The backlog remains larger than a year but the only way to deal with that, apart from ceasing to go to or think of things about which I want to blog, which ain’t gonna happen, is for me to keep writing. So, let me now bring you to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in the University of Birmingham on the 20th November 2014, where you could have found myself among a good number of others there to hear Professor John Mitchell speak to the title: “Abul-Abbas and all That: the West and the Caliphate in the age of Bede, Desiderius and Charlemagne”.1
Despite the venue, Professor Mitchell had come not to praise Byzantium but to sideline it, in as much as he was out to contend with the common idea that most early medieval art was basically attempting at one or more removes to look Byzantine, that being the current reflection of the inheritance of Rome to which so many western rulers and patrons wished to lay claim. Instead, he suggested that the evidence is just as strong for early Islam, the alternative and more recently successful superpower of the Eastern Mediterranean and in control of the Holy Places where Westerners more often voyaged than they probably did to Constantinople.2 For example, he argued that the idea of a palace with an inbuilt chapel, found in Byzantine and Lombard contexts and adopted from the latter by Charlemagne, most famously in Aachen, can be found earliest at Khirbat al-Mafjar; that the ornamental projecting towers found on Charlemagne’s palace at Paderborn were best paralleled from the Umayyad desert palaces at Qasr el-Hayr; that Khirbat and Qasr Amra both boast baths like the ones in which Charlemagne sometimes held councils at Aachen (and that Caliph al-Walid is said to have done this himself at Qasr al-Hallabat). More specifically, he pointed to the use of gypsum stucco, not a Roman technique but found at Saint-Germigny-des-Prés, Cividale and San Salvatore di Brescia anyway and for which there are many Islamic examples, and diagonal marbling of columns, another trick with no known Roman roots but good Islamic ones and also found at Brescia; and there was more besides.3
To this, Professor Mitchell met several kinds of counter-argument. Archie Dunn invoked parallels from Greece, and specifically a place with a name like ‘Lulutheis’ which my notes obviously don’t have right (Eleutherai maybe?), for the towers and bath-house, as evidence that such things could also be found in Byzantine contexts and Leslie Brubaker pointed out how much Byzantine evidence is gone, not least because this was the era of the supposedly Iconoclastic emperors whose works were subsequently largely derided and replaced, and both together argued that, if the traditional view is not to hold, at best it must be replaced with one of a three-way conversation, in which the two superpowers both influenced each other and which one then influenced the West is yet to be decided. I, meanwhile, was struggling with some of the supposed influence: the palace chapel idea seemed too vague of definition, since after all what is a palace? The projecting towers at issue seemed to me to clearly be echoes of Roman camps, rather than anything palatial, and in any case Paderborn’s towers were curved, unlike those at Qasr el-Hayr; arguments about connections showing in the fact that these places’ walls contained plumbing seemed to me to forget that they would presumably all have had latrines in; and the stucco work, while the technique may be as Professor Mitchell says unknown in the Roman world, was certainly being used for very different imagery on his Western and Eastern examples. The best parallels of all seemed to be at San Salvatore di Brescia, but that reduces the question to what was going on at that one centre, not over the West as a whole…
Nonetheless, I don’t want to appear wholly sceptical; after all, it’s not as if there’s any good reason why people in the West who’d been East shouldn’t have tried to imitate some of the wonders they’d seen there, particularly if, as I speculated in questions, they didn’t necessarily know that these palaces and baths and so on were new and Muslim rather than slightly older and Roman or Byzantine, given how imitative of late Roman building some Umayyad stuff was. If even a tenth of what Professor Mitchell suggested was accurate, we probably should be thinking of such people’s ideas being thus inspired, and in that case what I find most intriguing about this paper in retrospect is the apparent importance of Lombardy as a conduit. I can see how, once someone in Benevento built a palace like the one he’d seen at Qasr Amra or wherever, and then people from there went north or someone from the Frankish court came south and saw it and wanted to build something ‘like they have in Italy’, the style might leak north. But the thing about Umayyad desert palaces is their location, you know? And now I wonder what on earth was taking Lombards to Qasr Amra about which we have no other idea…
1. I was there not least because of an excellent chapter of Professor Mitchell’s I read a long time ago which was the first thing that made me think about monumentality as a political statement properly—who could see what and what would they take from it?—that being J. Mitchell, “Literacy Displayed: the use of inscriptions at the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno in the early ninth century” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 186-225.
2. On contacts of this kind between Islamic East and West Professor Mitchell cited Oleg Grabar, whose most relevant work would I suppose be his “Trade with the east and the influence of Islamic art on the ‘Luxury Arts’ in the west” in Atti del XXIV congresso internazionale di Storia dell’Arte (Bologna 1982), 10 vols, II pp. 27-34, but his “La place de Qusayr Amrah dans l’art profane du Haut Moyen Âge” in Cahiers Archéologiques Vol. 36 (Paris 1988), pp. 75-83 and his “Umayyad Palaces Reconsidered” in Ars Orientalis Vol. 23 (Ann Arbor 1993), pp. 23-38, also look worth investigating on the topic. One could add John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims before the Crusades (Jerusalem 1977), to which cf. for now Peter Darby and Daniel Reynolds, “Reassessing the ‘Jerusalem Pilgrims’: the Case of Bede’s De locis sanctis” in Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant Vol. 9 (London 2014), pp. 27-31, DOI: 10.1179/1752726014Z.00000000022; Dan has more work on this sort of thing under way.
3. I was wondering whether Professor Mitchell might have published some of this material by now, but websearching for it has brought to my attention Beatrice Leal, “The stuccoes of San Salvatore, Brescia, in their Mediterranean context” in Gian Pietro Brogiolo & Francesca Morandini (edd.), Dalla corte regia al monastero di San Salvatore – Santa Giulia di Brescia (Mantova 2014), pp. 221-247, which appears to be part of the same project. On the desert palaces more widely see Grabar, “Umayyad Palaces” as above and on the Carolingian palace at Paderborn the latest word seems to be Antonella Sveva Gai, “Die karolingische Pfalzanlage in Paderborn (776-1002). Vom militärischen Stützpunkt bis zum Bischofssitz” in Götz Alper (ed.), Sulzbach und das Land zwischen Naab und Vils im frühen Mittelalter, Schriftenreihe des Stadtmuseums und Stadtarchivs Sulzbach-Rosenberg 19 (Sulzbach-Rosenberg 2003), pp. 135-154, apparently transl. as “La residenza palatina di Paderborn in Westfalia tra la fine dell’VIII secolo e l’anno mille. Da centro militare a sede vescovile” in Sveva & Federico Marazzi (edd.), Il cammino di Carlo Magno (Napoli 2005), pp. 13-40, though I haven’t seen either so can’t be sure.