REVIEW OF REVIEWS

Boni, Archaeological Wizard

Giacomo Boni, the World-Famous Venetian So Hailed by Noted English Journalist in Resume of His Picturesque Career.

WICKHAM STEED November 15 1925
REVIEW OF REVIEWS

Boni, Archaeological Wizard

Giacomo Boni, the World-Famous Venetian So Hailed by Noted English Journalist in Resume of His Picturesque Career.

WICKHAM STEED November 15 1925

Boni, Archaeological Wizard

Giacomo Boni, the World-Famous Venetian So Hailed by Noted English Journalist in Resume of His Picturesque Career.

WICKHAM STEED

THE world is indebted to Wickham Steed for a fascinating review of the life and works of Giacomo Boni, the great archaeologist, in the Review of Reviews. Mr. Steed, because he was intensely interested and was an intense admirer of Boni’s, writes in his most charming style, and gives a picture of a great genius who lived for an ideal, whose very life and the keenest activities of his brilliant mind were consecrated to artistic science—a man in whose presence Anatole France and George Bernard Shaw were forced to be profound. “Full justice can hardly be done him,” says Mr. Steed. “All yielded to his charm, to his merry laugh, and to the light in his clear blue eyes that seemed to reflect the infinite azure of the Italian heavens; yet to few did he reveal the secret sources of his inspiration.”

The following is the pen-picture, in part, which Mr. Steed produced of Boni: He came not from Rome but from Venice, where he was born auspiciously on the day of her patron, Saint Mark, April 25, in the year 1859. Thus his earliest childhood was spent under Austrian rule; and his boyhood was colored by the final triumph of the Risorgimento. Not until 1866 was Venice freed and her children gathered to the bosom of Italy. In 1870, when Boni was in his twelfth year the whole country was united by the occupation of Rome. The effect of those early days was in Boni throughout life. It fanned in him the patriotic fire with which his whole being glowed; and he, at any rate, will not have thought it unfitting that his span of highest endeavor should be closed by the effects of exposure when he went to adapt to Roman practice the clothing and footgear of the Italian soldiers who, in the winter of 1916, were holding the lines of Italy against Austria on icy Alpine heights of more than 12,000 feet. Under that strain he almost succumbed; and partial recovery left him a living relic of his former self. Those who knew him thereafter never knew Boni. He had made the greater part of the great sacrifice.

Born a citizen of Venice, he became a son of Rome. The traditions of the “Most Serene Republic,” whichhadbeenwrought into his fibre, helped him to withstand the dwarfing influence of the Eternal City upon those reared within her walls; but Rome bound him to herself with potent spell.

By training, Boni was an architect. Yet, from the first, he was attracted less by the technique of this profession than by the ideas which buildings had been intended to express. He sought in historical study the origin of those ideas, while his critical sense assessed the degree in which buildings expressed them. It was, so to speak, the personality, the character, of an edifice that appealed to him far more than its outward beauty. He was always seeking for the meaning of things, not merely out of intellectual curiosity but in order to test the adequacy of the forms in which meanings were conveyed. He strove ceaselessly after sincerity. In other words, he had in him the essential quality of a great artist. To gratify his passion for the real, which he held to be attainable only through the ideal, he studied unremittingly. His appetite for knowledge was insatiable; for he felt that ignorant good faith may mislead as woefully as wilful insincerity. Hence his instinctive love of the classics. He taught himself Latin and Greek, and afterwards English, French, and German, chiefly by candlelight before dawn—learning Latin, in particular, so thoroughly that his mind came to be steeped in it and his forms of thought to be governed by it to such a point that he found difficulty in writing simple Italian. Perhaps for this reason he often reverted, when in search of simple and direct expression, to his native Venetian dialect, or “language,” as he vivaciously insisted it should be called; and his most entertaining letters were those which he wrote to such friends as the late Marquis Carlotti who likewise spoke and wrote the tongue of the “Serenissima.” English he learned in order to read and translate Ruskin, whose friendship he won in 1882 when working on the restoration of the

Doge’s Palace in Venice. In William Morris, too, he found a kindred soul. Boni’s dissent from the insincere methods of restoration and preservation adopted by the Italian authorities in the ’eighties, led in 1888 to his departure from Venice to Rome.

He made his first discovery—the Niger Lapis, or “Black Stone,” reputed of old to mark the site of the tomb of Romulus. Keeping the discovery to himself, he covered the place with a layer of earth until he had reported confidentially to the minister that something had been found which would shed glory upon the administration. The minister rose to the bait, went to the Forum where, with much ceremony, the earth was shovelled away and the Black Stone exposed to view. A photograph of the triumphant minister, standing upon it, was taken and published. In vain did the orthodox gnash their teeth. They found the vanity of a minister stronger than their hatred of a “revolutionary” architect.

Thereafter Boni was irresistible. By dint of discoveries he triumphed over obstruction and, with the support of foreign friends, overcame even the niggardliness of the Italian administration. The fact that he had found the “Black Stone,” only eighteen inches below the surface of the Forum, confirmed his belief that, lower still, much more might be found. To the “Black Stone” he had been guided by an allusion in the work of an obscure Larin author. Having found it, he concluded that it would not have been placed as a memorial, to Romulus or another, on the bare earth, but that below it there might be other relics. Sinking a shaft by the side of it, he revealed the existence of thirteen different strata before reaching the original alluvial bottom of the Forum valley. In the uppermost of these strata, beneath the Black Stone, he came upon an ancient stela, or truncated cone, bearing the oldest Latin inscription then known. The discovery of this stela with the inscription led to a brief but sharp contest with the German Archaeological Institute which seemed to imagine that it had a prescriptive right to investigate and to set the seal of its approval upon all developments of Roman archaeological research before they could be accepted as authentic. Its head hastened to the Forum, intending to make a plaster cast of the stela before even a sketch of it could be sent officially to the Italian government. But Boni firmly sent him about his business, informing him that like other foreign archaeologists he would receive the Italian official reproduction as soon as it was ready. For some weeks Rome rung with the scandal of Boni’s impertinence; yet he stood his ground and the Germans were fain to retreat.

Then he discovered in quick succession the shrine before the temple of Julius Caesar, the cemented underground chambers that had served as granaries of the Roman Republic and, in them, large numbers of stili, or bone pencils, with which the Romans wrote upon their waxed tablets. Many tablets were also found. They, like the stili, had evidently been left in the granaries after being used to record the measures of corn stored there.

By this time, foreign residents and visitors to Rome had begun to gather round Boni and to take lively interest in his work. Sir William Harcourt spent many a day with him appreciating and encouraging his efforts. Richard Norton, of the American School of Archaeological Studies, Mr. Rushforth, the first director of the British School, and St. Clair Baddeley worked with him and helped to spread his fame. Sir (then Mr. Lionel) Phillips provided funds, at the suggestion of Mr. Baddeley, for the purchase of a group of hovels which stood above the site of the Basilica Aemilia, and enabled Boni to lay bare the remains of that great temple. Boni himself wrote articles for the Nineteenth Century which a secretary of the British Embassy translated; and Boni characteristically applied the fees received for the articles to the purchase of specimens of classical Roman flora, which he planted in the Forum area.