The West and antique splendour

Such rivalry with the past was a constant factor in antique as in Renaissance art and architecture. The richness of Constantinople amazed mediaeval visitors from the West, who could find nothing remotely comparable in lavishness back home. Oh, how great is that city, how noble, how pleasant! and how full of wonderfully built churches and palaces. What a spectacle, what miracles of bronze and marble one finds there! The city goes down to the sea on one side, and has there an impregnable wall; but on the other side it is fortified by ramparts and a double moat, and wall of immense size and strength and towers all round. The citizens are continually plentifully provided by busy shipping traffic, with what they need [...] people of all nations meet together there (Van der Vin 1980, II, 505-6). Thus Bartolf of Nangis, who visited Constantinople in 1096/7, praises the city. Again, Ibn Battuta, went to the Blachernae Palace in 1331, and admired a large audience-hall, whose walls were of mosaic-work, in which were pictured figures of creatures, both animate and inanimate. In the centre was a water-channel with trees on either side of it (Gibb 1962, 505). Other visitors have left descriptions marvelling at the palace's magnificence (Van der Vin 1980, I, 284-7). Today, the brick shell of this building remains, but nothing else.

The point of quoting two passages separated by 200 years is to emphasize two facts: firstly, that the city thrived commercially and artistically through much of the Middle Ages as the centre of the Roman Empire in the East; and secondly, that this prosperity was to be checked and then overturned by the Sack by the Crusaders in 1204 and, finally, by the Ottoman conquest of 1453.

Such was the prestige of the City that, in spite of the Sack and of centuries of decline, educated Renaissance travellers were still surprised to find so little antique material in evidence. Busbecq, the Imperial Ambassador, remarked in 1555 that In many places there are remarkable remains of ancient monuments, though one cannot help wondering why so few have survived, when one considers the number which were brought by Constantine from Rome (Forster 1927, 36-7). As for sculpture, at least one scholar has been puzzled (Mango 1963) by just how little interest the city's mediaeval inhabitants seem to have taken in what must have been a crowd of antique statues and reliefs - the more so since the capital of the Byzantine Empire took other forms of its classical heritage seriously.

The Venetians

What happened to the buildings and the sculpture? Arguably, many of the antique building blocks went to build the gleaming marble mosques - just as so much of ancient Rome went into the Rome of the Papacy during the Renaissance and later; or, equally traditionally (because the matter cannot be proved without dismantling it), antique Pisa into the enormous Duomo. Most of the bronze sculpture (with the exception of the "Horses of Saint Mark's") seems to have been melted down for their metal during the 1204 Sack - which demonstrates that these particular Westerners were little interested in the antique past. What happened to the marble sculpture is not known. But it is surely strange that a mentality which looted the City for its religious treasures, and carted relics back to Europe by the ship-load, seems to have shown so little concern for the antique past. Nobody expected sentimentality from the Crusaders: but Venice was always concerned with bolstering her own prestige as an "ancient" city - which is why St. Mark's looks like a Constantinopolitan church.

At first sight, then, it is simply inexplicable that the Venetians, the prime movers of the Sack, did not profit from the opportunity. Had they done so, the opprobrium resulting from this disgusting event might have been tempered with the glory of saving part of the antique heritage of one of the greatest cities the world has ever seen. But perhaps we need to adjust our "historical spectacles", and view S. Mark's, with its rich marble veneers and columns and mosaics, as the very resurrection of the antique, Christian past in the West - tempered, that is, by a concern for Christian values which had allowed the Crusaders to destroy so many pagan statues. In other words, our modern view of the splendour of the antique, is different from that of the Middle Ages. Freed from some religious prejudices, we do not see the pagan past as possessing evil power, but can admire it for its beauties. This is an attitude developed only during the Renaissance, and is a precondition not only to true appreciation of the past but also to digging for it and collecting its productions.

Bibliographical Notes

For good accounts of Hellenistic art, see Pollitt (1986, 230-42), Hanfmann (1963) and Hanfmann (1975) specifically for Turkey, and Robertson (1975, 527-48) for Pergamum. Lauter (1986) for Hellenistic architecture; Naumann (1971) for architecture in Turkey up to the end of the Hellenistic period; Boethius (1970) for Roman architecture; Bieber (1961) for Hellenistic sculpture, Clayton (1988) for the Seven Wonders; for the patronage of art as a political act in the Hellenistic period, see Green (1990, 80-91) for what happened in Alexandria, one of the key cities of the Hellenistic world; Green also (1990, 336-61) for a discussion of the Baroque element in Hellenistic art.

Ward-Perkins (1981) for Roman architecture in Asia Minor set in its broader context. Robertson (1975, 601-11) for the artistic debt of Rome to Greece and Hellenism. Strong (1961) for the public sculpture of the Romans. Vermeule (1977), Pollitt (1978) and Richter (1982) for the Roman love of Greek and Hellenistic sculpture, Waurick (1975) for the mechanics of getting hold of it, and Vermeule (1968) for the results. Walker (1989) for conference papers on the cultural renaissance of Greece in the Roman empire, especially Waelkens (1989) on the architecture.

Inan (1966) for a catalogue of Roman portrait sculpture in Asia Minor to date. Pekary (1985) for Emperor portraits as a type. Cicero Verrine Orations for just how much Greek and Hellenistic booty the propraetor of Sicily could accumulate (and not only from Sicily) in his period of office, 73-70 BC. Davis (1973) for Hellenistic coinage.

Muller-Wiener (1977) for the architecture of Constantinople; descriptions of that city from previous centuries are plentiful, and underline just how much has been lost: see Cameron (1984) for the 8th century, and Majeska (1984) for the 14th/15th centuries. For the basic bibliography on individual cities, see the latest editions of Akurgal's Ancient Civilizations and ruins of Turkey.

Such splendour could influence Islam: Bowerstock (1990) for the influence of Hellenistic art; Ecochard (1977) for architecture. Ettinghausen (1972) for Byzantine influence. Rosenthal (1965) for a broad treatment of cultural influences. Sometimes it did not: see Vryonis (1971, and 1975).

Marble: A subject much to the forefront, as scholars move from logging artefacts to trying to understand social and trade structures. Gnoli (1971) for varieties and use of marble. For an up-to-date range of approaches, see Herz & Waelkens (1988); for some details, see the papers therein by Asgari on how Proconnesian capitals were worked, and by Dolci (1988) on quarrying techniques at Luni. Pensabene (1972) for the mechanics of the industry in Antiquity, and Braemer (in Akurgal 1978, 737-51) for how these relate to sculpture. Fant (1988) on Emperors and the marble business. Pensabene (1972) for the Roman marble trade; Asgari (1988) for the Corinthian capital workshops in Proconnesus. Fant (1989) for an example: the africana quarry at Teos, near Izmir. Gnoli (1971) for a survey of marble use throughout history; Goodwin (1977) for its reuse in the Middle Ages. Hertz (1988) for technology and trade in marble.

On the political impetus behind splendid buildings and works of art, see Schalles (1985) and McShane (1964) for Pergamum, Hornblower (1982) for Caria, and Bammer (1985) for a general survey. Hansen (1971, 234-98) for a good description of Pergamum. Fox (1973) for the achievement of Alexander the Great.

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From here you may also go to The Preface, The Introduction, Archaeology in Turkey, Town Planning, Roads, Water Supply, Aqueducts, Harbours, The Architecture of Work & Leisure, Religion: Temples & Special Sanctuaries, Funerary Art & Architecture, Decline & Renewal, The Conclusion, The Bibliography, or The Table of Contents

Greek & Roman Cities of Western Turkey