A Monumental Walk Through the Eternal City

‘Relics and Rarities of Ancient Rome’

The first version of Francesco Ficoroni’s Le vestigia e rarità di Roma antica appeared in 1744 and was printed by Girolamo Mainardi. Whereas the title suggests that the volume only consists of elaborate descriptions of the ‘relics’ and rarities of the antique past, it also contains a second part about the singularities of modern Rome. The descriptions monuments, churches and other places worth seeing are accompanied by a large amount of skilfully executed images and plates that correspond with the text.

In an address to the reader, Ficoroni immediately mentions the incredible amount of time he spent collecting the designs of antique Rome.

A brief history of topographical descriptions

It was already since the Renaissance that people had an interest in compiling this type of information. Through topographical descriptions, they made serious attempts to document the still remaining heritage that reminded of the ancient past. In the course of the sixteenth century, the genre of the topographical description increasingly commercialized and was interpreted as a type of city guide. Not only locals with an interest in their cultural heritage were consulting the archaeological and topographical descriptions, also foreign visitors would read the publications in order to learn more about the splendor of Rome. Since the number of guides kept growing and their target group had broadened, their character slowly adapted to an international public. The works were translated, more images were included, and they also appeared in a pocket-size format in order to be easily portable and user-friendly. It would make sense to assume that Ficoroni’s publication was used for the same purpose. However, if we look beyond the text — that is, at the format of its carrier — we get a different feeling: the book appears too large to be carried around and therefore would not meet the needs of its user. We can therefore assume that the book was not printed in order to be used as a travel guide, but was used for a different purpose. Judging by the material aspects of the book, it looks more like a work that was meant for purposes of study or even display.  In the following paragraphs, I will discuss and attempt to explain the three factors that contribute to this idea.

Papal Influences

The first factor hides in the frontispiece, the title page, and the dedicatory page (figs. 1-3) of the book, all dedicated to Pope Benedict XIV.



As Rome’s international influence was declining in the course of the seventeenth century, the Catholic church started an ambitious program of ‘urban embellishment’ and transformed the city into a cultural center. Within the scope of the program, old and inefficient constructions made way for modern roads and buildings of all kinds. From this moment on, the Eternal City was increasingly represented as a city that possessed both ‘old’ and ‘new’ qualities: a lot of tourists traveling to the city were not just visiting Rome for its ancient past or its role in the religious world, but were also interested in the recent developments that were taking place.

Part of the Church’s campaign was to publish a lot of printed material that would further promote the city’s new image. Benedict XIV contributed to the foundation of an archaeological academy in 1740, while at the same time the Church commissioned all kinds of prints and books exalting the modernization that Rome had undergone. Ficoroni’s book can be interpreted in the same light.

It is clear that the Church actively supported the author and his publication and that Ficoroni celebrates the ancient as well as modern monuments of Rome. Not surprisingly, the book immediately got the imprimatur of the Church, indicating that it did not pose a threat to religion and was allowed to be printed and read. It, in fact, described the importance of Rome as an absolute capital.

Rich imagery

Another eye-catching element about this volume are its images: leafing through the pages, what immediately stands out is that the book contains an incredible amount of small illustrations and larger plates of monuments, statues and more. It is important to realize that the images do not solely function as simple decorative material: quite the contrary, they serve as a visual aid. The images help the reader to interpret all the information that is mentioned in the text, enabling them to compare Ficoroni’s elaborate descriptions to what they see.

fig. 4
Figure 4: An example of one of the larger plates

Another interesting detail is the fact that the volume contains both images that were printed in the text and larger plates that were printed separately. The rear side of the plates is left blank, which indicated that they were not part of the same printing process as the text and its smaller illustrations. It is likely that the plates were included to add a luxurious dimension to the volume, but since they are not recorded in the collation, it could also be that the plates were included with the idea of readers being able to extract them from the book in order to gather them in a special album. This could suggest that Ficoroni’s text should also be interpreted as a work that displays the city of Rome and Roman culture.

fig. 5
Figure 5: An example of a plate that can even be folded out

The anonymous annotator

An interesting material aspect pointing to the idea that this book was not used as a reference book that helps its user navigate through Rome, is the fact that it contains a number of annotations by an unidentified person. The first annotations, for example, appear in the index of churches, where the owner refers to a church with two antique columns and its ‘conjectures’ on the seventieth page of the book.

fig. 6
Figure 6: The index page of the churches with handwritten annotations

It is on this exact page that we find another annotation in the margin, indicating a part of the text that refers to one specific monument: the Tempio della Pace. In antique times, this temple was already described as one of the Wonders of the World. Apparently, our annotator was very interested in columns and remains of ancient temples since he marks another passage on pages seventy-two and one on seventy-five. These notes refer to the Tempio dell’Onore on page 72, and the temples of Isis and Serapis on page 75 (figs. 7-9).



The annotator might have been preparing a study, or maybe even planning an excavation. Although the identity of our mysterious annotator and the exact nature of his notes will need some further research in order to be fully understood, they allow us to deduce that this book was used to admire carefully study the Eternal City in all its aspects.


Anne Haak (1992) has a BA in Art history and Italian and is currently in her second year of the RMA Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Utrecht University. She specializes in Italian Renaissance culture, with a special focus on art history.

Book description

KNIR SIGNATURE: Pregiato folio MR93

SHORT TITLE: Francesco Ficoroni, Le vestigia e rarità di Roma antica. Rome: Girolamo Mainardi, 1744.

SIZE: 28 x 20 cm

TITLE: Le vestigia e rarità di Roma antica ricercate, e spiegate da Francesco de’ Ficoroni. Aggregato alla Reale Accademia di Francia.  Libro primo. Dedicato alla Santità di Nostro Signore Benedetto XIV. In Roma MDCCXLIV. Nella Stamperia di Girolamo Mainardi. Con licenza de’ superiori.


Vol. 1: 2°: π a⁶ A-Z⁴ Aa⁶

Vol. 2: 2°: a⁴ A-K⁴

DESCRIPTION: bound in vellum. Consists of two volumes (volume 1: Le vestigia e rarità di Roma antica; volume 2: Le singolarità di Roma moderna). Both parts have an index and errata.

Several copper engraved plates (3 folded) and illustrations. Some copper engraved decorative initials. Contains dedicatory frontispiece and letter to Pope Benedict XIV. Has handwritten annotations in the index, margins, and final pages.


Hendrix, H., ‘City Guides and Urban Identities in Early Modern Italy and the Low Countries’, Incontri 29.1 2014: 3-13.

Maier, J., Rome Measured and Imagined: Early Modern Maps of the Eternal City, Chicago: Chicago UP 2015.