A view of the Septizonium by Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) captures why the artist’s drawings of Roman ruins count among the most evocative and enigmatic images ever made of the oft-depicted city. The drawing shows the three-story corner bay that remained of the once-much-larger building, constructed under Septimius Severus at the end of the Appian Way. By the time Van Heemskerck arrived in Rome from Haarlem in 1532, this fragment was all that was left of the structure, and in another half-century it too would be gone, demolished under Sixtus V to provide stone for new construction projects. Van Heemskerck included several observational details to suggest that his drawing recorded the exact state of the Septizonium on the day that he visited: weeds spring up from its cornices, stones crumble down from its sides. Yet Van Heemskerck also embedded a pointed act of invention among the drawing’s documentary particulars. On the frieze above the first bay, inscriptional capitals spell out MARTIN HEMSKERCK DE H—the artist’s signature appears as if part of the ruin itself.
In his new book, Maarten van Heemskerck’s Rome: Antiquity, Memory, and the Cult of Ruins, Arthur DiFuria argues that with this signature, Van Heemskerck designated himself as the building’s patron, taking authorial credit for the Septizonium. In a certain sense, one that Van Heemskerck may have anticipated, this form of self-aggrandizement proved prophetic: his drawings endure and the structure does not. Though other drawings and prints of the Septizonium survive, Van Heemskerck’s studies undergird contemporary understanding of its architecture. His drawings could be used again later, like the stones of the Septizonium itself.
DiFuria contends that by treating decay as a generative force, Van Heemskerck thought through ruins in a fundamentally original way. At the time he arrived in Rome, where he stayed about five years, there was plenty of decay to witness. The city was still reeling from the Sack of 1527, and the sudden demolition of the recent past could be seen alongside the slower effects of passing centuries. Van Heemskerck responded by studying the ruins around him as if they were living organisms: he had to extend his clear command of body knowledge into a new form of building knowledge. His acute understanding of the human figure is on full display in drawings of sculptures like the Belvedere Torso, in which he showed the fragment tilted backwards and foreshortened, a pose so extreme that the shape seems both completely foreign yet instantly recognizable. Van Heemskerck’s building knowledge depended on similar representational tactics. His drawings of Roman architecture are marked by incredible acuity and attention to detail, even as they transcend these qualities and occasionally approach the uncanny. In approaching buildings like bodies, Van Heemskerck recognized that buildings, too, can suffer and die.
Van Heemskerck visited the new Saint Peter’s at a particularly agonized moment, when work had stalled during the turmoil. Scholars have studied his drawings of the building like autopsy reports, in an effort to determine how far construction had progressed by this pivotal moment. The drawings provide useful evidence to pinpoint when certain elements were added, conclusions that can in turn support hypotheses about who designed what. Though Van Heemskerck’s studies are precise in their details, they are ambiguous in their message. Do they show a great hulk of building rising from the earth, or a never-to-be-finished folly already falling into ruin? Because of his drawings’ documentary qualities, it is tempting to rely on their accuracy: his exceptional building knowledge makes his work intrinsically useful to historians. His views of the Septizonium and Saint Peter’s, however, demonstrate the principal hazard of this approach. Van Heemskerck’s drawings were not surveys. When he drew capitals, he preferred to turn them upside-down, wedged into the dirt, rather than present them dutifully dimensioned. The same man who turned his signature into a frieze also deployed other tricks of purposeful inaccuracy, including scale distortion, extreme foreshortening, and dramatic juxtapositions based on impossible adjacencies. The irony is that these visual distortions are the very qualities that give his drawings their sense of spontaneity, which seduces viewers into using them as evidence: another word for purposeful inaccuracy is artistry.
DiFuria considers the types of creative generation at work in Van Heemskerck’s drawings of Roman antiquities. After early chapters that cover the artist’s training in the Netherlands, he explores how Van Heemskerck conjured a vision of Rome unlike any that had come before it, demonstrating the ways that his drawings, for all their documentary value, depend a good deal on invention. In later chapters, the author explores how these drawings became the basis for new paintings and prints, used both by Van Heemskerck himself as well as by subsequent artists who studied them. Through analyses of the works that Van Heemskerck’s Roman drawings inspired, DiFuria shows how the act of reconfiguration—the process of creating a drawing specifically to develop it into another kind of image, transposing the subject into a new scenario—can force a fresh consideration of the drawing’s original subject.
In the second half of DiFuria’s book, entitled “A Catalog of Maarten van Heemskerck’s Roman Ruin Drawings,” eighty-six entries cover Van Heemskerck’s topographical drawings. The catalog is not limited to Van Heemskerck’s own drawings of architectural ruins, however, as it also includes his panoramas of the city, his views of sculptural collections in their settings (though not his drawings of sculptures without their settings), his studies of individual architectural fragments, and copies after lost drawings by him. Thus readers should not expect a catalogue raisonné organized along traditional lines, but rather a series of short pieces on the theme of ruins. Helpfully, the drawings are grouped mainly by their topographical subjects, rather than by their sheets’ present locations. Many scholars first come to Van Heemskerck’s Roman drawings out of interest in particular monuments, rather than interest in the Netherlandish artist himself, so this strategy makes sense.
The typical first point of entry into Van Heemskerck’s drawings has been Christian Hülsen and Hermann Egger’s two-volume publication of the Berlin albums, first issued in 1913. Those albums contain the bulk of Van Heemskerck’s topographical drawings, but not all of them. DiFuria folds into his corpus drawings now in Amsterdam, Rome, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, Darmstadt, and Stockholm, giving his readers an expanded view of the topic. He also reminds his readers that while the first of the two Berlin albums has drawings assigned to Van Heemskerck, the second album has drawings that Hülsen and Egger assigned to other artists: the title of their publication (Die römischen Skizzenbücher von Marten van Heemskerck) occasionally has confused that fact for scholars, myself included. In decreasing the emphasis on each sheet’s institutional location, the catalog underscores the fact that we do not know how Van Heemskerck organized his own drawings.
DiFuria’s entries frequently indicate when a drawing’s subject recurs in one of Van Heemskerck’s later paintings or prints. Architectural historians may miss fuller discussions of how individual sheets have factored into their debates; such thorough treatment is sacrificed in the author’s overall focus on how the artist used his drawings as memory aids, as a private storehouse of ideas for later work. The catalog allows readers to imagine Van Heemskerck progressing through Rome site by site, encountering the city as a ruin—a ruin designed to reappear. The remarkable aspect of these drawings is how they have encouraged viewers to find new uses for them, allowing us to make and remake our image of Rome.
 Rome, Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe, inv. no. 3381–491; DiFuria 2019, 336–7, cat. no. 25.
 Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, inv. no. 79D2 63r.
 On this point see also Christoph Thoenes, “San Pietro come rovina. Note su alcune vedute di Maerten van Heemskerck,” in Sostegno e Adornamento (Milan: Electa, 1998), 135–49.