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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 follows another, because not only is the new superimposed upon the old, but the different periods of old and new are piled one upon the other. Only the eye can appreciate this “infinite superposition of history,” as Henry James called it; Goethe was right to say written records and tradition give us no real idea of what Rome is.

Since the fifteenth century scholars have been trying to elucidate the meaning of the classical and Christian monuments, and Krautheimer has spent much of his working life in the service of this Roman humanist tradition. It has often been necessary for him to survey an eighteenth-century church in order to reach a church of the eighth century. Equally, the notes of a seventeenth-century scholar may be more important to him than those of a twentieth-century colleague, and it has occasionally seemed natural to him to claim a scholar of the seventeenth or eighteenth century as a predecessor for his own views. 2 There is a persistent emphasis on humanistic continuity in his work.

Although the book under review is a very learned one, Krautheimer seems to have leaned over rather far to make its tone informal, sometimes sliding into a chatty and confidential style, in which he talks about “VIPs” and “colossal publicity stunts,” and suggests that we can “practically hear the guides at each [early medieval] catacomb crowding in with their spiel.” This off-duty manner, and the occasional tedious repetitions, are the penalties which he perhaps has had to pay for basing the book on an earlier lecture course. In the descriptive, topographical part of the book he lapses once or twice into the picturesque historical vignette: he has been set a bad example in this respect by the otherwise distinguished book of Robert Brentano on thirteenth-century Rome, Rome Before Avignon.3

But Krautheimer’s book is powerfully argued even if rather loosely organized. It seems to contain two main themes, each of which sits rather uneasily alongside the other. On the one hand the first part of the book is subtitled “Image and Reality,” which is perhaps an art-historical reflection of the title of a famous book by Johannes Haller, The Papacy: Idea and Reality (Das Papsttum: Idee und Wirklichkeit). Whether or not this is so, Krautheimer seems to mean to imply a contrast between the pretentious image which Rome presented to the world, and the real condition of the city, just as Haller had implied a contrast between the inflated pretensions of the papacy and the political reality.

On the whole Krautheimer interprets papal history along traditional lines. He analyzes a continuously changing relationship throughout Roman history between “ideology,” “rhetoric” (by which we may perhaps understand propaganda), and “reality” (which sometimes seems to refer to urban conditions, and sometimes to political power). In Krautheimer’s account these three factors in papal history work harmoniously together or “correspond” only at the peak periods of papal power and influence like those of the great political popes such as Innocent III or Boniface VIII. It is a gallant attempt on his part to make the orthodox histories of papal ideas and policies fit harmoniously with the histories of art and urbanism, but it has some flaws, of which the most important is that Rome’s periods of artistic creativity do not correspond very happily with the rises and troughs of papal power politics.

The main problem is Roman conservatism and sluggishness. Far from having been the intellectual powerhouse which her position at the head of medieval Christendom might lead us to expect, Rome emerges in this book as a rather sleepy and provincial city, which most of the main artistic movements of the Middle Ages passed by. Romanesque and Gothic, the two main stylistic descriptions which most laymen would apply to medieval art, make only rather tentative appearances on the Roman architectural scene. As Krautheimer puts it, Rome was “weighed down by her history: and the weight she carried kept her out of Europe.” Rome was “conservative and retardataire” (sic), “insular and uninventive.” Her churches built in the eleventh and twelfth centuries were “monotonous,” and she was notably isolated from the great movements which at that time were reshaping architectural thinking in northwest Europe.

That is not, of course, the whole story. Alongside his account of the ups and downs of papal history, but not always reconcilable with it, runs Krautheimer’s preoccupation with one of the great themes of humanism and of humanist art history, the antique. Rome was the custodian of the ancient world, and of the artistic tradition which has fascinated scholarship since Winckelmann and Goethe in the eighteenth century. The Middle Ages themselves sometimes thought that Rome the Holy City had been as it were pre-consecrated in Rome the Ancient City; this was what made Dante assert that the very stones in the walls of Rome were worthy of reverence. Krautheimer’s position is in a sense doubly traditional, because of his conviction that early Christian church architecture was in many ways an imitation and transformation of concepts and practices which came from the Greek East.

Like Winckelmann in the eighteenth century, Krautheimer has stayed in Rome while asserting the primary importance of Hellenism. The setting is Christian, not pagan as it was for Winckelmann, and Krautheimer has to employ a sort of sermo humilis better suited to the more humble, sometimes even debased nature of Christian church architecture. On the other hand, once Constantine and his successors were in control as the sponsors of the Christian Church of the fourth and fifth centuries, Christian buildings became in effect public buildings, and the rhetorical apparatus of Roman public architecture was placed at the disposal of the newly rich Christian bishops. The way was then clear for subsequent church-building revivals in Rome of the classical tradition of antique art. These churches make up one of the main themes of the book, and Krautheimer expounds them with great sympathy and skill. He never approaches “the” Renaissance, and his book stops short in 1308 at what he considers the end of the Roman Middle Ages. But a great deal of his attention goes to what Panofsky once evasively called “Renascences,” to the conscious revivals of the principles and practice of antique art.

The nature of these revivals of the antique is subtly discussed by Krautheimer. Like other art historians such as Ernst Kitzinger, he distinguishes between “revivals” of the antique, which show close understanding of the principles of classical art, and mere “survivals” of ancient motifs. Krautheimer teaches us to look freshly at the use of classical principles in the great Liberian basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, built by Pope Sixtus III in the fifth century. The impressionistic mosaics of this church are a last great manifestation of late-antique techniques. He analyzes the decline of the classical tradition of art in Rome in the seventh century, at a time when Rome was still “Byzantine” politically and culturally, but when both Romes experienced in their architecture “the gradual deformation of a grand monumental and sculptural style and of rational space.” He writes wittily and persuasively about the second period of Roman history, which he sees as characterized by a classical revival, the late eighth and early ninth centuries, the time of the papal break with the Byzantine Empire and of the birth of the Carolingian Empire. Pope Paschal I (817-824), a hitherto colorless historical figure of the early ninth century, emerges through the evidence of the papal monuments as “vain and sophisticated.” Reading his text, one is conscious of gaining a new point of view about medieval Rome.

But when I start to try to fit what Krautheimer tells us about these “revivals” of the antique with what I know about papal history, doubts overwhelm me. The gap between image and reality, between ideology and rhetoric on one hand and social and political facts on the other, is so wide as to be hardly bridgeable. One objection is that periods of rediscovery of the antique seem to have little to do with periods of papal power and success. Another is the use of the terms “renascence,” “rebirth,” “revival” by Krautheimer and others to describe widely differing phenomena of periods so diverse that one wonders whether such expressions can have a precise meaning.

The fifth century, the period of Krautheimer’s first rebirth and revival of classical art in Rome, was once apostrophized by the great church historian Monsignor Duchesne as the “Unhappy Century” and dismissed by him as a period of public disaster and ecclesiastical humiliation. It is true that the fourth and fifth decades of the century saw Rome adorned by beautiful Christian buildings. But the century of Alaric and Attila, and of the drastic depopulation of Rome, seems an odd one to choose for a period of rebirth. Krautheimer does not even mention the sack of Rome by Genseric in 455. There is a much better argument for treating the late eighth and early ninth centuries as a period of papal revival; though I would add that Paschal I, the most important papal builder of the time, was firmly treated as a subordinate by the Frankish government.

The “New Rebirth of Rome” which Krautheimer sees as taking place in the twelfth century is far more debatable. Certainly this was a period when the Roman bishopric was improving its position rapidly, when Rome was becoming richer and more frequented; no doubt we can speak of urban revival in Rome, as we can for many other Italian cities at that time. But “rebirth” seems to carry the implication that the urban developments were directly related to the antique, and part of Krautheimer’s text suggests that this was so. Is this not misleading? I was struck by the contrast between the expertise lavished to distinguish between “revival” and “survival” of classical art in the seventh and eighth centuries, and the blanket acceptance of “revival” to describe the reminiscences of the antique which can be found in the twelfth century. The scattered borrowings from classical art in twelfth-century Rome seem to be very miscellaneous, and Krautheimer himself refers to them at one point (p. 191) as a “fad.”

As for the correspondence between “image” and “reality,” this is as hard to establish for the twelfth century as for most other periods. Except for works of political propaganda like the decorations of the Lateran, it is very hard to relate important buildings and styles to “great” popes or to “great” themes in papal history. From Leo the Great in the fifth century to Boniface VIII in the fourteenth, the “great” popes had other things to do than to sponsor expensive architectural programs of revivals of the antique. Gregory the Great built nothing; Gregory VII, the leading pope of the eleventh-century Reform, was indirectly responsible for the destruction of a large part of Rome.

I do not wish to make fun of art historians for their zeal in seeking “rebirth” and “revival” of the antique. It seems to me to be a noble inconsistency, whose origins go beyond the German and French historians of the nineteenth century to the Enlightenment. When Goethe was in Rome he said that he experienced a personal rebirth (Wiedergeburt), which was intimately connected with his going to school, as it were, with the monuments, and so achieving his own cultural formation (Bildung). Perhaps there is a moral element in this search for classical revival. Certainly the generation of historians to which Krautheimer belongs is more deeply steeped in the antique tradition than any generation of historians is likely to be in the foreseeable future, and it ill becomes their juniors to be too critical.

Nevertheless, it would perhaps be just as profitable to look for the social and economic conditions which enabled and persuaded people to build these noble and costly buildings as to seek to relate them to ideology and politics. Krautheimer is well aware of the problem, and he seeks to attack it in this book whenever he can, but the scholarly work which would have enabled him to do this in a satisfying way has hardly started. The work done by a distinguished and versatile Renaissance scholar, Arnold Esch, has been useful to him, but using such work involves too much application of the lessons of later periods to earlier periods, and too much speculation about what “must have been” the case. It is a pity that Krautheimer did not draw more extensively on the work of Pierre Toubert on the Roman countryside, which might have helped him to account for the relatively prosperous conditions of eighth-and early ninth-century Rome.4 He has used the work of Robert Brentano and Julian Gardner on the thirteenth century. But little is known of most periods of medieval Roman social and economic history, and it is clear at every turn of Krautheimer’s book that the social historians have failed to give him more than scraps of the kind of information he needed, and entirely failed to supply him with an adequate point of view. I say this, in part, as a self-reproach.

The main lacunae in Krautheimer’s book are not his fault. Everyone should be grateful for this learned and humane work, which combines a powerful grasp of the principles and the minutiae of the history of Western art with a detailed topographical grasp of this complex city. The fine illustrations are by no means restricted to technical details, but include a number of beautiful Renaissance drawings and also very fine photographs of the nineteenth century, most of them made before Rome had been irrevocably defaced by becoming the capital of Italy. The Rome of Henry James is in some ways almost as powerfully present in this book as the Rome of the Middle Ages.

  1. 1

    Penguin, 1965.

  2. 2

    An example is Krautheimer’s citation of Giovanni Ciampini (1633-1698) and Joseph Bingham (1668-1723) as predecessors in the approach to religious symbolism to which he attached himself in his “Introduction to an ‘Iconography of Medieval Architecture”’ (reprinted in his Studies in Early Christian, Medieval and Renaissance Art, New York University Press, 1969).

  3. 3

    Basic Books, 1974.

  4. 4

    Les Structures du Latium mediéval (Rome, 1973). The relevant work of Esch is in learned periodicals, notably in an article on “Spolia” in the Archiv für Kulturgeschichte (1969), and in various articles in the journal of the German Historical Institute in Rome, Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken (especially that for 1973).

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