Worth the wait: ‘Rome and the Barbarians’

Rome and the Barbarians

As a child — shy, bookish, obscurely discontented with my lot and fairly certain that something more interesting lay elsewhere, chronologically if not geographically speaking — there was little I loved more than curling up in an armchair in some half-lit room, seeking escape from the supposed inadequacy of ordinary things through the pages of really good picture-book.

My sense of ‘really good’ was, admittedly, eclectic and gappily critical. At the time, so immaculate was my intellectual innocence that I accepted as mere point-and-shoot accuracy, for instance, the hard-won Neo-Romantic dreaminess of Bill Brandt’s photography in Literary Britain (1951) without consciously noting its function as both commentary and criticism of that other picture-book favourite of mine, an enormous volume of photographic images of the Second World War, a topic broadly construed as taking in everything from Nanking to the Berlin Blockade, the not-yet-revivable glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth co-existing as a matter of fact alongside incomprehensible if unforgettable visions of burning cities, tangles of broken and tortured bodies — a rich if unruly grammar of visual imagery not entirely tamed, if memory serves, by the broadly reassuring commentary of its post-war American editors on what was, at least in the mid 1970s, America’s ‘good’ war, to be recalled and even celebrated in the context of more recent and problematic conflicts. Or so I remember thinking at the time. (Perhaps, on reflection, I wasn’t as innocent as all that.)

But of course there was more to my canon of picture books, even in those days, than moody mid-century photography. Best of all, I think, were my mother’s Skira art books, especially the ones that dealt with medieval painting, Italian and Flemish, in tones of scholarly reverence all the more stirring in retrospect, so thoroughly have their cadences been drowned out by the clamour of blockbuster exhibitions, demotic and stupid. Bound in green cloth, slip-cased, branded with the blood-red ‘Skira’ colophon, those volumes seemed very nearly as precious and exotic as the works they depicted — works reproduced, odd as this may sound to some of my younger readers, in a handful of tipped-in, full-colour plates, small sparkling images embedded like the gems they were in gently lapping seas of well-designed typography, the gold actually metallic as if stamped in separately.

The scar they left persists in my memory. Even now, the experience of encountering ‘in real life’ one of the works featured in those volumes — the Van Eycks’ Ghent altarpiece, for instance, or Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel frescos — consists initially of anxious comparison between the actual work and some still-unforgettable, four-decade old, two-dimensional printed simulacrum, for all the world as if it were somehow up to the paintings themselves to re-assert their authenticity. More subtle, although certainly no less odd and probably now entirely unrecoverable, was the effect that this doctrine of the book must have had on my childhood sense of what matters in painting, indeed what constitutes ‘good’ art, or even ‘art’ at all. Nor did it cross my mind, as I leaned over those tiny full-colour plates in the gathering dusk, that Mr Albert Skira might, himself, have maintained his own views on all these points, shaped by various experiences and redolent of the times in which his own taste had been formed, in turn determining his own editorial selections. No, escape was what I wanted, and what I found. It didn’t occur to me to ask in what direction my guides might eventually lead me.

I was reminded of all this, slightly ruefully, a few days ago, when I found myself curled up in an armchair, losing myself in a beautiful Skira picture-book as the summer light faded outside, greenfinches squabbling irrelevantly in the wisteria, the universe bending itself gracefully to fit the contours of the volume open before me, a plausible dreamscape imposing itself across the flat face of ordinary things.

Rome and the Barbarians: The Birth of a New World is the catalogue from the exhibition of the same name, which was on view at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice during the earlier half of 2008 — in other words, a would-be blockbuster. Curated by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the exhibition took as its subject matter the interactions between the Western Roman Empire and the waves of peoples who came out of the North and East, first to challenge its borders but eventually transforming its very nature. Rome and the Barbarians encompassed a staggeringly ambitious thousand years’ worth of history, c. 9 AD – 911 AD, with a geographical remit stretching from Tunisia to Scandinavia, Romania and the Crimea to East Anglia. The catalogue, in turn, mirrors this expansiveness. Running to 692 pages, weighing in at a quite remarkable 3.4 kilos in hardback, it’s made up of scores of thematic mini-essays, written by dozens of scholars and illustrated with hundreds of images, reflecting the wealth of loans secured from a vast range of (mostly) Western European collections.

Here, anyway, big is beautiful. As much as anything else, Rome and the Barbarians serves as a reminder of how far fine art publishing has come along since the days of my childhood. In the best Skira tradition, the typography is magnificent, the paper by no means bad, the binding robust. But it’s in the illustrations — the picture-book aspect of Romans and the Barbarians — that the volume makes most of its impact. In page after page of full-colour photographs, agumented with maps and drawings, the battered, enigmatic and sometimes frankly indecipherable artifacts that constitute, in some cases, virtually the only information that comes down to us from the exterae gentes themselves (as opposed to accounts written by their enemies) are given the sort of sympathetic photographic attention usually accorded to supermodels on the cover of Italian Vogue — posed alluringly, lit tactfully, and otherwise encouraged to look stunning.

For this reason, it would probably be legitimate to criticise Rome and the Barbarians for feeling slightly too much like an art book, too little like a serious history text. The sheer weight of the enterprise, the superabundance of themes and topics and points of view, ornamented with so many disparate eye-catching images, somehow makes it seem unlikely that anyone will ever sit down and patiently read through this gorgeous object, cover to cover. No, for all its scholarly apparatus (which, by the way, don’t run to an index — a frankly bizarre omission) Rome and the Barbarians feels, more than anything else, like an absurdly high-spec picture-book, all but infinite raw material for well-researched and decorative day-dreams. All of which is, incidentally, at least a very enjoyable thing.

As with all the best pictures-books, Rome and the Barbarians is rich in implicit politics. Nor should this be a surprise. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, whose introductory essay pulls off the neat trick of coming across as simultaneously mildly wrong-headed and wholly charming, is apparently an old friend of Jacques Chirac, certainly served as minister of culture and communication in Jean-Pierre Rafferin’s government 2002-2004, and, now a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP, was recently appointed President of the Château de Versailles, which, whatever else it might entail in terms of actual work, is surely as pleasant a berth as the world of Franophone cultural quangos affords. There are attitudes towards European integration — past, present and future — that might seem unremarkable in someone who was born in Metz in 1946, attitudes towards Christian Democracy congruent with Aillagon’s political background, a sensitivity to the practical uses of art-historical spectacle appropriate to a successful cultural administrator whose career has been played out in a highly politicised context. All of these might, for those who are interested in that sort of thing, be detected in Aillagon’s introductory essay, as well as elsewhere in the book. Cumulatively, they lend Rome and the Barbarians its gently didactic tone.

Most striking is the image that Aillagon evokes of a present-tense Europe enduringly proud of its Roman roots, yet still too quick to repress the memory of its barbarian heritage — the defiant use of the heavily-loaded term ‘barbarian’ constituting, I guess, a faintly modish attempt to reclaim and reformulate its implications, until we arrive at a point where calling something ‘barbaric’ will evoke not thuggish brutality underpinned by ignorance and credulity, but rather good manners, engaging cultural diversity, the production of some extraordinarily attractive art and metal-work and, for all I know, clear and grammatical speech as well.

The strategy here is not so much a matter of finding something nice to say about the barbarians — from the invention of the ‘noble savage’ onwards, barbarians have had no shortage of enthusiasts and cheerleaders — as it is a matter of chipping away at distinctions. Again, perhaps rather modishly, the emphasis everywhere in the text — most explicitly in the introduction, but present too in the basic structure of the book itself, with its multiple authors, articles and disciplinary perspectives — is on complexity, compromise and synthesis. And indeed, most of this is entirely reasonable, at least to a generation grown accustomed to seeing the world in this sort of way.

Aillagon insists, for instance, that the Christianity that came to define Western Europe — the ‘intellectual, moral and even political armory’ that distinguishing and often isolating it from the Orthodox East and Islamic South — owed as much to its barbarian adherents (and opponents) as it did to Graeco-Roman civilisation. Quite soon, in any case, it becomes difficult to make much of a distinction between these two notionally antithetical cultures:

The first Barbarian kingdoms, at Ravenna, Toulouse, Carthage and elsewere, were quite clear that they were ‘continuing Rome’, as we can see from the energetic zeal of their rulers who did not hesitate to commission inscriptions for perpetual remembrance, or their enthusiastic restoration of aqueducts, baths and basilicas […]

… while, back in the Roman world, the whole pejorative notion of the ‘barbarian’ functioned mostly as that half-frightening, half-contemptible ‘other’ against which imperial Roman culture — an identity shared out across myriad geographies, climates and ethnic groups — could conveniently define itself. Thus it is that first millenium of the Christian era becomes a theatre of identity politics, all the more watchable for having such marvellous props and set-design. What sensitive viewer could fail to be entranced?

None of this is very remarkable. It’s been a long time, after all, since anyone has seriously tried to argue that with the collapse of the Roman empire, an objectively superior civilisation somehow ‘fell’ (whatever that means), leading to ‘dark ages’ from which the peoples of Europe would only gradually manage to extract and redeem themselves. It’s not just that the evidence never really sustained this story very convincingly — to assert it would require a style of cultural confidence no longer remotely fashionable, while the message it would send regarding our own times might sound less than entirely encouraging. In any event, Aillagon is, of course, ready with an infinitely more acceptable, and agreeable, analysis. Out of cultural collision and conflict, it seems, comes ‘rebirth’, however uncomfortable the process may be:

it is nevertheless out of all this sound and fury that a new world was to be born, the womb of our Europe of today; and the Barbarians were the agents, sometimes the unwitting agents, of one of the most astounding and reinvigorating instances of cultural synthesis in the history of humanity.

Needless to say, there are implications in all of this for present-day Europe, its interactions with other faiths and cultures encountered not only abroad but, increasingly, within our own borders as well. Aillagon goes on to underscore these, delicately, in reassuring tones. In doing so, the history of Western Europe, although clearly not without the odd violent incident or moment of social trauma, is pointed towards a broadly happy, wholesome ending. Perhaps, ideological fashions nothwithstanding, the requirements of really good picture-books haven’t changed so much after all.

There are various reasons why a good European might seek to shut down the Romans-versus-Barbarians fixture confrontation — roughly corresponding to the reasons why, no matter how little scholarly encouragement it receives, its memory is sporadically re-animated. The blood-soaked trauma of the Teutoburger Forest, for instance, surely came to carry nearly as much symbolic weight for nineteenth and early twentieth century German nationalists as it had for the architects of post-Augustinian Roman foreign policy, and we all know where that walk in the woods led. Similarly, the subliminal conviction that the super-civilised sophistication of Rome deserves an unworldly and primitive (in the literal sense) riposte unites the followers of Huss and Luther, Knox and Herder, with generally baleful implications for Europe’s peaceful existence. The rhetoric in which European nations defined their own strands of exceptionalism has as often hinged on the patient recollection of tribal names, customs and resentments as recourse to that universalising language as freely on loan from classical antiquity as from Christianity’s central text.

No, whether as manifested aggressively, e.g. in Mussolini’s attempts to create Fascism’s ideal ancient-and-modernist Rome through the destruction of so much of its medieval and Renaissance centre (an act of ‘vandalism’ of the most ironic sort), or simply as a matter of affectionate post-colonial teasing (c.f. the ‘what did the Romans ever do for us?’ sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian), Rome and its attendant barbarians have come to serve as such comfortingly familiar symbols of qualities with apparently perpetual relevance to human affairs, that no amount of scholarly research or well-intentioned political re-contextualisation is likely entirely to rescue them from their accustomed mythic status.

And yes, admittedly, much of the above is really just a longer way of saying this, but less well:

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

And so it is that Cavafy‘s famous lines bring us back to Rome and the Barbarians, this delectable, sprawling, paradoxically comforting picture-book.

Once the archaeologists, historians and curators have set down with all honesty their doubts, difficulties and sometimes mildly contradictory judgements, there remains much to admire, puzzled over and learn when faced with the multitude of objects depicted here. Some corroded bits of metal, for instance, discovered recently on the Palatine Hill, may well be imperial Roman insignia dating from the reign of Maxentius. There’s fragile glass from Poland, Germany, Ukraine and elsewhere that has somehow survived almost two millennia of European history. The Tunisian necklace on p. 333 is particularly attractive — I should like one myself. There are gold and cloisonné bees from the tomb of Childeric, later presented to Louis XIV, and the absolutely extraordinary cathedra of Maximianus from Ravenna — this latter illustrated by an old nineteenth-century picture postcard, for reasons not explained. There’s an old lead pipe from Ravenna, and something labelled ‘antifix with human face, sixth-seventh century’, so ‘primitive’ in form as to appear almost contemporary. Chapters, meanwhile, address topics such as ‘Roman Representations of the Barbarians’, ‘The Runes’, ‘Consolidating the Limes‘, ‘The Vandals in Africa’, ‘Christian Funerary Mosaics in Africa’, ‘The Chasuble of Bathilde’, ‘The So-called “Tomb of Gisulf” (Italy)’, ‘The Capsella of Samagher’, ‘Scripts and Books from the Romans to the Barbarians’, ‘Epigraphy in the Roman-Barbarian Age’, ‘The Arabs and Western Europe (Eighth to Ninth Centuries’, ‘The Birth of Venice’ [of course], and much else besides.

And indeed, one could go on listing these things all day — almost literally, because this really is a very big book, containing an enormous amount of material — but presumably, the point has already been made. You’re either completely besotted with the idea of this book by now, or you never will be. But if not, you presumably gave up at the stage where I was writing about sitting in that armchair, pouring over the monochrome plates of Literary England, the garish double-page splashes of WWII, daydreaming myself away to — what?

At the time it felt like a means of escape. Now, though, thinking back, I suspect that those books functioned more as a sort of poetic counterpoint to the bits of life that bored and embarrassed me so — that at some level, the apparently pointless enterprise of staring vacantly at Uccello’s Miracle of the Host or Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion for all those hours was less an abdication of the things I was probably supposed to be doing, than a method of searching for significance in them, trying to make sense of what seemed to be the merciless cosmic irrelevance of much of what made up my life. Older now, having proved to my own satisfaction the validity of that childhood theory about things being more interesting elsewhere, I find the allure of the really good picture-book undimmed, if only because there’s something so companionable, so sympathetic in these fleeting sideways glimpses of other lives lived differently, the illusion of inhabiting someone else’s vision, achieved as nowhere else through a competent pas de deux of text and image — the very thing that Rome and the Barbarians achieves with such generosity and elegance. As much as I would have loved this book when I was ten years old, in short — back at a time when its production would have been technically impossible, just as its theoretical underpinnings and rhetorical strategies would have been historically unlikely — I’m absolutely delighted to be able to curl up with it today.


Filed under art, books, culture, history, reviews

8 responses to “Worth the wait: ‘Rome and the Barbarians’

  1. “and we all know where that walk in the woods led.”

    As a comment on the Battle of the Teutoburger Wald (in 9 AD) and its impact on German nationalism, that’s priceless.

  2. JL

    I have way, too many books covering this ground, just spent about $100 buying more on various other topics that now sit, stacked and barely looked at, in my office, where they are joined by a host of even more books I’ve yet to find time for–and now you’ve convinced me to add this one to the wishlist. It sounds like the perfect thing to balance the other Palazzo Grassi door stopper I have on The Greek World, which Amazon lists at a highly misleading mere 1.2 pounds.

  3. The Greek World sounds tempting, to put it mildly — and I think, JL, that you’re also semi-responsible for my purchase of that other not-very-slim volume, Rembrandt’s Universe. We’re not very good influences on each other, really, are we?

    The great irony here is that most of my reading takes place in the course of bus journeys, so that the books I find easiest to read are those that fit in my handbag …

  4. Another ringer, Bunny. Lovely work.

  5. Franklin, I’m unable to resist pointing out that where I grew up, a ‘ringer’ was a horse entered in a race under a name not its own, for the purposes of gambling fraud.

    As I cannot imagine, however, that even in the more inventively gambling-mad corners of the Far East there’s anyone eccentric enough to run a book on vaguely arts-related blog posts, perhaps you mean something else? ‘Lovely work’ sounds encouraging, anyway, so on balance, thanks!

  6. Art or history-related ringer? Reminds me of this trailer:

    There probably is a syndicate better on this stuff.

  7. “A ringer is a thrown horseshoe such that the horseshoe completely encircles the stake.” It’s not impossible that the subjects of your book may have played it, as it turns out.

  8. Many thanks for the clarification, Franklin.

    The idea that whole Malaysian cyber-fortunes might hinge on my casual use of, say, ‘rebarbative’ three times in one ill-considered 6,500 word blog post, though initially rather stirring, ran the risk of turning into some sort of irksome sense of authorial responsibility. No danger of that now, though!

    Continuing on with the rich theme of ‘things that come as a surprise to me’, only very recently did I discover that the Romans made horseshoes like ‘our’ horseshoes, as well as ‘hipposandals’, those funny flat-iron things, which would have made playing horshoes a challenging, and indeed probably rather dangerous game.

    And many thanks to you, too, Antoine — although that line ‘but I’m an historian!’ had me wincing with self-recognition. Rarely can Jon Snow been employed to such benign effect.