The historiographical distancing which emerged during the Renaissance has shaped our own approach to the past. We like to think that, unlike the medievals, we understand our place in history and the breadth of differences between ourselves and the men and women of previous centuries. We strive towards realism and we aspire to grasp a true measure of the past. We want Cicero to look like a Roman, not like ourselves. But while this may be the case, we cannot escape the demiurgic pull towards making the past in our own image, after our likeness, just as God is said to have conceived of the human kind in the book of Genesis.
In the passage between pagan antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages, the past was re-imagined in order to conform to the beliefs of the present. Many things were reviewed and reassessed, most prominent among which was the cult of the Roman gods, which no longer had a place in a monotheistic culture. The pagan vestiges of the past were aggressively or subtly removed from view, and in time, from memory. This approach was re-enacted in the wake of all subsequent cultural revolutions, in France, Russia, China or Eastern Europe. Museums have created a safe space for the uncomfortable historic memoranda, but the truth remains that there is little museum space in our own commitment to behave like the God of Genesis. Recent events in the UK and around the world have shown that we are still committed to recasting the past in our own image, according to our own values and beliefs, and topple – often literally – the uncomfortable traces of a disavowed past.