From Roman to Romanesque, or from Catalonia to Austria by obscure processes

Sant Julià de Sassorba in the early morning, being overflown by a hot air-balloon

I mentioned that I’d been reading a very clever article by Jerrilyn Dodds that I wanted to respond to. If what follows is quite dense I apologise, but I’m keenly conscious that it could balloon to many pages if I let it. I want to try and summarise the article, if only to make sure I understand it well enough to express, and then to raise a tiny finger of query about the thesis. Dodds was writing an article for an exhibition catalogue (I’ve praised the volume before) whose subtitle was “art and culture before the Romanesque”, which for those of you who haven’t met the term is the Continental artistic and architectural phase that comes before Gothic. Dodds therefore set out to problematise as well as explain the idea of pre-Romanesque architecture, by saying that the term (much like ‘medieval’) denigrates by implying that the thing it describes was only an opening act rather than a thing of its own, and by suggesting that a European phenomenon can be encapsulated in all its diversity in one term. With these reservations expressed, Dodds then draws architectural history in three broad phases, and does so in an implicitly Marxist way, which is very interesting: her criterion is, more or less, who controls the means of production, or at least sets its aspirations. So, she sets out a late Antique phase when an increasingly individual and abstract late Roman style is adopted by a range of incoming élites and particularised with their own local and traditional motives and ideas. (She refuses to entertain the word barbarian for this work, as you might expect.)

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007

English early silver penny, Series Q1g, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1885-2007. Follow the link for some examples of exactly the sort of adaptation Dodds is talking about...

Then, argues Dodds, there come the Carolingians and a centralising authority with its own ideological project, and since art follows patronage and patronage requires wealth, which tends to come from power, that ideology bends art towards its chosen ideal. Adopting Carolingian styles, or the particular form of imitation of Rome and late antique culture that the Carolingians like to present, is a way of stressing one’s membership of this unity, but as that membership becomes less desirable and the élites of the regions lose interest in the centralising power, the force of local identity is let loose on this style, meaning a new diversification of Carolingian art and building styles in the various places they no longer control, although before long one of these variations becomes a new hegemony under the Ottonians.

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris

Emperor Lothar I, illustration of a Tours Evangeliary now in the BN Paris


Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Manuscript portrait of Emperor Otto I the Great

Of course Dodds is notionally writing here about Catalonia, and here is where Catalonia fits in, because it is a region where the Ottonians do not rule, and so is left to develop its own artistic version of the European vague without much outside pressure to normalise. Furthermore, it is just across the border from another polity with its own powerful normalising artistic project, the Caliphate of al-Andalus, so its local versions have some peculiarity to them. That said, when the style settles it’s less Muslim and much more rural Italian; the Romanesque churches of Catalonia have a lot of Lombard parallels, to the extent that it has been hypothesized that actual Italian craftsmen must have been working here. (Since the exiled Venetian doge Pietro Orseolo retired to the area, there were some connections.) And what Dodds finishes by emphasising is that this fairly rural style, massive blocky buildings with round arches and a particularly characteristic way of marking off stories with ornament and doubling their windows, becomes part of the next ideological project, the supposed reform Church promoting the primacy of Christian religion and allegiance to Christ over all secular ties through its building and other forms of artwork, and thus a regional style winds up all over Europe. (It’s certainly true that Romanesque as it survives is overridingly a religious architecture, but then secular buildings of any kind from this period are incredibly rare, so I don’t know if that’s meaningful.)

Apse and tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

Apse and tower of Romanesque church of Sant Andreu de Gurb viewed in 'extreme close up'

I find this a very powerful explanatory paradigm, and as I said when I first mentioned this article it serves to remind one, very convincingly, that art really can reflect power strategies, especially in this era when wealth is so concentrated and art so expensive. That said, I feel discomfort with the tightness of the envelope and I’d like to think some of this stuff out more. I know, for example, that there is a school of anthropological thought that argues that borders are very often sites of cultural production, and that what the border originates the centre will often follow. (The name I have been told is Gloria Anzáldua and her book Borderlands but I have yet to take my anthropologist-of-resort’s exhortations to actually read it far enough to heart, alas.) Quite where that leaves the idea of centralising artistic projects I’m not sure, and I wonder if Dodds and Anzáldua’s paradigms could actually be brought into dialogue here. Rome, I presume, is what bends things here; all these projects are some variation on Rome in Dodds’s view. Secondly, there is the problem that Romanesque really does spread. It’s rare in England I believe, where ‘Norman’ as a style is affected by it but not quite the same thing. But compare the below, which are from many many hundreds of miles apart, one from inside the Ottonian domains (though later) and the other from outside even the Carolingian ones.

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria

The Romanesque Hippolytkirche, Zell am See, Austria


Panoramic view of Santo Toribio de Liébana, Cantabria, from Wikimedia Commons

I could find more, and they would stress, yes, diversity, but not enough diversity that you would necessarily be able to say, without knowing that the tower of Sankt Hippolyt there has a peaked wooden roof and the tower of Sant Andreu de Gurb up above has a spire, which of the two was from where. And although Santo Toribio’s tower is hardly there you can see from the fabric and the windows that the building is basically part of the same project, and indeed if you go out to Catalonia and wander you will find that people were still building in this basic style for the next eight hundred years, give or take, and that guessing whether something is medieval or not comes down basically to weathering or finding the tourist information plaque. Can this really all be explained by power relations and the universal church? And if not, what on earth does explain it? Dodds’s answer is the best I have seen, but clashes with some of what we know of medieval political identity and rivalry. Or does it? It may be, instead, that I am just a bit too soaked in my region and my medieval world-view is too shrunk to accommodate something this big. Or, it may be that the élite culture is in the end mostly useful for talking about the élite and that stepping into such a building would not have made the average worshipper feel connected, or Roman, or Catholic, but just apprehensive and God-fearing. That is, I wonder if the primary purpose of this art really is political, even if it may still reflect political choices. As you can see, Professor Dodds has given me plenty to think about, but I’m not finished yet.


That article, again, is J. Dodds, “Entre Roma y el Románico: el mito de Occidente” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: Arte y cultura antes del románico (siglos IX y X) (Barcelona 1999), pp. 147-155, transl. as “Between Rome and Romanesque: the myth of the west”, ibid. pp. 492-496. For the story of Pietro Orseolo, however, I’d need to go back to Ramon d’Abadal i de Vinyals, L’Abat Oliba, Bisbe de Vic, i la seva època (Barcelona 1948; 2nd edn. 1948; 3rd edn. 1962), 3rd edn. repr. as “L’Abat Oliba i la seva època” in idem, Dels Visigots als Catalans, ed. J. Sobrequés i Callicó, Estudis i documents XIII-XIV (Barcelona 1969, repr. 1974 & 1989), 2 vols, II pp. 141-277, though I’m sure it must be covered elsewhere too.

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4 responses to “From Roman to Romanesque, or from Catalonia to Austria by obscure processes

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