Joachim du Bellay
Les Antiquitez de Rome
Les Antiquitez de Rome is a collection of sonnets written by Joachim Du Bellay while he lived in Rome serving his uncle, the Cardinal Jean du Bellay. It was published in 1558. Du Bellay initially hoped to make a brilliant political and court career in Rome, but he became disillusioned and bitter about having to leave France and work for his uncle in Vatican City. It pulled him away from opportunities he may have had to make a brilliant career in Paris, especially when he compared his own career with the rise to prominence of his friends who remained in France, including Pierre de Ronsard. While in Rome, Du Bellay hated Roman court politics and life in Rome in general. He wrote a series of poems, satirical commentaries criticizing anything and everything about Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, Les Antiquitez de Rome was born. Later, a part of Les Antiquitez was translated into Dutch and English, and became quite popular with Protestants.
Architectural references in Les Antiquitez de Rome fall into three categories: ancient civilizations in general, Rome and her ruins in particular, and contemporary architecture of Rome.
Antiquity in General
In these poems, du Bellay cites or describes prominent ancient civilizations (Babylon, Crete, Egypt), famous architectural monuments, their materials, and their current state. He does this to draw attention to the grandeur they once possessed, in juxtaposition to the ruins they were in his time or to the lack of evidence of their existence. Du Bellay mourns the Ancient cultures that the Renaissance idolized and uses them as a warning about the inevitable fall of all great empires. In so doing, he makes a different use of the contemporary obsession with Antiquity, compared to a typical traveller to Italy at the time, who expected to be awed and inspired. He also emphasizes that this fate awaits all great civilizations: they are, in the end, nothing but ruins and dust. A core group of poems on that theme was translated by du Bellay from the famous neo-Latin poetic collection by Janus Vitalis, which like du Bellay’s Antiquitez combines the vanitas theme (ancient civilization, now in ruins) with the critique of Roman politics.
The Frivolity of Rome
Just as he explores the vanitas theme by describing the ruins of the great Roman civilization, Du Bellay maligns his contemporary Rome and her culture by describing her architecture. Ancient Rome serves as a reminder and a warning to contemporary Rome: its current splendor, too, is vain and shall fall into ruin. For du Bellay, the buildings that were left in Rome did not signify glory, but rather corruption and the inevitable ravages of time. Du Bellay wanted to use these references to emphasize how short-sighted it was to idolize a dead culture that fell due to its own arrogance. It was also a political and moral statement: be weary of extreme excess.
Bellay, Joachim Du. Les Antiquitez de Rome et Les Regrets. Lille, Geneve: Librarie Giard and Librarie Droz, 1947.
I chose all the background pictures for Les Antiquitez de Rome as symbolic representations. They do not belong to the period. The heading picture is from the seventeenth- to eighteenth-century gardens at Versailles. The fountain, constructed in 1677 by Gaspard Marsy, is based on a sketch by Louis XIV’s foremost painter and designer Charles le Brun. It depicts the fall of Enceladus, a giant from Greek and Roman mythology, buried under Mount Etna by the goddess Athena/Minerva. Etna’s eruptions were his breath, and the seismic activity, his movements under the mountain. In Versailles, a 25-ft fountain erupts from Enceladus’s mouth. This tragic depiction captures the drama and inevitability of time in Du Bellay’s work. In the section “Antiquity in General,” the overgrown seventeenth- to nineteenth-century gardens of the château of Bussy-Rabutin in Burgundy symbolize the crumbling of the past described by Du Bellay. Lastly, the illustration to the “Frivolity of Rome” is a seventeenth-century gilt door from Versailles, meant to show the splendor of Rome before it became a ruin, as Du Bellay paints it.