The Italian Renaissance historian Flavio Biondo, is recognised as one of the world’s first archaeologists and coined the infamous term ‘Middle Ages’.
Biondo, whose Latin name was Flavius Blondus, was born in 1392 in the capital city of Italy’s Romagna region. Forli was not only the regional capital but also a city of scholarly learning. Flavio was highly educated, being well schooled from a very early age. He had an early interest in writing and during a brief stopover in Milan he transcribed Cicero’s unique manuscript of the dialogue ‘Brutus’.
In 1433 he moved to Rome where he embarked on his writing career. Being of the elite Italian classes he was able to assume positions of rank rather comfortably and after only one year in Rome he was appointed secretary to the Cancelleria during Eugene IV.
Encyclopaedias of Rome
Flavio Biondo is highly acclaimed for his publishing of three most remarkable encyclopaedic works concerning the ruins and topography of the ancient Roman Forum. This celebrated work is a systematic and documented guide totally unique and without equal for its historical time. Through this momentous work Flavio has earned the archaeological honour and title of the first real archaeologist and subsequent historians and antiquaries can only but build on the radical foundations that Flavio laid in print via his volumes.
The Roman Forum today is well excavated and many of the original spenders can be appreciated from the reconstructive archaeological work that has been undertaken. However, at the time that the Biondo encyclopaedias were being researched and compiled, the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum lay deeply buried beneath metres of eroded topsoil and wind blown dirt. The area above was overgrown with grass, weeds, shrubs, and trees. It was nothing more than deserted fields where cows grazed and pigs rooted up any nourishing vegetation.
Flavio and a few fellow humanists began to excavate and document the ancient architecture, the Forum’s topography, and in one manner or another they seemed to be scientifically exploring Rome’s history. Their work sparked a revival in a lost vision for the former glory of the great Imperial Roman capital.
Flavio’s Written Works
A three-volume work, titled ‘Rome Restored’ was published in 1446 and remains to this day a highly influential text, complete with documentation, of the reconstruction of ancient Rome’s topography. The humanist visionaries of the Renaissance dreamed of recreating the grandeur of Rome’s architectural majesty and Flavio’s detailed work enthused their optimism.
Thirteen years later he published a second, highly popular book called ‘Rome Triumphant’. In this volume Flavio used his archaeological discoveries and his respect as a professional to promote a model for military reforms and governmental changes. His book influenced the revival in Roman patriotism and was admired by the papacy as it portrayed it as a continuation of the great Empire.
His best archaeological treatise is his last work ‘Rome Established’ which systematically documents the ruins of the Forum and the wider area of ancient Rome.
Flavio Biondo was also a notable historian. He wrote several histories on Rome using only the most reliable, primary sources. He attempted to historically document, using archaeological research, the period from the fall of the great Roman Empire to his present day. It was among these writings that historians find the first use of the phrase ‘Middle Age’. Flavio believed that somewhere between Rome’s collapse and his present day of the 15th century there was a chronological period he termed the Middle Age.
Flavio Biondo was buried in Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome. Few archaeologists today recognise him as the first true archaeologist and even less understand that he coined the term ‘Middle Ages’.