Although the German Johann Joachim Winckelmann is generally considered the father of modern archaeology, it’s important to note that this science didn’t suddenly appear in the 18th century but had roots hundreds of years earlier, particularly in the Italian Renaissance, which revived Greco-Roman artistic and cultural classicism. Consequently, one might call one of those multidisciplinary humanists the “grandfather” of archaeology. This individual, who is also regarded as the founder of epigraphy by Theodor Mommsen and to whom we owe the identification of the Pyramids of Giza and the Parthenon, is Cyriacus of Ancona.

Cyriacus Pizzecolli, his real name, was born on July 31, 1391, in Ancona, a municipality in the Adriatic region of Marche, which had been part of the Italian Pentapolis (a Byzantine duchy) but became an independent republic, avoiding becoming a lordship—except for four decades under the Malatesta family—until Pope Clement VII annexed it to the Papal States in 1532. But before that, Ancona experienced a period of splendor coinciding with the presence of its most illustrious son.

Like other medieval Italian republics, commerce made Ancona prosper, and Cyriacus’s family, consisting of his parents, the wealthy merchants Filippo Pizzecolli and Masiella Selvatici, along with his two siblings, Cincio and Nicolosa, were involved in trade. However, fate dealt them a severe blow when young Cyriacus was only six years old. First, his father died, and then the business went bankrupt due to three shipwrecks of their fleet and two pirate raids that plundered their warehouses.

Land and sea trade routes of the Republic of Ancona together with its consulates and warehouses abroad.
Land and sea trade routes of the Republic of Ancona together with its consulates and warehouses abroad. Credit: Gepgep / Wikimedia Commons

Masiella, now impoverished, had to find a humble job to support her children and provide them with an education. At the age of nine, Cyriacus was entrusted to his maternal grandfather, a navigator who took him on his voyages to teach him the trade of commerce. This experience allowed him to discover other Italian cities, and as he himself admitted, it awakened his desire to see the world. Consequently, at the age of twenty-one, he embarked on his first solo journey as a scribe on a ship that took him to Alexandria.

In the Egyptian city, there was a colony from Ancona, but what truly dazzled Cyriacus were the monumental Pharaonic and Roman ruins he found in his subsequent Mediterranean destinations, which prompted him to settle down a bit and return to his studies. He studied at the school of Tommaso Seneca da Camerino, a humanist who taught him Latin using Virgil’s texts and made him an expert on Dante Alighieri. This period of theoretical training lasted a couple of years.

In 1417, he completed his education and embarked on a more practical journey, making a second trip around the Mediterranean: Dalmatia, Sicily, Venice… and Constantinople, where he learned ancient Greek and began collecting classical texts. In 1421, he returned to Ancona, where he was appointed “seviro” (one of the six members of the Council of Elders, the city’s government). As such, he was tasked with restoring the Arch of Trajan there, giving him the opportunity to climb the scaffolding surrounding the structure and closely examine the inscriptions at the top.

Trajan's Arch in Ancona, in a painting by Domenichino
Trajan’s Arch in Ancona, in a painting by Domenichino. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Tradition says that the emotion he felt at that moment made him realize that his life would revolve around the study of antiquity. He was tireless in this pursuit, as his friend, the poet Francesco Filelfo, remarked. Through reading and analyzing the books he acquired, he gained vast self-taught knowledge. However, this didn’t deter him from discovering new places in person, which he had previously only known through books.

From 1423 onward, he traveled across both mainland and insular Greece, following the works of Strabo, Herodotus, and Pausanias before moving on to Thrace, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, always focusing on documenting Greek and Roman ruins both literarily and artistically. He even started corresponding with other humanists (the aforementioned Filelfo, Leandro Alberti, Leonardo Bruni…) and renowned artists (Donatello, Bellini), while showing a special interest in Roman epigraphic inscriptions, especially after studying those in Pula (in present-day Croatia) and the arches of Augustus in Fano and Rimini.

All this is so admirably done that I would say this art is almost divine, more than human. All this seems to have been produced not by human hands but by nature itself.

Cyriacus of Ancona

In 1427, he accepted an offer from the Venetian Contarini family to manage their commercial businesses in Cyprus to meet the famous Prince John of Lusignan, with whom he became friends. Thanks to this friendship, he found a manuscript of the Iliad in the library of an Orthodox monastery where they stayed after a day of hunting. On the island, he acquired other classical manuscripts: one of the Odyssey and several tragedies by Euripides.

Fresco portrait of Cyriacus of Ancona by Benozzo Gozzoli
Fresco portrait of Cyriacus of Ancona by Benozzo Gozzoli. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In 1429, he moved to Adrianople, where he acquired more books and deepened his study of Greek. However, the most unforgettable episode of that stay was buying an Epirot slave named Chaonia, whom he freed, baptized as Clara (though he referred to her as “kore”, meaning girl), and made his partner for life. These happy moments were marred in 1431 when he visited Thessalonica, which had just been conquered by the Ottomans, who enslaved most of the population; a sad spectacle that impressed him so much that he wrote about it several times.

Between 1431 and 1436, he visited Delphi—where he located the remains of the sanctuary—Butrint, Apollonia, Nicopolis, Eretria—where he sketched a map of its main ruins—Epirus, Chios, Rhodes, Crete, Delos, the Cyclades, Beirut, Damascus, Mytilene…

He was also the first to draw the Column of Justinian erected in Constantinople before the Turks demolished it. All this earned him immense cultural knowledge and fundamental importance for future archaeology, hence he is often referred to as the father of this science before the aforementioned Winckelmann.

The giraffe painted by Ciriaco (left) and the version left by Bosch in The Garden of Earthly Delights (right)
The giraffe painted by Ciriaco (left) and the version left by Bosch in The Garden of Earthly Delights (right). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

During these travels, after a dream, he placed himself under the self-declared protection of Mercury, the god of eloquence, communication, and travel. This could have caused him problems, not so much due to ridicule but because of accusations of embracing paganism. However, it never became serious because, in reality, he was merely imitating what Dante had done in the Divine Comedy. Thus, in 1424, he was received without hindrance by Gabriele Condulmer, the future Pope Eugene IV, who had been a papal legate in Ancona and invited him to explore the ruins of Rome.

Seven years later, he returned to the Eternal City, where Condulmer was now seated on St. Peter’s throne and was preparing to crown Emperor Sigismund. Cyriacus guided him through the ancient corners of the city and requested his intervention in a Constantinople threatened by the Ottomans.

It was in Rome that he lamented the plundering of marble from ancient monuments for modern construction, where he first noted a work he saw in Cardinal Prospero Colonna’s palace, the now-famous Torso Belvedere, and where he interpreted Hadrian’s Villa in writing.

The Parthenon drawn by an anonymous artist (above) and Sangallo (below) based on earlier sketches by Cyriacus
The Parthenon drawn by an anonymous artist (above) and Sangallo (below) based on earlier sketches by Cyriacus. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In 1435, he again turned to Egypt. Authorized by the Ottoman sultan of Cairo, he traveled up the Nile, accurately described the Pyramids of Giza (which until then were thought in Europe to be the granaries of the biblical Joseph), and drew little-known animals like the giraffe—giving it its current name, “zoraphas”, taken from Arabic instead of the Greek “kamēlopárdalis”—and the elephant (sketches that, incidentally, served as models for Hieronymus Bosch, just as others inspired Sangallo, Mantegna, and many more since they were the only available source).

Cyriacus planned to reach Thebes and find the sanctuary of Amun visited by Alexander the Great, but in 1436, he chose to head to Athens. Naturally, he was fascinated by the Acropolis, which he called by that name instead of the previously used terms (“rock”, “palace of the dukes of Athens”) and correctly identified the Parthenon, which he had read about and which was taken in Europe to be a church dedicated to St. Mary. He was also the first European to draw the statue of Athena Parthenos. This significantly expanded the documentation on Greece he had collected during that decade-long earlier trip, locating the site of the sanctuary of Delphi.

…the wonderful temple of the goddess Athena, a divine work of Phidias, with 58 sublime columns of such magnitude that they measure seven palms in diameter. It is adorned everywhere with the noblest sculptures that the marvelous skill of a sculptor could ever represent, both in pediments, walls, cornices, friezes, and epistyles.

Cyriacus of Ancona

This scholarly work did not prevent him from fulfilling his political duties. In 1438, he was appointed magistrate of the Republic of Ancona and participated in the Council of Florence, which sought to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. His stay allowed him to meet the Medici family and Brunelleschi, but he also reportedly worked to encourage intervention against the Ottoman Empire, which openly threatened the Byzantine Empire. In this context, in 1440, he went to Ragusa to sign an alliance, which brought him a new cultural opportunity.

The Onofrio Fountain with the epigraphic inscription by Cyriacus
The Onofrio Fountain with the epigraphic inscription by Cyriacus. Credit: Dennis Jarvis / Wikimedia Commons

And it is his renowned mastery of Roman epigraphy that led the authorities of that republic to commission two inscriptions from him, one for the façade of the Palazzo dei Rettori and another for the Onofrio Fountain; indeed, Cyriacus did so using the epigraphic style of Ancient Rome. The following year, he wrote in a very different manner: in his own handwriting and combining Latin with his language, to compose a poem on a subject as unusual as Parian marble, used by sculptors like Polyclitus, Phidias, and Lysippus.

White Paros
glory of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea,
honor of artists, heroes, and gods,
you make the world shine.

Cyriacus of Ancona

He later returned to writing, with a six-volume work titled Commentarii, the original of which was unfortunately lost in a 1514 fire that destroyed the Sforza library in Pesaro, although it is preserved thanks to copies. A similar fate befell a collection of documentary manuscripts about Ancona, burned in the fire that hit the city’s archive in 1532. The few surviving texts were printed in various cities in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Sermon of Saint Mark by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. The architecture and animals are based on drawings by Cyriacus
The Sermon of Saint Mark by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. The architecture and animals are based on drawings by Cyriacus. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

In 1447, he again felt the call of Antiquity and headed to Mystras, in the Peloponnese, with the aim of searching for the ruins of Sparta. It was then that, as part of an embassy from the King of Hungary, he personally met Sultan Murad II and the future last emperor of the East, Constantine XI Palaiologos. He also met George Gemistos, alias Plethon, a Byzantine humanist who introduced him to Neoplatonic philosophy and allowed him to copy a volume of Strabo’s Geography that he had in his private collection.

Before returning in 1448, he described the Hagia Sophia and visited the monasteries of Mount Athos. In 1449, he arrived in Ferrara and requested permission from Venice to sail west with the idea of going to Spain, something he could not achieve. In fact, he did not even see the fall of Constantinople in 1453, despite the testimony of Jacopo de Languschi, who claimed that he visited Sultan Mehmed II to try to read him the classics and raise his awareness of Greek cultural heritage; this seems to be a simple 19th-century transcription error.

It is believed, then, that Cyriacus died earlier, perhaps in 1452 due to the plague that ravaged Cremona, where he had retired. The epitaph on his tomb, written by himself, says:

H. N. H. N. S.

(Cyriacus Pizzecolli, of Masiella, daughter of Cyriacus Selvatici, modest woman, son of Filippo, most pious father, both for himself and his freedwoman Clara Kore)

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 27, 2024: Ciriaco de Ancona, el humanista italiano considerado padre de la arqueología que identificó las Pirámides y el Partenón

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