A 15th c. Mirabilia Romae

ROME. MIRABILIA. Solinus, Gaius Julius (3rd c.)

Polyhistor, sive De mirabilibus mundi, sive Collectanea rerum memorabilium. Add: Mirabilia Romae

Venice: Theodorus de Ragazonibus, 23 August 1491


Quarto: 20.5 x 14.9 cm. [52] leaves. Collation: a-f8, g4


Bound in early vellum with later endpapers. A fine, fresh copy with nice margins, printed on high-quality paper. First leaf slightly soiled and with mild wear to the edges, a few trivial light stains, verso of final leaf lightly soiled, faded early inscription to title.

The “Mirabilia Romae” (Marvels of Rome) has achieved iconic status. It is the oldest extant guidebook to the city of Rome and the forerunner to all later guides to the Eternal City. Composed around 1143, possibly by a certain Benedict, a canon of St. Peter’s, it serves as a guide 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 book was a bestseller for over 300 years, from the Middle Ages to the Roman Renaissance, appearing in numerous cheaply-printed editions in the 15th and early 16th c., the majority of them small, slim octavos of just a few leaves. As a result of heavy use by tourists and pilgrims, copies of all editions are extremely rare. Of the 111(!) editions recorded in ISTC, dating from ca. 1472 to ca. 1511, many survive in only single copies and almost all in fewer than five. The work is very rare in North America, with the text represented in only twelve North American institutions (see the references at the foot of this description.)

The 1491 “Mirabilia”, which appeared in a more substantial volume along with the ancient (3rd c.) “Marvels of the World” by Solinus, has fared better. In North America, this 1491 edition is held by 9 institutions: Walters Art Museum, Harvard, LC, BYU, Huntington, Smithsonian, Newberry, UT Austin, and Yale.

The mix of lore and fact found in the “Mirabilia” made the text a natural companion to the “Mirabilia” Solinus, who “routinely eschews the mundane in favor of the bizarre to use geography as a structure through which wonders might be revealed.”

The text is divided into chapters that describe (in this order): 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 and memorial arches, baths, theatres, the Vatican obelisk(thought to house the ashes of Julius Caesar in its bronze finial), cemeteries and catacombs (both pagan and Christian), the places where the saints suffered martyrdom, the giant bronze pine cone (the “pigna”, temples, the Capitol, the “marble horses” (the Quirinal Dioscuri), the equestrian statue of “Constantine” (i.e. Marcus Aurelius), the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli (with an account of Octavian’s vision of the Madonna and Child.)

The often fantastic tales recounted in the Mirabilia were sure to inspire a sense of wonder in the pilgrims and tourists who came to marvel at the ruins, which helps to explain why the guidebook remained so popular even after the 15th c. humanists and antiquarians had begun to tease out the reality of Rome’s antiquities through a more scientific examination of ruins and texts.

The “Mirabilia” 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 Colosseum, the seed of historical truth (the colossus of Nero depicted as the sun god Sol), gives rise to a marvelous conception of the amphitheater as a temple of the Sun, the great opening above once covered with a gilded bronze dome that mimicked the 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 misidentified them as belonging to Sampson. The colossal arm and head -moved to the Capitoline in 1471- are now recognized as those of the emperor Constantine.

However, the “Mirabilia” also contains much that is factual or nearly so and we can sense a 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.


“Gaius Julius Solinus, who probably lived between the middle and the end of the third century, was concerned with geography, though not in the modern sense of the term. His work is entitled Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium, but in the Middle Ages, when it was widely read, it was also known as Polyhistor, to emphasize the great number of curiosities that were collected there. The work is a careful compilation from many literary sources, chiefly Pliny the Elder but also Pomponius Mela and Suetonius, along with various other geographical treatises that are no longer extant. Solinus noted down all the unusual things he came across when reading these works, about peoples and their customs, animals, and plants…

“The work opens with a full treatment of Rome and Roman history from the kings to the principate of Augustus. The area examined is then extended to Italy, and then to Greece and the Black Sea, Germany, Gaul, Britain, and Spain; this counterclockwise tour ends with Africa, Arabia, Asia Minor, India, and the kingdom of the Parthians, in accordance with a systematic geographical plan that is one of the most characteristic features of the work. It enjoyed considerable success in the Middle Ages, when it was also read and studied as a summary of the excessively vast Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder. It did not, however, altogether replace it, with the result that it enjoyed, so to speak, a success parallel to that of its more illustrious predecessor.”(Conte)

“Referring to the reading of Pliny and Solinus in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Anthony Grafton writes: ‘Generations of readers thrilled, like Desdemona listening to Othello, at these tales of strange creatures, foods, and burial customs – and were no doubt stimulated by them to see the inhabitants of strange lands as literally outlandish, less than civilized or even less than human.’ Charles Raymond Beazley has made note of this remarkable appeal: ‘The compilation of Solinus… became so fashionable in the Middle Ages, and exercised so powerful an influence on the geographical imagination, that it cannot be passed over. It is simply a collection of marvels, chiefly of natural history, brought together apparently on the principle ‘Credo’ or at least, ‘Lego, quia impossibile.’… no one ever influenced Christian geography more profoundly or mischievously.”

“References to and borrowings from Solinus can be found in a wide variety of medieval texts, stretching though the whole of the medieval period. Readers of Solinus ranged from Augustine to Bede to Dante, and Solinus’ influence can be seen in examples as varied as the Hereford Mappa mundi (ca. 1300) and Fazio degli Uberti’s verse epic, ‘Dittamondo’ (14th c.), in which Solinus, in the place of Dante’s Virgil, guides a pilgrim on a tour of the known world.  The interest in Solinus had not waned by the fifteenth century… While geography was not a primary area of interest for the humanists, Solinus, Pliny, and authors like them were widely read and commented upon by Renaissance scholars… The strong interest in antiquity that characterized the Renaissance continued the medieval curiosity for the Roman compilers who seemed to have succeeded in encapsulating the entire world and all the knowledge in it.”(Dover and McDonough)

Hain-Copinger 14880; BMC V, 478; Schudt, le guide di Roma, 565; Goff S 620; GW M42830. North American holdings of the Mirabilia editions ca. 1470-1511: Canadian Center for Architecture, Claremont Colleges, Getty, Harvard, Huntington, LC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morgan Library, NYPL, Walters Museum Library, Williams, Yale