The Medieval Review 09.09.11

Greenhalgh, Michael. Marble Past, Monumental Present: Building with Antiquities in the Mediaeval Mediterranean . The Medieval Mediterranean, Vol. 80. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xviii, 634. $254.00 978 90 04 17083 4. .

Reviewed by:

Paolo Liverani
Università degli studi di Firenze

This book offers a view of extraordinary scope, both in terms of space and time, about the use and re-use of marble. The area is the Mediterranean between the 7th and the 15th-16th centuries, and this study considers not only the two parts which were heirs to the Roman Empire and to classical civilisation, but also the various cultures of Islam down to the Mamluks and the Ottoman Empire. The imposing volume is still further enriched by a DVD at the back with more than 5,000 images and several discussions extending various topics of the printed book. The disk also contains a useful electronic databank, concerning on-line resources, as well four interactive maps (Italy, Mediterranean, Spain, Turkey) to jump from one centre to another while exploring the resources of the DVD. Unfortunately I was not able to benefit from this last feature although I used two different computers with different programs.

As the author specifies, "this book is focused on marble rather than specifically on re-use" (10). A sound caution and healthy scepticism run throughout the entire study to temper the overinterpretation of evidence which is quite common in this field and that leads some scholars to extreme positions as, for example, the claim that re-use has nothing to do with shortage of materials or lack of technical skills.

On the contrary the author is always attentive to the technical, logistic (Ch. 3. Quarrying, Transport and Preparation of Marble; Ch. 4. Looted and Trophy Marble; Ch. 5. Marble Members by Type and Destination) and, of course, the cultural and political factors in the use of marble (Ch. 8. King, Pope, Emir and Caliph). He also devotes attention to the major religious dynamics--like pilgrimage and piety for relics--which interact with the use and re-use of marble, the exchange and competition of architectural experience throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

Marble was prized first of all as material, because of its strength, colour and beauty, apart from any ancient associations. In the West the models were provided by early Christian architecture, more than by classical buildings, and by details more than the whole structure. In contrast, in the East, from the birth of the new religion until perhaps the 1100, Muslims probably used more marble than did the Europeans and undoubtedly were aware that they competed with the past. Nevertheless they never carried the overwhelming burden of the classical tradition.

The differences between East and West are outlined in a very clear way: in the Islamic East--which is less familiar to many of the scholars interested in this topic--the golden period for building and city-planning coincides with the most difficult phase for the West. Furthermore the building types greatly differ between the two halves of the Mediterranean: Islam needs caravanserais, madrasas, hospitals and minarets which have no counterparts in the Christian West and hypostyle halls are also radically different from Christian basilicas. Large projects are palatial or religious rather than civic: here the mosque, the palace and the public baths are the forum-substitutes, where the architectural emphasis is on interior space so that faades can be less important than courtyards. Finally the West does not know the deliberate destruction or the "obliterating restoration" of the monuments built by rival dynasties or even forebears, which is typical of Muslim rulers. This situation provokes a different attitude: Islam did not frequently build for solidity and durability, and the marble is not for eternity but for re-use.

Well aware of the many differences, the author nevertheless stresses the general tendencies which are more important for a general comprehension of the relationship between--so to say-- Muhammad and Charlemagne. There is a "spirit of competition blowing alongside the winds which encouraged international trade, raiding and war" (530). In this competition Muhammad starts first: the traditional view of Charlemagne's position as an architectural innovator (and marble re-user) is challenged in the context of the many new and extensive Islamic projects: according the author, one thing motivating the Carolingian Renaissance--quite an inflated term--is the desire to compete with the many and vast splendours of Islamic architecture.

Of course this idea does not mean a direct stylistic or typological influence on western architecture. Some elements may have filtered down to Pisa (the Leaning Tower) or Venice (the faade of S. Marco) but up to now it has not been easy to understand how this happened in any detail.

Some minor defects concerning very limited details are probably unavoidable in so vast a subject: sometimes the reader has the impression of a mixture of sources from too distant periods (62). Some oversights clearly depend on the difficulty to master a boundless (and always well updated) bibliography: in Rome there are public buildings but no temples dismantled as early as the time of Constantine (175), the capitals of S. Paolo fuori-le-mura were restored by Leo the Great (not by the emperor Honorius) and the Porticus of Octavia is Severan (not Theodosian) (415), in the narthex portico of S. Saba I do not know the existence of two porphyry columns with tetrarchic busts carried off by Pius VI (366 without bibliographic reference); in Jerusalem Justinian and not Constantine built the Nea (347); in Gaza the marbles of the Marneion were re-used for the square in front of the Basilica and not for the pavement of the building itself (65). I mention these details only reluctantly for the sake of completeness, but they cannot diminish the importance of this great synthesis, which will remain for many years a standard reference work, and will be very difficult to replace in the future.