In 1902 Alois Riegl, the most important art historian from Austria, was appointed General Conservator of the Central Commission for the Research and Preservation of Artistic and Historical Monuments (Zentralkommission für die Erforschung und Erhaltung der Kunst- und historischen Denkmale) in Vienna. He was asked to prepare draft legislation for the protection of monuments, and thus he published “Der moderne Denkmalkultus, sein Wesen, seine Entstehung” (The modern cult of monuments: its character and origin).
This work is fundamental for studying the development of European understanding of ancient monuments in the early twentieth century.
In the chapter concerning the historical value of monuments, Riegl says something very intriguing about facsimile copies. This is a very interesting statement to outline the cultural phenomenon studied by the LIT! project:
“We must note that the cult of historical value, although it only grants a total documentary value to the original state of a monument, also admits a limited value of the copy, in the case that the original (“the document”) has been totally lost. […] In view of the increasing development of art-technical means of reproduction, one can be confident that in the foreseeable future (especially after the discovery of absolutely convincing colour photography and its combination with facsimile copies) it will be possible to find as perfect replacements as possible for the documentary originals.”
As is often mentioned on this site, the importance of visual sources (signatures, drawings, maps, watercolour copies of ancient paintings) in the history of the discovery of Christian catacombs is incredible. These sources assume greater weight especially for the initial centuries in the history of Christian archaeology, before the advent of photography.
Among the most famous scholars who proceeded massively to copy the paintings of the catacombs they saw in their explorations is the Andalusian Alonso Chacón (1540-1599).
Chacòn can certainly be considered an important ‘chronicler’ of the state of catacomb paintings in the period in which the scholar lived in Rome (1567-1599).This rich heritage of early Christian iconography can be found in the manuscripts of the Vatican Library Vat. lat. 5409. This work, which has never been published, contains precious drawings of catacomb paintings commissioned by the Dominican to several artists and referable to the pictorial apparatuses of the cemetery of via Anapo and the catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and the complexes of the via Appia.
From an artistic point of view, the watercolour copies of the paintings commissioned by Chacón do not reflect the original style of the paintings, as they are totally executed in a strongly Baroque style. Even the scenes are sometimes misrepresented. In spite of these objective limitations, Chacón’s drawings remain a fundamental archaeological testimony (also for their descriptions and captions), as well as an absolutely enjoyable artistic work.
The Vat. lat 5409 manuscript is fully available in digital format on the Vatican Library website, on this page, which we highlight because of the usefulness of having such sources available digitally worldwide.