The Eternal City through Medieval Eyes

By Irene O’Daly

A visitor to Rome cannot but be overwhelmed by the constant reminders of its past – as indeed I was on a research trip to the city last week.  While the Colosseum and Forum wowed, as a medievalist in Rome I couldn’t help but think about what it must have been like to visit there in the Middle Ages.  Rome was the principal city in Christendom, and a place of pilgrimage as well as a bustling centre of commerce and ecclesiastical administration.  Carrying my Lonely Planet guide, I felt confident that I was not only following the example of the nineteenth-century traveller armed with his Baedeker, but also that of the medieval traveller.

View of Castel Sant’Angelo: favoured refuge of  medieval popes © Irene O’Daly

In fact, one of the earliest examples of the guidebook genre is the Mirabilia Urbis Romane (The Marvels of the City of Rome), a text composed in the 1140s by a certain Peter, canon of St Peter’s. Somewhat prosaic in content, the Mirabilia listed the triumphal arches, principal buildings and landmarks of classical Rome (as well as those associated with the early persecution of Christians). It then described some of the legends associated with these sights, such as the Pantheon, before providing a sort of “walking tour” which listed the sights according to their relative location.  While the original purpose of the Mirabilia seems to have been to demonstrate the continuity of Rome’s significance into the superior Christian age, the fact that it was repeatedly copied (in manuscript and, later, in printed form) suggests that it maintained its popularity as an eyewitness account of the city, despite the fact that it provided little information about the contemporary commercial state of the city.

Just like the tourists of today, the medieval visitor was not adverse to returning home with souvenirs.  John of Salisbury (c. 1120-80) famously mocked Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester (1129-71), for buying old statues and taking them back to England.  While no trace of these remain in modern Winchester, Henry’s building projects there and at Glastonbury show evidence of classical imitation.

Arch of Constantine © Wikipedia

However, the medieval visitor seems more interested in the moral lessons that can be learned from classical ruins, than in what their original purpose actually was.  John of Salisbury dismissively commented that ‘triumphal arches add to the glory of illustrious men only when the writing upon them informs in whose honor they have been reared, and why’, drawing attention to the Arch of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor to reinforce his point. As Erwin Panofsky, the famous art historian, contended, in the Middle Ages there was a disjunction between the appropriation of the form of classical art, and of its substance, which seems to have been less readily accepted.

Despite that fact, one cannot but speculate about the emotion of wonder that the medieval visitor must have felt at the sheer scale of the city’s ruins.  Even today, the sense of the city as one of marvels remains strong, in the mind of this visitor, at least!

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