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The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

The Appian Way, the Queen of the Roads. Click for credits and larger picture

Found In The Appian Way

Rome, April 19, 1485. The corpse of a very young woman is found in a sarcophagus along the Appian Way [see image above,] face and body beautiful, teeth white and perfect, hair blonde and arranged on top of her head in the ancient way. The body seems as fresh as that of a girl of fifteen buried a few moments – and not 15 centuries – earlier.

From Antonio di Vaseli’s diary:

“Today the news came into Rome … The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. … her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful … the flesh and the tongue retain their natural colour.”

Messer Daniele da San Sebastiano, in a letter dated 1485:

Marbe statue of a young Roman woman. Click for credits and larger size“In the course of excavations which were made on the Appian Way … three marble tombs have been discovered … One of them contained a young girl, intact in all her members, covered from head to foot with a coating of aromatic paste, one inch thick. On the removal of this coating which we believe to be composed of myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs, a face appeared, so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day. The thick masses of hair … seemed to have been combed then and there … the whole of Rome, men and women, to the number of twenty thousand, visited the marvel ..that day.”

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929) – the Italian archaeologist from whose work I took the above quotes – collects other testimonies:

“The hair was blonde, and bound by a fillet (infula) woven of gold. The colour of the flesh was absolutely lifelike. The eyes and mouth were partly open … The coffin seems to have been placed near the cistern of the Conservatori palace [on the Capitoline hill, see image below], so as to allow the crowd of visitors to move around and behold the wonder with more ease.”

Palazzo dei Conservatori with its new façade by Michelangelo

Jacob Burckhardt‘s (1818 – 1897) comment on the whole episode is remarkable:

“Among the crowd were many who came to paint her. The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, but the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must of necessity be far more beautiful than anything of modern date.

Yes, touching, and revealing.

She was more beautiful than anything modern because she came directly from ancient Rome.

Sweeping Europe With Greece And Rome

Why classical antiquity, the past, had become so attractive?

A new fervour of rediscovery coming from Italy had begun to sweep Europe: manners, architecture, eloquence, military techniques and the overall thought of Greece and Rome.

Antiquity had exerted occasional influence on Medieval Europe – argues Burckhardt – even beyond Italy. Here and there some elements had been imitated, northern monastic scholarship had absorbed extensive subject matter from the Roman writers.

“But in Italy the revival of antiquity – Burckhardt observes – took a different form from that of the North. The wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it. …

In Italy the sympathies both of the learned and of the people were naturally on the side of antiquity as a whole, which stood to them as a symbol of past greatness. The Latin language too was easy to an Italian …”

A new ideal coming from the past was about to boost Europe forward.

Classicism Towards The Future

The School of Athens by Raphael, Rome, the Vatican. Click for credits

I was hit a few weeks ago by this passage from the on-line Britannica:

“For Renaissance humanists, there was nothing dated or outworn about the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Livy. Compared with the typical productions of medieval Christianity, these pagan works had a fresh, radical, almost avant-garde tonality.

Indeed, recovering the classics was to humanism tantamount to recovering reality….In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.

The point is classical thought was not constrained by preconceived ideas. A new spirit of doubt and inquiry was arising. A new world was dawning.

Ψ

Getting back to that beautiful girl, her golden hair and cap made shiny by the sun, we now better understand the impact, the feelings, the deep inspiration she exerted on the people who flocked to see her.

She was seen as a miracle. She was like a fairy appeared by magic from the great times of ancient Rome.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

References

Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1892.
Accessible on-line in Bill Thayer’s Web Site LacusCurtius, a marvellous resource on Roman Antiquity. Quotes from here.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878.
Available as Gutenberg text. Quote from here.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. “Humanism.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Mar. 2009

Note on a Calabrian Greek

There is some evidence that the Italian Renaissance was not only imitation of antiquity, but its partial resurrection. We’ll just say here that Italy had a direct, ethnic and linguistic, connection not only with the Romans but also with the Greeks. Greek dialects were spoken in Southern Italy until a few years ago. They almost disappeared during Fascism who discouraged linguistic minorities.

[See our two posts on the Grikos (1 & 2), South Italians descending from the Greeks of Magna Graecia and Byzantium]

Interesting for our writing is Barlaam the Calabrian (ca. 1290 – 1348), an Italian Greek “by ethnic descent and language.” Great scholar “he was the instructor of both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio [the first humanists], and their writings owe much to him.” (Wikipedia)

He helped Boccaccio to translate Homer into Latin thus preparing the groundwork for Renaissance.

About Man of Roma

I am a man from Rome, Italy. I’m 60 and a Roman since many generations. In my blog, manofroma.wordpress.com, I’m writing down my meditations. The idea behind it all is that something 'ancient' is still alive in the true Romans of today, of which few are left.

53 responses »

  1. Paul Costopoulos

    That sounds even better than the Aegyptian momification process.

    Reply
    • I think Rodolfo Lanciani has collected all the possible info about this fact, which is very little info. After the coating was removed it seems the body showed no signs of decay for three days, but then it gradually started to turn black.

      There are two versions – said Lanciani – as to her ultimate fate. According to the former, Pope Innocent VIII, to stop the excitement, had the body removed at night and buried secretly at the foot of the city walls. According to the latter, the girl, the body, was thrown into the Tiber.

      And, from what I gathered about the Calabrian Greeks, it seems you and the Commentator are relatives.

      Reply
  2. Phew, this was loaded with lot of interesting information. :D And I was reading it second time, I have yet not absorbed everything you said here. I will have to come back gain to grasp everything.

    Reply
  3. Politically I’m devoted to liberty (think Thomas Paine), but I’m as liberal as they come when it comes to culture.

    Viva Grecia!

    Latins and Mediterraneans: it’s one big wonderful ball of wax as MOR has eloquently displayed on his blog.

    Reply
  4. Very interesting post. I have taken it all in and may have to digest it and come back later :)

    Reply
  5. About the post.

    I’m often fond of saying “the Renaissance lives in America.” When I read about the Renaissance it’s often said it was a period with a finite closing date. But how do ideas end? Was there a scientific revolution with a specific beginning and end date?

    The Renaissance may or may have not been a “rebirth” but it was definitely a reminder of our collective past. Italy pushed Europe into its modern state just like France, Britain and Germany did its part during the Age of Enlightenment and Industrialization.

    It is only natural (and fitting) America is the latest torch holder of our Roman-Greek foundation.

    Ergo, America protects and pushes forward Western civilization.

    Reply
    • I can agree that America pushes forward Western civilisation, whose foundation is Greco-Roman, although in my view one must consider:

      1) that America will be less and less Western. Many Africans, Chinese, Indians etc. are making history there;
      2) that Europe is not dead yet;
      3) that America is destined not to be alone in world leadership (political economical cultural military.) Other (ancient and new) folks are (re)gaining their rightful place at the top positions.

      The near future is multipolar. Whether this will diminish the chances of war remains to be seen. Although it seems the likely future in any case.

      PS
      As for point 1). Even the Greco-Roman world was composite: the Roman jurist Ulpian was Phoenician, Claudius Ptolemy, the mathematician and geographer, was Greco-Egyptian and Roman citizen, Augustine was Berber etc. One must not think in terms of race etc. Things were (and are) multifaceted.

      Reply
  6. Lovely story. Italy is known around the world for classical traditions and modern sensibility.

    As an Italian abroad, I have been super conscious of this dichotomy, the old and the new, the classics and the ultra modern. Italian fashion, food, style, are copied everywhere. Plus, we share the DNA of generals, saints and artists. Those folks with strong personalities, and distinctive features that are easily recognizable all over the globe.

    Italy is the little country with the big heart and even bigger ambition.

    No wonder we have spread our genetic material all over the world. Now, we could just make Italian the language all speak.

    Reply
    • Thank you for stopping by Rosaria!

      Yes, Italy is small and yet has a big heart and heritage, and it is good that this is recognized now. But, as I told Exposrip, I think what counts now is that Italy – well Italy is not that important any more globally – so I’d say what counts now is that the entire West (Europe and North America) shows a heart big enough to open up to others in a new spirit of conciliation and comprehension. Or, as the Romans would say, of *humanitas*. The world is changing fast …

      Reply
  7. I am here for the first time and found the post interesting to say the least. Though, as Poonam mentioned earlier, a bit too much for me to absorb since there is a lot of things and names and place i am hearing for the first time. Will be back soon to know it more deeply. :)

    Reply
    • Thank you for coming across my blog Sakhi!

      Yes, a bit too much, even for me, so I can imagine for a person from the Far East! I’ve read some of your stories, they seem creative and well written to me. I’ll read more. Thank you!

      Reply
      • Yeah the culture and the social backgrounds are quite different for us, but surely its great to know about other nations, cultures and different societal norms :) I am glad you like my stories. Though i think that you might not relate to the social background of them. Most of them are placed in Indian scenario! :)

        Reply
  8. It’s pity to hear that you don’t want to be a cook. Of course, not to be a great cook but just to remember how to cook some simple italian dishes.

    Reply
    • Ah ah, AutumnSnow, you know, every Italian is not a cook, like every Chinese neither. Of course I can cook simple things.
      Wait, from your blog I could see you are a good cook instead … it seems I’m the only ass then :-)

      Reply
  9. Hi, Man of Roma, many thanks for drawing my attention to this gorgeous post and for asking for my opinion—but please bear in mind that I am a regular reader of your blog, though I am not a frequent “commenter” here (and elsewhere). What shall I say? Well, that I was amazed hearing that story. Yes, that story in itself as well as what Burckhardt observed about it (that “the wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it,” Ok, things we already know but …).

    It’s also interesting what you said in a comment (in response to exposrip, who in my opinion is somewhat right when he says that “the Renaissance lives in America,” and that nowadays “America protects and pushes forward Western civilization”): “Even the Greco-Roman world was composite …” etc. Well this reminds me of a famous passage from Rutilius Namatianus De Reditu Suo, dedicated to the universalism of Rome:

    exaudi, regina tui pulcherrima mundi,
    inter sidereos Roma recepta polos,
    exaudi, genetrix hominum genetrixque deorum,
    non procul a caelo per tua templa sumus:
    te canimus semperque, sinent dum fata, canemus:
    sospes nemo potest immemor esse tui.
    obruerint citius scelerata oblivia solem,
    quam tuus ex nostro corde recedat honos.
    nam solis radiis aequalia munera tendis,
    qua circumfusus fluctuat Oceanus.
    volvitur ipse tibi, qui continet omnia, Phoebus
    eque tuis ortos in tua condit equos.
    te non flammigeris Libye tardavit harenis,
    60non armata suo reppulit Ursa gelu:
    quantum vitalis natura tetendit in axes,
    tantum virtuti pervia terrae tuae.
    fecisti patriam diversis gentibus unam:
    profuit iniustis te dominante capi.
    dumque offers victis proprii consortia iuris,
    urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat.

    English translation:
    Listen, O fairest queen of thy world, Rome, welcomed amid the starry skies, listen, thou mother of men and mother of gods, thanks to thy temples we are not far from heaven: thee do we chant, and shall, while destiny allows, for ever chant. None can be safe if forgetful of thee. Sooner shall guilty oblivion whelm the sun than the honour due to thee quit my heart; for benefits extend as far as the sun’s rays, where the circling Ocean-flood bounds the world. For thee the very Sun-God who holdeth all together doth revolve: his steeds that rise in thy domains he puts in thy domains to rest. Thee Africa hath not stayed with scorching sands, nor hath the Bear, armed with its native cold, repulsed thee. As far as living nature hath stretched towards the poles, so far hath earth opened a path for thy valour. For nations far apart thou hast made a single fatherland; under thy dominion captivity hath meant profit even for those who knew not justice: and by offering to the vanquished a share in thine own justice, thou hast made a city of what was erstwhile a world.

    _______

    MoR: What struck me in Burckhardt’s observation, Rob, is the way he acutely interpreted how the people reacted to the finding of the girl. Thanks for proposing that beautiful passage by Rutilus Namatianus. It is weird how he seems still deeply Pagan in a Roman world that was becoming more and more Christian.

    Reply
    • Actually, I was thinking of one of MOR’s responses.

      1) About being “less and less” Western. I think America absorbs cultures better than any place on earth including Canada. I think it’s incumbent for cultures coming to America to understand America.

      2) Europe is not dead. Indeed it isn’t. Many of its companies own American ones. However, when Italy ceased being the center of Europe, it was not “dead” but still remained an integral part of its progress and identity – albeit on a smaller scale.

      In this way, America is merely taking over from Britain and France for example. Neither are dead but not either are capable or strong enough to carry the torch for all.

      3) MOR writes: 3) “that America is destined not to be alone in world leadership (political economical cultural military.) Other (ancient and new) folks are (re)gaining their rightful place at the top positions.”

      Why is it their right? What have they done to deserve such an honor? As for the military, America stands completely alone militarily. No one touches them.

      Quite frankly, the multipolar thing is over rated.

      Reply
      • Commentator,

        This risking to be abstract, I will say (responding partially also to Rob):

        1) Yes, America absorbs immigrants well, but look at the original English imprinting: it was changed into something different, and now again, what America is now, will be gradually changed as well, and it is to be noted that emigration from Europe has more or less ceased (Latin America is Latin but also something else.) America being already a bit African, it will become more universal: I frankly don’t see what’s so scary about it. It can be an advantage instead.

        2) One should define what ‘carry the torch’ is, but I somewhat agree.

        3) Of course you are right, there is no ‘rightful’ place in history, there is only a game of interests, power, of who’s better in this or that etc. Much is to be seen, but it appears clear that some … talents are resurfacing in non western areas of the world (where universities are starting to be competitive: it’s just an example, I cannot write a post here.)

        And the multi-polar thing, yes, it is not now – America stands alone militarily, no doubt, etc. etc. – but it can happen, in a not so far future.

        Which doesn’t mean I ‘desire’ the decline of the West or of America. Do not simplify me man :-)

        Reply
        • Hispanic immigration will no doubt have a massive impact – more than African-America who are, for all intents and purposes “American.”

          Huntington discussed the Latino issue in an article that’s sure to raise a debate. I believe you can find it in ‘Foreign Policy’ in its archives. I hope anyway. Worth the read.

          Reply
          • Interesting. Yes, the Clash of Civilizations guy. I’ll try to find it. But my point was about the Western imprinting of America being necessarily diluted in the long run. Even now: you say African-Americans are ‘American’, meaning they were totally absorbed. Yes, of course, they received, but they ‘gave’ too: think only of music.

          • I meant a variety of cultures. Even remaining in the American continent, Mexico – you know more than me – for example is partially non Western (Aztec etc.); then you have the Mesoamerican and South American civilizations, which left deep traces. I mean, Latinos are only partially Western.

        • Paul Costopoulos

          Perhaps you could give a look at Parag Khanna’s book «The Second World Order, empires and influence in the new global order». Not that I agree with everything he has written, I think he oversimplifies things and minimises Russia’s potential, but it gives a hint as to how a 32 years old Indian born American sees the future.

          Reply
          • Interesting Paul. I can see from Wikipedia this Indian born American is part of the New America Foundation, a think tank based in Washington. This is exactly was I was saying to Commentator. We already have a president whose father was from Kenya etc. In the long run America will be more universal – an advantage in my view. Who the hell cares about this West (or white) thing. The world with all its variety is much more interesting. It’s not idealism or defeatism. It’s what’s actually happening before our eyes.

            PS
            Of course there are risks. I’ll get that book.

  10. This is good of you New World guys! To flood me with links and hints :-)

    Reply
  11. I’ve received this morning Mario’s phone call, an old friend who with laughs (and words not to be repeated here) basically said:

    “Is this coffee talk getting anywhere?”
    _____________

    My answer (with a few words being necessarily omitted):

    Coffee talk is fun and not useless in my opinion.

    The post, through the ‘image’ of the girl from antiquity found ‘lifelike’ in a coffin, introduced to some aspects of Renaissance (admiration for antiquity, its rebirth, the linking between antiquity and Europe’s future etc.).

    Since Italian Renaissance pushed forward Europe (= the West), these topics arose:

    – whether America is today bearing the torch of a new Renaissance, thus once more pushing the West forward
    – whether this being ‘Western’ by America is not destined to be diluted, due to non European immigration
    – whether this is a Western-centric scenario since now other civilisations are (re)surfacing, which could totally change the overall context etc.

    Totally useless? Nah. Very broad and generic, yes, but thought-provoking in my view.

    Reply
    • Paul Costopoulos

      I agree, very thought provoking. Besides, why should coffee talk lead anywhere? Conversation is an art, blogs allow conversation, not oral of course, on a world wide scale, this, in itself is worth it. How else could we have a conversation, in real time, between one in Rome, another in Laval, Canada and in Longueuil also in Canada, people in India, etc…without an expensive telephone conference…way beyond my means?
      Well it’s 8 am here and time to go brew my coffee.

      Reply
      • Ah ah ah, Paul, very appropriate, this being a coffee talk. By the way, this ‘conversation is an art’ seems to me part of the adorable French heritage – I might be wrong – and I’m sure you’ll tell me now it is a Phoenician or New Guinea’s thing instead.

        Reply
        • Paul Costopoulos

          Sorry, with all those reply boxes this one escaped me. The “art of conversation” is shared, as a concept, between France and Victorian England

          Reply
  12. If this is “coffee talk” then I’m Hispanic.

    This is one of the most intelligent blogs out there.

    Reply
  13. Paul Costopoulos

    BTW Commentator, with all the gene mix that has been going on for centuries how can you be sure you are not, at least in part, hispanic?

    Reply
  14. Touche.

    I think we agree more often than not!

    Reply
  15. Hello again, and thank you for following my blog. I wish to do the same with your blog, but I do not see where to sign up. I shall continue to find you and enjoy the humanities class.

    MoR: Thank you for popping in Rosaria. As far as I know WordPress is not like Blogspot in this. Have a great day in your wonderful Oregon coast!

    Reply
  16. Pingback: Tomb of Cicero’s Daughter? « rogueclassicism

  17. Dear amigos :
    America is not a country , it is a whole continent , American is not a nationality , it is a whole race . The so self appointed “americans” , are europeans ,the american race are not indians , it is american .If this is hard to understand , I will put it this way : The black man is african , the yellow man is
    asian and so is the indian ( Ghandi , you know…)and the brown man is… you go it! american .
    Ciao !

    Reply

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