Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2023
Gregor Kalas and Ann van Dijk, eds. Urban Developments in Late Antique and Medieval Rome: Revising the Narrative of Renewal Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2021. 342 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth € 119.00 (9789462989085)

This volume, featuring nine essays and an extensive introduction by its editors, stems from scholarly discussions hosted by the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Written by a multidisciplinary group of established scholars affiliated with universities across the United States and Canada, this book attempts to shift the scholarly debate about postclassical Rome from the concepts of decline and renewal to those of continuity, adaptation, reuse, reconstruction, memory, and (creative) resilience—a concept highlighted in the introduction (25–26). In this endeavor, the volume is successful and should be of interest to those engaged with the late antique and medieval history of Rome.

The book also continues the trend in art history developed early on from the need to address the influential studies of Richard Krautheimer, who argued that various renaissances/renewals of early Christian art occurred throughout the early medieval history of Rome. Krautheimer and others who wrote about medieval “renaissances” are referred to in the historiographical section of the rich introduction. Gregor Kalas and Ann van Dijk talk the reader through the history of the idea of Rome’s decline and warn against the pro-papal bias of many official surviving sources, especially the Liber pontificalis (15–24). The role of the Reformation in promoting the idea of Roman decline, and that of the Counter-Reformation in codifying what Chris Wickham has called the “papal narrative”—a topic studied recently by Ivan Foletti and Sabina Rosenbergová—would add volume to the discussion.

In chapter 2, Kristina Sessa explores ecclesiastical responses of Roman bishops Gelasius (492–496) and Pelagius (556–561) to the military and subsistence crises impacting the city. The civil war in 489–493 between Odoacer and Theoderic led many to flee from the devastated northern provinces to fortified Rome where Gelasius had to face a refugee crisis on top of the economic problems caused by the disruption of revenue streams. He positioned himself into the role of an administrator of famine relief specifically aimed at the poor displaced people. Similarly, Pelagius dealt with the aftermath of the Gothic Wars from ca. 535–554 and several sieges of Rome in those years, when he was still a deacon. Sessa is capable of demonstrating that they creatively used the crisis narrative to assert ecclesiastical authority, fight unwanted local practices, and bend the rules to address the shortage of priests around Italy.

Kalas takes the reader to the Forum of Trajan and to the exhibition of the now lost bronze portraits of the late fourth- and fifth-century poets Claudian, Flavius Merobaudes, and Sidonius Apollinaris. Claudian innovated the genre of verse panegyrics which pointed to past literary techniques, avoided explicit Christian references, and used the literary trope of a personified Rome, something that Kalas shows via epigraphic evidence, that appeared in inscriptions on two of the portraits bases, capturing the collective senatorial voice and its traditions. Installed outdoors close to the Hadrianic audience/lecture halls at Trajan’s Forum, the portraits, the author argues, worked in tandem with poetic performances for the elite, senatorial audiences to minimize anxieties and fears about the turbulent present. The Forum of Trajan thus continually served as an intellectual hub, where late antique emperors, their imagined dynastic connections, and old gods rather than a Christian God were celebrated via poetic praise.

Jacob Latham’s contribution approaches the idea of late antique and early medieval resilience in Rome by a detailed analysis of the arrival ceremony—the adventus—and its historical development from the longue durée perspective. The general pattern of the ceremony remained similar from the times of Cicero and Emperor Trajan, until around 800 CE. Yet the itinerary of ceremony and the identity of those who received the full treatment upon their arrival—for whom the red carpet was rolled out, as Latham aptly puts it (138)—as well as those who greeted them, slowly changed. Christianization of the imperial-royal adventus, starting with Constantine, culminated in the pious arrival of King Charlemagne in 774 and involved the substitutions of the Capitol with St. Peter’s and the Palatine palace with a hostel near St. Peter’s or the Lateran episcopal complex. The clergy’s and bishop’s importance within the welcoming committee grew stronger during these centuries reflecting the senate’s decline. Finally, the red carpet was fully rolled out also for Pope Leo III on November 29, 799, after his return from Charlemagne’s court.

Dennis Trout delves into the long pontificate of Honorius I (625–638), focusing especially on two of the pontiff’s initiatives: the promotion of the ancient topography of martyrdom fuori le mura and the revitalization of the ecclesiastical epigraphic poetry. Trout’s exciting examination of Honorius’s epigrams at St. Agnes’s tomb and Constantinian St. Peter’s central doors indicates the innovative use of past by emphasizing ties to Damasus’s and Pelagius II’s epigrams located elsewhere in the same churches respectively. After three or four decades of Roman bishops’ inactivity in the field of ecclesiastical building and versification, Honorius’s pontificate, the author argues, could be viewed as yet another renaissance in Rome. Despite understood as a “self-conscious moment of ‘self-reinvention’ through the assimilation and creative transformation of the past” (150), the insistence on the concept of renaissance for Honorius’s papacy still feels a little paradoxical considering the main aims of the volume. Additionally, according to Trout the apse mosaic of St. Agnese was “influenced” by and is a “boiled down” version of the sixth-century apse of Santi Cosma e Damiano (159, 164). Given all the iconographic as well as compositional differences of the two, such statements however seem to oversimplify the issue.

Erik Thunø’s text on the early medieval apse mosaics of Rome draws in major way from his thought-provoking 2015 monograph. The article, just as the monograph, argues for the existence of a visual network of an apsidal recurring formula, which collapses linear time into a “continuous present.” Because the text challenges the narrative of renewals and renaissances in Rome, it is a perfect fit for Kalas and van Dijk’s volume. Looking at the apse mosaics outside of their specific historical context as a repeating formula consisting of iconographic and epigraphic features, Thunø suggests that this network transcends each individual historicity into a timeless dimension and thus forms an ecclesiological fellowship (communio sanctorum) between heaven and earth, functioning across space and time. Because Thunø’s formula has already been debated in a few predominantly positive reviews on his monograph (e.g., by Annie Labatt, Stephen J. Lucey, John Osborne), I will only remark here that while the apse mosaic of Santa Prassede is fully described as a perfect example of this, the apse mosaic of Santa Maria in Domnica which does not entirely fit into the pattern is put aside “for reasons of brevity” (185, note 7).

John Osborne’s chapter searches for the moment when the city reinvented itself as the Christian caput mundi to secure its longevity. Osborne associates the process of the conscious rebranding of Rome by its bishops with the course of the seventh century. The first documented conversion of ancient building to a church in Liber pontificalis—Boniface IV’s transformation of Pantheon to the church of Santa Mary ad Martyres in 609—could indeed mark a shift in discourse. The ancient material legacy is deliberately incorporated into the papal present to demonstrate that Rome was intended by God ab initio to be the Christian center. This is the new brand or identity of the city that Osborne has in mind and which, he suggests, must be understood in the context of other fundamental changes in traditional patterns and practices. The process of reinvention of the city as the Christian caput mundi was possibly completed in 688, when Sergius I (687–701) probably moved the tomb of Leo I (440–461) from the secretarium to the south transept of Old St. Peter’s. This act transformed the early medieval pilgrims’ visit of the church to “a physical mimesis of Rome’s sacred history” (223) which mirrored the transformation of the city itself.

In her chapter on rewriting the renouveau paléochrétien, an influential theory about eleventh- and twelfth-century art and architecture coined by Hélène Toubert, Dale Kinney begins with a useful summary of the major publications on the Roman artistic production of the period in question. While not dismissing the French author’s scholarship, Kinney argues that her Panofskyan framework is in certain aspects obsolete. In particular, she challenges her top-down model of agency in art making, comparable to (and perhaps inspired by?) François Truffaut’s ideal of cinema des auteurs, which encourages directors to write their own screenplays and exert control over the movies. For the eleventh century especially (but not exclusively), Kinney envisages a more collaborative model where the intentions of various agents are entwined. The artistic result would have consequently not reflected a singular beforehand decided vision, being rather a less predictable outcome of a dynamic discussions and compromises. Focusing on the case of Santa Maria in Trastevere the scholar demonstrates that the reform documented there in 1065 had little impact on material and visual culture—only two manuscripts (British Library, Add 14801 and Add 6156) and possibly a marble door frame can be associated with it. The larger rebuilding comprising the transept and new apse mosaic took place some eighty years later.

Luisa Nardini proposes to study Roman chant manuscripts from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries as documents of their own times rather than vessels containing information about the origins of Western chant. She argues that the quest for the origins made scholars overlook newly composed Roman chants and the exchanges in terms of music and liturgy between Rome and other churches within the papal domain after the eighth century. Chant formularies for the mass of Invention of the Cross from the first notated Roman manuscript from 1071 (Cologny-Genève, Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, MS 74) in fact, reveal high level of hybridization. Roman cantors of that time juxtaposed pieces with various origins and styles (Gallican, Frankish, Beneventan, Roman), negotiated between the local and external influences, and experimented with language, techniques, and melodies, as Nardini’s comparison with melodies of neo-Gregorian chants recorded in Beneventan manuscripts shows. Analyzing the communion Lux eterna of likely Roman origins and its various pitch ornamentations (elegantly compared to opus sectile) Nardini also suggests that Roman singers taught their extemporaneous practice in Francia.

Finally, William North focuses on three voices of the reform movement to show the heterogeneous cognition and intellectual diversity of Roman clerics. He reconsiders the “textual community” (a concept introduced by Brian Stock) of the Roman curia as a work in constant progress rather than a stable and consistent phenomenon. The Breviarium from the 1070s by Atto, a cardinal priest of San Marco, addressed the use of apocryphal penitential in the administration at San Marco. Atto emphasized the importance of the papal authorization of the texts and urged his brethren to apply epistemological caution and critical reading. His contemporary Bruno, cardinal bishop of Segni, unveiled the Gregorian curia’s thirst for deeper knowledge of the biblical texts but also its dependency on a guide who would have known the readers well and crafted his works specifically for them. Both Atto’s Breviarium and Bruno’s various commentaries on the Bible filled the readers’ hearts with the new and right décor, as advocated in the theory of cognition expressed by Peter Damian’s 1063 letter to his fellow cardinals. While successfully questioning several assumptions about the reform and being a convincing article on its own, the connection between this essay and the volume’s wish to “revisit the narrative of renewal” seems elusive.

All the chapters in Kalas and van Dijk’s volume form a coherent whole which, in summary, is an important and fruitful addition to the ever-growing debate about early medieval Rome. The silence about the tenth century perhaps indicates the need for scholars to continue on the path of reconsidering Krautheimerian narrative of renewals and dark centuries, but it does not detract from what is an otherwise excellent publication.

Martin F. Lešák
Department of Art History, Masaryk University, Brno / Lehrstuhl für Liturgiewissenschaft, Universität Regensburg