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.

Merry Saturnalia! Man Of Roma: A Blog Based On Dialogue

Happy Saturnalia. Courtesy of eternallyCool.net

Merry Saturnalia to all of you! Well, was Saturnalia the ancient Roman Christmas? Mary Beard, professor in classics at Cambridge, sheds here some light (I have to thank EternallyCool for the above picture – from the British Times, probably – and for the link).

[Know more on Saturnalia by reading our two posts : 1 & 2]

Ψ

Now, this research blog being based on dialogue my friend Mario asked me a few questions. I solicited him to be slightly rude. I think he loved it. Here is an excerpt of our conversation that may provide some information on the nature of this blog, Man of Roma.

Mario. Yours is a thoughtful blog. Why the hell are you talking of dialectic thought? Sounds like one of those school nightmares. It is not at all clear.

MoR. I simply mean that in the Man of Roma’s blog thought unfolds like in a dialogue at three levels. First we have a dialogue in the mind of the writer, who is searching and striving for greater clarity. Since it is though necessary to get out of one’s mind’s boundaries, we also have a dialogue with external authors, dead or alive.

Mario. You mean books?

MoR. Yes, books, mostly. Good books in general, and classics in particular. We need to rise above the superficiality of every-day life. We need some depth in our daily routine. A good read allows to do this in a way accessible to all.

Books can fly. Fair use

Mario. Sounds so bookish. Is this what you’re proposing to the young? The ideal of the stuffy bookworm instead of the active person who delves into the real world?

MoR. Books imply some danger, like everything. If they are an excuse for escapism, they are no good medicine. We have to find inspiration in the Italian intellectuals of Humanism and Renaissance. Petrarch was writing letters to Livy and Cicero, who had lived more than one thousand years before him.

Mario. Checcavolo, are you sure?

MoR. Of course, and he was all but nuts. He started humanism. And when, after a few generations, Machiavelli returned home he used to take off his dusty clothes and after cleaning himself and wearing a decorous attire he entered his library in order to have dialogue with the minds of ancient men. He asked questions. They replied. Nothing bookish about it. These Renaissance men were looking for inspiration. They seemed to look at the past but they were preparing the future. Something not easy to understand today. It was this New Learning which empowered Europe. My method post explains in detail my view of dialectics. The importance of classics is also explained here and here.

Mario. I see. But aren’t you interested in a dialogue in real time with living people? (I think we can continue eating our Carbonara, what d’ya think?)

Pasta alla Carbonara. Courtesy of EternallyCool.net

MoR. (Savouring Carbonara with his good friend and sipping nice red wine from Cerveteri) Of course I am interested in living people, and here comes the third level, the dialogue with the readers of this blog, or with friends (like you), with colleagues, acquaintances. Real life conversation is delightful (Fontana Morella red – or white – wine is cheap but very good) though the experience of a blog written in English has been amazing. It has allowed me to engage dialogue with people from so many parts of the world: America, UK, India, Sri Lanka, Canada, China, Sweden etc. So stimulating and thrilling! (even though sometimes I talk too much)

[A long pause. Food needs its indulgent rite]

Mario. In short, your blog is based on the technique of dialectics which involves a dialogue carried out 1) within your mind, 2) among minds (mostly through books) and 3) with blog readers and people you meet in real life.

MoR. Yes, that’s the idea. Don’t know exactly where all this will take me, but it’s the core of it all. Being a dilettante philosopher (of the streets of Rome) I’m not content with just blogging, I need a method in my blogging. It remains to be seen if this will bring any fruit.

ψ

We leave the small terrace overlooking the tiled Roman roofs. The air is fresh. It has been raining a lot recently.

Italian version

Related posts:

Method and Encounter with Magister
The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

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