Other Antiquities: Non-Christian, Non-Roman Relics in the Iberian Renaissance

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:20 AM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Adam G. Beaver , Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
In his 1575 Antigüedades de España, Ambrosio de Morales paused to recount his father’s pioneering discovery of the ruins of a lost Roman city in southern Iberia. Riding one day between Arcos and Jeréz, the elder Morales spotted an anomalous hilltop known to locals as “Carixa.” Though a medical doctor by profession, Morales’ father also knew his Ptolemy and Pliny; and so, according to Morales junior, it was no surprise that he instantly recognized the hill as the site of the Roman settlement of Larissa, a hunch borne out by subsequent excavations. When Spanish antiquarians related stories like that of Doctor Morales’ happenstance encounter with ancient Larissa, they were also making an argument about the nobility of their homeland: to contemporaries, the ubiquity of Roman ruins proved Iberia’s glorious past as a seat of Western civilization. Physical confirmation of ancient Iberia’s Roman pedigree was especially important to Renaissance Spaniards, who lamented the fact that Muslim rule in the medieval Peninsula had shattered the precious links connecting them to their ancient ancestors and cast the very “Europeanness” of Spain into doubt. And yet, antiquarian treatises like Morales’ also reported on the discovery of an ever-increasing number of non-Roman, non-Christian objects in Iberian soil. Urns, coins, settlements, even the lost harbor of Tartessos: these exotic relics were interpreted—often correctly, as it turns out—as evidence of a vast and vetustissima history of Phoenician, Carthaginian, or Hebrew civilization in the Peninsula. How did Spain’s antiquarians, ordinarily so preoccupied with establishing their nation’s Christian, European pedigree, respond to the irruption of ancient Asian and African conquerors into the Spanish record? In this paper, I will examine several examples of the Renaissance encounter with exotic antiquities and its impact on Spaniards’ historical imagination.