Italian twist on ancient empire

Byzantium Rediscovered
October 29, 2004

Mention "the Gothic revival", and no one will have any difficulty accepting the notion, visualising the architecture involved, or identifying the original Gothic period from which it derives its forms.

This ease of thinking is owed in no small part to the publication in 1928 of the precocious undergraduate essay by Kenneth Clark, which appeared in print a few years after he left Oxford.

The Gothic movement is now seen as a mainstream part of modern architectural history. Clark's contribution to the discussion of the Gothic revival was his fluent communication of what it was like to be a Protestant member of the English church 100 years before he wrote: a time when "the least suggestion of symbolism - a cross on a gable or on a prayer book - was rank popery. All forms of ritual were equally suspect". Clark evoked the moment before the "unthinkable" reaction happened and described how medieval Gothic and its trappings returned.

This book undertakes the same service for something much more numinous, described by the author, J. B. Bullen, as a 19th-century "Byzantine revival". While this movement may also involve a case of religious nostalgia for a past period of history, it is altogether more complex.

Nineteenth-century Byzantinism emerges as an amalgam of Classical, Byzantine, Romanesque and possibly Arab architecture and the arts. The outcome is a heady mix of the exotic and the picturesque.

Bullen brings together not simply the examples that form the British version of neo-Byzantium, but substantial materials from Prussia, Bavaria and Austria, from France and from North America. The different characters with an interest in Byzantium are described, and enough is said to clarify some immediate questions. How far is this neo-Byzantine movement, unlike the Gothic revival, one of marginal rather than mainstream importance in the 19th century? How far did the practitioners understand the past they were pursuing?

A predecessor of Bullen's study is Mark Crinson's Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture (1996). This is an invaluable source of information about the British knowledge of the Orient (which included Byzantium) and the political and religious agendas of architects and writers such as John Ruskin. Ruskin's rehabilitation of the importance and effectiveness of the Church of San Marco in Venice is an important moment in England's Byzantine revival.

Bullen works differently and shows through his regional studies the various types of interest in Byzantium across Western Europe; his analysis is a more anecdotal and personalised history of taste. He emphasises the German royal interest in Byzantium as a flamboyant arena for the display of absolute monarchy - seen in the throne room of the Schloss Neuschwanstein outside Munich, built for Ludwig II of Bavaria, a monument where Byzantium meets Wagner. Its models were a combination of Sicilian Norman Byzantine monuments, early Christian Rome and medieval Germany. Since the throne room of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople is lost, it is possible that such a 19th-century recreation of medievalism can help to evoke its imperial aura, but hardly its exact appearance.

In France, Bullen demonstrates a different scenario of interest, and the outcome was two grand churches that might be seen to stand in the mainstream of French 19th-century architecture: the Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure in Marseilles and the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre in Paris. French scholarship of Byzantium was informed on the archaeology of surviving medieval monuments throughout the Byzantine empire, and had seen the traces of the Middle Ages in the art and architecture of the monasteries of Mount Athos in north Greece. But often in France, as in England, the seminal Byzantine monument was San Marco, which mediates Constantinople through a Venetian veneer.

Bullen shows how the British interest in Byzantium developed later than on the Continent, and often focused on Italy rather than the East. Westminster Cathedral (built by J. F. Bentley between 1895 and 1903) was conceived as a Catholic meeting place, which was to be instantly seen as different from an Anglican Gothic revival church (itself paradoxically deriving from Catholic Gothic models). But its declared Byzantinism as usual owes more in reality to Italy than Constantinople. Bullen suggests indeed that the outcome is the architectural opposite from the 6th-century Church of St Sophia.

Whereas the Byzantine viewers of St Sophia spoke of its restless surface and its dome seeming to hang from heaven rather than being supported from below, Bullen sees the structure of Westminster Cathedral as "designed to reassure, stabilise and consolidate".

The neo-Byzantine architecture of North America is interpreted as an example of cultural borrowing without the nostalgic agenda of Europe.

Byzantium was simply the direct or indirect source of potentially interesting styles that could be borrowed for effect. This seems to be true, although anyone who has visited the reptile house in Washington DC zoo may wonder if the choice of neo-Byzantine brick architecture there was designed to make a point about that civilisation.

In the end, it appears that the Byzantine revival was an incoherent and mostly marginal development, full of paradoxes. Byzantium, on the one hand, offered sensuous forms and theatrical settings, but, on the other, it stimulated the highly precious production of austere images in mosaics that evoke a purer and simpler Christianity. Neo-Byzantinism now has a fluent apologist; but one does not have to like it or how it changes its models.

Robin Cormack is professor of the history of art, Courtauld Institute, University of London.

Byzantium Rediscovered: The Byzantine Revival in Europe and America

Author - J. B. Bullen
Publisher - Phaidon
Pages - 240
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 7148 3957 4

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