Saturday, January 28, 2012


Claudia Bolgia, Rosamond McKitterick, John Osborne (ed.), Rome across Time and Space: Cultural Transmission and the Exchange of Ideas, c. 500-1400. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xx, 351. ISBN 9780521192170. $99.00.

Reviewed by Réka Forrai, Central European University (

Version at BMCR home site


Trying to map nine hundred years from the life of a city like Rome is a gigantic enterprise. However, this is the ambition of this compact little book of less than 400 pages. It discusses cultural transmission and the exchange of ideas centered on medieval Rome: Rome, the idea, and Rome, the place. With its clearly defined questions, and its innovative papers it proves to be an extremely useful compass that will help you navigate whether you are going towards or coming from Rome.

Framed by a list of illustrations (all black and white), of tables and maps at the beginning, and a general and a manuscript index at the end, the volume is divided in six subsections: Roman texts and Roman history; The translation of the Roman liturgy north of the Alps; Architectural inspiration and sculptural models within and without Rome; Cultural exchanges; Patrons, artists, and ideas on the move; Roman and papal jurisdictions. These chapter headings provide the focal points around which the contributors organize their ideas. The volume is not exhaustive of the theme, and some centuries are more present than others: the early middle ages dominate. Within the narrow foci of the different sections, however, the papers are engaging, informative and enter in a lively dialogue with each other.

The justification for these divisions is provided in the introduction of Claudia Bolgia. Her prefatory essay is a very strong and clear formulation of the organizing ideas, placing the book within current scholarly trends, showing how this collection is embedded in contemporary methodological debates or ongoing research projects. The essays collected here are derived from papers presented at a Cambridge conference in 2008. The main purpose was to explore Rome as place, horizontally, in space and as an idea, vertically, in time. Cultural transmission and exchange, the key concepts from the title of the book, serve as umbrella terms for diverse phenomena of adaptation, transformation, reinterpretation, and translation. The editors' intention was to work with these methodological concepts in a frame which is pregnant with different treatments of the idea of Rome. The book is thus the result of an interdisciplinary enterprise, where objects, ideas, and their human agents were all intended to be taken into account. However, the result displays a slight preference for the physical over the ideal: art historical studies make up the bulk of the volume. The focus continuously shifts not only between disciplines and centuries, but also from within Rome to outside, giving the reader a strong impression about how heavy the two-way traffic was on all those roads leading to Rome.

I Roman texts and Roman history

Rosamond McKitterick's "Roman texts and Roman history in the early Middle Ages" argues for the Liber Pontificalis as "alternative history." By looking at possible sources, she concludes that this serial biography follows Roman emperors' lives rather than martyrologies, in an attempt to change Rome's history from pagan into Christian by creating a competitive Christian historiographical tradition.

"Monuments and histories: ideas and images of Antiquity in some descriptions of Rome " by Maurizio Campanelli analyses of series of contemporary descriptions of Rome, and observing how Rome as a sacred, eternal place gradually turns into Rome as history book. The sources discussed are mainly the Mirabilia urbis Romae (12th century), Narracio de mirabilibus urbis Romae by Master Gregory (13th century), Giovanni Cavallini's Polistoria (14th century), concluding with the humanists Pier Paolo Vergerio, Poggio Bracciolini and Flavio Biondo.

Michael D. Reeve's "Rome, reservoir of ancient texts? " is a bibliographical survey, an up to date review of literature about the question of ancient Latin literature preserved in medieval Rome. The question mark at the end of the title refers to the one major setback of all such investigations: the lack of sources about the early history of Roman libraries.

II The translation of the 'Roman' liturgy north of the Alps

Éamonn ó Carragáin's "The periphery rethinks the centre: inculturation, 'Roman' liturgy and the Ruthwell Cross" analyses a famous early medieval Anglo-Saxon artefact, the Ruthwell Cross. This methodologically very creative piece of writing, starting from the difficulty of accounting for the uniqueness of certain cultural phenomena, argues against a "disintegrative approach" that only emphasizes Roman references, without noticing the innovative combination of the motifs into a "local theology". "The liturgy of the 'Roman' Office in England from the Conversion to the Conquest" by Jesse D. Billet is similar to the previous paper in that the author here argues for a "flexible idea of Romanness", which the Anglo-Saxons developed, a certain freedom in using the Roman liturgy, where the main idea was to be in harmony with the universal catholic church, while at the same time being open to eclecticism. This attitude turned to its reverse after the Conquest, when liturgical practice lost it's flexibility in an attempt to preserve its uniqueness, perceived as romanitas, as a way of opposing Carolingian customs.

"The Romanization of the Frankish liturgy: ideal, reality, and the rhetoric of reform" by Yitzhak Hen joins the previous liturgy studies setting out to further nuance pieces of mainstream received wisdom. In this case, the reality of the Romanness of the Frankish liturgy is under scrutiny. The author presents liturgy as a tool for political ideology and religious identity. These concepts, along with the use of Rome as a symbol of authority would explain the coexistence of a propaganda of uniform Romanization with a reality that was quite the contrary.

III Architectural inspiration and sculptural models within and without Rome

Judson J. Emeric in his "Building more romano in Francia during the third quarter of the eighth century: the abbey church of Saint-Denis and its model" presents Saint Denis also as both place and idea, like Rome. This makes its relation to Rome even more crucial. Here again we find a revision of an old line of inquiry, namely, what exactly was abbot Fulrad copying, when he modeled Saint Denis upon the basilica of Saint Peter? The author argues that Fulrad had in mind not the imperial Constantinian basilica, but the basilica of the popes, trying to relate to contemporary, rather than past architectural and political entities.

Sible de Blaauw in her "Reception and renovation of Early Christian churches in Rome, c. 1050–1300" discusses two types of strategies of renovation that are very different in method but similar in aim: the conservative (demonstrated in the cases of Saint Peter's and San Paolo fuori le mura) and the interventionist (exemplified by San Lorenzo fuori le mura and the Basilica of St. John Lateran). The first wants to renovate while keeping everything unaltered, conserving thus Early Christianity in its monuments; the other alters edifices, but based on Early Christian models, which will have the effect of making them look older than they are. Both strategies idealize early Christianity and its architecture.

John Mitchell's "Giudizio sul Mille: Rome, Montecassino, S. Vincenzo al Volturno, and the beginnings of the Romanesque" is a convincing attack on another piece of received wisdom. Mitchell, instead of attaching the myth of the beginning to a single name, Montecassino, proceeds to contextualize the phenomenon and to show how elements of a revival of Classical motives were occurring at different places in Italy at the same time: in Rome, at S. Vincenzo al Volturno, and only later at Montecassino.

"The discourse of columns" by Dale Kinney has as its subject columns (the cylindrical monolithic Roman type), or rather, the medieval discourse about them, both secular and exegetical, showing how they can be invoked as integral parts of a rhetoric of romanitas.

IV Cultural exchanges

The title of Jane Hawkes' "Design and decoration: re-visualizing Rome in Anglo-Saxon sculpture" again implies a cultural transmission in which the recipient territory is fertile, and the appropriation transformative. She suggests new paths for studying the Roman and Anglo-Saxon sculptural interconnections, focusing on the neglected non- figurative elements.

John Osborne's "Rome and Constantinople in the ninth century" depicts ninth-century Rome as a hub, the connecting point between East and West, especially from 843, the end of iconoclasm, when renewed connections between the emperor, patriarch and pope result in a revival of cultural communication. William R. Day, Jr's "Antiquity, Rome, and Florence: coinage and transmissions across time and space" is the only numismatic paper in the collection, but a very exhaustive one indeed. We are presented with the complex relationship between Roman and Florentine coinage and minting over the centuries: how they mutually inspire each other, and how they draw both on Antiquity, and the idea of romanitas.

V Patrons, artists, and ideas on the move

Julian Gardner's "French patrons abroad and at home: 1260–1300" provides us with a short series of portraits of French cardinals (Guillaume de Bray, Ancher Pantaléon, Guillaume Durand, Pierre de Montbrun, Hugues Aycelin), and the tomb sculpture of their burial sites in Italy and in France.

Paul Binski's "Art-historical reflections on the fall of the Colonna, 1297" discusses how, why and when the new Italian painting style of the Duecento reaches France. He argues for a quite early date (around1297) and emphasizes the political and religious driving forces behind this cultural translation.

Louise Bourdua's "Exports to Padua Trecento style: Altichiero's Roman legacy" discusses the Roman borrowings of a fourteenth-century Veronese artist, Altichiero. The author hypothesizes that Altichiero was exposed to classical Roman models personally, when travelling to Rome. The paper concludes with reflections on the possible reactions of Altichiero's contemporary audience to the classical allusions.

VI Roman and papal jurisdictions

Brenda Bolton's "A new Rome in a small place? Imitation and re-creation in the Patrimony of St Peter" is a vivid presentation of Viterbo's rise as a papal residence at the time of Innocent III, as a sort of pre-Avignon, and the use of the idea of Rome in the process. To move out of such a symbolic place, the papacy had to disentangle the idea of the papacy and the idea of Rome, but at the same time they were shaping Viterbo as a "new Rome". George Dameron's "Appealing to Rome (and Avignon) before the Black Death: ecclesiastical disputes and church patronage in medieval Tuscany" addresses the image of Rome from the point of view of canon law. He describes twelfth- to fourteenth-century ecclesiastical disputes where Tuscan cases end up in front of Rome or Avignon, and strategies of the locals to manipulate the possibilities of such appeals to the papal authority.

What I find extremely valuable in this book is that it diversifies and refreshes our understanding of the idea(s) of Rome prevailing in the Middle Ages. It does this by exemplifying with strong case studies a clear theoretical and methodological frame: cultural transmission and exchange of ideas are viewed in terms of appropriation and imitation rather than influence or impact. When treating Rome's relationship with contemporary cultural and political entities the book emphasizes the selectiveness with which ideas of Rome were treated, and the hybrid nature of the attempts at imitation. Roman institutions' own approach to their past traditions is also shown to have betrayed a great deal of elasticity and creativity. This collection thus achieves what conference proceedings often aim at, but rarely achieve: to produce a volume worthwhile reading both for its individual papers and for the overarching concept.

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