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Plate XXXIV: A head gilded from bronze, of ancient work, excavated at Aquae Sulis (Bath)
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TranscriptionCaput hoc ex aere inauratum, antiquo opere summoque artificio conflatum. Urbis inter rudera multis iam seculis excisa sepultum AQUIS SOLIS in agro Somersetensi XVI tandem sub solo ped effosum AD CI[ ] DCC XXVII. Aeternitati consecravit Soc. Antiquar. Londinensis.
TranslationThis is a gilded bronze head, which was forged with ancient craftsmanship and the greatest skill. [It was] buried among the ruins of Aquae Sulis in Somerset, which had been destroyed for many years. [It was] underground for 16 centuries and was finally excavated in 1727. The Society of Antiquaries, London preserved it for posterity.George Vertue. In the lower left corner is the name of the delineator, A. Gordon (probably Alexander Gordon, who became Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1735). The engraved caption indicates that the object was buried for sixteen centuries, implying a Roman provenance; but this inscription does not suggest the identity or even the gender of the figure represented. The plate shows that the head was crudely broken off at the neck; it also shows two of the rivet holes along the top of the head, which would have been used to attach a tall Corinthian helmet (now missing). Apart from the inscription, there is no visual indication of the material; it appears as much like stone as like bronze.
ObjectThe gilded bronze Head of Sulis Minerva, unearthed in 1727 during the construction of a new sewer below Stall Street in Bath, most likely dates from the late 1st century and belonged to the cult statue of the goddess in the Roman temple that stood next to the sacred spring. Today the head is displayed at the Bath Museum; after its discovery it was displayed in the town hall, and it has never left Bath. It is approximately life size, and has six layers of gilding, according to the Museum website.
Stylistically, the Head of Sulis Minerva appears typical of Graeco-Roman sculpture of the first century: the face and hair are highly stylized, with symmetrical features; the face lacks expression or emotion. Cunliffe describes the face as “dull but competently modelled” (Cunliffe 1969: 34). Altogether her appearance is idealized and heroic which, while seemingly bland, is appropriate for an all-powerful, superhuman deity.
Provenance/LocationIdentification of the sculpture is based on context: it was found at the site of the Temple of Sulis Minerva, and probably belonged to the cult statue that was worshipped there. The earliest textual reference to this temple and its patron deity is by the third-century Latin author Solinus. The Temple of Sulis Minerva was built soon after the Roman Empire successfully subdued Britain (Provincia Britannia) during the first century. Even before the arrival of the Romans, the thermal springs found here were considered to be sacred and to have healing powers. The Iron Age ancient Britons (Celts) worshipped the deity Sulis here, and the Romans subsequently equated Sulis with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and of healing. Thus Sulis Minerva is a syncretic deity who could be worshipped by both the native populace and the Roman colonists at the site which the Romans called Aquae Sulis. In addition to this temple, the Romans constructed bathing facilities fed by the thermal springs. The central bathing establishment at Aquae Sulis was constructed in the late first century and continued in use into the fifth century. The temple and associated structures were destroyed “arguably around AD 450 and certainly before AD 500” (Gerrard 2007: 160).
Commentary (EH)This impressive gilded bronze head created great excitement among antiquaries when it was unearthed on 12 July 1727 during the construction of a new sewer below Stall Street in Bath. Antiquarian interest in Bath reflected the long-standing awareness of Bath as a Roman settlement, despite Geoffrey of Monmouth having created for it, in the 12th century, a mythical British founder called King Bladud. Aquae Sulis was mentioned both in Solinus’s Collectanea rerum memorabilium and in the Antonine Itinerary, a Roman catalogue of roads and towns. In his Collectanea rerum memorabilium of the third century, Solinus mentions a hot springs in Britain presided over by Minerva, “in whose temple burns a perpetual fire” (Cunliffe 1966: 199).
In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth firmly believed that Solinus was writing about Bath, as do modern scholars (Cunliffe 1969: 7). His claim that the Temple of Minerva lay under the Norman cathedral was perpetuated in the writings of later antiquarian travelers William Camden (1551-1623), Dr. Thomas Guidott (1638-1706), and William Stukeley (1687-1765) (Cunliffe 1984: 8). The actual position of the temple—close to the find spot of the gilded bronze head—was not determined until archaeological excavations undertaken in 1790, which were confirmed a century later during further excavation and rebuilding work in 1867-69 (Cunliffe 1969: 8).
Bath was known to have had a rich Roman history, owing not only to Solinus but also to extensive inscriptions and carvings that were included in the medieval city wall (possibly begun in the Roman period—Cunliffe 1969: 5); these had been documented by antiquarian visitors like John Leland (1503-1552), who visited Bath between 1536 and 1542; Samuel Gale (1682-1754), who visited Bath in 1705; and Stukeley, who visited the city in 1723. However, no archaeological excavations had ever taken place in Bath, and the discovery of this important sculptural fragment conjured up all manner of speculation about the Roman past. In 1728, Gale sent a drawing of the bust to Sir John Clerk (1676-1755), of Edinburgh, who replied that the head was male, and speculated that it represented “a court favorite or officer among the Romans in Britain; for heads, bustos, and statues, were so common, that every family possessed some hundreds of them both in metal and stone” (Nichols 1781: 146). Stukeley supposed the head to represent “the Genius of the city, buried there for luck sake” (Stukeley 1776: 146). It is worth noting that deities who protected cities in antiquity were invariably female, so Stukeley must have, on some level, believed the head to be that of a woman.
Recognizing the significance of the find—which remains one of only three works in bronze recovered from Roman Britain—the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) sought to document it almost immediately. The Society voted to order the engraving on three separate occasions, over a period of more than two years, before George Vertue finally executed the order. The first vote was taken on 8 November 1727, when the Society ordered “a Profile and full face of the Head dug up lately at Bath.” Two weeks later, on 22 November 1727, “The president brought several draughts of the Head lately found at Bath” (SAL Minutes I.215). Seven preparatory drawings of the head survive in the Society’s archives (Ants MS 197H). Three are drawn in red chalk; one of these shows the left side of the head in profile, and the other two show frontal views of the face. The other four drawings are done in charcoal; they show the left side in profile, the right side in profile, a three-quarter view of the right side, and a frontal view of the face. None of these drawings includes a signature, and they could be the work of one or two artists, one of whom, A. Gordon, is credited in Plate XXXIV. Vertue’s engraving could be based on either of the two left profiles, but the engraving shows two rivet holes along the top edge of the head, while none of the seven preparatory drawings shows the holes.
Vertue began work on the engraving soon after it was ballotted and ordered for the third time on 19 February 1730 (SAL Minutes I.244) and distributed copies of the finished print to members on 26 November 1730 (I.252). He may have worked partly from a cast of the head, since the order calls for the use of “Such Drawing or Caste as the Lord Colerane, Mr R Gale, & Mr Vertue shall approve of.” Rather than the two engravings approved in 1727, only one—the profile—was ultimately executed.
A notable feature of both the drawings and the engraving is the use of “silent restoration”—i.e., the head is represented as being in better condition that it actually was. The Bath Museum website describes the head’s modern condition:
[T]he head has a number of imperfections. There is corrosion which has affected it in parts
where it lay in the ground for over a thousand years. There is also a strange rectangular cut
beneath the chin. It is thought this may result from a flaw in the original casting process in
which a bubble on the surface may have been cut out and filled with an inserted plate. When
gilded over it would not have been visible. This plate has subsequently fallen out as a result
of corrosion whilst in the ground. (Bath Museum)
None of the 18th-century descriptions of the head comments on the corrosion or the rectangular cut, both of which are plainly visible today. The corrosion and the rectangular hole are most noticeable on the lower right side of the face, which could account for Vertue’s decision to use the left profile for the Society’s project—though Vertue might not even have been aware of the corrosion, since he was probably working from the idealized drawings and not the object itself. The jagged line at the bottom, showing where the bust was broken at the neck, adds a touch of documentary realism, however.
Correspondence between antiquaries further demonstrates the high level of interest in the head. On 23 April 1729, Maurice Johnson (1688-1755) wrote to Samuel Gale,
I hope the Antiquarian Society have determined upon engraving the Bath-head of Apollo,Johnson may have seen the drawings presented at the SAL meeting on 22 November 1727. He seems to have concurred with Clerk on the matter of the statue’s gender, and he seems certain about its identity being Apollo.
which I cannot but imagine is part of the very image of that deity, represented upon that
coin of Constantine so very frequently found in England, naked, et radiato capite, with this
inscription, SOLI INVICTO COMITI. (Nichols 1781: 146)
By 1730, when the engraving was made, there was still debate over whether the head represented a male or a female figure. When Vertue made the engraving, his inscription identified it simply as “a gilded bronze head.” Among the prominent antiquaries who weighed in on this question, Gale is the most likely to have studied the head in person, or he may have had drawings sent to him from Bath. Clerk based his view on drawings that Gale sent to him, and Stukeley also learned about the head from Gale, probably from a paper Gale read at the Society sometime between 1727 and 1730. Clerk replied on 1 August 1728:
I return you many thinks for the draught you sent me. I take it to be the head of a man, andClerk’s evaluation of the figure’s gender, based connoisseurship, is little more than speculation, as little was really known about Greco-Roman aesthetics at the time.
not of a woman, for the Nasus Quadratus, a beauty in men much commended, and followed
by statuaries, especially the Grecian, is here very remarkable. The forehead is likewise too
short for a female deity, where the Perfectissimum Naturae was always observed.
(Nichols 1781: 146)
In his “Tour through Several Parts of England,” Gale identifies the head as that of Minerva, despite opinions to the contrary expressed by both Clerk and Johnson. He writes:
And lately, anno 1727, as the workmen were digging to lay a new drain about the middle ofGale added this account in 1730 when revising his manuscript “Tour” of 1705, but since the text remained unpublished until 1780, it is not clear to what extent contemporaries were aware of his opinion that it was indeed Minerva (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena).
the town, they dug up a fine head, in cast brass,[i] and washed over with gold, of the goddess
Pallas [Athena], and is now to be seen preserved by the worthy magistrates in their
town-house, as a most venerable antiquity. (Nichols 1781: 19)
Stukeley, the first secretary of the SAL, had visited Bath in 1723, four years before the head was discovered. In Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum he describes his visit and, following Geoffrey of Monmouth, mistakenly asserts that the Roman temple of Minerva, “patroness of the Baths,” once stood where the medieval cathedral currently stands (Stukeley 1776: 146). It was not until excavations in 1790 that the temple’s actual location was confirmed to be adjacent to the find spot of the bronze head. Stukeley included a footnote about the head in the second edition of Itinerarium Curiosum (published posthumously in 1776). Probably referring to a paper of Gale’s that remains untraced, Stukeley writes:
A most noble busto in brass found at the bath, anno 1727. Mr. Gale says it is not easy to knowAlthough Stukeley was aware that a Roman temple of Minerva, “patroness of the Baths,” had stood in the city, he did not connect the gilt bronze head with Minerva. Stukeley’s note on the head suggests that Gale’s identification of the head as Minerva was still unsettled when he read his paper for the SAL. Stukeley believed the missing headgear to have been a mural crown, i.e., a crown representing the walls or towers of a city; these were common in ancient representations of patron goddesses of cities. As mentioned earlier, deities who protected cities in antiquity were invariably female. Stukeley’s supposition that the head had been deliberately buried to bring luck, rather than having been created for religious worship, reflects the fact that archaeological excavation and interpretation were still quite new in Britain in 1727.
whether it be a man’s or a woman’s: I suppose it is the Genius of the city, buried there for luck
sake. Such another found in the middle of Paris, very deep, with a mural crown on; and such a
one had ours, the holes being visible where it was fastened. (Stukeley 1776: 146)
Arguments that the gilded bronze head belonged to Apollo were supported by antiquarian descriptions of the many Roman inscriptions and carvings found in the city wall. Apollo figured prominently among these Roman relics. Perhaps as early as 1705 Samuel Gale asserted that the Romans “attribute[d] the heat and medicinal qualities of the baths to the Sun, or Apollo, who was esteemed and worshipped by them as the God of Physic” (Nichols 1781: 18). He went on to describe a relief in the wall:
And I have in the wall of the city observed, on the inside westwards, a conspicuous bass-reliefIt is interesting to note that Gale himself eventually identified the head as that of Minerva, despite his own observations of Apollo’s importance to Bath. Modern archaeology leaves little doubt that the head most likely belonged to the cult statue of Sulis Minerva or another statue of the goddess, as it was discovered within the temple precinct. She would have worn a tall Corinthian helmet, not a mural crown as speculated by Stukeley.
of Apollo laureated, and a flame coming out of his mouth; thereby plainly intimating the fire
and genial heat with which these waters are so intensely endowed, to proceed entirely from
the influences of this deity; another bass-relief I have also seen here, representing the sun,
irradiated, pleno vultu [full face]. (Nichols 1781: 18)
Sixty years later, in 1791, some antiquaries still identified the bronze head as belonging to Apollo. Sir Henry Charles Englefield, in his “Account of Antiquities discovered at Bath 1790,” read on 3 March 1791, described new excavations around the Roman temple, including the now-famous Gorgon’s Head pediment. He wrote,
This probably was a temple of the Corinthian order, dedicated to the deities who presidedEnglefield wrote this in 1791, some time after the posthumous publication of Gale’s “Tour through Several Parts of England” in which Gale identified the head as belonging to Minerva. Both the discovery of the bronze head in 1727 and excavations leading to the discovery of the temple of Minerva (its altar, façade, and location) in 1790 resulted from the extensive rebuilding of the city of Bath in order to improve its infrastructure for the ever-expanding numbers of fashionable visitors to the city. An important fragment of a solid fluted shaft was found in 1879, allowing for a reconstruction of the temple’s plan (Cunliffe 1969: 11). Antiquarian and archaeological interest in Bath’s Roman remains continued in the 20th century. According to Barry Cunliffe, who directed excavations in Bath from the 1960s through the 1980s, there is no doubt that Sulis Minerva was the presiding deity at this site. He says that “of the thirteen dedicatory inscriptions known, ten are to Sulis or Sulis Minerva” (Cunliffe 1969: 4). The prevailing opinion now is that this gilded bronze head definitely belonged to a statue of Minerva, probably the main cult statue.
over the springs of Bath; and which an altar formerly dug up here, tells us were Apollo and
Minerva. The ornaments in the pediment of the preserved in the town-hall seems evidently
to have belonged to a statue of the former. (Englefield 1792: 326-327)
The significance of the find for eighteenth-century antiquaries was quite different, however, as illustrated by Vertue’s print. The bust provided evidence that Greco-Roman bronze statuary—a rarity even on the classic ground of the Grand Tour—could be numbered among the “Brittish Antiquitys” to which the Society of Antiquaries dedicated its labors. At the same time, the appearance of the bust in the print (as in the drawings) is reminiscent of marble, creating a kinship between the head and the famous marble sculptures that inspired neoclassical accounts of ancient culture. The resulting speculations on Roman religion, culture, and aesthetics by Gale, Stukeley, Clerk, and the others reflects both the uniqueness of the find and the forms in which it circulated through antiquarian visual culture.
Works CitedBath Museum. https://www.romanbaths.co.uk/key-objects-collection, accessed July 15, 2018.
Cunliffe, Barry. 1966. “The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath,” Antiquity 40: 199-204.
Cunliffe, Barry. 1969. Roman Bath. London: Society of Antiquaries.
Cunliffe, Barry. 1971, 1984. Roman Bath Discovered. London: Routledge.
Cunliffe, Barry, and Peter Davenport. 1985. The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. 2 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology.
Cunliffe, Barry. 1976. “The Roman Baths at Bath: The Excavations 1969-1975,” Britannia VII: 1-32.
Englefield, Henry Charles. 1792. “Account of Antiquities discovered at Bath 1790,” Archaeologia 10: 325-33.
Gerrard, James. 2007. “The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath and the End of Roman Britain,” The Antiquaries Journal 87: 148-164.
Nichols, John, ed. 1781. Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica. No. II. Part. I. Containing Reliquiae Galeanae; or Miscellaneous Pieces by the Late Brothers Roger and Samuel Gale. London: Printed by and for J. Nichols.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718- Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.
Stukeley, William. 1776. Itinerarium Curiosum. 2d ed. London: Printed for Baker and Leigh.
Further ReadingCunliffe, Barry. 1971, 1984. Roman Bath Discovered. London: Routledge.
Cunliffe, Barry, and Peter Davenport. 1985. The Temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath. 2 volumes.
[i] Used interchangeably with bronze in the eighteenth century.
Quick view of plates in Volume One
- Title page and Table of contents [page 3 and page 4] (scholarly commentary)
- Plate i: A bronze lamp excavated from St. Leonard's Hill near Windsor (scholarly commentary)
- Plate ii: Horn of Ulf (scholarly commentary)
- Plate iii: Baptismal Font, in St. James' Church, Westminster (scholarly commentary)
- Plate iv: Ancient image of Richard II, King of England (scholarly commentary)
- Plate v: Three ancient figures (scholarly commentary)
- Plate vi: Ruins of Walsingham Abbey in the county of Norfolk (scholarly commentary)
- Plate vii: Waltham Cross, in the county of Middlesex (scholarly commentary)
- Plate viii: The ruins of the walls and city of Verulamium [St. Alban's] in the county of Hertford (scholarly commentary)
- Plates ix, x, xi and xii: Fountains Abbey in the county of York (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xiii and xiv:Three views of the Gate of St. Bennet’s Abbey in Norfolk, in two plates (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xv: The Tomb of Robart Colles and Cecili, his wif (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xvi: The Tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, King of England (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xvii: The North Front of the Gate at Whitehall (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xviii: The North Front of King's Street Gate (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xix: Plans of the two proceeding Gates, in one Plate (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xx: Coins of Henry VIII, Elizabeth and James I, Kings of England: Likewise, and image of Elizabeth Expressed in encaustic work (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xxi: Excerpt from Edward Hall's Chronicle of Henry VIII (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xxii, xxiii, xxiv, xxv and xxvi: The Tournament of Henry VIII, February 12, 1510: Ingraved from an ancient roll in the Heralds Office, London in six plates. A-S (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xxvii: The present day appearance of Furness Abbey in the county of Lancashire (scholarly commentary)
- Plates xxviii, xxix, xxx, xxxi, xxxii and xxxiii: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xxxiv: Head gilded from bronze, of ancient work, excavated at Aquae Sulis (Bath) (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xxxv: Distant view of Colchester Castle, Essex
- Plate xxxvi: Ground plan, south and east prospects of Colchester Castle
- Plate xxxvii: A table of English silver coins
- Plate xxxviii: A table of English gold coins
- Plate xxxix: Tutbury Castle, Staffordshire (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xl: Melbourne Castle, Derbyshire (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xli: Lancaster Castle, Lancashire (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xlii: Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xliii: Coins struck in France and Flanders relating to the History of England
- Plate xliv: Knaresborough Castle, Yorkshire
- Plate xlv: Image of the greatly revered Thomas Tanner, Bishop of St. Asaph's and not long ago a most worthy associate of this society
- Plate xlvi: Tickhill an old castle
- Plate xlvii: A plan of the Roman roads in Yorkshire (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xlviii: Coins struck in France and Flanders relating to the History of England (scholarly commentary)
- Plate xlix: Ancient chapel adjoining to the Bishops palace at Hereford
- Plates L, LI and LII : Roman mosaic peacock (scholarly commentary)
- Plate liii: Antient seals
- Plate liv: Antient seals
- Plate lv: Fronts and backs of medals and gold coins
- Plate lvi: Gold and silver coins annotated with weights and values
- Plate LVII: Hypocaustum Romanun Lincolniae (scholarly commentary)
- Plate lviii: Antient seals
- Plate lix: Antient seals
- Plate lx: Antient seals
- Plate lxi: Winchester Cross
- Plate lxii: Decree imposed against the papal jurisdiction in England in the year 1534
- Plate lxiii: True and exact draft of the Tower Liberties
- Plate lxiv: Chichester cross
- Plate lxv: Astianax vicit Kalendio
- Plate lxvi: Portrait of Robert Cotton
- Plate lxvii: "Bibliothecae Cognominiis conditoris, Effigies, Ad archetypum opera depictum accurate expressa "
- Plate lxviii: Codice Geneseos Cottoniano Dissertatio Historica (excerpt)
- Plate lxix: Codice Geneseos Cottoniano Dissertatio Historica (excerpt)
- Plate lxx: Fragmentorum codicis Cottoniani libri Geneseos Tabula I
- Plate lxx: Fragmentorum codicis Cottoniani libri Geneseos Tabula II
- Standard of weights and measures in the Exchequer
- "View of the Court of Wards and Liveries with the Officers, Servants and other Persons there Assembled"
- Brief account of the Court of Wards and Liveries [page 1]
- Brief account of the Court of Wards and Liveries [page 2]
- Brief account of the Court of Wards and Liveries [page 3]
Introduction to the digital edition of Vetusta Monumenta
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0
(Alain Schnapp, Discovering the Past)
Vetusta Monumenta [Ancient Monuments], published in seven volumes between 1747 and 1906, was the first of four major publication series launched by the Society of Antiquaries of London in the eighteenth century. Plates i, ii, iii and iv were published individually in 1718, the year the society was formally re-established at the Mitre Tavern. By commissioning these engravings, the society defined its research agenda in terms of preservation, visual documentation, and collecting. This agenda, and the publication of images as a means of pursuing it, remained consistent throughout the eighteenth century, even though membership grew steadily—and steadily richer—from the original socially diverse group of eighteen members to 300 in 1770 and 800 by 1820 (Pearce 2007: 147).
In 1751, the Society of Antiquaries received its royal charter, which gave it a status equal to the Royal Society and charged its Fellows with “the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.” In keeping with this broad mission, the objects selected for inclusion in Vetusta Monumenta form a large and varied set, ranging from artifacts such as a Romano-British Marble bust and medieval monastic seals to architectural monuments including Fountains Abbey. The objects depicted range in age from roughly the 3rd to the 17th century CE. Since some charters, maps, and other documents were also engraved for the series, the distinction between “history” and “antiquities” can be deployed to class the engravings loosely as historical (documents) and antiquarian (artifacts and monuments), but this distinction is more a product of twentieth-century historiography than of the antiquaries’ own motives.
The first secretary, William Stukeley, recorded at the first meeting that the society was formed “with a design at their own charge to collect and print and keep exact Registers . . . of all Antient Monuments that come into their hands” (qtd. in Evans 1956: 58). John Talman, the first director, was later credited with the original idea of publishing a series of prints (Evans 1956: 62n7). Fellows of the society received a copy of each engraving as a benefit of membership and additional copies went to book- and printsellers--but rarely enough to make up the deficit between the cost of the prints and revenue from membership dues.
Selecting subjects for the engravings was a major responsibility of the Fellows, and later specifically the Council, of the Society of Antiquaries. Neither the engraver nor the director had editorial control of these decisions, and some entries in the Society’s Minute Books record the lively discussion that sometimes accompanied the selection process. Although some critics protested that the objects were miscellaneous and often trivial, Vetusta Monumenta effectively promoted the history of everyday life. “By producing representations of everyday objects,” as Bernard Nurse has observed, “the Society extended the idea of what would be acceptable for publication” (Nurse 2007: 143).
Vetusta Monumenta tells a story that is both deeply illuminating for the history of preservation and uniquely relevant for readers and scholars in a digital age. By looking at the kinds of objects chosen for these engravings, we gain insight into the debate over what counts as evidence and what counts as history. By tracing the series from the early individual plates to the formation of a lavish scholarly book publication, we witness the transformation of eclectic private scholarship into a public discourse of antiquities engaged with the literary marketplace. The highly finished, visually captivating quality of many of these prints is matched by their historical significance as records of the state of many monuments that have deteriorated since the eighteenth century; in more than a few cases, these prints provide the sole record of artifacts and monuments that do not themselves survive. A digital scholarly edition of the images and accompanying text materially furthers this goal of preservation and makes the work accessible to a much wider audience. The images owe their strong aesthetic appeal as well as their accuracy to the laborious technique of copper engraving, which also made the original volumes prohibitively expensive for most readers. Now the volumes are extremely rare and even the existing digital version is neither open access nor of high quality. The present edition makes Vetusta Monumenta genuinely accessible, not just by reproducing the content but by providing scholarly commentary, digital search tools, and all the features of a modern digital edition.
By 1747, 70 engravings had been published, enough to form a substantial volume (for which the title Vetusta Monumenta was created). The second volume, with 55 more plates, appeared in 1789. Beginning with Plate xx of this volume (originally published in 1763), the editors began to include letterpress “explanations of the plates” with each engraving or subset of engravings, instead of including text in the form of a caption or on the plate itself. (Some essays on the objects depicted were also written before 1763, but these were published separately.) These explanations considerably swelled the size of the volumes, and not coincidentally the Society launched its second serial publication, the learned journal Archaeologia, at about the same time (1770). Volume III, the last volume included here, was published in 1796 with 44 plates and about 200 pages of letterpress.
During its first fifty years of publication, the most important figure involved with Vetusta Monumenta was the engraver George Vertue (1684-1756), who was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Vertue engraved all but one of the first 90 plates and also made several of the original drawings. During the rest of the eighteenth century, the central figure was Richard Gough (1735-1809), who became Director of the Society of Antiquaries in 1768. After Vertue, there were no engravers in the Society, which was by now more expensive to join and more genteel in its composition. Gough’s predecessor hired the engraver James Basire (Sr), whose workshop (later led by James Basire Jr) created all the engravings for Vetusta Monumenta from 1765 as well as hundreds of engravings for Archaeologia, the society’s Cathedral Series (1795-1810), and individual publications by members. The last of Vertue’s plates (II.xx) was published posthumously in 1763 and the engraving work passed to Basire in 1765 (II.xxi-ii).
For a brief period, the Society turned its attention to a new series of larger historical prints and no new engravings were published for Vetusta Monumenta between 1770 and 1780 (Nurse 2007: 144). Gough, however, ensured the continuation of the series with seven new plates in 1780 and twenty more by 1789, all with extensive letterpress explications. Though the objects depicted varied widely, the standard form of the prints in each of the two phases (under Vertue and Gough, respectively) helped to establish a recognizable connoisseurial and scholarly idiom. Imperial folio size paper (21 ½ x 14 ½ inches) was used throughout along with a relatively uniform style of engraving and captioning, later giving way to added letterpress. When the first series was bound into a volume, a Latinized subtitle was added, pointing toward conservation (“preserving the memory of [British] things”) as the unified research agenda; this language is reminiscent of Stukeley's insistence on visual documentation in the preface to his Itinerarium Curiosum (Stukeley 1724; Nurse 2007: 143).
The gradually increasing emphasis on text and interpretation in Vetusta Monumenta reflects the shift of primary editorial responsibility from Vertue, an artist and engraver, to Gough, a scholar whose agenda for the society as a whole centered on research and publication. The decision not to include commentary (even when available) over the first 1 ½ volumes, however, does not imply any defect of scholarship on the part of Vertue or the society’s first director, John Talman. Rather, the later expansion of Vetusta Monumenta reflects an increasingly strict division of labor characteristic of the later eighteenth century. In the early decades, not only the engravings, but also some of the original drawings, were produced by Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries including Stukeley and Talman. Later in the century, by contrast, both Basire and draftsmen such as John Carter and Jacob Schnebbelie were hired on a contract basis and regarded as more or less menial. They were considered “practical antiquaries” (Gough 1799: II.i.7) as distinct from those who wrote the scholarly text now seen as central to the discipline. Horace Walpole’s assessment of Vertue captures the earlier integral relationship between engraving and art historical scholarship, along with the emphasis on preservation, embodied in the earlier decades of Vetusta Monumenta: “The many valuable monuments relating to our history, and the persons of our monarchs and great men, which he saved from oblivion, are lasting evidences of his merit” (Walpole 1796: I.i).
As Nurse has observed, three of the plates in volume I (33, 42, 48) were engraved from rediscovered drawings of monuments that had already been destroyed, and Sam Smiles notes that the series was produced “at a time of social and economic change, with many sites vulnerable to ‘improvement’ or demolition” (Smiles 2007: 123). A remark from one of Gough’s independent scholarly books, Sepulchral Monuments, signals a generalized anxiety about the loss of monuments that is also indicative for Vetusta Monumenta. “In a few years more we shall have no foundation left for such a work,” Gough declares, and proceeds to list several monuments that are “crumbling away without having been drawn” (Gough 1799: I.3-4).
Modern scholarship has attended to some individual plates from Vetusta Monumenta, but there has been no systematic account of the publication series as a whole. In recent years, discussion of these plates has revolved around the question of preservation. Maria Grazia Lolla, Rosemary Sweet, and Martin Myrone have all commented specifically on two plates depicting Waltham Cross, one of the “Eleanor Crosses” erected by Edward I in memory of his queen between 1291 and 1294 (vol. 1, plate vii, and vol. 3, plate xvi). The society paid for wooden posts to protect the cross from traffic, but this was a trifling effort compared to the expense and care lavished on the print series and other scholarly activities intended to serve preservation. The antiquaries themselves noticed this paradox: “Vetusta Monumenta flourished and the monuments of medieval England fell into decay,” as Joan Evans reflected in her history of this phase of the institution (Evans 1956: 192).
Although Vetusta Monumenta has made real contributions to preservation, the engravings collected here also served purposes that were clearly not subservient to the ostensible intention of preserving monuments, including social prestige and aestheticizing representation. These contradictions have led some scholars, such as Lolla and Myrone, to caution against taking the antiquaries’ preservationist claims at face value and instead to emphasize the ideological character of antiquarian prints as representations. A contrasting modern view, represented by Smiles and Matthew Reeve, insists on their continuing evidentiary function as visual documentation. More popular illustrated collections of antiquities, by such figures as Samuel and Nathaniel Buck and later John Britton (himself a Fellow of the Society), competed with and ultimately displaced Vetusta Monumenta among general readers by the late eighteenth century.
Vetusta Monumenta provides a uniquely rich record for scholars in the humanities today, who are increasingly interested in the study of objects and material culture. These engravings provide an intimate record of the kinds of objects collectively judged to be important, not by a single author or thinker, but by a large body of scholars and amateurs over the course of eight decades (and beyond, although the nineteenth-century volumes are outside the scope of the present edition). The energies of these wildly diverse objects, ranging from a Roman plumbing system to a lavish royal portrait to an early Tudor table of weights and measures, exceed the aesthetic framework in which they are placed. In some cases, the engravings become entangled with the afterlives of the objects themselves; the engraving of the Westminster portrait of Richard II (plate iv), for instance, preserves a record of the raised gesso ground confirmed as an original feature of the painting by modern scholars after it was scraped off the original by Victorian restorers. Humanists from many disciplines, whether embracing or resisting influential methodologies such as Actor-Network Theory (Latour 2005), Thing Theory (Brown 2004), or Object-Oriented Ontology (Harman 2002), may find in Vetusta Monumenta a cluster of objects both highly mediated and uniquely redolent of the intimacy in which their humans lived with them.
While many of the plates present objects in a state of ruin, it would be unhistorical to divorce ruin as a merely picturesque state from ruin as a material condition that demanded archaeological knowledge. Readers of this edition, who also have the Internet at their disposal to compare these beautiful engravings with modern photographs and research, can decide for themselves. While every effort was made not to damage the books in the course of scanning their pages for this edition, some inevitable wear and tear led us to contemplate a similar paradox. Preservation is one legitimate motive for producing a state-of-the-art digital analogue for these images that represent the state of the art in mechanical reproduction for their time. More important, we hope this edition will stimulate the same curiosity, wonder, and skepticism that we have experienced, especially for readers who do not have access to the original volumes. Vetusta Monumenta (I-III) offers a rich repository of antiquarian images and scholarship from a time when the scope and status of antiquity became open and often fiercely contested questions.
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