This week has been a week of seminars! Yesterday, as part of the seminar series on Middle Eastern and Iranian History, I attended a presentation by Dr. Ivana Jevtic from the University of Koç, in Istanbul, on the subject ‘The Paleologan “Renaissance” and the Monuments of Late Byzantine Constantinople.’
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the Paleologan Renaissance covers the period between 1261 and 1453 when Greek-speaking Byzantine dynasties once again controlled Constantinople, and a new flourishing in arts and learning occurred. Previously, the city had been held by Latin occupiers, who first looted it during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. During the 57 years of the occupation, the Byzantine empire went into ‘exile’ in Anatolia; retaking Constantinople was thus a significant moment in fostering a resurgent sense of Byzantine identity.
Dr. Jetvic’s presentation focused upon the early period of the Paleologan Renaissance, when the emperor Michael VIII Paleologos restored many monuments and functional buildings around the city. These activities were made necessary by nearly 60 years of exploitative rule by the Latins, during which the population declined and many works of art were exported back to western Europe.
There was, however, another dimension to his activities. Many of his restorative projects also included the patronage of arts, whose forms referred back to the ‘Golden Age’ of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th-6th centuries. This was not only the time when Constantinople itself was founded (in 330 CE), but also when powerful emperors, like Justinian, decorated it with their own monumental projects.
Some of Michael VIII’s projects included a mosaic in Hagia Sophia, a church which symbolised the strength, wealth, and faith of the Byzantine Empire, as well as a column depicting himself and the archangel Michael (no longer standing, but described in literary sources). In addition, Dr. Jevtic argued that decorative elements added to the Golden Gate–one of the entryways through the city’s walls–should also be attributed to Michael.
Although very different, these projects were all characterised by the conscious emulation, and even reuse, of artistic forms which had not been practiced for centuries. In Michael’s mosaic panel, for example, the golden background was made by placing the tesserae (mosaic pieces) in an elaborate pattern like fish-scales. This was far more visually impressive than straight rows, and was revived from early Byzantine models.
His other two projects–his commemorative column and Golden Gate redecoration–referred to the past in a way that was far more direct. From descriptions, historians have argued that the bronze sculptures from Michael VII’s columns were taken from other monuments, slightly tweaked, and then erected as part of a new work. Thus, while the creation of new bronze sculpture lay beyond the talents of Michael’s artists (and probably also his budget), he was nonetheless able to imitate the great emperors of the past.
Spolia (reused pieces of masonry) also decorated the Golden Gate. When it was built, the outer surface of the walls surrounding the gate had been very plain. In Michael’s time, or possibly later in the Paleologan Renaissance, however, a facade imitating a classical arcade was added, and carved reliefs from Roman sarcophagi were inset into the walls. Written sources tell us that they depicted scenes from classical literature and mythology–for example the Seven Labours of Hercules–and thus tied the Byzantines of the Paleologan period to the artistic achievements of their past.
Together, these projects demonstrate an awareness of the Byzantine past and a desire, on Michael VIII’s part, to revive a lapsed imperial vision. By returning to older mosaic forms and reusing sculptural elements, he tried to portray himself as a second Constantine, endowing the city with a new civic awareness. Although his projects could not go more than skin-deep in most cases (there was simply too much city in need of restoration) they symbolise a much wider mentality of rebirth not only in architecture and the decorative arts, but also in learning. Thus, although Byzantine influence at this time became ever more confined, its cultural accomplishments after 1261 place the Paleologan Renaissance on par with other periods in the city’s history.