The Quest for an Appropriate Past. Literature, Architecture, Art and the Creation of National Identities in Early Modern Europe (c.1400–1700)

 A research networking program financed by the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (Royal Netherlands Academy of Art and Sciences), 2014–2016


Aim of the project

 Thinking about the creation of ‘national literature’ and ‘national styles’ in art and architecture, most people will refer to the 19th century: the period of the rise of national states and the attempt to codify specific geographically and nationally defined identities in art, architecture and literature, based on models from a glorious past. Nevertheless, five hundred years before this era, humanist scholars, artists, monarchs and other political leaders all over Europe had already charged themselves with a comparable task. In late medieval and early modern Europe, c.1400–1700, authority was formally based on lineage, and in all countries political ambitions and geographical claims were supported by true or false historical reasons. Literature, architecture and paintings were also used to express these ideas of national or local history and that history’s oldest roots in the distant past.

            Thus far, the strong and conscious interest in national and local history as expressed during this period in the arts has not yet been studied systematically in an interdisciplinary way. In art history most attention is still paid to the reception of the ‘international’ canon of Greek and Roman antiquities – like the well-known ruins in Rome and its surroundings – and of ‘classical’ Greek sculpture. And until rather recently, research on Neo-Latin literature was focussed on the reception of the classical Greek and Roman authors, whereas historical works on the ‘medieval’ or local past were neglected. The local or medieval past, however, played a pivotal role. In current mainstream interpretations of ‘Renaissance’ art as a ‘Rebirth of Antiquity’, antiquity has misleadingly acquired a standard definition based on the international canon. In this perspective, there seems to be only one ideal Antiquity and only one proper embodiment of Antiquity Reborn: the reception of Rome’s antiquities in 15th- and 16th-century Florence and Rome. Thus, the bias toward a ‘proper’ antiquity has created the idea of a ‘proper’ Renaissance. Consequently, most Antiquity-inspired architecture, art and literature in Northern Europe – as well as in Spain, France and the Italian periphery from Lombardy to Sicily – have been analysed and interpreted with Central Italian solutions as a single point of reference, and have not infrequently been seen as ‘provincial’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘still a little bit medieval’. As a result, the specific meaning of conscious references to local history also remained obscure. Instead of addressing incorrect or vernacular transformations of the Roman ideal, however, the research project will try to find a more positive explanation for those examples of the Antique that do not resemble the ‘standard’. Therefore, we must ask by what means – i.e. through which other models or interpretations of antiquities – artists and patrons created their reconstruction of Antiquity.

In the past few decades the concept of the Rome-centred Renaissance has been seriously challenged. Recent scholarship has stressed the important role assumed by non-Central Italian antiquities – such as those of Ancient Gaul and in the Low Countries – and by certain texts of antiquity that deal with the local past – such as Tacitus’ Germania – in the genesis of ‘Antique’ architecture that was not inspired by Central Italy. Moreover, the definition of the ‘Antique’ has turned out to be far more elastic: in fact, it encompasses more than ‘Rome’. This is true, for instance, of 15th-century Venetian architecture, where Byzantine antiquities were used as a primary source for the revival of all’antica design.

The current research networking program wants to unite scholars from different disciplines in order to map out the various strategies used in the period c.1400–1700 to construct an appropriate past in art, architecture and literature, and to examine how this past was used in the creation of ‘national’ or local identities in Europe. The historical eras used in such constructions could be rather diverse. Sometimes passages or episodes from classical historical writings were quoted and integrated into early modern national or local history, such as the tales of the Trojans who had left their destroyed city to become the founders of various peoples, cities or noble families all over Europe. In the construction of national histories, local tribes mentioned in classical texts sometimes played a central role as true and antique ancestors, like the Batavians in the northern Low Countries, the Goths in Sweden, or the Sarmatians in Poland. Historical myths and claims from Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages (c.400–1100) also were used in these constructions of local history, with references, for example, to knighthood, chivalry, and the crusades. Sources were not only classical writers but also medieval chronicles (in both Latin and the vernacular languages), minstrels’ lyrics, (true and false) inscriptions and archaeological findings, and, above all, ruins and other architectural remains that the early modern intellectuals interpreted in a creative way. The project will focus on the strategies of the use of these sources for the construction of new local or ‘national’ identities.

The research project shall concentrate on the recuperation and use of both the ‘distant past’ of antiquity in all of its manifestations, and the ‘nearer past’ (‘medieval’). Humanist historiography, epics, political writings, and geographical and ethnographical treatises will constitute the central corpus of texts belonging to Neo-Latin literature. These texts are important for the visual arts and architecture as sources of inspiration. With few exceptions, humanist writings belonging to the above-mentioned categories have not yet been studied systematically. The same is largely true for most local architectonic remains that in the early modern period were ascribed to ‘Antiquity’, and for smaller archaeological objects, such as cameos or coins.


The project’s activities

 As the project deals with a European phenomenon that is very complex and takes into account very diverse groups of sources, it requires a systematic and multidisciplinary approach. In this project international scholars from various backgrounds – including specialists on French, German, and Neo-Latin and medieval Latin literature, and art historians specialising in early modern architecture – have to join forces. The research network will meet for four workshops, each dedicated to one specific subtheme of the project. At the end of the workshop series, in September 2016, an international conference will be organised to present the results to an international audience. In July 2016 an international summer school will be organised at Utrecht University in order to introduce the subject to the next generation of scholars.


Four workshops

 The four workshops will be multidisciplinary. Scholars from various disciplines and with specialisations in various European regions will discuss a certain subtheme of the project from various points of view. These meetings will be held at various locations in Europe, preferably where the collections or buildings are that are related to the subject of the meeting. Part of the workshop will be held in a conference room, with paper presentations and discussions; part will be in situ, where participants will visit and discuss specific collections and/or buildings that may serve as case studies of the topic at hand. Local colleagues and students also should be invited to attend the workshops. Ideally, an evening lecture for the general audience will be organised.

The workshops are intended to be stepping stones towards the final conference and publication. Nevertheless, depending on the outcome of a workshop, some workshop papers may be collected and published in a journal.

These workshops have to be organised by members of the project team, with logistic support from the project secretary, and they will be financed by the project budget (including participants’ travel expenses).


workshop 1: 27-30 November 2014. Location: Naples and its surroundings. Organisation: Bianca de Divitiis, Karl Enenkel, Konrad Ottenheym

*1. The contribution of new humanist philology, text critics and commentaries to various local interpretations of classical texts (like Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, the Bible), their influence on art and architecture, and their use in the construction of local histories 1400–1700.


2015 Spring: workshop 2 (date and location to be decided).

*2. The interpretation of local/regional antiquities (like the Roman remains in Trier or southern France) and local prehistoric monuments as ‘antique’ ruins (like Stonehenge or other megalithic structures) and its contribution to the construction of local history and identity 1400–1700.


2015 Autumn: workshop 3 (date and location to be decided).

*3. ‘Early modern Middle Ages’: references to the heroic chivalric past (King Arthur, Charlemagne, the Crusades, etc.) in early modern historiography and epics, and the use of ‘archaic’ military castle elements in noble and princely residences.


2016 Spring: workshop 4 (date and location to be decided).

*4. Error, falsifications and forgery: the importance of false dates, erroneous attributions and forgery in literature, art and architecture, and their role in the construction of early modern national identities 1400–1700.


Summer School

 * June/July 2016: an international summer school for PhD students and research master’s students in literature history, art history, architectural history and cultural history, to be organised by the Dutch Post-graduate School for Art History (Onderzoekschool Kunstgeschiedenis).


Final conference and publication

 * 28-30 September 2016: The project concludes with a conference in order to present the outcome of the workshops to an international scholarly audience. Along with contributions by members of the project team, work by external participants will be selected after an open call for papers.

Venue location: Amsterdam, the Trippenhuis (seat of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). The outcome of the conference will be published in a book which will also contain the final results of the project as such.



Project organisation

 Konrad A. Ottenheym

Professor for Architectural History

Dept. History and art History

Utrecht University

The Netherlands


Karl A.E. Enenkel

Chair of Mediaeval and Neo-Latin

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster



project secretary

 Martijn van Beek MA

Utrecht University

Dept. History and Art History

Drift 6

3512 BS Utrecht