The Earliest Guide Book to Rome


Mirabilia Rome. (Contents: Mirabilia Romae - Historia et descriptio urbis Romae - Oratio de S. Veronica - Indulgentiae ecclesiarum principalium urbis Romae - Stationes ecclesiarum urbis Romae)

Rome: Etienne Guillery and Herculano Nani, 1511


Octavo: 12.5 x 9.5 cm. 64 leaves. Collation: [ ]8, [A]8, B-G8

One of numerous editions (see below.) The colophon on Leaf G8r: reads "Impressum Rome per Stephanu[m] guillireti; et herculem nani socios. Anno M.d.xi"

Two parts in one volume. Illustrated with 10 full-paged and one half-paged woodcuts. A fine, fresh copy of a very rare book, never washed or pressed, with a few light stains and othe trivial blemishes. 16th c. inscription on one leaf. Bound in 20th c. maroon sheep, gilt. Colophon on Leaf G8r: "Impressum Rome per Stephanu[m] guillireti; et herculem nani socios. Anno M.d.xi."

The subjects of the woodcuts are: The She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus (title page); Rhea Sylvia in prayer within a four part woodcut border that features another representation of the wolf and twins (divisional title of the “Indulgentiae”); the arms of the Emperor, the provincial government of Rome (SPQR), and Pope Julius II (with the oak tree emblem of the Della Rovere); the sudarium of Veronica being displayed to a crowd of nuns, with the symbols of the Evangelists in the border; 7 woodcuts of Saints, the Madonna and Child, and the Crucifixion, each representing one of the principal churches of Rome: St. John (the Lateran), St. Peter (the Vatican), St. Paul (San Paolo fuori le mura), the Madonna and Child (Santa Maria Maggiore), San Lorenzo (San Lorenzo fuori le mura), Saint Sebastian (San Sebastiano ad catacumbas), the Crucifixion (Santa Croce).

The “Mirabilia Romae” is the oldest extant guidebook to the city of Rome. As the forerunner to all later guides to the Eternal City and a bestseller for over 300 years, the “Mirabilia” has achieved iconic status. However, only recently have the various texts that make up the “Mirabilia” tradition been examined in detail, most notably by Nine Robijntje Miedema.

The two medieval texts transmitted under the title “Mirabilia Romae” were composed around 1143, possibly by a certain Benedict, a canon of St. Peter’s. The first text, the “Mirabilia Romae” (Marvels of Rome) is a guide for visitors to the ruins of the ancient city, with explanations of the origins and functions of the buildings and places described (see below for a discussion of the contents.) The second work, properly the “Historia et Descriptio urbis Romae” is a short historical work that recounts the founding of Rome and discusses the Roman emperors. Two additional texts, long associated with and transmitted together with the “Mirabilia”: the “Indulgentiae ecclesiarum principalium urbis Romae” and the “Stationes ecclesiarum urbis Romae”, were written as practical guides for pilgrims visiting the Holy City. The “Indulgentiae” gives an account of the churches of Rome, beginning with the 7 principal churches, that pilgrims may visit in order to receive indulgences. In addition to listing the number of indulgences that may be obtained on different feast days, the guide describes what altars, relics, and tombs may be found in each church. In the church of S. Caterina dei Funari, for example, are preserved the oil that flowed from the saint’s sepulcher as well as the milk that flowed -in place of blood- from her neck when she was decapitated. The final work lists the “station” churches for Lent, Easter, and Advent, so that a pilgrim may easily locate a church for a given mass.

Versions of all four of the texts just described are present in this edition, together with a prayer for Saint Veronica. These texts all appeared in various forms in different manuscripts; the printed editions, which began to appear in the 1470’s, do not all derive from the same manuscript. As a result, there is great variation in both the manuscript and printed traditions of the “Mirabilia”.

The “Mirabilia Romae” itself is divided into chapters enumerating and discussing: the walls of Rome, the city gates, the hills of Rome, the bridges, the “palaces” of the emperors (with mention of the columns of Trajan and Antoninus Pius and the apocryphal “Palace of Nero”), triumphal arches, memorial arches, baths, theatres, the “Angulea” of St. Peter, cemeteries and catacombs (both pagan and Christian), places where the saints suffered martyrdom, temples, the Capitol, the “marble horses” (the Quirinal Dioscuri), the equestrian statue of “Constantine”, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, with an account of Octavian’s vision of the Madonna and Child.

The mix of lore and fact found in the “Mirabilia” reminds the reader just how little was known of antiquity when these guides were composed. Yet the stories, often fantastic, add to our sense of wonder, helping to explain why these guides remained so popular even after the humanists and antiquarians had begun to tease out the reality of antiquity from a more “scientific” examination of the same evidence described in the “Mirabilia”.

Our guide describes the vanished Capitolium as a palace composed almost entirely of gold, said to be worth “a third of the word’s wealth”. Within this temple were as many statues as there were provinces, all facing a statue that represented Rome. They were adorned, “by mathematical art”, with bells around their necks as a sort of ancient early warning system. Whenever one of the provinces, anywhere in the empire, would start a revolt, its corresponding statue would turn away from the statue of Rome and its bell would begin to ring. The Senate would then mobilize and send troops to crush the uprising.

In the description of the Coliseum, the seed of historical truth (the colossus of Nero as the Sun God), gives rise to a marvelous conception of the amphitheatre as a temple of the Sun, the great opening above covered with a gilded bronze dome that mimicked the actual sky, complete with thunder and lightning and rain that was pumped through lead “fistula”. The artificial sky was adorned with golden images of the planets and Luna riding her four-horse chariot. A monumental statue of the Sun, whose head reached to the sky, stood within, bearing an orb in his hand, a symbol of the Earth. Pope Sylvester, we are told, destroyed the temple, but the arm and head of the statue were still to be seen in the Lateran, where the general public (volgo) misidentified them as belonging to Sampson. The colossal arm and head -moved to the Capitoline in 1471- are now understood to be those of the emperor Constantine.

However, the “Mirabilia” contains much that is factual or nearly so and we can sense the same desire to make accurate statements (the heights of the columns of Antoninus Pius and Trajan, for instance) and to solve what were certainly difficult puzzles (the workings of the ancient baths.) The “Mirabilia” also preserves for us the names and details of monuments known to the author but later destroyed, such as the elusive “Arcus Pietatis” near the Pantheon and the 4th century arch of Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius (See Richardson, New Topographical Dictionary, pp. 26, 28). But what is perhaps most valuable to us is the window that the “Mirabilia” provides into the medieval perception of Rome, a city of pagan ruins and Christian monuments in which emperors, saints, prophetic youths, and Virgil the Magician inhabit the same landscape.

Rossetti G 191; Schudt 34 (Indulgentiae only); Pescarzoli (Fossati Bellani) 652; Sander 4642; cf. PMM 12; Literature: Nine Robijntje Miedema, Die "Mirabilia Romae": Untersuchungen zu ihrer Uberlieferung mit Edition der deutschen und niederlindischen Texte. (Miinchener Texte und Untersuchungen zur deutschen Literatur des Mittelalters, 108.) (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer,1996)