Renaissance Forgeries

Collecting classical artifacts became all the rage during the Renaissance. Wealthy merchants and princes scrambled to build magnificent collections of Greek and Roman statues and sculptures. Scholars pored over ancient manuscripts that had been lost to Europeans for centuries.

Much of this activity represented genuine excitement at the rediscovery of lost knowledge and art. But some of the activity was driven by the fact that the acquisition of classical artifacts had simply become the new fad, the new way of displaying power and status. Instead of collecting the bones and body parts of saints, towns and wealthy rulers now collected fragments of the ancient world. And just as with the relic trade, demand far outstripped supply. Therefore, the forgers once again stepped in to fill the gap.

But this time there was a difference. It was not very important if the relic sitting in the local church actually was or was not the thigh-bone of St. Peter, as long as people believed that it was performing miracles. By contrast, it did make a difference if a classical artifact was an ancient original or a modern copy (though good copies were valued in their own right).

The flood of classical fakes placed scholars on their guard. It put them under pressure to improve their critical skills in order to be able to separate the authentic from the inauthentic. In this sense, forgery paradoxically played a prominent role in promoting scholarly inquiry (and it continues to play this role up to the present day).

Curiously, the greatest scholars and artists often simultaneously turned out to be the most notorious forgers. During the fifteenth century a high church official named Giovanni Nanni (a.k.a. Annius) produced elaborate ancient texts and inscriptions showing that his native town of Viterbo had been an important center of culture during the Etruscan period. All of his texts were soon proven to be fakes. But at the same time Annius articulated much of the methodology that lay the groundwork for the development of more rigorous historical scholarship. So he is remembered as a father of critical tradition, as well as a subverter of it.

More examples of Renaissance forgery appear below.


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