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Temporalis Aeternitas: early modern Prints, Time and Memory

‘Nec sepulcra legens vereor ne perdam memoriam.’ So reads the inscription added to Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s etching Temporalis Aeternitas, dated 1645. The Latin phrase, engraved on the plate probably under the initiative of its publisher, Giovanni Domenico De Rossi, is clearly addressed to the beholder. This learned quote, traceable to a classical source, actively engages with the imagery of Castiglione’s inventive composition while also inviting further speculation on the themes evoked; namely, the uncertainty about the nature of time and man’s relationship to time, eternity and memory.
In the print, four men and a young boy are shown in a ruined cemetery, gathered by a tomb inscribed TEMPORALIS AETERNITAS 1645. The scene, taking place in a nocturnal setting, is pervaded by a solemn mood. Both its iconography and its visual qualities imbue Temporalis Aeternitas with a sense of mystery. The Genoese artist’s penchant for technical virtuosity is combined with strategies aimed at captivating the beholder. Consequently, the viewer’s experience of looking at the print seems to parallel the very act of deciphering the carved inscription, being performed by the protagonists of the scene.
Departing from previous interpretations, which have focused on the issues of transience and time’s destructive power, I will argue that the work’s core theme is that of memory – connected to man’s place within the course of time – specifically within the framework of Counter Reformation Italy. Castiglione’s invention can be convincingly connected to the erudite interest generated by Antonio Bosio’s survey of the early Christian catacombs, Roma Sotterranea, as well as to specific Jesuit texts. This lecture will thus offer an interdisciplinary investigation of Castiglione’s print, and of a closely connected body of work, and contribute to our understanding of early modern conceptions and experiences of time as reflected in artistic artifacts.
Relevant research areas: Western Europe, Baroque, Etching