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Getting Attached to the Past

Sunday, September 6, 2009

TO WAKE THE DEAD

A Renaissance Merchant and the Birth of Archaeology

By Marina Belozerskaya

Norton. 308 pp. $26.95

Most medieval Europeans cared not a whit for the vestiges of antiquity. Back then, a stone arch was just a stone arch, regardless of its provenance, and in cities like Siena and Rome thousands of valuable statues were left to fade and fracture under the sun. The policy of indifference extended even to the most majestic old buildings, many of which were incorporated into new churches and fortresses. After all, as Marina Belozerskaya writes in her fine history "To Wake the Dead," it was easier to add on to an existing structure than to build one from the ground up.

Belozerskaya's hero is Cyriacus of Ancona, an Italian merchant, spy, writer and diplomat who, in the 15th century, began to travel through the Mediterranean and the Middle East in search of "distant civilizations and the ghosts of their denizens." His successes were many: He catalogued sites in Damascus, Eretria, Thessalonica and Beirut, and he worked tirelessly with local leaders to help preserve historical treasures that might have otherwise been destroyed. He pushed for more thorough examinations of primary sources and left behind sheaves of studies from far-flung corners of the globe. Less happily, Cyriacus also lobbied for a crusade against the Turks, which he hoped would help wrest important pieces of antiquity from foreign hands. But in his eagerness he overlooked the explosive political realities of the age, and many relics were lost in the resulting war. To Belozerskaya, Cyriacus was a tragic figure: a founder of modern archaeology and a man whose passion for the past "was both his strength and weakness."

-- Matthew Shaer

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