Object in Focus: Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris Sculpturae vestigia . . ., Rome, Giovanni Giacomo e Domenico de’ Rossi, 1693

Essay by Adriano Aymonino

Among all antiquarian publications ever produced in the early modern period, the Admiranda vestigia holds a place of excellence within the intellectual and visual culture of the eighteenth century (fig. 1).1 A collection of eighty-two etchings representing a selection of ancient Roman reliefs, sarcophagi and paintings, Bellori and Bartoli’s publication became the standard reference for narrative images from the antique for artists and erudite members of the Republic of Letters all over Europe. If Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia – published for the first time in 1593 and then reprinted and translated innumerable times – provides the ultimate guide to interpreting the iconography of Baroque art and decoration, the Admiranda vestigia is the privileged key to understanding the figurative references of neo-classical interiors from St Petersburg to Lisbon and from Scotland to Sicily. Plaster and marble reliefs, grisaille paintings and decorative ceiling panels that refer back to ancient Rome often re-propose compositions lifted from the plates from this and other Bellori and Bartoli publications. And these interiors often contain within their walls the Admiranda vestigia, a publication omnipresent in eighteenth-century libraries of urban palaces and country houses, including West Wycombe.

Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia

Figure 1.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia, Rome 1693, title page plate 1, Getty Research Institute.

Digital image courtesy of Internet Archive. (Public domain)

Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613–1696) was the most prominent art historian and antiquarian of the seventeenth century.2 With his Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1672), which provided detailed accounts of the lives of artists such as Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio, Rubens, Van Dyck and Poussin, he defined himself as the Vasari of his age.3 From the first undated edition of the Admiranda vestigia (1666) he embarked on a collaborative relationship with the engraver Pietro Santi Bartoli (1635–1700), with whom he produced numerous publications illustrating the best remains of classical sculpture and paintings, as well as the works of Raphael and Carracci, the only modern artists deemed to have reached the same level as the ancient masters.

An academician and ultimate proponent of the classical ideal, which he codified in his seminal speech, the Idea, Bellori’s ideological and aesthetical project was to reform contemporary art on the model of the antique.4 In this sense, publications like the Admiranda vestigia were intended both to spread the study of the remains of classical art among antiquarian circles and at the same time provide idealised models of proportions, anatomy, expression and composition to artists in workshops and academies. Directly and indirectly, echoes of his theoretical and editorial effort were to be felt throughout the eighteenth century, constituting one of the main bases of classicism in the visual arts.

The first undated edition of the Admiranda vestigia (1666), a series of eighty-one etchings published in horizontal folio format, offered a selection of reliefs from the major Roman collections such as the Vatican, Medici, Borghese, Pamphili and Barberini, including also twenty-nine plates reproducing imperial reliefs from Roman triumphal arches. The second 1693 edition presented the same editorial format. It excluded the etchings of triumphal arches but increased the overall series by one plate, inserting various new reliefs from private collections as well as two ancient paintings (fig. 1).5 Both editions reproduced in reverse – and faithful to the direction of the original reliefs – many of the plates from François Perrier’s Icones et segmenta illustrium e’ marmore tabularum quae Romae adhuc extant . . . (1645), a previous seminal publication on reliefs to which Bellori had contributed with his iconographical interpretations. His interpretations, augmented and refined in the Admiranda vestigia, were based on the established antiquarian methodology of cross-examining ancient literary sources against coins, gems and other remains of classical art. They mostly remain reliable to this day.

Bellori’s combination of clearly legible plates – where the missing parts of the original reliefs had been integrated to create consistent compositions – and authoritative interpretation of their subjects, guaranteed the immense success of the Admiranda vestigia, especially of its second 1693 edition, by far the most widely diffused. The publication’s process of canonisation can be followed by looking at its wide reception in different fields of knowledge.6 Firstly, it was explicitly referred to by many of the guidebooks and travel diaries produced by the culture of the Grand Tour, when describing the best reliefs visible in Rome, from Jonathan Richardson’s Account of Some of the Statues, Bas-reliefs, Drawings and Pictures in Italy (1722) to Lalande’s Voyage en Italie (1769, 1786). Furthermore, it was used as a reference by scholars who wished to assemble their collection of drawings or prepare illustrated publications after the antique, such as Bernard de Montfaucon, Richard Topham or Johann Joachim Winckelmann. It was also omnipresent in libraries all over Europe – from academic libraries, such as that of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, to royal and aristocratic libraries, to those of architects and artists, such as the Scottish Robert Adam or the Swedish Nicodemus Tessin the Younger. Finally, it became the obvious visual source for artists, decorators and architects whenever they wanted to quote narrative images from the antique.7 The first half of the eighteenth century saw its early sporadic application in Britain and Italy, emerging as a pan-European artistic practice in the period of neo-classicism between 1750 and 1830. Replicas of the plates, alongside those of a few other antiquarian publications, spread in different countries in all media, forming a canonical visual language parallel to that offered by ancient statuary, as can be seen for example in the subject of Perseus and Andromeda (figs. 2 and 3). A champion of the publication’s use was Robert Adam, who employed it for many figurative details of his interiors, such as at Syon House, Kedleston Hall or Kenwood House, both from a formal and an iconographic point of view.

Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia

Figure 2.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia, Rome 1693, plate 34, reproducing the Perseus and Andromeda, a relief then in the Pamhilii collection in Rome and today in the Capitoline Museums, Rome. Getty Research Institute.

Digital image courtesy of Internet Archive. (Public domain)

Perseus and Andromeda

Figure 3.
Giacomo Zoffoli, Perseus and Andromeda, 1766. Bronze, 24 × 17.8 cm. Kulturstiftung Dessau Wörlitz (II-1062).

Digital image courtesy of KsDW, Bildarchiv, Heinz Fräßdorf, Inv.Nr.KsDW, II-1062. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

It is not surprising, therefore, to find a copy of the Admiranda vestigia in Sir Francis Dashwood’s library at West Wycombe. Consistent with Dashwood’s experimental attitude to design, the book was used as a source for interior decoration, making the house an early example of its visual application in Britain. Plates illustrating the Borghese Dancers and the Aldobrandini Wedding were chosen to provide the State Bedchamber with a nuptial decorative frieze (figs. 4 and 5),8 a telling example of how the publication could be used as an accessible source of antique forms and meanings. The cover of the West Wycombe copy is still stained with colours used by the painter: he must have kept it conveniently in front of him when executing the frieze.

Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia

Figure 4.
Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia, Rome 1693, Rome, 1693, plate 63, reproducing the Borghese Dancers, a relief then in the Borghese collection in Rome and today in the Louvre, Paris. Getty Research Institute.

Digital image courtesy of Internet Archive. (Public domain)

The Borghese Dancers

Figure 5.
William Hannan or Giovanni Borgnis, The Borghese Dancers, Frieze in the state bedchamber, West Wycombe Park, circa 1750s. West Wycombe Park.

Digital image courtesy of West Wycombe Park. (All rights reserved)

Still quoted and referenced by artists, antiquarians and archaeologists in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Admiranda vestigia started to lose its appeal only in the age of Romanticism and historicism, when different aesthetics progressively eroded the classical ideal and its references.


  • Adriano Aymonino_crop

    Adriano Aymonino is Director of Undergraduate Programmes in the Department of History of Art at the University of Buckingham and Programme Director for the MA in the Art Market and the History of Collecting. He has curated several exhibitions, such as Drawn from the Antique: Artists and the Classical Ideal, held at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London in 2015. His book Enlightened Eclecticism was published by Yale University Press in June 2021. He is currently working on a revised edition of Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny’s Taste and the Antique (2022); and on a critical edition of Robert Adam's Grand Tour correspondence, which will be hosted on the Sir John Soane’s Museum website (2023). He is also co-editor of the series Paper Worlds published by MIT Press and associate editor of the Journal of the History of Collections.


  1. On the Admiranda Vestigia see Jean-Gérald Castex, ‘Modèles et copies des bas-reliefs romains au XVIIe siècle: l’exemple de Perrier et de Bartoli’, Nouvelles de l’estampe, vol. 179–80, 2001–2, pp. 62–71; Sonia Maffei, ‘Bellori e il problema della pittura antica’, in Leonarda di Cosmo and Lorenzo Fatticcioni, eds, Le componenti del classicismo secentesco: lo statuto della scultura antica, Rome: Ginevra Bentivoglio Editoria, 2013, pp. 75–99; Sonia Maffei, ‘Il lessico del classico: arte antica e nuovi modelli in Bellori’, in Elisabeth Oy-Marra, Marieke von Bernstorff and Henry Keazor, eds, Begrifflichkeit, Konzepte, Definitionen: Schreiben über Kunst und ihre Medien in Giovan Pietro Belloris “Viten” und der Kunstliteratur der Frühen Neuzeit, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014, pp. 139–71, esp. pp. 139–48; Mirco Modolo, Illustrare l’historia Romana: Caratteri e finalità della ricerca antiquaria nelle opere di Bellori e Bartoli, Turin: Fondazione 1563, 2018, pp. 7–13, 20–23. A digitised version of the Admiranda Romanarum is at https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/bartoli1693 (accessed 14 September 2020).

  2. Evelina Borea and Carlo Gasparri, eds, L’idea del bello: viaggio per Roma nel Seicento con Giovan Pietro Bellori, catalogue of the exhibition held at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 2 vols, Rome, 2000; Janis Callen Bell and Thomas Willette, eds, Art History in the Age of Bellori: Scholarship and Cultural Politics in Seventeenth-Century Rome, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

  3. Giovan Pietro Bellori, The Lives of the Modern Painters, Sculptors, and Architects: A New Translation and Critical Edition, trans. Alice Sedgwick Wohl, intro. Tomaso Montanari, ed. Hellmut Wohl, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

  4. Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, 2nd corrected ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1975; Olivier Bonfait, ed., L’Idéal classique: les échanges artistiques entre Rome et Paris au temps de Bellori (1640–1700), Paris: Somogy, 2002.

  5. The plates representing reliefs from triumphal arches were published independently by Bellori and Bartoli in Rome in 1690, Veteres arcus Augustorum triumphis insignes . . . The plates in the second edition of the Admiranda vestigia (1693) are numbered 1–84 as the numeration includes the title page and the dedicatory plate.

  6. On what follows see Adriano Aymonino, ‘The Visual Components of Eighteenth-Century Classicism: Bellori and Bartoli’s Publications and their Reception’, forthcoming.

  7. See Adriano Aymonino, ‘The Fortune of the Borghese Dancers in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century European Art and Decoration’, in Giovanna Capitelli, Stefano Grandesso and Carla Mazzarelli, eds, Roma fuori di Roma: l’esportazione dell’arte moderna da Pio VI all’unità (1775–1870), Rome: Campisano, 2013, pp. 477–92; Adriano Aymonino, Enlightened Eclecticism: the Patronage and Collections of the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021, Syon House chapter.

  8. See in this case study Adriano Aymonino, ‘Playing with the Canon: West Wycombe Park’s Iconography and the Principle of Citation’.



by Adriano Aymonino
20 November 2020
House Essay
CC BY-NC International 4.0
Cite as
Adriano Aymonino, "Object in Focus: Giovanni Pietro Bellori and Pietro Santi Bartoli, Admiranda Romanarum Antiquitatum ac veteris Sculpturae vestigia . . ., Rome, Giovanni Giacomo e Domenico de’ Rossi, 1693", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/WWE520