Historic preservation in Renaissance Italy
As the expansion and improvement of modern cities such as Rome led to mass destruction of antiquities, humanists and artists began to express their dismay at the loss of beautiful and significant works of art. In the following excerpt from a letter to his mentor, written in about 1418, Cencio da Rustici rails against his compatriots’ insensitivity to the value of ancient artifacts.
Every day you see citizens (if indeed a man should be called a citizen who is so degraded by abominable deeds) demolishing the Amphitheater or the Hippodrome or the Colosseum or statues or walls made with marvelous skill and marvelous stone and showing that old and almost divine power and dignity. Truly I would prefer and would pay more for a small marble figure by Phidias or Praxiteles than for a living and breathing image of the man who turns the statues of those glorious men into dust or gravel. But if anyone asks these men why they are led to destroy marble statues, they answer that they abominate the images of false gods. Oh voice of savages, who flee from one error to another! For it is not contrary to our religion if we contemplate a statue of Venus or of Hercules made with the greatest of skill and admire the almost divine art of the ancient sculptors. But mistakes of this kind are to be blamed not only on those we have just mentioned but on the former governors of the city and on the popes, who have continually consented to this destructive behavior which lowers the dignity of mankind.
Translation in Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 34.