Roman Architectural Spolia

Roman Architectural Spolia

Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 145, no. 2 (2001)


SPOLIA is an arcane term, even to many art historians. The lit- eral meaning of the Latin word is “spoils,” especially spoils of war. The translation of this word to art history was made around the turn of the sixteenth century in the antiquarian circle that included Raphael. Canvassing Rome for antiquities, these scholars and artists coined spolia as a name for the ancient marble ornaments they repeatedly encountered in secondary medieval settings. Deliberately or not, their choice of spolia, Italian spoglie, implied violent removal from a vio- lated source, a rape of the classical past. In a letter to Pope Leo X dated 1519, Raphael pointed out the spoglie on the Arch of
Constantine: reliefs in the noble classical style of the second century, which he con- trasted with what he called the “stupid” fourth-century sculptures produced by the makers of the arch. A guidebook to “anticaglie [antiquities] et spoglie” in Rome written a few years earlier begins with St. Peter’s basilica, which is said to be “fatta tutta di spoglie”; in this case the term applies not to sculpture but to “colonne bellissime con chapitegli chorinti.” Old St. Peter’s was torn down in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its reused “beautiful columns” can no longer be seen, but nearly two dozen early Christian and medieval churches survive elsewhere in Rome with spoliate colonnades wholly or partially intact.


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