation. Its structure is still that of the old Mirabilia with the subject matter still subdivided in the traditional way, its chapters dealing with the walls, the 'viae', the theatres, etc. It is in fact a kind of swollen catalogue, nor is such an arrangement abandoned in the second part, where Albertini dealt with the Rome of his own time. But here similarities with the Mirabilia cease. For Albertini did not hesitate to summon to his aid all the sources on which could lay his hands, thus relaying the considerable range of his reading. Classical texts used by him included not only the better known authors and the catalogues of the regions, naturally in the text revised by Pomponio Leto, but also Festus, Vitruvius and Frontinus, on whom he of course relied for his section on aqueducts. He was obviously at home with inscriptions, and besides relying on the evidence they supplied, he often quoted them in full, not hestiating to include some discovered only very recently. Like other antiquarians, he did not ignore the evidence offered by ancient coins. But perhaps what shows most clearly the range of his interest is his references to humanist writings. For here besides Petrarch, Biondo, Leto, and Poggio, we also find appeals to the authority of Alberti, Landino, Petro Marsi, Beroaldo, and Raffaele Maffei. Like so many of his contemporaries, he too was taken in by Annion da Viterbo's outrageous forgeries of ancient texts and antiquities, just as he did not escape the usual mistakes, such as the identification of the small temple by the Tiber with that of Vesta, or the attribution of the well-known Dioscuri to Pheidias and Praxiteles.

"Albertini's account of ancient Rome is certianly valuable, It is so particularly because of what he tells us about excavations and recent archaeological discoveries, and also because of the information he gives about the Roman collections of antiques in his time. It certainly proved something of a best-seller during the first quarter of the sixteenth century, as is brought home to us by its no less than five editions between 1510 and 1523" (Roberto Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity [1969] 84-86).

In November 2014 I could not find a digital facsimile of the 1510 or 1515 Rome editions, but a digital facsimile of the Basel, 1519 edition was available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek at this link, and a digital facsimile of the Lyon, 1520 edition was available from the Internet Archive at this link.  

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