Born Again?

Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308

by Richard Krautheimer
Princeton University Press, 389 260 illus pp., $16.50 (paper)

Richard Krautheimer’s book on medieval Rome owes much to his lectures at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York. Less obviously, the book has been influenced by a great scholarly enterprise in which, with a few others, Krautheimer has been engaged for half a century: the Corpus of the Christian Basilicas of Rome. The Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae is a technical archaeological and historical survey of the churches built in Rome from the fourth through the ninth centuries. Each church is described, the main events of its architectural history are listed down to the present day, the learned literature relating to it is catalogued, and the questions it poses for the scholar are discussed. The Corpus is now complete. It has been published—and this is not entirely irrelevant to the character of Krautheimer’s work—in the Vatican City.

Krautheimer, the author of the standard text, the Pelican Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture,1 is one of the distinguished émigré art historians who transferred to the United States and Great Britain the traditions of the German schools. Moving within the common tradition of Kulturgeschichte, these scholars taught art-historical methods which emphasized either the sophisticated analysis of forms and types, or the systematic study of symbolic content. Unlike his former teacher, Paul Frankl, who also emigrated to the United States, Krautheimer has given symbolic meaning priority over the analysis of form. He has maintained that no work of sacred art can be understood unless its religious implications are given proper consideration. He has been less deeply involved in the world of iconography and symbols than were Panofsky and Wittkower, who were perhaps more influential in forming the outlook of the new American art history schools than he. But he belongs to the same general movement of ideas.

At first acquaintance Krautheimer’s profile of Rome from the time of the Emperor Constantine to that of Dante presents itself to the reader as a narrative and descriptive work, with little direct reference to theory. In its first part, following a meandering but well-marked path first opened by the great nineteenth-century historian Gregorovius, Krautheimer relates the medieval history of Rome to its papal and European background. The history of art is fitted untidily but vividly into this frame. As he explains disarmingly if ungrammatically in the preface, this is a history of Rome through rather than of her monuments. The second part of the book is entitled “Forma Urbis Romae Medievalis.” It contains a topographical description of medieval Rome and an analysis of the city’s medieval shape and development: this part seems to owe a debt to modern historical ideas on medieval and Renaissance “urbanism.”

The life and strength of the book come from Krautheimer’s deep acquaintance with the monuments, their archaeology, and their documents, obtained through his life’s work on the Corpus. Rome is complex because of the way in which the student comes upon layer after layer of shapes and symbols. As Goethe wrote, it is hard to see how one Rome…

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