16.09.04, West-Harling, ed., Three empires, Three cities

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Edward M. Schoolman

The Medieval Review 16.09.04

West-Harling, Veronica, ed. Three empires, three cities: Identity, material culture and legitimacy in Venice, Ravenna and Rome, 750-1000. Seminari del Centro interuniversitario per la storia e l’archeologia dell’alto medioevo, 6. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. 351. ISBN: 978-2-503-56228-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Edward M. Schoolman
University of Nevada, Reno

Although they would develop independently and divergently in the early Middle Ages, the cities of Venice, Ravenna, and Rome shared in common elements of a complex cultural backgrounds and negotiated political arrangements with the same empires that exerted control in Italy in the last quarter of the first millennium. Once bound together by their common membership in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth century, to varying degrees these cities engaged with the later Frankish and Saxon rulers of northern Italy as they forged their own civic identities and developed their unique urban landscapes and material cultures.

This volume, the culmination of an international workshop focused on the history of these cities, seeks to trace the connections and development of each city not only in relationship to its Byzantine heritage or political or cultural proximity to Constantinople, but also with the new powers, the Carolingians and the Ottonians, and ultimately in comparison to each other. The contributors to the volume represent both archaeologists and historians in equal measure, lending to the multidisciplinarity common to the other volumes of the series sponsored by the Centro Interuniversitario per la Storia e l'Archeologia dell'Alto Medioevo. Following two lines of inquiry, the first approach of the workshop was to investigate the formation and transformations of the cities (including various notions of identity in each), while the second was broader in perspective, examining the relationships across the cities and the empires to which they were connected.

Subsequently, the volume has a unusual shape--some of the contributions address issues relating to the specific development of Rome, Venice, or Ravenna at varying points between the mid-eighth to the end of the tenth century, while others have a more universal approach, considering aspects of the Frankish and Ottonian reigns in Italy. Each contribution appears in the language in which it had been presented by the author at the workshop; outside of the introduction and closing thoughts in English, four chapters are in Italian, three in English, and one in French. The multilingualism, along with the interdisciplinarity, carries into the transcript of the discussions following each section and the substantial concluding roundtable (although given the subject and location of the seminar, the discussions are primarily in Italian). Yet as a whole, the work is satisfying, examining on both the civic and imperial levels the changes taking place in Italy. Furthermore, the inclusions of the discussions, and especially the final roundtable, point clearly to the uncertainties, where our knowledge historically and archaeologically may be fuzzy or where the unknowns are most glaring, and to possible directions to take, acknowledging that while very different from each other, Venice, Ravenna, and Rome, still shared some essential cultural and political DNA distinguishing from other cities of the Frankish and later Ottonian kingdom of Italy.

The first two contributions to the volume centered on the development of Venice. In "The formation of an early medieval community: Venice between provincial and urban identity," Stefano Gasparri examines the formation of early medieval Venetian identity first through the contemporary "texts of identity," such as the history of John the Deacon, that described the establishment of the city and the formation of the myth of city's establishment, a myth of movement into the islands of the lagoon only firmly established sometime from the middle of the ninth century to the middle of the tenth, and second through the relationship between the region of Venetia (the mainland) and the city (the lagoon). This spatial dimension is one of the significant factors in the development of the city, one that was slow compared with Rome. Sauro Gelichi balances this approach with a survey of the available unevenly published archaeological material on the various patterns of settlement in the lagoon in "La storia di una nuova città attraverso l'archeologia: Venezia nell'alto medioevo." After presenting the earlier primary models of the urbanization of Venice and the description of John the Deacon, Gelichi offers a close "rereading" of specific excavations with the following tentative conclusion: the process of settlement on the islands was not uniform, beginning in the sixth or seventh century in its connection to Constantinople and facing the Adriatic, and greatly accelerated by the establishment of the episcopal see and the ducal palace in the ninth century as an independent entity facing landward.

The development of Ravenna in this period is far better attested archaeologically and historically than Venice, thanks in part to Ravenna's position as the capital of the Byzantine exarchate until 750 and relatively sparse development afterwards. Enrico Cirelli's contribution, "Material culture in Ravenna and its hinterland between the 8th and the 10th century," looks at the changes and developments in Ravenna's physical form and traded material, as it moves from being the former Byzantine capital of Italy into a world where it is pulled by various external factors. Under the control of the Lombards, the only visible remains are in the coins minted by King Aistulf; after Charlemagne overthrows the Lombards, there is little building, but clear evidence of local manufacture and regional trade with Dalmatia and the northern Adriatic. Perhaps most importantly, Cirelli underscores the reflections of local elite interests that begin to appear in the eighth and increasing in the ninth century in their support of new urban buildings and notably monasteries.

The aristocratic fabric of Rome as a medieval city, and in particular the relationship between elites, their dwellings, and the monastic houses they supported, is at the center of Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani's contribution, "Topographia del potere a Roma nel X secolo." The city's history in the tenth century has been recently revised and reassessed by Chris Wickham in Medieval Rome: Stability and Crisis of a City, 900-1150 (2014) and the contribution here has fully adopted the importance of the local elites within the landscape (in contrast to the established narratives focused on the role and local bureaucracy of the papacy). On the other hand, Caroline Goodson's work demonstrates how specific landmarks, such as of the chapel of Petronilla at St. Peter's, reflect the active relationship between the papacy and the Franks in the eighth century. Tracing the cult from its earliest possible late antique iterations, "To be the daughter of Saint Peter: S. Petronilla and forging the Franco-Papal alliance" focuses on the efforts made by Popes Paul and Stephen to connect the Carolingian family, absent from Rome, to monuments and practices local to the city, culminating in the formation of a "spiritual kinship" between Stephen and the Frankish king Pippin through his daughter (and Stephen's goddaughter) Gisela.

The final three contributions take a broader framework for "Empires," although each has distinct arguments for the ways in which the contemporary empires, or even the idea of empire itself, was brought to bear in the development of the three cities. The contribution of Paolo Delogu, "I Romani e l'impero (VII-X secolo)," centers on a number of texts, including the work of Benedict of Sant'Andrea del Soratte and his Cronicon and the papal biographies and letters generated in Rome, as sources for the interactions between the Frankish and later the Ottonian Empire and the Romans. In Delogu's estimation, the Cronicon, which covers to varying degrees of completeness the period from the fourth century through 965, sees the end of imperial authority over Rome with the arrival of the Lombards; while there may be a reconstituted empire under the Franks, it is one that excludes Rome. This line of reasoning was inconsistent with the promulgated narratives in the Liber pontificalis and the letters of the Codex epistolaris Carolinus, which sought to offset imperial language through the adoption of the notion of a respublica in Rome. Beyond these ideological frameworks, the Franks, and later the Saxons, who sought to adopt the title of emperor, also served as an effective "other" in the development of Venice, Ravenna and Rome. François Bougard's chapter, "Les Francs à Venise, à Ravenne, et à Rome: un facteur d'identité urbaine?" underscores the limited long-term impact of the Carolingians in the fabric of these cities; in reality, Frankish interests were religious and political, and the monuments which they supported in Rome represent those (while their patronage was essentially absent from Ravenna and the nascent Venice). The Ottonian relationship with Rome (and Rome's past) is the focus of Hagen Keller's contribution, "Identità romana e l'idea dell'Imperium Romanorum nel X e nel primo XI secolo." Keller focuses on the complicated topic of identity and the particularly enigmatic practice of differentiation between the concepts of "Roman" and a "Roman Empire" during the Ottonian period, an essential separation for a dynasty invested in the adoption of an Imperium Romanorum, especially in the short reign of Otto III.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Venice, Ravenna, and Rome continued to evolve: Rome as the locus of reform and ultimately under the papacy developed as a challenger to the authority claimed by the German emperors; Venice as a duchy free of Constantinople and slowly working to build its Mediterranean trading empire; and Ravenna, which returned to its status as a regional center, although out of the limelight which followed the others. These trajectories were not set in the eighth century, and the excellent contributions and discussions of this volume illuminate what was at stake for these cities and the various factors that underscored their development and the outcomes at the end of the first millennium.

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