journal articles

Stefania Gialdroni

(Hi)stories of Roman Law. Cesare Maccari’s frescoes in the Aula Massima of the Italian Supreme Court

1 Exempla Iustitiae: The Italian Way


21. C. Maccari, La pubblicazione della legge delle Dodici Tavole.
Rome, 451-450 BC: The Law of the Twelve Tables is published.
The legislation of Rome is written down for the first time, inscribed on bronze (or ivory) and, most importantly, it is affixed in the Forum, for everyone to read. It represents an important victory for the plebeians over the patrician pontiffs-jurists who, until that moment, held a monopoly on the interpretation of the law.


42. C. Maccari, La liberta Ispala Fecenia denuncia l’associazione dei Baccanali.
Rome, 186 BC: The freedwoman Ispala Fecenia denounces Bacchanals.
Also thanks to the accounts of the freedwoman Ispala Fecenia, the Senate declared legislation to control the size and organization of bacchanalian rituals; the decree was known as Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. This declaration marked a hitherto unprecedented display of the Senate’s moral and legal authority.


63. C. Maccari, L’imperatore Adriano incarica Salvio Giuliano della compilazione dell’Editto perpetuo.
Rome, between 130 and 134 AD: Emperor Hadrian entrusts Salvius Iulianus with the compilation of the Edictum perpetuum.
Hadrian’s aim is to unify and stabilize the praetors’ edicta tralaticia and the edict of the aediles curules. He decides to submit the text to the approval of the Senate. It establishes that, in case of gaps, only the Emperor can intervene on the text (auctoritas), by means of principles and criteria taken from the edict itself.


84. C. Maccari, Ottone III consegna ai giudici i libri giustinianei.
Rome, between 996 and 1002 AD: Emperor Otto III provides the judges with the Corpus Iuris Civilis.
Otto III tries to restore Roman law, using it as a tool for the Renovatio Imperii Romanorum. In order to more firmly establish his own presidential power, he set about building a new imperial palace on the Palatine hill, rather than follow the blueprint of his Carolingian predecessors who built near the site of St. Peter’s Basilica. He hoped the architecture would establish an urban connection between his empire and the ancient one.


105. C. Maccari and P. Pascucci, Giustiniano riceve le Pandette da Triboniano.
Constantinople, 533 AD: Emperor Justinian receives the Digest from Tribonian.
The Digest is a collection of principles of Roman law taken from the works of the most important jurists of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd century AD. Tribonian, a learned and expert jurist, at that time quaestor sacri palatii (Minister of Justice) directs the compilation of the Digest (the masterpiece of the Corpus Iuris Civilis).

2 (Hi)stories of Roman Law

11These are the “(hi)stories” of Roman law represented in the Aula Massima of the Italian Palace of Justice (now seat of the Court of Cassation1), inaugurated in 1911 as part of a project that has been defined as the “politicization of the landscape of Roma Capitale”2.

12Stories have often been used to manage a crisis3, as what cannot be explained has to be narrated4. In this case, the stories or tales of Roman law decorating the Great Hall of the Palace of Justice in Rome were used to manage the crisis of a Kingdom still looking for an identity.

13Giuseppe Zanardelli, one of the leaders of the “Historical Left” (Sinistra storica) - Prime Minister and several times Minister of Justice5 and of Public Works, promoter of the first Criminal Code of unified Italy (1889) -, devoted part of his life to support the idea of the so-called “Third Rome”, using architecture and iconography. The Palace of Justice is unanimously seen as his brainchild. There is no doubt, in fact, that Zanardelli controlled the planning and realization of the Palace of Justice from its first mention in 18796 until the appointment of Cesare Maccari as painter for the frescoes in 19017. His influence ended only with his death, in 1903.

14The direct appointment of Maccari, without a public competition, is surprising. From the very beginning, in fact, the government chose all the projects (for the building and for the sculptures) by competitive examinations of the sketches. Furthermore, when the Advisory Commission (Commissione consultiva per i lavori per il Palazzo di Giustizia) tried to designate an artist to execute some of the sculptures decorating the palace without a competition, other artists protested strenuously. It was the case, for example, of the attempt to appoint a sculptor for the lions holding the tables of the law to put on the top of the lateral façades of the building, which were never realized. Protests even led to a parliamentary question8. The fact that the direct appointment of Maccari was easily accepted could be explained only by way of the enormous power that Zanardelli wielded. He was President of the Advisory Commission for the paintings until his death and personally chose the topics to be represented, based on the glorious legal tradition of Rome.

15To decorate the walls of the courtrooms with paintings able to inspire the judges is a well rooted practice in Europe, dating back to the late Middle Ages. The so-called exempla iustitiae have been defined as a subset of the exempla virtutis, i.e. “allegorical narratives of a person’s deeds exemplifying attributes seen as virtues”9. Georges Martyn, in describing the flourishing of this genre in the 15th-18th century Southern Netherlands, identified several characters of the judicial examples. First, the paintings must have a didactic aim: they have to show the consequences of both just and unjust decisions. Furthermore, they have to tell a story, providing a narrative of events including several actors, and they have to be “commanded by an institution with judicial power in order to hang in or around its official building(s), used for the administration of justice”10. All these characters can easily be found in the frescoes of the Aula Massima. However, the last feature considered does not fit in the list: according to Martyn, in fact, “the exempla indeed always concern judicial decisions”. This is not the case of the Italian Palace of Justice, where most of the stories refer to the importance of written (Roman) law and only one fresco refers to a trial, the one against Bacchanals, which, moreover, led to the enactment of a new decree, the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. The context, of course, was very different from the late medieval and early modern Southern Netherlands. Post-Unitarian Italy had to affirm the rule of law, the importance of codification, the modernity of the new, liberal government. A modernity, however, that had to be based on strong and ancient foundations in order to be convincing.

16The aim of this article is to demonstrate, using documents published for the first time, the exact role played by Minister Giuseppe Zanardelli in defining the iconographical project of the Italian Supreme Court as well as his links with the academic community of legal historians.

3 The Temple of Justice

17At the time in which Rome became the capital of a Unified Italy, people had to be convinced that the new state represented an ancient nation. As Bruno Tobia has beautifully written, there was a hiatus between the legal country and the real country, a gap that led to an “invention of tradition”11. The governments led by the Historical Left tended to be anticlerical, and concentrated on redesigning the city and studding it with monuments. Abstract concepts were made tangible by the most important Italian architects and artists of the period: unity and liberty (Vittoriano12), economy (Banca d’Italia13), art (Palazzo delle Esposizioni14) and, of course, justice. Like new deities for a brand new (secular) world, all these concepts suddenly gained a “temple”.

18The new Kingdom of Italy wanted to reject everything that could remind it of the Pope’s dominance, including the way in which artists were chosen. Therefore, the artists involved in the design of the new Palace of Justice had to be selected on the basis of public competitions rather than on personal preferences and the old system of courtly connections. In general, artists appreciated the new public competitions, but they still had one criticism; that criterion for choosing their projects was also based on their estimated costs; essentially it came down to who could undercut the others rather than their artistic merit.15

19The first competition, the one to select the design of the entire palace, lasted four years, involving different administrative and artistic Commissions16. According to the first law published on the competition (1883), the architects had very little information on which to base their designs: the building had to be “grand and severe”17and the location had to be in the area of Prati di Castello, on the other side of the river Tiber with respect to the city center (a place of fields and vineyards, very close to St. Peter’s Basilica).

20The first competition, which took place between 1883 and 1884, did not result in any winner; perhaps because other important architectural competitions were also underway at the same time18 and many of the most prominent architects of the period did not participate. In fact, only twenty-six projects were eventually submitted to a jury of twenty-four members, chaired by the Minister of Justice19. Architects from the Accademia di San Luca constituted the artistic subcommittee. The committee concluded that all the projects were reminiscent of the Catholic Church’s architecture (a preponderance of domes), or were not sufficiently national in style (Greco-Roman temples), or concentrated on regional traditions (the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence); and therefore were rejected.

21The forty-four participants of the second competition (1885-87)20 took advantage, as was often the case at that time, of the publicly exhibited projects of their predecessors. This time, the jury explicitly stated its criteria: the building had to be stable and able to assure a peaceful and comfortable use as well as being appropriate to its function without resembling a prison or a fortress21. The criteria remained vague and only started to be clarified during the long process of examination. Domes and bell towers were rejected also on aesthetic grounds while an inappropriate distribution of space and lack of light were rejected out of hand.

22In the meantime, Giuseppe Zanardelli had progressed in his political career. On April 4th 1887, he was re-appointed Minister of Justice and decided to take on the project of the Palace of Justice. He announced a third competition on May 25th 1887, this time limited to (probably) seven finalists who were invited (by means of a letter that he wrote and not through a ministerial or royal decree) to rework their designs by the end of September22. Some of the candidates did not participate and the competition narrowed to just three main candidates: Guglielmo Calderini, Ernesto Basile and Manfredo Manfredi. The artistic jury rejected the temple-style façade with external stairs and the central transverse hall proposed by Manfredi and on October 19th 1887 the full Commission engaged Calderini and Basile in a “head-to-head final run-off competition”23: they had forty days to rework their designs again. Zanardelli took care of this “final rush” meeting both architects to explain how, in his opinion, their projects should be improved. He imposed the open central courtyard instead of the central covered space and he decreed that the top floor did not need to extend across the entire width of the building. The result was communicated on November 4th 1887: Calderini won with six votes to two. The jury unanimously approved the executive project on October 5th 1888, only after some modifications proposed by a specially appointed Commission (and, as usual, by Zanardelli himself) were introduced.

23The architect, Calderini, appears in this never-ending story as a tragic figure. In the following years, he was accused of corruption, and obliged to continuously justify his project24 (once celebrated as a masterpiece25), often asked to provide clarifications and new details, and was limited in the execution of the decorations26. However, what is worse is that art historians metaphorically destroyed his masterwork, describing it as an “undisciplined product of an eclectic architect lost in megalomaniacal delusion”27. Many people believed that, because of these critics and the accusations of corruption, he committed suicide in 1916: a deeply-rooted yet not confirmed hypothesis28.

24The ceremony to lay the foundation stones took place on March 14th 1889. On that occasion, Zanardelli, as Minister of Justice, gave a solemn speech, which outlined the symbolic meaning of the new “Temple of Justice” and confirmed his role as “director” of the whole project:

25Roma non fu il mondo della religione, delle scienze astratte, delle lettere, delle arti belle, poiché in ciascuno di que’ campi altre genti la vincono; Roma fu il mondo del diritto. Pel diritto i romani ebbero una vocazione storica, derivante dal loro genio intellettuale, dalla loro virtù morale, dal loro carattere, dalla forza e costanza della volontà.

26And finally:

27Perciò mi piacque innanzi a Voi ricordare (…) come nei campi di quel Diritto, di cui siamo per ergere il tempio, rifulgano senza eguali le glorie italiane29.

4 Many Advisory Commissions, One Leader

28Each temple should have its cell, its sancta sanctorum where the god lives, represented by a statue. In the case of the Palace of Justice in Rome, there are two spaces that can be interpreted this way: the main courtyard (cortile d’onore) and the Aula Massima. The first one is usually considered the most original element of the whole building, located on the riverside; it was initially conceived as the main entrance. A scalone d’onore dominates the courtyard, and that in its turn is towered over by a five meter high statue representing the Law, in the form of a crowned goddess holding in one hand a scepter and in the other the book of laws. At the base of the stairs, there are four eminent Roman jurists: Hortensius, Labeo, Ulpianus and Paulus. The courtyard’s walls are heavily decorated: at the top there is the she-wolf with the twins Romulus and Remus, and all around lions, heads of Minerva (goddess of wisdom)30, coats of arms from the House of Savoy, tables of the law and more31.

29Certainly, the Law seems to be the goddess of this secular temple of justice but, with respect to the ancient temples, she is “too accessible”, as she has been placed in a public area. The Aula Massima on the other hand, is located on the first floor, and was (and still is) a room reserved for very special occasions, usually accessible, nowadays, only to the “clergymen” of the judicial system (joint sessions of the Court of Cassation or opening of the judicial year). Here, there are many deities present. Two representations of Justice as female dominate the ceiling of the room32, and a statue of the law (il Diritto), in the form of a naked male, lies above the entrance. The room itself resembles a church, a kind of basilica complete with an apse; or if not a Christian church then the Temple of Solomon, so dear to Freemasonry, since many of the political leaders and artists of the period were freemasons, including Zanardelli and Calderini.

4.1 Statues

30Special Commissions were in charge of judging the drafts of the decoration of the building: one for the sculptures and one for the frescoes. Zanardelli presided only over the second one. In theory, he had nothing to do with the decisions regarding the statues’ sketches but, in practice, his lumbering personality loomed over the first Commission too.

31This Commission was appointed through a Decree of the Ministry of Public Works on November 1st 1898. Seventeen months and three competitions later, all the sketches of the most important statues, including the bronze quadriga at the top of the former main entrance, were approved33. Giulio Monteverde, senator and renowned sculptor, was the President of the Commission. The other members were Alfonso Balzico (sculptor and painter), Camillo Boito (architect), Giuseppe Sacconi (architect), Odoardo Tabacchi (sculptor) and Carlo Marzollo (secretary)34.

32None of the three official reports says a word about Zanardelli and his opinions35. However, on May 13th 1899, during a meeting of the Commission, Calderini read aloud a letter that he had received from Zanardelli, in which the concepts exposed by the former Minister of Justice during the foundation stone laying ceremony were further developed. The Commission stated that the letter had to be put aside and that it had to be re-read the day after, when Commissioner Boito would be present. It is evident that the warnings of Zanardelli could not be disregarded:

33Roma, 11 maggio 99

Caro Calderini

Non ebbi tempo di andar a vedere i bozzetti; ma le osservazioni che a proposito di esse ho letto in alcuni giornali mi spingono a scriverle.

Ho veduto lodati su qualcuno di detti giornali de’ bozzetti di Papiniano che lo fanno in atto di parlare. Ora, fino dal discorso che feci quando si pose la prima pietra indicando le due statue di Cicerone e di Papiniano come quelle che mostravano nelle discipline del foro e del diritto il primato italiano, volli in Cicerone indicare l’oratore, in Papiniano il giureconsulto, primo ne’ secoli; in Cicerone l’eloquenza, in Papiniano la scienza del diritto. Quindi sta bene che Cicerone si effigii orando, non così Papiniano. (…) ad ogni modo troppo mi premeva indicare il concetto che mi guidò nel proporre quelle due statue come le principali del Palazzo. E in pari tempo ho così il piacere di mandarle i saluti più affettuosi del suo Zanardelli36.

34When Zanardelli died, Scipione Ronchetti was appointed President of the Commission. On August 11th 1907, a new competition was launched for the last statues, which were meant to represent Bartolus de Saxoferrato, Giambattista De Luca, Giambattista Vico and Domenico Romagnosi. This time the jury included Calderini, Maccari (then substituted by Ettore Ximenes) and Pietro Canonica. These statues, which represent medieval and modern jurists, were there to signify the continuity of the legal tradition in Italy37.

4.2 Frescoes

35Otherwise, the role played by Zanardelli in the frescoes of the Aula Massima was, from the very beginning, clear and uncontested.

36A first Commission in charge of supervising the artistic, technical and administrative direction of the works for the new Palace of Justice was appointed by Royal Decree on March 28th 1888. Giuseppe Zanardelli, Minister of Justice, was the President, while the other members were: Giuseppe Miraglia (First President of the Court of Cassation of Rome), Francesco Auriti (General Attorney at the Court of Cassation of Rome), Leopoldo Torlonia (Mayor of Rome), Francesco Calderini (President of the Bar Council of Rome), Giuseppe Pinelli (Chief Director at the Ministry of Justice), Andrea Scala (architect) and Nicola Alvaro as Secretary (Vice-secretary at the Ministry of Justice).

37However, the Commission did not play the role it was supposed to play for a very long period of time38 because the responsibility for the works passed, over the course of time, from the Municipality of Rome to the Ministry of Justice (1889) and then to the Ministry of Public Works (1891). Finally, on January 21st 1900, after almost twelve years, a new Commission (Commissione per i lavori del nuovo Palazzo di Giustizia in Roma) was appointed by Royal Decree. Less than a month later, Zanardelli wrote a letter to the Minister of Public Works Pietro Lacava to reiterate his commitment and to thank him for his trust.39

38Certainly, the new Commission met on April 8th 1900, when the frescoes of the Aula Massima were mentioned for the first time. The members were: Giuseppe Zanardelli (President), Emilio Pascale (General Attorney at the Court of Cassation of Rome), Don Prospero Colonna (Mayor of Rome), Edoardo Braggio (General Director of the Division “Bridges and Streets” of the Ministry of Public Works) and Gaetano Koch (architect). On that day, Calderini and the Chief Engineer Domenico Miceli were also present. Minister Lacava intervened only to say that the time limits of the contract would be respected (April 30th 1902) and that he was sure that the palace would be finished in 1903. Despite his optimism, the palace was only inaugurated on January 11th 1911.

39Perhaps it is no surprise that the topic of the frescoes was brought up by Zanardelli, who said that it would be appropriate, for such a great building, to be decorated with artistic frescoes, like those at the Senate, and he proposed, as a subject, the “School of Law of Rome”40. This brief statement is particularly interesting, as it suggests that the President already had the idea to hand the task to Cesare Maccari41, who was at that time very famous for three works in particular. The first one was the fresco that Zanardelli particularly admired, Cicero denounces Catiline42 as well as the other paintings of the Sala Gialla of the Italian Senate, now known as Sala Maccari (1881-1888); second, the frescoes of the Sala Risorgimento of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, where Maccari depicted King Victor Emmanuel II receiving the plebiscite of the Romans along with the transportation of his remains to the Pantheon (1886-1887)43; finally, the decoration of the dome of the Basilica of the Holy House in Loreto (1888-1907).

40A few months later, the Commission met again but of the members, only Zanardelli and Koch were present. The others were substituted by their representatives or were not mentioned at all. Calderini and Miceli both contributed to the discussion and Zanardelli brought up, once more, the topic of the frescoes; discussing with Calderini if there was a wall big enough for a grand subject in the Great Hall of the Court of Cassation. Then, with a brief sentence, Zanardelli demonstrated his power: he was going to talk to the Minister of Public Works about the frescoes and he was going to designate Cesare Maccari as the right artist to carry out the task:

41Presidente – Concorda in questa idea e aggiunge che egli intanto, se la Commissione lo crede, parlerà al Ministro per interessarlo alla cosa, designandogli anche il Prof. Maccari come l’artista che sarebbe più indicato per la esecuzione di pitture corrispondenti all’importanza artistica dell’edificio44.

42His initiative was successful, as he himself stressed during another meeting, a couple of years later, this time specifying that the topic should be the history of law in Rome, without any reference to the “School of Law of Rome” 45.

43In the meantime, a contract between Cesare Maccari and the Ministry of Public Works had been concluded and registered on September 3rd 1901. According to the contract, the frescoes had to represent “historical and allegorical subjects taken from the History of Law in Rome”. Maccari had two years to submit his sketches to the Minister and four years to execute the paintings from the day of approval46. Therefore, the frescoes should have been finished by 1907 but, when the painter was paralyzed in 1909, a lot of work was still to be completed47.

44On August 1st 1903, at 2:00 pm, a great event took place in Rome: in a room at the brand new General Hospital (Policlinico Umberto I), the sketches of the frescoes were displayed for the first time in front of a large group of representatives of the political, judicial and artistic elite, including Francesco Schupfer (Senator and Professor of History of Italian Law at the University La Sapienza) and the sculptor of the bronze quadriga, Ettore Ximenes.

45The minutes of the meeting are detailed but, in order to fully understand them, it is necessary to analyze first an intriguing document with no title, no date and no signature, which, however, can be easily attributed to Giuseppe Zanardelli, and was probably written in 190248.

5 The Role of Zanardelli in the Iconography of the Aula Massima

46In an article published in 1928, Gemma Ambrogetti affirmed that the topics for the frescoes were proposed by Francesco Schupfer and approved by Zanardelli49. The participation of Schupfer, even if not documented, is plausible, considering that he was present when the sketches of the frescoes were first exhibited and also that (later on) he was the expert asked to suggest the Roman law mottos that should have been inscribed on bronze and put on all façades of the palace50. At the time of the appointment of Maccari, Schupfer (born in 1833) had been professor of History of Italian Law and of Roman Law at the University of Rome for more than twenty years. He studied law in Verona, Innsbruck, Heidelberg and Vienna. Although he was a pupil of important Romanists such as Karl Adolph von Vangerow, he developed an interest in the history of “Germanic” law and devoted his first publications to Lombard law. He became Senator in 1898 and continued to teach at the University of Rome until 1920, when he retired aged 8751.

47Despite the fact that Schupfer was certainly a leading legal historian, the documents at our disposal do not support Ambrogetti’s reconstruction, at least at first glance. In the Archivio Zanardelli at the State Archive of Brescia, the city where the Minister was born, there is a kind of memorandum in which the whole iconographical project of the Aula Massima is described. According to this document, the paintings should have been six: 1) The Jurists, 2) The Orators, 3) Justinian, 4) Otto III, 5) The Twelve Tables, 6) The Edict (by Salvius Iulianus). The fresco depicting Ispala Fecenia is not mentioned but it could also be that a page of the document is missing. The memorandum is handwritten but not by Zanardelli himself, rather by a clerk. It is written in the first person on headed notepaper of the “Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri”, and this is one of the reasons why it seems to come from Zanardelli and not from Schupfer. Furthermore, the peremptory tone fits Zanardelli’s personality perfectly. Finally, the document was found in the personal archive of Zanardelli in Brescia.


496. Map of the Aula Massima with the current position of the frescoes, based on an original map of the entire first floor of the Palace of Justice (ACS, b. 171, f. 470). Reconstruction by Architect Gaia Cané.

5.1 The Jurists

50The first two frescoes should have been enormous, 13x8 meters. They were never realized (two wide curtains cover, since 1911, the walls that should have been painted), but the pictures of the sketches were published in 1928, courtesy of Lady Maccari De Dominicis, daughter of the painter52. The idea for the first fresco was to represent an imaginary “School of Law of Rome”, inspired by the famous “School of Athens” by Raphael53. It was to include the five jurists that the “Law of Citations” indicated as the only ones who could be quoted in court (Papinianus, Paulus, Ulpianus, Gaius and Modestinus), strongly curbing the creativity of lawyers. The Lex citationum was issued under Emperor Valentinian III in 426 and then inserted in the Codex Theodosianus by Thedosius II (438) and afterwards also in the first edition of the Codex Justinianus (529). Limiting the number of works that could be used in a trial, the aim of this constitutio principis was clearly to bestow more certainty in the law: an aim that the young Kingdom of Italy, which in 1889 promulgated its fifth and last Code (the Criminal Code), could easily approve.

51The memorandum also stipulated that the two law schools which existed in Rome between the 1st and 2nd cent. AD, the Sabiniani and Proculiani, should be represented and distinguished in some way. Furthermore, the document suggested that some jurists should be represented while advising a client, on legal or economic matters, others while writing and others while teaching. In the whole memorandum Zanardelli showed his erudition, quoting classic works (e.g. Cicero) and the most recent academic literature (e.g. Charles Diehl) as well as episodes and characters from Roman history, such as Tiberius Coruncanius, famous for being the first plebeian Pontifex Maximus and the first to publicly profess the law. Like the “School of Athens”, this fresco was meant to include celebrated “intellectuals” (in this case lawyers) through the ages54. During the exhibition on August 1st 1903, the Commission devoted only a few words to this painting, which, nevertheless, was apparently the only one that completely satisfied Francesco Schupfer55. The picture available to view in the 1928 publication is of bad quality but it is clear that the lawyers were divided in groups (the one in the foreground probably representing the five jurists of the Law of Citations) and that the attitudes suggested in the memorandum were respected. In the background, a great temple (of justice?) can be seen.

52The aim of this fresco was to celebrate Italian legal history, with special reference to ancient Roman jurists. The reference to the “School of Athens” was explicit: this painting was meant to glorify the ancient legal traditions, making contemporary jurists proud of their legacy as well as conscious of their duties.

5.2 The Orators

53While the first big painting, “The Jurists”, was intended to represent a kind of metaphor, “The Orators” was inspired by an historical event: the Trial of Verres. On one side of the fresco, the painter was tasked with representing Cicero, on the other the lawyer defending Verres, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, and next to them some noblemen; all around, were Romans and Sicilians who testified during the trial. Also Alba Aemilius, defined as a vulgar man, should be represented while telling the people that Verres bought the judges. Zanardelli specified that Verres himself often intervened with an ironic and scornful attitude. Finally, he also suggested that the artist read a recently published book, in order to better understand how to render the location of the trial56.

54The comments in this case appear even more apathetic than those reserved for “The Jurists”: Schupfer stressed that they knew how the rostra looked thanks to an ancient medal and that the painter did not represent them in the correct manner. Others noted that the crowd present at the trial was excessive. Their few comments were silenced by Zanardelli57.

55Only this painting and the one depicting Ispala Fecenia represent a trial and could be therefore more easily included in the category of the exempla iustitiae. The Trial of Verres, nevertheless, is more famous, as Cicero described it in his speeches In Verrem (Against Verres), studied by generations of students, not just in Italy.

56In the year 70 BC, the Sicilians asked Cicero - a person they were already familiar with since he had been quaestor of Lilybaeum (Sicily) -, to level a prosecution against Gaius Licinius Verres for the crimes he had committed when he was pro-praetor of Sicily, in the years 73-71 BC. Verres was accused of corruption and extortion through public office and of many other related crimes.

57He was so rich that he had no problem in obtaining defense from the most famous lawyer of that period, Hortensius, who immediately tried to prolong the trial until a new, more favorable jury could be found. This maneuver, however, did not work, thanks to Cicero’s skills. He was officially appointed lawyer for the Sicilians and went to the island to collect evidence. In the meantime, Verres tried to buy Cicero too but he was not successful. When it became clear that he had no chance of winning, he went into exile, with his treasures, to Massilia (modern-day Marseilles), where he remained until his death. He was found guilty, but only of some of the crimes of which he was accused, and the Sicilians were indemnified only in part. Cicero was the real winner: the trial gave a boost to his political career after he published five speeches related to the trial, even though only the first one had been heard in court.

58By including one of the most famous and scandalous trials in the history of Rome in the depictions, it is clear that Zanardelli wanted to warn judges against the temptations of corruption.

5.3 Justinian

59When he suggested that the Emperor Justinian should be depicted while receiving the Digest from Tribonian, Zanardelli underlined that also Theodora, wife and “great muse” of Justinian, had to be depicted next to him. He wanted the fresco to express the universal “spirit” of the new legislation, destined to become, in the Middle Ages, “the common law of society”. He even proposed personifying the elements that converged in the Corpus Iuris Civilis, such as ius gentium and aequitas. In this case too, he suggested a book; however, not by an Italian author but by the famous French historian Charles Diehl. Probably Justinien et la Civilisation byzantine au VIe Siècle, published in Paris in 1901.58

60This is the one and only fresco that was, and still is, immediately comprehensible to the audience. The main reason is that the composition is reminiscent of the famous byzantine mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, not because of the features of Justinian, but because of the way in which the Emperor and his court were depicted, as a rigid and solemn row of dignitaries looking at the spectator, typical of Byzantine art. The only criticism of the Commission regarding this painting referred to the fact that the books (or better papyri) depicted on the floor deprived the imperial room of its dignity, and should be removed. Schupfer noticed, however, that this representation gave the idea of the great work done by Tribonian and the other compilers to extrapolate from the works of ancient jurists the iura to insert in the Digest and the final version of the fresco maintained this element59.

61The role of the Corpus Iuris Civilis in the history of Western law is undeniable and uncontested: no surprise that Zanardelli wanted it to be represented in some way. In this case, not all his recommendations were respected as he wanted it to be painted on the right wall, while the Twelve Tables had to dominate the room from the apse even though the scene was less solemn. Today, Justinian and Theodora welcome the visitors in the Aula Massima from the apse, sitting on a throne at the top of a steep staircase. Tribonian is submitting the Digest from the bottom of the stairs and the observer feels, in some way, in the same position as the quaestor sacri palatii.

5.4 Otto III

62The fourth fresco was designated to represent Otto III, as he was the first Emperor, in the Middle Ages, to declare that Roman law was universal, and that it should not be considered only the personal law of the defeated people. For this fresco, Zanardelli identified himself in the role of the painter, by writing: “I would paint him [Otto III] in Rome, while appointing the judges”. The Minister specified that the Emperor used to appoint the judges by handing them the Corpus Iuris Civilis and pronouncing a solemn formula according to which they had to judge “Rome and the world” on the basis of those books of law60. This particular expression creates an unexpected link with Francesco Schupfer. In his Storia del diritto italiano (1888-1889), published only a few years earlier, in fact, he had used exactly the same words: “giudicare Roma e il mondo”.

63“Già nel concetto di Ottone III Roma doveva essere la sede dell’imperatore, la prima città dell’universo; ed è osservabile, che i giudici ivi istituiti, nel ricevere il codice giustinianeo, erano ammoniti di attenersi religiosamente ad esso, e con esso giudicare Roma e il mondo”61. Zanardelli also suggested depicting a barbarian, i.e. a Lombard or a Frank, wearing his national clothes, before changing them for the Roman toga. In analyzing the sketches, though, the Commission thought it inappropriate to represent the “barbarian” judge about to wear the toga, but completely naked. The commissioners noticed that this nude had no artistic purpose, that it was not appropriate to the location and that, anyway, the Romans were not naked under the toga. This suggestion was evidently accepted62.

64This image was meant to act as a connector between the ancient and modern worlds. For this reason, the fresco was meant to be positioned on the left side of the apse, in front of the one representing Justinian.

5.5 The Twelve Tables63

65The first Roman legislation was considered crucial by Zanardelli and the moment that was designated for representation was the publication of the Tables in the Roman Forum. As, according to tradition, a delegation of three Roman citizens travelled to Greece in order to transcribe Solon’s laws and study the legislation of several Greek cities, Zanardelli suggested representing some Greeks in the Forum too. The difference between Romans and Greeks should be made evident by their clothes. At the same time, also the difference between patricians and plebeians should be underlined. According to the memorandum, it seems that Maccari, on the contrary, wanted to stress the principle of equality, but Zanardelli imposed his point of view, making clear that equality between Roman citizens was far from being realized, even though a certain balance was achieved in the field of criminal law64.

66This sketch was the first to be analyzed on August 1st, because it was considered, at this stage, to be the most important one, the one intended for the apse (from where Justinian now dominates the room). At that point, in fact, the entire distribution of the frescoes was conceived in a different way65.

67It was noted that the Tables should be made of bronze (and not ivory66), that all Twelve Tables (or at least the first ten published) should be visible, that there were not enough people around the tables, that the temple in the background was too sumptuous for the archaic period and that the wooden structure where the Tables hang was not historically accurate67. Ettore Ximenes, author of the bronze quadriga, noted that it was only a sketch and that the painter still had to work on it. In reality, he was wrong, as the final painting remained near identical.

68The topic of this fresco can be interpreted in several ways. Certainly, it stresses the importance of the first written law of the Roman world. However, the role played by the plebeians in obtaining a new political weight is also not to be underestimated.

5.6 The Edictum perpetuum

69Toward the end of his Reign (after 132 AD), Emperor Hadrian asked Salvius Iulianus for a revision and codification of the praetorian and aedilian edicts, the most important source of aequitas. As the edict was fixed once and forever, many jurists started to comment on it (e.g. Pomponius, Pedius, Callistratus and Gaius) but they were soon superseded by the extensive commentaries of Ulpianus and Paulus, whose works were largely used by the compilers of the Digest. Furthermore, “The edictal system was followed in Justinian’s Digest and Code according to an express instruction of the Emperor to keep in the compilations the order of presentation as systematized in the Edict”68.

70With reference to how the scene should be represented, Zanardelli was very clear: “I would chose the moment in which Emperor Hadrian entrusts the jurist Salvius Iulianus with the compilation of the Edictum perpetuum”. He used the first person again and exhorted his interlocutor (maybe Calderini) to warn the painter that the Edict represented the aequumius as opposed to the strictumius of the Twelve Tables. For this reason, it should be placed in front of the one depicting the first legislation of Rome69, at least that was the thinking before someone thought it better to place the Twelve Tables in the apse. Nevertheless, considering the aforementioned strict connection between the Edict and the Digest, the current position on the left of Justinian seems to be particularly appropriate.

71In this case, Zanardelli himself noted that not enough importance was given to the jurist, who was the real “hero” of this scene. When the sketch was exhibited in Rome in 1903, Schupfer too intervened to stress that in some ways it should be made clear that the topic was the Edictum perpetuum70. The main criticism of this particular painting was focused on its lack of clarity.

5.7 The Freedwoman Ispala Fecenia Denounces Bacchanals71

72According to Livy72, the Bacchanals were “imported” to Rome from Southern Italy. They were first restricted to honored Roman matrons who met trice a year in a wood on the Aventine. Later on, the meetings turned into orgiastic rituals following an alternative model developed by a Greek priest who had migrated to Etruria, in which men were also admitted. These scandalous and secret rituals were seen with great suspicion. The first revelations of the crimes committed during the meetings were provided by the freedwoman Ispala Fecenia to the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus in the year 186 BC. According to Livy, she did not denounce the rituals in public, even though Maccari decided to represent her in front of the senators, who, anyway, were informed and stated that the consuls had to try all people involved. Thousands of persons, men and women, ended up being accused but only the ones that were found guilty of rape, homicide or fraud were condemned to death. All organizations related to Bacchanals in Rome and in Italy were terminated and a Senatus consultum prohibited the constitution of new associations of this kind in the future73.

73This fresco is not described in the memorandum. It could be that a last page is missing, or that it was conceived only later. Certainly, it was among the sketches presented on August 1st 1903, when one commissioner even suggested representing Bacchanals in some corner or background of the fresco, as the topic (once again) was not comprehensible enough74. Zanardelli, in this case, only underlined that this episode had to represent the moral authority of the State against dissoluteness and its preeminence over religious, or perhaps more precisely sacerdotal, power.

6 Chronicle of an Iconographic Disaster

74Considering the fact that Maccari was, at the time of his appointment, a very successful painter and that his sketches received only minor criticism from the Commission in charge of judging them, the reasons why his paintings were later on censured (if not ignored) by scholars deserves a deeper analysis.

75The historical picture (Historienbild) has its own language, standardized over the centuries, and it has often been used for political purposes75. Leon Battista Alberti, often considered the founder of modern art theory, was the first one to describe historical paintings, i.e. the pictorial transposition of a narrative, as the climax of any artistic activity76. Nevertheless, Alberti focused only on the composition and ignored any reference to the subject. In the course of time, many different kinds of stories (mythological and literary themes, biblical stories, allegories) started to be used as a tool of political self-promotion. At the center of the painting was the hero, who had to be recognizable, unmistakable, distinguished from all other characters. The problem was how to make clear to the observer that the historical, religious, literary or mythological event had to represent a contemporary issue77. The problem was often solved by representing the hero using the features of the political leader that was being promoted. This is the case, for example, in “The Battle of Ostia”, the fresco painted by Raphael in 1514 in one of the Vatican rooms as part of the same project that included “The School of Athens”. The painting represents the battle won in 849 by a Christian League led by Pope Leo IV against the Saracens but the Pope has the features of Leo X, who was elected on March 9th 1513.

76Historical paintings petered out in the 17th century only to come back into favor again around the time of the French Revolution. “The Lictors bring to Brutus the bodies of his sons”78, dated 1789, is one of the most famous paintings by Jacques-Louis David and can certainly be classed as a historical painting. However, it inaugurates a completely different kind of Historienbild. Here, there is no more hero to celebrate, or better, the observer is no longer asked to passively accept the moral or political exemplary nature (Vorbildlichkeit) of the protagonist’s act. David represented an unperturbed Brutus on one side of the painting and a group of desperate women on the other side: the reasons of State on one hand and sentimental reasons on the other hand. It is up to the observer to choose where to stand. According to Thomas Kirchner, this form of historical painting wasn’t about “glorification” as was the case of the Historienbilder of the 16th century79. Following this analysis, Maccari’s paintings are not convincing. Even though they were not intended to represent a single hero but rather concepts (the great history of Roman law, the virtues of the jurists of the past, the triumph of written law), they nevertheless should have focused on two or better on one person, in order to follow the well-established iconographical schema, for example by representing the hero at the top of an imaginary triangle.

77The frescoes in the Sala gialla of the Senate, realized only fifteen years before the exhibition of the sketches for the Palace of Justice, matched the criterion of the isolation of the “hero” (in this case a positive one, Cicero, and a negative one, Catiline) and were highly appreciated. Moreover, if the historical painting at the end of the 18th century changed forever the role of the observer, Maccari’s frescoes appear to be out of time. To conclude, both the composition of the frescoes of the Aula Massima and the passive role in which the observer was relegated could be considered wrong according to the above mentioned standards. At the same time, if we think of the particular context in which the frescoes had to be inserted, i.e. a courtroom, the paintings do not match the criteria of the exempla justitiae either. They tell a story, they have a didactical aim but most of them do not refer to famous judgments and, what is more important, the stories told are not famous enough (e.g. the scenes depicting Ispala Fecenia and Otto III) or not clear enough in the composition (e.g. the scene depicting Emperor Hadrian and Salvius Iulianus).

78The traditional iconography of the exempla iustitiae included the Last Judgment, the Judgment of Salomon, the judgment of Cambyses80, but not the stories depicted in the Aula Massima. Furthermore, after reading Zanardelli’s memorandum, it appears clear that the creativity of the painter, with reference to both the topics and the composition, was severely limited. The “histories of Roman law” in the Aula Massima did not leave any trace in art history because the function they pursued, i.e. to provide legitimacy to the recently established political and judicial order, overcame the rules of art and iconography.

79Some of these rules are realized, though, in the representations of Lady Justice on the ceiling of the Great Hall. Unfortunately, also in this case, the abundance of “heroes” ends up spoiling everything, as there is not just one Lady Justice, but two, a “static” one and a “dynamic” one: Giustizia in simbolo and Giustizia in atto. Taken separately, they respect the above mentioned rules of composition (isolation, triangle) as well as the well-established attributes of Lady Justice. The problem is that instead of focusing on one goddess, the observer can choose between two deities.

80It has been correctly observed that, “The figure of Justitia or Justice might very well be one of the most widely known personifications in the Western world”81. Therefore, we will not discuss her features here but only the way in which Maccari decided to represent her.

81As for most frescoes in the Aula Massima, it is not clear where the work of Maccari ended and the work of his pupil, Paride Pascucci, started. On the official website of the Court of Cassation, the Giustizia in simbolo or La Giustizia con la bilancia e la spade tra la Legge e la Forza is described as a work by Cesare Maccari, while the Giustizia in atto or La Giustizia in atto di scacciare, con la spada, il Delitto e la Calunnia e di premiare, con il ramo d’alloro, la Forza, l’Innocenza e la Verità as a painting by Pascucci. Both sketches, nevertheless, were put up for auction in Maccari’s atelier in 1921 and the sketch of the Giustizia in atto was donated by Maccari himself to the RR. Gallerie di Firenze82.

82As a consequence, Pascucci probably painted the Giustizia in atto following Maccari’s sketch, and similarly the fresco representing Justinian.

83The Giustizia in simbolo is a crowned woman, with a scale in her left hand and a sword in her right hand. At her feet, there are the Law, holding a book, and Strength, caressing a lion. The other figures are not immediately recognizable, but they could be the other cardinal virtues, Prudence and Temperance. Unfortunately, while the figure on the right is holding a mirror, a typical iconography of Prudence, the one on the left is holding what seems to be a shield, instead of the usual jugs. This Lady Justice is not blindfolded83 and holds the typical scale, whose connection to the concept of justice dates back to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

84In this case, finally, the “hero” is clearly recognizable, solemnly sitting on a kind of marble throne at the top of an imaginary triangle, completely dominating the whole scene. The same cannot be said for the second fresco, where an angel stands above an “ungainly” and blindfolded Lady Justice, holding a sword (this time unsheathed) and a laurel branch. With the sword, she is banishing Crime and Calumny; with the laurel branch she is rewarding Strength (Hercules with the lion), Truth (the naked woman) and Innocence. This last figure is not clearly recognizable among the many that crowd the right side of the fresco. At the top, an angel towers over Lady Justice, representing divine inspiration. Again, the composition is confused, the iconography unclear.

7 Conclusion

85Despite the criticisms from an art-historical perspective, we can conclude that, in some ways, Zanardelli reached his goal; that is if we hypothesize that the frescoes in the Aula Massima should not describe the history of Roman law but rather Roman law as an idea84. After the end of the Western Roman Empire, Rome has been used and re-used, again and again, from Constantinople to Moscow, from medieval Italy to 19th century Belgium to legitimize governments, institutions, and legal systems.

86In the very same years in which Maccari was painting the frescoes of the Palace of Justice in Rome, Lodovico Zdeckauer, the chair of History of Italian Law at the University of Macerata85, devoted his inaugural lecture of 1908 to the idea of justice, entitled L’idea della Giustizia e la sua immagine nelle arti figurative86.

87At the beginning of a very long speech, Zdekauer stated:

88Se veramente l’Italia ebbe una grande missione storica, – la missione d’iniziare la civiltà d’Occidente – lo deve in buona parte all’idea della Giustizia, nata sul suolo italico, ed ivi cresciuta e maturata, e che dall’Italia si diffuse per il mondo. Quest’idea ha un alto valore artistico. Tutta la vita del Diritto italiano è animata dallo sforzo di realizzare in pratica questa idea. L’Arte se ne impossessò, creando in modo definitivo la personificazione allegorica, e quindi la figura della Giustizia87.

89The very “idea of justice” was born, according to the Czech legal historian, in Italy. Furthermore, the characteristic of the Latin “ideal” of law was the spontaneous submission of the citizens to the law, their renouncement of a part of their liberty in favor of the State. The kind of sacrifice that had to be counterbalanced by the work of the magistrates and of the jurists.

90L’ideale latino starebbe dunque nella spontanea sottomissione dei cittadini alle leggi: le quali in sostanza rappresentano la rinunzia dei cittadini stessi ad una parte della loro libertà, a favore dello Stato. A questa sottomissione corrisponderebbe quindi l’obbligo del magistrato di dare corso alla legge, che parla per la sua bocca; assecondato in ciò dal giureconsulto, interprete dell’intimo suo pensiero88.

91All the above mentioned elements are indeed present in the Aula Massima at the Palace of Justice in Rome: the “historical mission” of Italy, the “idea of justice”, the importance of (written) law, the role of jurists and magistrates.

92Zdekauer played no role in the development of the iconography of the Palace of Justice but he was a favorite of Francesco Schupfer and an esteemed professor of legal history, chosen three times to open the academic year at the University of Macerata. He therefore expressed ideas and ideals that were widespread in the academic community at the beginning of the 20th century and were probably shared by the political elite.

93A long time ago, there was a Roman Republic and a Roman law. Afterwards many other laws developed, that used Rome als Gründungsgeschichte (founding history)89. Zanardelli deployed all the weapons at his disposal, from architecture to sculptures and paintings to provide the newborn Kingdom of Italy and its brand new Codes with the necessary legitimacy needed to function in a world on the brink of experiencing the revolutionary and powerful tools of 20th century propaganda.

94But that, as they say, is another (hi)story.

Articles 19. March 2019
© 2019 fhi
ISSN: 1860-5605
First publication

  • citation suggestion Stefania Gialdroni, (Hi)stories of Roman Law. Cesare Maccari’s frescoes in the Aula Massima of the Italian Supreme Court (19. March 2019), in forum historiae iuris,