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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.

Us and the Hyperboreans. 2

In the British character Italians may perceive elements of brutality. This for example appears when they become angry and yell, both the men and the women. It is a cry sometimes unpleasant and almost repugnant to us, sorry to say that. It is not clear whether it is us who are too soft or them too hard.

A young girl very close to my family, Claudia, who had studied one month in Cambridge, England (see image above,) was walking one day on a street of that lovely town – she told us. Being unexpectedly captured by a shop-window and stopping in wonder in front of it, her rapture was suddenly (and rudely) shattered by a cutting rebuke – ‘STUPID GIRL!!!’ – yelled with such hardness by a middle-aged woman whose hasty walking had apparently been blocked by the girl’s sudden halt.
Despite Claudia’s outspoken character, she stayed frozen on that same spot for a few seconds, aghast.

Now it doesn’t really matter who was right, the English woman (more likely) or the young absent-minded (and possibly unruly) 17-years-old Italian girl. What I’m focusing on here is the nastiness of that cry – Claudia is a splendid imitator – and the lack of humanitas and sympathy we sometimes perceive in some Northern European people, despite their correctness and civic manners (surely greater than ours: see a conversation with Alex, a Briton, and other persons in Alex’s blog.)

Manchester United’s Din of War

Let me remember an impressive football game between Juventus and Manchester United played a few years ago at the Old Trafford stadium. In that occasion the United fans showed such a wild reaction against the psychological blow delivered to them by a first-minute scorching shot by Alessandro Del Piero – he elegantly dribbled sideways and scored (see below) – that the whole episode how can I ever forget.

The stadium was suddenly struck dumb. All, I mean ALL, United fans (50,000? 60,000?) were like annihilated and remained totally silent for several minutes. Such a terrible silence, such an impressive collective affliction we didn’t suspect what it soon would lead to.

After a while here in fact comes a low-pitched grumbling first, like an unnatural deep buzz, followed by a crescendo of shouts screams bellows against the Italian team, which kept growing and growing and became so deafening that the Juventus players, made incapable to reason, their morale disrupted, ran into total defeat.

I was bewildered and indignant! All seemed so unfair, brutal!

Therefore how could I not think – I’m obsessing-obsessed – about that awful din of war addressed to the Roman legionaries of Caius Marius by the German Teutones and Ambrones (comrades of the Cimbri) whose number – writes Plutarch, probably exaggerating – was limitless and covered a vast plain.

Here is Plutarch describing that dreadful sound:

“Here was lamentation among them all night long, not like the wailings and groanings of men, but howlings and bellowings with a strain of the wild beast in them, mingled with threats and cries of grief …. The whole plain was filled with an awful din, and the Romans were filled with fear, and even Marius himself was filled with consternation.” It was 102 BC, the night before the terrible battle of Aquae Sextiae.

I couldn’t but think about that famous night while I was watching the total disbandment of one of the best soccer teams in the world.

A Human Avalanche

Well, the Romans’ peasant’s endurance was surely tougher than Juventus’ (looking for a base consolation, am I not.) Being petrified by that shocking sound and not able to sleep (the Romans,) the following morning they nevertheless pulled themselves together and wiped out their enemies with a double attack from the front and from behind.

The battle and the following one near Vercellae (modern Vercelli, Italy) ended up with the total annihilation of the human avalanche who had terrorised the nations of the Empire (Mommsen).

I know all this happened 21 centuries ago, I know I’m digressing and it’s surely unfair to see in today’s English fans the grand-children of those first German hordes
[Alex observes: “Being from the UK, I am considered by the Italians to be someone from an Anglo-Saxon culture … you’ll be happy to hear that I rarely wear fur.”]

And yet, believing as much as I do that even the most far-away past can be alive in our present, that din from the United fans …

Ψ

In the end, since it’s not only British-like to grant the honours of war to courage, we’ll admit the United fans were not totally unfair (they were only a bit,) and most of all, leaving football trivia behind, we feel like paying the humblest of tributes to the brave Cimbri and Teutons and especially to their unbelievably fierce and ferocious women.

So here are Plutarch’s words (Life of Marius), not for the faint of heart:

“(Acquae Sextiae) the Romans kept slaying them until they came in their flight to their camp and waggons. Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations, their fierce spirits unvanquished to the end.”

“(Vercellae?) The fugitives, however, were driven back to their entrenchments, where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the waggons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the waggons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a waggon-pole, with her children tied to either ankle.”

Ψ

Related posts:

Us and the Hyperboreans. 1
Us and the Hyperboreans. 3
Humanitas
Isn’t the British Trojan Horse a Short-sighted Animal?
(around which an extensive discussion developed about the UK vs Italy and Europe)
Ups and Downs
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

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