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22.05.11 Kalas/van Dijk (eds.), Urban Developments in Late Antique and Medieval Rome

22.05.11 Kalas/van Dijk (eds.), Urban Developments in Late Antique and Medieval Rome

Although spanning the lengthy period between the fourth and the twelfth centuries, and written by scholars from different fields (history, art history, architectural history, textual studies, musicology), the chapters analyse in an interconnected way “Rome’s cultural developments during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages by shifting discourse away from the concepts of decline and renewal” (7). The authors draw the reader’s attention to case studies which make clear how the “Romans responded productively and inventively to both changing conditions and dire circumstances” (ibidem), thereby escaping the dramatic narrative of decline and renewal, which has generally characterised ancient sources as well as the scholarly literature about Rome for many years.

In their Introduction, in which they usefully trace the origins of the narrative of decline and renewal (15-24), Gregor Kalas and Ann van Dijk underline a couple of keywords which help readers approach the book in a way that allows them to appreciate its innovative take: creativity and resilience. For example, they remark how in the centuries that saw Rome transitioning from a pagan imperial capital to the centre of the Christian oecumene, the bishops of Rome collaborated with emperors and senators in commissioning churches, inscriptions, historical and hagiographical narratives, shaping the city’s cultural landscape. In examining varied evidence, the first chapters of the book reveal “that the papacy’s growth occurred in tandem with strong civic institutions and the wide participation of the secular elite” (13), especially in maintaining or repurposing ancient buildings and infrastructures, as demonstrated by archaeology. The Constantinian basilicas of the Lateran and St. Peter’s are examples not only of this collaboration but also of a new approach in the fourth century to erecting public buildings by incorporating stockpiled and reused materials (for practical as well as for ideological reasons). This book explains why such activity should not be seen as a symptom of cultural or economic decline, especially so considering that the donations made by secular and ecclesiastical elites included objects in precious metals, marbles, and textiles (18). In challenging, albeit considerately, Richard Krautheimer’s view of the “renewal” of paleochristian architecture and arts in various moments during the medieval history of Rome, this book instead emphasises the elements of continuity. It does so, for example, in the history of the papacy as an institution. Relying on the work of other historians, Kalas and van Dijk support the view that the Lives of the bishops of Rome in the papal chronicle, begun in the sixth century, “depict the papacy absorbing imperial prerogatives” (22). These prerogatives included material support, together with support from lay donors, for the upkeep and continuity of service in the socio-political institutions of the city, such as the diaconiae, that is, church-based centres assisting the poor, the sick, the elderly, and foreigners. Another “positive aspect of Rome’s post-classical culture that demonstrates urban resilience” highlighted in the Introduction is “the creation of the city’s holy identity” (25). This was a long and complex process to which not only the bishops of Rome personally contributed, but also migrants from Greek-speaking areas of the Mediterranean. Especially during the Monothelite controversy in the seventh century, but also later during the controversy over sacred images, they collaborated with the Lateran and reinforced the view that Rome had become the bastion for Chalcedonian orthodoxy as opposed to “heretical” Constantinople, all the other patriarchal sees (Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch) being out of the picture as they were under Islamic rule.

In the following chapter, Kristina Sessa analyses the effects of the civil war (489-493) and of the Gothic war (535-554) on Rome, with their resulting devastation, famine, and mass migrations. She reverses the lens of the historical interpretation, which had focused on the degenerative process induced by the wars, by looking at their effects as generative of opportunities, in that they arguably spurred the bishops of Rome to reformulate ecclesiastical ideals, practices, and spaces. Through two case studies related to Pope Gelasius (492-496) and Pope Pelagius I (556-561), Sessa demonstrates that in such arduous, post-war conditions, the episcopal authority stepped up to create a more efficient administration of Church property. They did so in order to provide for the multitudes afflicted by food shortages and displacement: “Gelasius’s action is the first recorded time when a Roman bishop attempted to draw on the church’s own estate holdings to relieve pressure on the city’s food supply. While the previous pope had collected and distributed alms for Rome’s needy...none had faced a refugee crisis on this scale” (50). There is no talk yet of the patrimonium Petri, an expression first used by Pope Gregory I (590-604), but nonetheless there is evidence of a self-conscious management of the church’s resources. In the face of the loss of clerics, Gelasius also devised a one-year, “abridged path” to priesthood, to guarantee pastoral care to distressed communities (54). Through his actions, Gelasius emerges rather as “an innovator (a dangerous figure for ancient leaders)...[and] as an emergency management expert, prepared to break the rules only as an extreme measure in a time of crisis” (55). The second authoritative figure Sessa analyses is Pelagius: he had to face the consequences of various man-made and natural disasters, including the Gothic war, three sieges of the city of Rome, the climatic changes instigated by a volcanic eruption, and the plague. But first of all, in trying to fend off accusations that his election to the bishopric was irregular, he inaugurated his office with a procession from the Janiculum Hill to St. Peter’s. Pelagius walked and chanted alongside the victorious Byzantine general Narses, while holding a Cross and bearing the Gospels on his head, thus clearly appropriating symbols of legitimacy and authority in what is the first attested papal procession in Rome.

In the third chapter, Gregor Kalas analyses the function of recently uncovered lecture halls in the Forum Traiani. He argues that, between the late fourth and the late fifth centuries, poets such as Claudian, Merobaudes, and Sidonius Apollinaris, through the epic panegyric--a genre invented in late antique Rome--denied the passage of time by depicting emperors and their generals as engaging in imaginary dialogues with Roma. By keeping “the imaginary Rome alive in their verses,” Kalas postulates that the public recitation of these verses in the Forum Traiani “furthered the preservation of the real city” (76) since it “united audiences with poets whose literary works imagined cultural resilience” (79). The attested presence of the statues of these poets in the same forum points to the Romans’ yearning for verses depicting an eternally victorious Rome--not the actual city, abandoned by the emperors and under attack from barbarian tribes--and for memorializing its intellectual achievements (87).

In the fourth chapter, Jacob Latham reprises the question of papal processions in Rome and explores how the imperial adventus, or institutionalised arrival in the city, evolved between the fourth and ninth centuries, with the contribution of the senators and the Roman population, in symbolic locations such as the Forum and the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill, which would be replaced by the basilica of St. Peter. According to the circumstances, emperors could enter the city on chariots, either standing or seated, or on foot, tweaking the triumphal, often military overtones of a formal adventus. In 476, Anthemius would be the last Roman emperor to enter Rome until Constans II in 663. However, Theoderic, the Ostrogothic king of Italy ruling in the name of the Byzantine emperor, did enter Rome in 500 with a triumph, although he paid a visit to St. Peter’s at some point, despite being himself an Arian (119-20). In this he seems to have followed an established pattern, since imperial visits to St. Peter’s “seem to have become customary in the fifth century” (125). In 800, Charlemagne reached the basilica on foot, where, on its steps, he was greeted by the pope. The period between the adventus of Anthemius and Constans II was characterised by the arrival of imperial portraits, which were hosted in a chapel of the imperial palace. However, the portrait of Philippikos Bardanes (711-713) was not welcomed in any church, most likely to manifest Pope Constantine’s rejection of the “heretic” emperor who supported Monothelitism, thus demonstrating, if needs be, how images were considered powerful means of communication, even at an official level.

In analysing the arrivals of Rome’s bishops to Rome (132ff.), Latham signals that the arrival of the Apostle Paul as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles (28:16-17) may be regarded as the first Christian adventus in Rome. However, the episcopal adventus had a delayed development, since the bishop of Rome resided in the city, unlike emperors starting with Constantine I, and possibly there had been no need to envisage a formalised entrance. Upon their return after important diplomatic missions, Pope Zacharias and Pope Stephen II, in 741 and 755 respectively, were indeed met with an official ceremony. Upon his return after finding shelter at Charlemagne’s court, Leo III was welcomed by clergy, the foreign scholae, the urban militia, and the wider populace of Rome, processing with them through the streets of the city until reaching St. Peter’s for a solemn Mass. Leo III’s is the first detailed account of a papal adventus(136-137). In reflecting on this ritual, Latham rolls out a red carpet for his readers to show how the “late ancient and the early medieval Roman social imaginary,” made of a “common set of concepts, symbols, and practices,” evolved.

Through the lens of inscriptions linked to the patronage of Pope Honorius I (625-638), Dennis Trout guides us through the refashioning of Rome as a Christian capital. He remarks that after very difficult decades between wars and the arrival of the Lombards, the early decades of the seventh were a period of relative peace, in which the conditions “were good for reimagining the city’s future” (151). Despite being involved in far-reaching political affairs and doctrinal disputes, Honorius “focussed his attention on the ancient topography of martyrdom that ringed Rome” (154). He notably refashioned the shrine of the virgin martyr Agnes, where a large fourth-century basilica already stood, by building another basilica, ad corpus, and decorating her tomb with silver. Trout focuses on the inscriptions accompanying Honorius’ enterprises (161-170), in which one can detect the echoes of classical as well as papal poetry and metaphor, especially Damasus’ (366-384) elogia of Roman martyrs. A long verse inscription also decorated his silver revetment of the doors of St. Peter’s, presenting Peter and Paul as the “sacred threshold” of the basilica.

In the sixth chapter Erik Thunø summarises the rationale of his book on Roman apsidal mosaics between the sixth and the ninth centuries (The Apse Mosaic in Early Medieval Rome. Time, Network, and Repetition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). He proposes looking at this set of mosaics with a “synchronic view” (178). Thanks to it, the Roman apsidal mosaics of the sixth to the ninth centuries give the impression of a “continuous present” in which distinctive elements are used to express a timeless heavenly hierarchy (182). The lofty inscriptions imbued with light metaphors accompanying these mosaics, as well as their direct or indirect reference to the presence of relics, are the recurring formulae in this panorama of mosaics. In sum, in (arguably) de-contextualising these mosaics from their specific historical settings, while remarking on their visual interconnectedness (189), Thunø aims to challenge “the prevailing narrative” on Roman mosaics, derived from Richard Krautheimer’s diachronic view of them, which was characterised by the idea of the periodical reprise or “renascence” of this technique.

In setting out to demonstrate that “the history of Rome in the early Middle Ages is best understood as a continuous evolution from Rome of the Caesars to Rome of the popes” (205), John Osborne offers one of the most interesting chapters in the collection. Reprising the discourse of earlier chapters, he examines the evolution of the city into an urbs sacra, and considers its conscious “re-invention” (211). He looks not only at the main physical transformations Rome underwent, but also at the stepping up of its bishops as spiritual and political leaders, at the intangible contribution of Greek-speaking clerics, and at the import of eastern saints to join local martyrs and make of Rome the epicentre of the Christian oecumene. Among the various foci of his chapter, he outlines the exceptional act on the part of Pope Sergius I (687-701) of moving the burial of Pope Leo I, the champion of Chalcedonian Christology, from the narthex of St. Peter’s to the south wing of the transept. This meant that Leo could be venerated by the pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine of Peter in the annular crypt (216-218), which was the climax of a route in a “memorial landscape” inhabited by the tombs of Roman emperors and Christian saints (224).

What is perhaps the period of the most famous “renewal” in the arts and religious life of Rome, the Gregorian Reform, is the focus of the eighth chapter, by Dale Kinney. She usefully retraces for the reader the rich scholarly debate around the “early Christian revival” postulated by Hélèn Toubert and supported by Richard Krautheimer. On the basis of her long acquaintance with the materials and recent historical investigations, she rejects the narrative of a “top-down paradigm” of a Reform reflecting exclusively the directions of the papal entourage and instead supports the view of more independent-minded clergy and lay donors behind important artistic commissions of the period. The role of lay donors is especially emphasised; in this she relies on other scholars, including Serena Romano. She ultimately reconsiders the impact of the Reform on the churches of Rome, offering the reader an opportunity to pause and reflect on the question of Rome’s “paleochristian renewal.”

In the penultimate chapter, Luisa Nardini examines the tradition of the Roman chant already established in the seventh century, but the written testimonies of which only date to the mid-eleventh century. She shows the importance of liturgical chant, which complements the physical space of liturgy, the church, in surrounding and amplifying the gestures of the celebrant and the congregation (280). In order to preserve Roman chant, to allow it to be exported, and to prevent its corruption, musical notations were devised in c.800. The visit of Stephen II to Pippin in 754 must have raised the Franks’ interest in Roman chant. Through the comparison of specific melodies in manuscripts of various origins, she demonstrates the variability and improvisation associated with Roman chant, which often involved elements from the Gallican and Beneventan traditions (288).

In the final chapter of the collection, William North examines the roles and the works of three eminent clerics and exegetes associated with the Gregorian Reform, namely Peter Damian, Atto of San Marco, and Bruno of Segni. He has recourse to the concept of “textual communities,” that is groups of people sharing a set of texts, ideas, and association with specific interpreters of these texts from which they derived views on the world and on religion. Contemporary accounts signal the desire of the Archdeacon Hildebrand, later Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), to produce texts which would “energize and fortify the ‘textual communities’ of reformers in and beyond Rome” (302).