I first met this poem when I was studying Old Irish in Cambridge. I have now forgotten the Old Irish, but I will always love this poem. The translation by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan runs as follows.
To go to Rome, much labour, little profit: the King whom thou seekest here, unless thou bring him with thee, thou findest him not.
Travel is of the soul, not the body. The ninth century Irish monk who wrote the lines seems to have travelled to St Gall in Switzerland and to a life of back-breaking copying, but he believes he can find everything he is looking for without leaving his cell. His poem like many remains of Old Irish, comes to us illicitly, scribbled on the edge of the important work that is supposed to be transmitted, in this case 1 Corinthians 2 & 3. You can see the change in handwriting as he fits in his three lines under the Greek text.
And so for a moment we hear the voice of an Irish monk, transported to a Latin-speaking Abbey in German Switzerland, thinking in Irish as he painstakingly transmits the thoughts of a Greek-speaking Syrian Jew. Is his a happy lot, or an unhappy one? We know nothing about him except what is most important – that his only journey is towards redemption, and that to him physical place is an illusion.
But nonetheless a whole world has gathered in his cell as he write. He is mixing Irish thoughts with Swiss air in the company of St Paul, and many invisible others, including Stokes and Strachan, me and now you. If physical place is irrelevant, there is no meaningful separation in space or time between those of one mind who travel together. The monk has exchanged the variegated distractions of change and event for the constancy of the presence of God. He is not lonely.
For a long time I was not able to travel in the body as much as I would like, and spent many days without leaving my home. It is not surprising that I have been very drawn to the thoughts of this monk. When I think of travelling, I am no longer attracted by the simple idea of novelty. I think more of returning to people and places I knew before or have visited in books.
I do literally live in my library, or rather, we as a family live in our library. Our house is small. Books are double stacked in the dining room, squeezed between the bannisters, piled on the landing and under beds. Our garage is likewise given over to bookshelves. The books form a large part of my real world, and most of all the texts from or about the Classical and Mediaeval world where I also work. I often find small things of interest which I would like to share with like minded people, without ever reaching the lofty bar of publishable scholarship. I use whatever I can in my teaching, but I will treat this blog as a common place book where I will publish notes from time to time on my work in progress, as if anyone who visits were dropping in on me in my library. You are very welcome to drop in.
This is a post series dedicated to my autistic students.
When I graduated from Cambridge I hoped that I was going to become a specialist in some one topic, an academic. Instead, I have spent my life amateurishly acquiring small amounts of knowledge about lots of things; but sometimes I manage to collect a medium amount of knowledge about widely different but related things. So my only qualification for writing this series of posts is having acquired a medium amount of knowledge from a combination of reading and life experience about two different subjects which seem to be crying out to be thought about together – Augustus and Autism.
I have to write about Augustus and Autism as a series of posts, because I want to say something which is complicated enough to be interesting. I am not interested in the question; ‘Can you imagine Augustus’ being a bit like Sheldon off ‘Big Bang Theory’?’, or in other words, ‘Can we fit a meaningless stereotype of Augustus together with a meaningless sterotype of autism?’ It is only interesting to think about Augustus and Autism together, if we are actually a bit interested in Augustus and Autism already. So in this introductory post, I need to look at prevailing ideas about Augustus and Autism separately.
It is easy to know not-very-much about Augustus, Rome’s first emperor. Wikipedia is a good place to start. After that it gets more difficult. There is no shortage of biographies, and no shortage of ancient literature and art created for or about Augustus. He even wrote his own autobiography which is strong on data, and political misdirection, but weak on personal detail – it was intended for monumental public display, which partly explains it. What is difficult, is to penetrate through what is said about Augustus to get any idea of what he was like as a person. The literature written in the ancient world for him was adulatory, part of a slick propaganda campaign with which he bolstered his claims to power. Most of what the relatively reliable historian Tacitus wrote about him is missing, and we are left with Suetonius and later writers. Suetonius was born after imperial rule had become established, more than 50 years after Augustus’ death and he is completely incapable of resisting a good story. All scholars roll their eyes when he is mentioned.
Fortunately there are many people trained to deal with this sort of difficulty. There are many biographies of Augustus written by Classical scholars, but these too disagree. Augustus rose as a teenage warlord. It is hard for any modern reader to regard someone so steeped in blood as a normal human being, but steeping in blood was a fairly normal qualification for high office at Rome. So before we even look at details of Augustus’ personal behaviour, his profile is alienating, particularly in these post-imperial times. Where Victorians regarded him as an archetype of the benign imperialist, bringing peace through conquest to a disordered world, the Second World War saw him crash into disfavour as a proto-fascist. The enthusiasm of Mussolini and other Fascists for Augustus was only a superficial reminder of the really disturbing features of Augustus’ career, which became central to the narratives of historians like Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who brought us Augustus the ruthless tyrant.
My own interest in this comes not as a specialist, but as a teacher. Far from having directed focused attention to intricacies of Augustus’ rule, I just can’t get away from him. Years and years of reading and teaching about him at all sorts of levels, reading in Latin thousands and thousands of lines written for him or by him or about him. There’ve been days when his is the face I have woken up to in the morning – the unchanging symmetrical face which goes back to the Meroe head, and is best known from the Prima Porta Augustus. I have shown my students images of Augustan buildings I can only dream of seeing. I have taken an interest in the drains of Cologne. Eventually, as thoughts about Augustus wandered round my brain they bumped into thoughts about autism and resulted in this series.
It is easy to know not-very-much about autism too. Autism is now a widely accepted umbrella term for a range of personal traits which are related to particular types of mental processing. Some individual autistic people run the world – Elon Musk, for example, identifies as having Asberger Syndrome. Others have severe difficulties with essential social activities, and struggle to access education, employment and the basic essentials of fulfilling living. This is a wide range for any label to cover, and autism has only existed as a diagnosis until the 1940s. As autism becomes widely recognised and diagnosed, people are still asking whether it really exists. Then, is it something new? Are there more autistic people now? Is it something caused by parental behaviour (the thesis of the 1950s) or damage at birth or some sort of pollution – chemicals, mobile phones, vaccines?
All of this assumes that autism is a bad thing, and the word was coined to describe a severe disorder. But while people are likely to be diagnosed with autism because they present with problems, is autism itself actually a disorder? Is it a disability? Autistic people are united by thinking ‘differently’ in some respects – but then who decides what is normal? At the far extreme are activists who claim that autistic people are simply an oppressed community of people victimised for thinking differently. Claiming autism as a positive identity has a real corrective value but like other forms of identity politics, it tends to polarise debate. It is very hard for people who regard autism as a disability and people who regard it as a positive identity to talk to each other. Meanwhile, the friends and family of autistic people find themselves expected to identify either as self-effacing carers or oppressors – sometimes both simultaneously.
I am writing here for my friends in the mixed community of autistic and non autistic people who are bound to each other by ties of love, family and friendship. If anyone is offended by my view of autism, this series isn’t for them. It’s for my friends, and anyone who wants to sit in. I am not personally diagnosed as autistic, although I have a number of autistic traits, which most academic types share – for example the capacity to write for 10 hours non-stop. In current thinking, autism is usually described as a non-linear spectrum: that is, nobody now thinks you can rate autistic people against an imaginary straight line on a scale ranging from being a little bit autistic (1) to a lot autistic (10). I see autism as a sun, with rays radiating out from a circular centre. What follows is my own very unofficial model – you can see I struggled with Paint too.
I don’t really believe that anybody is totally ‘neuro-typical’ so I put us ALL in the centre, scoring 1 for each ray that starts from there. Each ray represents a form of mental processing. The further outwards you move on each ray, the more intensely you show that form of processing and the higher you score. So me, and my 10 hour writing capacity – intense hyperfocus. That’s an extension of ‘normal’ that looks a bit like an autistic trait. I see that as moving me to a higher score on one ray, maybe a 2 or 3. However, I tend only to use this capacity in crisis; it doesn’t give me joy, and it isn’t combined with other traits which would make it dominate my personality in normal circumstances. This is because I am mostly ‘neuro-typical’ in other words I am going to score mostly ones or twos. Autistic people are the high scorers – they score a lot more than 1 on a number of rays. But autistic people don’t all score on the same rays as each other. You could be a high scorer overall, but score less than me on 10 hour writing. Autism may be an advantage or disadvantage to you, depending how you combine your high scores, and what your environment is like. If you score highly on hyperfocus, preference for routine and order, preference for facts and data, memory for detail, low vulnerability to emotional distraction, and having a restricted range of interests which you pursue intensely – why shouldn’t you become a billionaire and build a rocket? But if you score highly on aversion to noise, extreme sensitivity to light and texture, and slow processing of language, then you may not finish primary school.
Why Augustus and Autism?
As I said above, thoughts about Augustus wandered round my brain they bumped into thoughts about autism. I suppose they also bumped into thoughts about other things, like tea, but my thoughts about Augustus and autism coalesced, until I became unable to think of Augustus without the lens of autism. We will never know enough about Augustus to know whether he was autistic or not. On top of that, autism is not a very informative diagnosis in itself. The autistic spectrum includes people who build rockets and people who need 24 hour care. All in all, there is no real point in asking the academic question, ‘Was Augustus autistic?’ That’s why it is nice to have a blog where I can share more informal thoughts about why I think it is interesting to add autism into our view of Augustus.
While my slightly obsessive special interest in Augustus’ autism definitely ups my autistic trait score, there is a wider relevance to all of this. Firstly, it is significant for the debate around autism to understand that there have always been autistic people – or rather people who would now be placed on the autistic spectrum. Secondly, autism diagnoses cluster around people whose autism is causing them problems; if you prefer, you can say an oppressive neuro-typical society is causing their autism problems. Either way, the operative word is ‘problems’. As autism is ‘incurable’, a diagnosis can be a depressing thing – a gateway to a life of problems. Autistic people who experience severe problems with building an independent life are easy to spot; lives lived successfully, even brilliantly, with autism hide in plain sight. ‘Outing’ these lives helps us get a better perspective on autism.
Finally, real lives are mixed. Being autistic isn’t a super-power, no matter what it says on the tee-shirt. Being neuro-typical isn’t a super-power either. Augustus’ life is definitely writ large, not least in very large letters on the Monumentum Ancyraenum. His achievements and his disasters are public property. In talking about him we can balance the roles of autism as both advantage and disadvantage, depending on context. And Augustus has been dead a long time and can’t sue. I am leaving out the aspirational aspect of finding an autistic Emperor; ‘you too can be like the Emperor Augustus!’ This is because, I am not sure, after reading the posts, anyone will actually want to be like the Emperor Augustus. But if you do want to be like the Emperor Augustus, autism might be a bit of an advantage.
Livy is our original source for the Lucretia story. Ovid follows him but embellishes with lush detail which tends to emphasise Lucretia’s victimhood. This allows for lots of erotic sensuality and emotional drama which is the sort of thing Ovid likes. It is not the sort of thing Livy likes, but more than this, Livy is writing the story of Rome. Lucretia is a founding mother, commemorated as a female role model and political heroine. In a period of decadence, when the men fail to resist a vicious autocracy, Lucretia’s defence of the values of the home recalls them to their duty. The result is the institution of the finest form of government known to Livy, the Roman Republic.
Livy’s Lucretia sends for her men. When they arrive she is weeping, but full of purpose. She tells her story very briefly. She states that only her body is violated, not her mind and she demands that the men swear vengeance. She dictates the terms; she will kill herself, they will kill him – if they are men. The men then try to persuade her not to commit suicide. She tells them to mind their own business – their job is to deal with Sextus. We do not yet find out, but she is already carrying the dagger she will use – whatever the men say. She has resolved to die to preserve her honour – so that no woman shall live unchastely using Lucretia as an excuse (nec ulla deinde inpudica Lucretiae exemplo vivet).
This is really not what modern readers expect to hear Lucretia say. When I teach this text, I can’t stop students telling me that Lucretia is forced to kill herself by the rules of the patriarchy. Because she has been raped, she must die to save her men shame. Or she is so traumatised by the rape that she kills herself through misery and despair. These are assumptions people bring to the text, maybe because of Ovid and all those naked Lucretias in art galleries. But what Livy says is very different. It is Lucretia who does the enforcing. She chooses to reveal the rape, to do it in Roman fashion, before male witnesses, to assert her intention to die, and to demand an oath of vengeance from the men. Then she defies them and stabs herself unexpectedly. After her suicide, the men will be publicly dishonoured if they don’t exact vengeance. Thus Lucretia causes the fall of the Tarquins and the end of Roman monarchy. She becomes a model for all women and the foundress of the Roman Republic.
So what is happening here? Rape doesn’t exist as a concept for Lucretia. Her exchange with the men indicates that she is thinking in terms of adultery. All participants in the exchange seem to assume that an adulteress is punishable by death. In the early days of Rome the paterfamilias had rights of life and death over his children, and a husband was allowed to kill a wife taken in adultery. It seems to be this sort of life-taking within the family that we are talking about – nothing to do with the actual laws of Classical Rome. Lucretia and the men agree that she had no guilty intent, and therefore should not suffer even. Instead, Sextus, the perpetrator, will be made to suffer. They are formulating principles for dealing with rape which are quite enlightened for the period. Lucretia has satisfied her menfolk that she is not an adulteress; she can now leave it to them to take over and deal with the rapist.
Lucretia is resistant. She rejects the option of return into the private realm which the men offer. What she does next is not to do with distress, despair or coercion, but entirely to do with honour – her female honour. Romans were collective thinkers. For Romans, suicide in the face of dishonour was an act of personal success, not failure, because it preserved unity with the values of the community and the ancestors and left the suicide the same legacy of honour as those who died preserving those values on the field of battle. Having been dragged into public realm, Lucretia resolves to reclaim her honour from any taint of suspicion as a man might do, and earning a glory usually reserved for men. She stabs herself with a male weapon (female suicides often hang themselves with their girdles) and it is the men who raise the lamentation.
Lucretia’s motivation is completely bound up with Roman collectivity. She has lived as the perfect wife not because she is dominated by the patriarchy but because she is a strong soul dedicated to the values of the community. She has no sympathy with women who flout those values. She will not have her name which is also her family name associated with the ‘Lucretia defence.’ Her suicide is not an act of self-obliteration, but of transcendence, which asserts her own identity, not with her body, but with the values of her family and community and the spirits of the ancestors. Lucretia does not just clear her family name, she adorns it and creates an inheritance for her children, an unfailing memory for herself – she fulfils the ideal of Roman life, as much as if she fell on the field of battle. Her suicide shames the men, booting the Roman aristocracy into getting rid of the corrupt and repressive system of kingship, making her, for Livy, a genuine foundress of the Republic. What more could a woman want?
This is Lotto’s Lucretia. The unnamed noblewoman who takes on her example is a commanding self-assured figure. Her rich clothing sets off her beauty, but she refuses to be an erotic object – in fact the would-be viewer is the object of her stern gaze. She is there to instruct, not to titillate. Her right arm creates a straight horizontal line from her elbow, resting near the cradle, to her pointing forefinger, which creates a barrier between her and viewer. The line terminates in her forbidding motto – that no woman may be unchaste and live, using Lucretia as an excuse. Above the motto she holds a scrap of drawing showing a naked helpless Lucretia, but this private shame is literally only sketched in, as it is in Livy. And the sketch is crumpled and rolled away from the viewer. It creates a visual reference to the viewer’s erotic expectations of Lucretia but dismisses them too. It seems quite possible that this Renaissance Lucretia may have a dagger concealed somewhere about her person, and that the odds are not necessarily on Tarquin’s side.
Way to go Lucretia, early feminist! Or not. This is always the paradox with feminism. Are you a feminist because you are a strong empowered woman living by your own rules, or are you a feminist because you sign up to a charter of women’s rights, including things like compassionate treatment for rape victims? I often meet feminist men telling me what, as a woman, I have to think about women’s rights – and this gets me into awful trouble. Me and Lucretia both, because she is an empowered self-determining woman who grasps the prize of honour like a man. But, meanwhile, she derails the cause of women for a the best part of two thousand years. In practice, Romans did not demand that raped women kill themselves, but this remained the gold standard of female behaviour. The Church ban on suicide, when it eventually came, did nothing to remove the stigma, which continued to degrade raped women right up until – oh wait, has that not stopped yet?
EPILOGUE ON RAPE AND HONOUR SUICIDE IN THE ROMAN TRADITION
Livy was writing in the 1st Century BC as Augustus tightened moral legislation to try to restore the ancient virtues of the Roman home. Augustan ideology held that the Roman state had been strongest when it had been supported by the bravery and self-sacrifice of its warriors and the militant chastity of its strong homesteading women. Augustus tried to enforce marriage and childbearing, and increased penalties for female adultery, but he could not maintain traditional morals even in his own family. Nonetheless, interest in these ancient role models was rekindled, which is why our earliest versions of the Lucretia story (Livy and Ovid) date from the era.
Honour suicide continued to be esteemed at Rome as a response to rape to such an extent that it nearly got incorporated into Christian theology. the crucial moment came in the 4th Century BC when Bishop Ambrose of Milan, a man of aristocratic background wrote to his sister, Marcellina, who, with her mother, had formed an early community of dedicated virgins, nuns, in Rome. The Letter to Marcellina is here. In this letter, Ambrose recognises the act of suicide to avoid rape as an act of Christian martyrdom, citing the instance of a fifteen year-old girl, Pelagia, who had encouraged her mother and sisters to drown themselves to avoid rape by marauders. Ambrose recognised Pelagia as a saint.
So why didn’t the Church add honour suicide to its long list of female duties? For that, we have to thank St Augustine of Hippo. He retold the story of Lucretia in his City of God I. 19, but with disapproval. If a woman is raped in all innocence, then to kill her, is to kill an innocent. If she kills herself, she becomes a murderess. Perhaps, says Augustine darkly, Lucretia had secretly enjoyed the rape after all, and knew she did really deserve to die. Augustine’s barn-storming denunciation put an end to honour suicide as an act of female martyrdom. His thinking is not entirely sympathetic today; he suggests, for example, that women should consider whether they have been permitted to be raped as punishment for their excessive pride in their chastity.
Nonetheless, I give you Augustine, feminist theologian.
Posting pictures from Bergamo is really damaging to my cachet with my Dreaming Spires students, who expect me to devote all my love to the Romans and Athenians. There is a case for saying that the oldest parts of Bergamo, and many ancient Italian cities, are a better way of understanding the experience of walking a Roman street than any ancient site, with added ice cream.
In this very photo, we are only steps from the best ice cream in the Città Alta, the UPper City, but more importantly we are near the Civic Archaeological Museum of Bergamo, which is where the small but very interesting collection of Roman period remains is beautifully curated. Photography is not encouraged, but I seem to have accidentally clicked my phone a couple of times while checking Whatsapp.
Bergamo was a city before the Roman era. Northern Italy, to the Romans, was not part of Italia, but Gallia – they called it Gallia Cisalpina, Gaul on this side of the Alps. This was a tribal area, and Bergomum was a hill town of the Cenomani. The Piazza in the photograph is on a high point which may have been the original citadel, as the name suggests; in the 14th Century, a new fortress was built on a spur and this became the citadel. The Romans called at least some of the Gauls ‘Celts’ and this has misleadingly become a term for Iron Age people in general. The Cenomani didn’t call themselves Celts. Livy records that the Cenomani had moved into Italy from France in about 400 BC, seizing and occupying Etruscan territory. They probably spoke a dialect of a language we call Celtic, and definitely didn’t speak Latin at that time.
In the 5th Century BC, Rome was still a minor power within Italy. In about 390 BC a Gallic tribe, the Senones, even sacked Rome. The Cenomani, however, were actively pro-Roman, and fought on the Roman side in the major Roman victory over hostile Gallic tribes at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC. This battle ended the threat from the North, although Cisalpine Gaul was not formally organised into a province until 89 BC. The Cenomani, remained loyal even during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy (218-204 BC). Bergomum was granted full rights a Roman municipium in 45 BC, making citizens of the town full Roman citizens. Shortly afterwards, in 42 BC, Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to the whole of Cisalpine Gaul. The Bergamasks were now Romans.
The Cisalpine ‘tribal’ peoples on the edges of Rome’s growing Italian empire were not very different from the people within it. The Romans themselves were tribally ‘Latins’ who developed an empire, first of all over all local cities and then elsewhere. Even before the rise of Rome, the Northern Italians were living alongside the Etruscan empire, with its advanced social organisation, art and technology. The Cisalpine Gauls used writing – hardly any survives – and made fine metalwork. In the long period of cooperation between the Cenomani and Rome, there must have been a lot of cultural absorption and the number of Roman citizens in the territory will have increased both through migration and grants of citizenship to soldiers and the local nobility. By the time Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to them, teh Cisalpine Gauls were integrated into Italian identity, and Latin was the language of the educated class.
The Upper City of Bergamo is largely on top of Bergomum. The stones of the Roman period buildings are holding up the houses and Churches visible today. This makes the modern environment very rich, but it does limit the archaeology. If you want to find a nice Roman carpet mosaic, then the best place to look for it it is in a field, which has been grazed on by cows for two millennia. A place which has been developed and redeveloped again and again AND IS STILL BEING LIVED IN is not the obvious place to start wielding a trowel. But having said that, here is a carpet mosaic from Bergamo.
And here is an altar of Diana with a beautifully clear inscription.
The distinguished man (CV = Clarissimus Vir) who set it up in fulfilment of his vow (VS = Votum Solvit) was consul in 201 AD, when the consulship had become more of an honour than an actual job. Titles like Clarissimus Vir aren’t used on formal inscriptions from the Republic and Early Empire, but in the second century AD this becomes a standardised title for a Senator. The use of formal honorific titles grows in the later Empire and grade inflation even sets in, until a really important official has to be a Vir Gloriosissimus. In early Latin literature gloriosus means boastful, not glorious, which is quite pleasing.
This amazing bull’s head was part of a set of ornamental beam ends in the Roman theatre. The strange creature on the side will resolve itself into a dolphin if you concentrate. Dolphins were associated with Delphi and Apollo, God of Poetic Arts and the Romans tend to make dolphin beaks very big. My guess is that this came from people who hadn’t seen dolphins in non-dolphinous places like Bergamo copying popular motifs from drawings, but what do I know? Bulls are associated with festive occasions as sacrificial victims, aka lunch. Roman theatres were not commercial and did not have regular showings. They were used for a variety of civic events, and theatrical performances were staged on holidays with the sponsorship of high-ranking locals who took care to get maximum publicity for their generosity.
And finally, something which ties in with my posts on Germanicus, nephew of the wicked Emperor Tiberius, who was murdered in AD 19. He was an important member of the imperial house, and the founder of the dynasty, the Emperor Augustus, had intended Tiberius to be a caretaker ruler only. After Tiberius, Germanicus would take over, and the dynasty would pass on through his numerous heirs. In reality Tiberius clung onto power until 37 AD, more than a decade after the death of his own son, and nearly two after the death of Germanicus. His successor was Caligula, youngest son of Germanicus, and one of the most notorious emperors; the experience of having his father murdered and mother and older brothers openly persecuted to death by Tiberius may have contributed to his instability. All of this was court politics, recorded in vicious detail by Tacitus. But these fractures in the imperial house were not public property. Bergamo is 400 miles form Rome. Like other cities of the Empire, Bergamo culted the Emperor and the imperial house and monumentalised its members as the embodiment of Roman authority. Up and down the empire, cities commemorated the death of Germanicus with plaques, honouring the wish of the Emperor, who, Germanicus believed, had ordered his horrible death, and who certainly went on to wipe out his family. Here is Bergamo’s effort.
Actually, that is a bit grim to finish on. Here is a nice picture of exceptionally yummy nibbles and non-alcoholic beverages in Clusone, being investigated by my research assistants.
And here am I, smiling at you. Hey students, don’t forget to sign up. This year there’s The Making of Fifth Century Athens and New Testament Language and Culture. I’m also working on a GCSE Classical Civilisation course for 2020. Hope to see some of you there.
This post goes along with my Post on the Triumph of Death and the Three Living and the Three Dead. The Confraternity of Disciplini at Clusone were very keen that we should get the message about death. So they provided us with three separate images of the nearness of death, all of them popular at the time.
There is a lot of writing on the Internet about the Dance of Death, and I am only sharing this post in tribute to a lovely example. The Three Living and the Three Dead go back to the 13th Century, but the Dance of Death seems to take off in the 15th Century, after the Black Death. This example is from 1485.
The phrase ‘Dance of Death’ today suggests the bizarre and the horrific. These associations are encapsulated by the composer Saint-Saens who used the usual French version of the name, Danse Macabre, for his 1874 tone poem. He envisaged a skeletal death animating the corpses in a graveyard to dance to a frantic and sinister tune on the violin. This is very Gothic, and an interesting example of the 19th Century association of virtuosity, especially on the violin, and the dark arts – the Paganini connection. There are examples of fascination with mere horror in the older tradition, for example this lurid woodcut, which could illustrate Saint-Saens’ music, if only Michael Wolgemut had supplied his skeletal musician with a viol instead of a – is it a shawm? .
Although the prancing corpses are definitely dancing and dead, they don’t really have much to do with the Clusone Dance of Death and the 15th century family of moralising images to which it belongs. This Dance of Death is usually stately and relatively benign, taking the form of a chain dance, where each human participant is accompanied by a skeleton. The skeletons don’t appear predatory or malign nor the humans horrified or distressed. There is no violence or confrontation, the humans are not snatched away, rather, courtesy prevails in the manner of a courtly dance. I think this type of Dance of Death is really an image of human life; we should understand the skeletons as our own skeletons, the mortality which accompanies us and is inseparable from our earthly existence. Human life is literally a promenade with mortality – we seem to be one with our, we adorn and enjoy them, but they set a limit to our earthly existence, through fragility, decay and inevitable death. Our real life is elsewhere. As long as we understand this, there is no reason why we should fear the dance.
The Clusone Dance of Death is particularly amicable. On the left of the picture the hooded figure in white is one of the Confraternity, taking his place in the dance alongside prosperous citizens of different walks of life. Behind him is a richly dressed woman, the only one I could spot in the scene. In front of him the man in blue seems to have drawn a particularly friendly skeleton who turns towards him and inclines his head courteously, while delicately holding his first two fingers. The hand position seems to be a deliberate part of the dance motif. The skeleton partners do take the arm or hand of the mortals. I can’t make out the lady’s hold, but in the case of both the Brother and his neighbour, the skeleton reaches across to place its right arm over the right arm of its partner, but not fully touching the arm and holding fingers not the whole hand – very genteel. Where the mortal figures do not have a free right hand the hold differs. The man in the red stocking has the same hold, but on his left hand. The man in green leggings is lightly holding hands with his skeleton; the next couple have linked arms completely, and the skeleton is also using his spare hand to grasp his partner’s wrist in a particularly confiding manner.
There are no poor people in this Dance of Death – the point isn’t about Death the Leveller, but Death the Companion. The costumes indicate a range of occupations, which clearly feature being a woman and a confraternal Brother. Apart from that, I am not specialist enough to judge. My guess is that the dancers include a soldier, a huntsman, a merchant, a courtier and a man with a teapot and terrible dress sense.
The philosophy of the 15th Century Dance of Death reminds me of the cadaver tombs which occur in the same period. Alice Chaucer, died 1475 and styled Princess and Duchess at her death, has a magnificent example in Ewelme, which I must get out and photograph for you. There are two tiers. On top she lies in her pomp, underneath she lies a shrivelled corpse, but (I know this because I crawled) looking at her very own painting of the Annunciation on the ceiling of her death chamber. In Italy the tradition goes back to the 13th Century. In case anyone from Cambridge reads this, Hugh Ashton has a splendid cadaver tomb (1522) now in St John’s College Chapel.
‘I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life,’ wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, pioneer of smallpox innoculation and resident of Lovere for nearly 10 years. In 1755 she wrote these lines there;
Wisdom, slow product of laborious years,
The only fruit that life’s cold winter bears;
Thy sacred seeds in vain in youth we lay,
By the fierce storm of passion torn away.
Should some remain in a rich gen’rous soil,
They long lie hid, and must be rais’d with toil;
Faintly they struggle with inclement skies,
No sooner born than the poor planter dies.
The town of Lovere loves Lady Mary and their promenade is named after her. In temperatures of 33, 34, even 35, on July 9th 2019, we decided to hire a car and get out of Bergamo, head up into the pre-Alps, the Orobie and visit Clusone, with its amazing Triumph of Death fresco. Then we would cross into the next valley, visit Lovere on the shore of Lake Iseo and then drive down the side of the lake. It was a brilliant plan. Luckily we couldn’t get a car until 2 pm, which seemed like a shame at the time. Our outing coincided with a cloud burst which brought an hour of hail to Bergamo. Where we were, it brought bouts of torrential rain so heavy we couldn’t even leave the car in Clusone. In all honesty, I did, but noone else would.
We continued with the trip and managed to get out of the car in a period of drizzle and take some photos of Lovere in the rain.
Then I took my favourite video ever from under the awning of the Pasticceria Wender which served us drinks and very nice tiny pastries. I can’t show it because I don’t have a Premium Plan, but it is a live version of this photo with the added sound of torrential rain.
After that we did did drive down the amazing lakeside road, scooped out of vertical cliffs which overhang it in places. Part of it is tunnelled. There are helpful notices warning about rock falls, and nets hopefully cantilevered out of the cliffs, to catch the boulders as they head towards your car. Then we had really nice pasta in a trattoria in Sarnico, which for some reason thought it was an Irish pub, and then we went home.
This post is an add-on to one I made on the Triumph of Death fresco in Clusone, which is where I talked about the significance of the main scene and the people who put it up. Today we are zooming in on the top left. My photo is not terribly good, especially when cropped, but here it is.
You can just see three horsemen in rich clothing and their two hunting dogs. They are riding towards a sort of hedge, actually representing a wood, and over the hedge two distressed faces show horror. This is a version of a legend, really just a moral fable, going back to a 13th century poem by Baudoin de Condé, who should have an acute accent on his final ‘e’. The gist is that three nobles, enjoying the wealth and leisure of their status, go hunting in the forest and meet three corpses who remind then that they will soon be as the corpses now are and urge them to repent. In the 13th century original, the corpses are clergy, but this is a late version (1485) and follows a well known variant where the hunters meet their doubles, so that it becomes a doppelgänger story .
As far as I can make out, the horsemen in the foreground are the corpses. Number 3 lies across his horse transfixed by a javelin – this is my main clue. Number 2 seems to have a problem with his neck, and I think he may he indicating that he is hanged by a noose. Number 1 looks fine to me, although he is very far forward over the horse’s neck, but I didn’t have a good enough zoom to be sure. The later frame has cut off part of the scene left including the third face. I’m not quite sure what the prominent bird is doing: it may be a hawk, part of the hunting scene, but I’m not at all sure. It isn’t a usual part of the group.
If you search for the Three Living and the Three Dead, you will find an enormous number of images. This version is quite restrained. Here are some I have harvested on the Internet
This is a Flemish version from about the same period. The one below, also from Northern Europe is much earlier, about 1349.
This version is from another Italian fresco, in the Monastery of St Benedict, Subiaco. Here the corpses show three stages of decomposition, with maggots infesting the central one. The nobles are carrying birds of prey – they are hawking. I have seen this fresco in real life, but I have had to borrow the photo.
Death conquers all. Riches and rank will not save you. Even the Pope and Emperor (look in the tomb) will die and get eaten by worms. The Confraternity of the Disciplini of San Bernardino wanted us to know this. In 1485 they hired Giacomo Borlone de Buschis to paint this scene on the outside of their Oratory in the small town of Clusone, in Northern Italy. It happens that 1485 is also the date of the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III, King of England, lost his crown on the field of battle and disappeared from history, only to turn up in 2011, buried in a car park in Leicester. This is just the sort of thing the Confraternity would like us to think about.
This picture is accompanied by a Dance of Death fresco, and another scene representing the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead. These images were not uncommon in Europe in the period, and especially in this area, but the survival of such a huge and spectacular example, uniting three interlocking themes is a very rare and special thing. I’ve got lots of other pictures. In fact, this fresco is so well known on the internet, that it seems a bit superfluous to write about it, but I will try and bring together some parts of the story that you don’t always find in one place – it will take me more than one post. I’m going to think about several questions – who and where were the Confraternity of Disciplini and why the interest in death; who are the Three Living and the Three Dead? I also want to blog about the Dance of Death and, separately, about the amazing interior of the Oratory.
Just for now, I will focus on the picture above, which is only a part of the whole. Death, as a skeleton, is wearing a robe and crown. In Italian, Death is a feminine noun, so that it is culturally correct to say that she is the queen of this world, to whom we all submit. This doesn’t make her evil. Satan is sometimes described in the Bible as the ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ of this world (e.g. John 12. 31) because he competes with God for power over mortal souls. Death’s reign is different – for the Confraternity, at least, she serves God.
The scrolls surrounding Death spell out her powers; she is impartial and stronger than all; the ungodly will die with bitterness, but the godly and just will pass through the death of the body to eternal life. So Death plays a part in sifting the good and bad, in levelling the unjust distinctions set up in human life and bringing us to judgement. By the time of this fresco, Death was already established as the first of the Four Last Things; Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell. This gives us the first insight into the motivation of the Disciplini – meditation on Death frees us from the delusion of human wealth and power and helps us evaluate the true significance of mortal life as a stage in the journey to Heaven or Hell. If Hell is very bad, Heaven is very good, so Death is only terrifying to those who have placed all their confidence in worldly success.
This Death has two skeleton acolytes with rapid fire weapons which kill at a distance. The archer holds three arrows at a time – I imagine he fits them in quick succession, rather than all at once, but I am not an archer. On the other side, and early gun appears – the arquebus. All around lie corpses, mingled with dignitaries, religious and secular, who are dismayed by death and offer bribes. Even where they don’t have crowns or religious insignia, these suppliants are richly dressed; although death comes to the poor too, this is really a moral story about the vanity of riches and the humbling of those who trust in them. In spiritual matters, the Confraternity appear to have a preferential option for the poor, and part of their work was to minister to them.
In Renaissance Europe, religious Confraternities were everywhere. Some internet sites attribute this Oratory to ‘monks’, but members were mostly lay people. They bound themselves together to practice spiritual discipline (hence the name Disciplini) and good works. The Disciplini of St Bernardino were a 15th century foundation based in Bergamo, the Lombard city lying 35 km below Clusone, which is in the foothills of the Alps. Other activities associated at this time with Confraternities were education, including the staging of religious plays, and participation in religious processions in their distinctive long hooded robes.
Many of the Northern Italian Confraternities were flagellants, as this group were – they whipped themselves in public to demonstrate repentance and their disdain for the body. This practice can still be found in some Catholic areas of the Mediterranean today, and together with the faceless hoods, which now recall Klan costume, tends to make a negative impression on people from outside the culture. Like most things, it’s complicated. The Confraternities were crucial in providing spiritual ministry and charitable aid in towns and villages, in a time of great political instability. They despised the violence and luxury of the ruling classes, particularly, the factional strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines, supposedly supporters respectively of the Pope and Emperor, which fomented in-fighting, murders, coups and all-out war between the Italian cities. The faceless hoods were for self-effacement – their frightening associations come from later. Public self-flagellation, though, was always shocking; the Disciplini had an urgent mission, like radical protesters today. If they dwelt on pain and death, it was to save the population from worse miseries, including Hell, of course, but also, in this life, the wars and other miseries with which Italy was racked because of human disobedience, and, worse still, God’s powerful wrath in the form of plague.
So before I close this post with a bigger picture, scholars seem to agree in associating the rise of Italian Confraternities and their preoccupation with death with the coming of the Black Death to Italy in the mid 14th century. It was so devastating that it took a generation or more to cease to live in its shadow. The effects were as unpredictable as they were devastating: some areas suffered massive sudden mortality, while neighbours escaped lightly or temporarily. The Lombard region was worst affected later in 1361 and 1373, and outbreaks across Europe continued. The particular Confraternity active in Clusone was founded several decades after the major Lombardy outbreaks, but it belongs within a movement that began as a response to the horrors of the plague. The disruption across Europe was incalculable. The plague ran along the major trading routes. Even animals died – especially sheep – and humans who contracted the disease rarely lived more than three days. Scholars attribute all sorts of social changes to the consequences of plague, including the end of feudalism, the empowerment of women, and, indirectly, the Reformation.
The Church was disrupted by the plague and its consequences along with the rest of society. Many clergy died, and their places were hastily and inadequately filled or left vacant. Some of the traditional monastic institutions which performed both spiritual and charitable functions ceased to function. The Confraternities took on the job of plugging this gap. Their intense spiritual focus was also a reaction to the godlessness of the plague years when sick and dead had been abandoned, regular worship was thrown into chaos and when many, as Boccaccio chronicles, had responded to the fear of sudden death not by prayer and preparation, but with a hectic last round of worldly pleasures. The modern viewer probably hopes to live long and see few deaths, so coming across a giant painted skeleton is shocking in itself. This is not the intended effect. The original audience lived in a period where premature and violent death was common. The goal of the fresco was not to remind them that they would die, but to place Death in a proper perspective, queen of our mortal bodies, precursor to Judgement, Heaven and Hell.
Here is the big picture I promised. I can’t do anything about the lighting.
Bergamo has long been two cities – the Upper, the Citta Alta, and the Lower, the Citta Bassa. There should be a grave accent on the a of Citta, but I’ve no idea how to do that in WordPress. The Citta Alta is the ancient citadel, surrounded by 15th Century walls. The Citta Bassa is where later development was able to take place, joining up small settlements and monasteries on the plain. So the Citta Bassa contains the new, and the relatively new as well as the very old. Its main shopping centre is on the wide boulevard called the Via Sentierone.
This street, the Via Pignolo is one of the most historic streets in the Lower City. It runs from the plain, up the hill, towards the St Augustine Gate of the Upper City. It is lined by 16th Century palazzi, now mainly apartment buildings, but originally built for prosperous merchants and local notables. The ground floors often feature arcades, which are occupied by shops – like ancient Roman town houses, these palazzi face inwards. Their favourite connection to street level is a robust door. The street-facing windows are higher up and neither large nor showy.
I really recommend you to walk the length of the Via Pignolo in Google Maps. I am borrowing the image from Ostia Antica below.
The town of Ostia Antica was active in the Roman period but later abandoned. It is less famous than Pompeii and Herculaneum, but just as interesting. You can see from the mosaic in one the the archways that it was used as a shop or bar. This pattern of use is more than two thousand years old. The plain exteriors give no clue to what lies inside the buildings, whose access to light and air is through interior courtyards.
This is the door to the apartment block where we stayed – or at least to a section of the block, which has been divided. There is nothing behind the door except a steep marble staircase. The rest of the ground floor is used for retail and offices. Our apartment was on the first floor. It still had its high ceilings, but otherwise had been completely redivided and modernised. However, the view from the windows told a different story.
This is the view into the courtyard.
Let’s look a bit more closely at the wall painting behind the balcony.
I’m not an expert, but I would say that is 16th century, maybe early 17th. Here is the view down.
The front window onto the street looks onto the Piazzetta del Delfino: Dolphin Place, named after the statue on a Triton on a dolphin which ornaments its fountain . The Romans provided public water by channelling spring water, by aqueduct if necessary, to public fountains. This system carried on in Italy, and although the fountains are now ornamental, there is nothing more typical than a fountain in a public square. The water was icy cold. I took this photo by night, when the bar next to the fountain was closed. If I find a better photo I will add it to the blog. Looks like it’s ‘Good Night’.
So what is the startling building, like a marble Wedding Cake, crowding the entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore and obscuring its facade? The ancient and amazing Church, which I blogged about here, has no real front face. The main entrance from the Piazza Duomo is just a very pretty porch in a blank wall; the rest of the building on that side is hidden by this later building. When it was built in the 1470’s, the Sacristy of the Church had to be pulled down to make way for it. Here is another view of it, which shows the contrast with the sober Romanesque architecture of its surroundings.
It may be correct to think the Colleoni Chapel extremely beautiful, although I think it is a bit hideous. It is certainly spectacular, a High Renaissance riot of everything in the catalogue. It has domes, it has roundels, it has pillars in contrasting shapes, it has a rose window, it has a colour scheme of red, white and black, all done in marble lozenges. And on top of this, there are more decorative elements, although they get a bit lost in the overwhelming impact of the whole: reliefs of Biblical scenes and the Labours of Hercules, medallions of Julius Caesar and Trajan on each side of the rose window. Even at the height of Renaissance Classicism, it can’t be said that scenes from pagan myth and history are standard decorations for religious buildings. The general impression is that the man who commissioned this building said, ‘I want everything, and I want it to be very, very expensive.’ He probably did.
The walls and ceiling of the interior are as lavishly decorated as you would expect from the outside, but otherwise there is a lot of empty space. The main feature is an extravagant tomb featuring a crowned figure on a horse, all in gold – this is the founder of the Chapel, Bartomoleo Colleoni himself, who lies buried here, with his daughter alongside in a separate monument. The whole structure is a celebration of this one man, his wealth and power.
Bartolomeo Colleoni is one of the most interesting figures in Bergamo’s history, not because he was extraordinarily powerful, but because his story encapsulates a particular period of the city’s history. He was born in 1395 into a minor noble family associated with Bergamo, which at that time was ruled by the Dukes of Milan, 30 miles away. But this period of Italian history was dominated by wars between the many independent city states which competed for their share of Italian territory and feuds and coups within the city states themselves. This is the period of Romeo and Juliet, or, in real life, the Guelphs, political supporters of the Pope, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, who fomented rebellions and tore cities in two. Along with this instability went vicious dynastic struggles, intrigue, murder.
The Colleoni family were Guelphs, out of favour with the ruling Visconti Duke of Milan. While Bartolomeo was still a child, a relative killed his father and brother and seized the family fortress. He was imprisoned himself, but released after his mother paid a ransom. Dispossessed, the young Bartolomeo began his climb back to wealth and power in the obvious way – as a soldier. He began as a nobleman’s page, and went on to distinguish himself in many battles as a mercenary, in a period when mercenaries were all important.
The Italian word condottiere or condottiero is often translated mercenary, but this isn’t strictly correct. The condottiere was the leader of a band of mercenaries – a political power could make a contract (a condotta) with the condottiere for the services of his company – specifying how many men were being provided. These were not enlisted peasants, but professional soldiers with the latest armour and weapons, usually lance-carrying cavalry. The loyalty of the condottieri was wholly conditional on being paid very large amounts of money. They were also liable to change sides at short notice. Condottieri were powerful deal makers and breakers off the field of battle, giving them real power, which sometimes led to high political office.
Bartolomeo Colleoni started out as a man at arms in mercenary companies, but in the 1424 he became the leader of his own – just 20 cavalry. This was in Naples, where he also became the lover of the Queen, Joanna II. By 1428, his company was twice that number, and he was back in the Bergamo area, fighting for the Venetians against his personal enemies, the Duchy of Milan. In this year, Bergamo passed from the control of the Dukes of Milan and became a Venetian possession. Within 4 years Colleoni was leading 300 men at arms; by 1437 it was 800 and he was once again fighting for the Venetians against Milan. In 1441, the Venetians and Milanese made peace, and Colleoni served Milan before being imprisoned by the Duke. In 1447 Francesco Sforza, himself a condottiere became Duke, ending the rule of the Viscontis. Colleoni served him for a while, but finally returned to the Venetians who, in 1454, made him their ‘captain general’ – effectively the head of the armed forces. His commands now numbered thousands.
The reason for Colleoni’s spectacular success was his skill as a general and tactician, especially in deploying the relatively new weapon, artillery. He lived to attain great power and wealth. In 1456 he built himself a castle near Bergamo, which I haven’t seen yet. I have borrowed this picture from Wikipedia.
Originally, this castle was surrounded by defences: it was not ornamental. However, the Venetians retained Bergamo and Colleoni never had to defend his estate, where he died in 1475, surrounded by his large family and his soldiers. He had been created a member of the Venetian nobility and entertained the Danish king at Malpaga. He was a Renaissance man – he had been brought up as an aristocrat, and although his success was based on warfare, he was a patron of the arts and interested in the intellectual culture of the upper classes. He was also enormously keen to be remembered. He left a great legacy to the state of Venice, on condition that the city erected an equestrian statue of him – this was cast in bronze by Verrochio and still stands in Venice. He commemorated himself in the same way in his Mortuary Chapel at Bergamo, but with gold leaf too.
The Chapel tells us a lot of what Bartolomeo Colleoni felt he had achieved. His funerary image is crowned – he was in effect an uncrowned king of Italy, a king-maker and decider of battles. Plenty of retired warlords have ploughed their wealth into religious buildings as a kind of insurance against punishment in the hereafter, but there is nothing repentant about Colleoni’s shrine to himself. The medallions of Caesar and Trajan, conquering emperors of high reputation indicates his vision of himself as a warrior-ruler in the Classical tradition. Hercules was a demi-god who carried out twelve labours to the benefit of mankind: his appearance in the plaques on the Chapel reminds us of Colleoni’s own heroic labours. Despite its Catholic elements, the Chapel seems to me to lack any sense of religious devotion. It is a humanist temple to the attainments of a man who believed he had achieved the Renaissance ideal – he is a warrior, a ruler and politician, an acknowledged aristocrat, a landowner, but also a courtier, a man of the finest tastes in art and culture; modern, but steeped in the values of the noble Classical past, an heir to the Caesars. There could be something sad about the ostentatious tomb of someone so invested in worldly success, but Colleoni’s self-confidence is overwhelming. No doubt he felt entitled to eternal life too, but his Chapel isn’t overly interested in that. ‘Look,’ he seems to say,’I did it.’ And he did.
The Nave of Santa Maria Maggiore: in case you are wondering ‘maj-OR-ray’ – St Mary the Greater.
You will find the main entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazza del Duomo – Cathedral Square. And you could be excused for thinking that it is the Cathedral, but it isn’t – that’s next door. This Church was founded in 1137, and its underlying style is plain – architects call it Romanesque. The main features of Romanesque architecture are massive walls, sturdy plain pillars, barrel vaults, round arches and colonnades. The structures are usually symmetrical and uncomplicated – Santa Maria Maggiore is on a typical cross-shaped plan. Windows are not a major feature: they are narrow and topped by round arches. You can see a lot of these features in this picture.
Romanesque architecture may be essentially plain, but there is nothing plain about Santa Maria Maggiore: in this view you can see the lavishly decorated ceilings from the 16th century – and that is real gold. The wooden balustrade separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is by Lorenzo Lotto. Huge tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries cover much of the wall space, and the rest is taken up with enormous oil paintings of religious subjects. You can get an idea of the size of the tapestries from this photo with a Confessional, elaborately carved by Andrea Fantoni, in the foreground. Incidentally, this is a working Catholic Church and confession is offered in a number of languages for teh benefit of the international visitors.
Before all these pictures and tapestries came the 14th century wall paintings which are fully visible in some places. In the UK, the Reformation stripped out the painted work, and left us accustomed to see ancient churches as austere structures of bare stone and plaster. Santa Maria Maggiore remains chaotically decorated, as she always has been – originally by wall paintings, then later by everything subsequent eras, including the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque periods, could throw at her. The effect isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find it welcoming – like a giant lived-in room or Christmas.
The Church is so surrounded by buildings that it is hard to take a picture, so I have borrowed this one from Wikipedia.
Although work started in 1137, building continued into the 14th Century and the process of adding long after that. The bell tower was not started until 1436. The main entrance is through Giovanni da Campione’s 14th Century porch; the top section of this was added a quarter century after his death. This is a beautiful entrance, but it is a very narrow entrance for such a grand basilica, and not even central in the wall. The reason for this is that the Church was once attached to the Bishop’s Palace, which took up the space where you would expect a Great West Door to be. Why was the location so crowded? This wasn’t the first Church on the site. In fact the site started out as a Roman Temple. The transformation of Temples into Churches was a general practice: we cannot know how long there has been worship on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore, but two thousand years is a minimum.
Back to the porch and the end of this post.
The porch is the elegant simple structure on the left, not the hideous marble wedding cake on the right. That is something else completely. Up the sides of the doorway run reliefs of dogs hunting. Then come two tiers of statues.
The central statue of the lower tier represents St Alessandro, who is commemorated all over Bergamo as their first evangelist, martyr and saint. The story is that he was a military standard bearer in the 3rd century AD who was condemned to death in the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Diocletian. After daring escapes, he hid in the woods around Bergamo, where the Gospel had not yet been preached. He converted many, but his zeal for the Gospel led to his discovery and death by beheading. The tier above contains statues of Mary and the infant Jesus. She is attended by two female saints; one (I think the one on the right) is St Grata, an early convert who stole St Alessandro’s body for burial after his execution. She carried the severed head herself, and persuaded others to lift the heavy body. The column which is said to mark the spot of the martyrdom is still preserved outside the Church of St Alessandro in the lower city.