The Destructive Teeth of Time and Light
Martje de Vries
Department of History
The perception of time’s implacable destructiveness weighed on humanists and early modern antiquaries. The fragmentary evidence of Rome’s ancient magnificence, visible in texts and overgrown ruins, encouraged them to restore these mere relics to their former glory. This metaphorical imagery of exhumation, bringing to light, rebirth, resurrection or restoration was perpetuated in our period term “Renaissance”. The same textual and material remains caused both admiration and melancholy: they confronted scholars with the vicissitude of all human achievements. Ironically, the humanists’ quest to preserve and revive antiquity ultimately led them to recognize the futility of that endeavor: the past was irrevocable and the destructive teeth of time could not be defeated by scholarship. In several sixteenth and seventeenth century libraries in Rome, one can admire the humanists’ attempts to preserve and bring to light the texts and monuments that in their view deserved an eternal memory. The effects of time, sun, and worms on their monumental works illustrates this feeling of transience to every current visitor and researcher.