This short book (81 pages of text) addresses a fundamental ‘why’ question in the history of early Christian architecture. Its author, Swedish archaeologist Olof Brandt, has chosen to write in Italian about this important topic. Two chapters (the introduction and pp. 65-70 – this would be ch. 7 if the chapters had been numbered) provide some theoretical background as to the context for this scholarly discussion. The preceding sections (ch. 1-5) present a wide-ranging array of plans from late-antique Christian monuments surveyed at ‘bird’s-eye view’ in order to demonstrate the evolution of these buildings towards a greater complexity of structures. The concluding chapters (8-9) turn to the interpretation of internal furnishings as markers of liturgical differences, and to the few texts concerning ancient perceptions of ecclesiastical buildings. 109 figures, both photos and plans, but no maps, follow the text closely (note however that fig. 100 at p. 67 refers to fig. 99 instead). A few pages of bibliography (pp. 125-142) and an index of names complete the book (pp. 143-148). Better proofreading would have avoided a number of mistakes in the Italian.
Brandt’s aim is to argue for an aesthetic or ‘artistic’ criterion as the only valid explanation of the development of early Christian architecture. Brandt champions this view from the work of Alois Riegl (1858-1905), extensively quoted in the section (7) entitled ‘Alois Riegl e l’incommensurabile infinito oltre la parete’ (‘Alois Riegl and the incommensurable infinity beyond the wall’). According to Brandt, Riegl ‘must be right’ in his aesthetic approach to architectural development because neither the functionalist nor the symbolic explanations of evolution in church design work (p. 69). Since churches with the same design can serve different liturgical purposes, changes in liturgy, whether from one location to another or over time, cannot be held responsible for changes in design. Neither can the symbolic function be documented except in a single case (the cruciform plan of San Nazaro in Milan; pp. 49-51, 68). Even in this case, the symbolic interpretation of the cross shape cannot be securely attributed to the planner or architect, but may have been a retrospective interpretation of later clerics writing about this edifice. Since these explanations can be so effectively countered, Brandt proposes Riegl’s framework of analysis as the best explanatory model for the evolution of early Christian architecture. The ancients had a taste for ‘increased complexity’ through which they yearned after the infinity of God. Thus the addition of side naves and open colonnades, the sprouting of transepts forming a cross shape, the inclusion of perforated arcades and upper registers of interlocking galleries, and multiple pendentives in domed structures, are all phenomena that responded to (and now exemplify for us) this taste for ever-more complex forms. It is remarkable that in this key chapter the word ‘monumentality’, chosen for the book’s title, does not appear; increased complexity is not necessarily synonymous with monumentality. But then a more thorough unpacking of the concept of monumentality, as well as that of increased complexity, could have been of benefit to the reader’s understanding of precisely what is at stake in the development Brandt is trying to explain.
Brandt lines up an impressive number of buildings drawn from many different locales across a span of several centuries, all arranged according to their plan (basilica, cross and circle). Each example is presented briefly from the archeological and architectural points of view. Brandt attempts to present all this evidence as forming a coherent, linear evolution, despite the breadth of geographical scope encompassed and the uncertainties of dating that remain for many of the monuments discussed. The scarcity of knowledge concerning the specific situation in which each building was planned, erected and used partly undermines such a neat presentation. Moreover, one wonders whether such complex evidence, even if it could be construed to represent a coherent evolutionary trajectory, could ever yield a single explanatory key.
Rather, it is more likely that a concomitance of different factors contributed to the specific choices in each circumstance. Surely, research on liturgical, symbolic or functionalist explanations, together with socio-historical as well as geo-political factors (including for example notions such as climatic conditions or density of population, as well as technical skill and workmanship), should continue to contribute to our understanding of the individual building projects as well as to their interrelationships. Denying any value to these other types of explanation, or relegating them to specific parts of the building, such as the movable or unmovable furnishings (see ch. 8, oddly entitled ‘Gli arredi riflettono la liturgia, la basilica no’), has the dubious effect of fragmenting our understanding of a structure that was presumably conceived in all its parts as a unity. A holistic approach might be preferable where evidence is scarce.
The vogue for cut-and-dried functionalist explanations may well be over, and Brandt’s contribution is welcome in reviving other types of outlook that remain sensitive to aesthetic issues and less material functionalities. A problem remains, however, when we try to define whose aesthetics we are talking about. Is it those of the planner of a church (an engineer, an architect), a sponsor (such as an emperor or perhaps a bishop), or the taste of the public, i.e. the mass of Christian worshipers but also of non-Christian passersby and onlookers? Though the final chapter analyses the few available sources explicitly mentioning early Christian building enterprises, the problem is that none of these sources address this issue, as Brandt himself admits (p. 78). One aspect that emerges from Eusebius’ account of Constantine’s building activity is the competitive spirit with which these monuments were erected. Their size and opulence was intended as a reflection of the greatness of the emperor, who was at all costs trying to outdo his predecessors (p. 75). In this respect, Christian emperors were not very different from pagan ones.
Brandt observes (p. 64) that although the technical solution of building a dome on pendentives was implemented everywhere after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was built, the church itself was not imitated. Rather, the humbler edifice next to it, that of Hagia Irene, served as model for other central-plan churches, such as Basilica B at Philippi. It would be interesting here to explore why this happened. Although admirable, the monumentality of the most important Christian basilica built under Justinian was perhaps also forbidding of closer emulation; it was built to be extraordinary, and it successfully maintained its status as a unique and special building.
Explaining some unusual features of early (as well as medieval) buildings, such as for example multiple openings in the long sides, or mirror apses, may well be impossible in the current state of knowledge. Variations in local customs may have been greater than what we commonly tend to envisage. The outlook proposed by Brandt involves following Riegl’s cue in seeking in these changing forms an expression of aesthetic striving on the part of those for whom these buildings were made. One wonders how much the change in religious outlook could or did determine the need to make immanent the imposing presence of God in his church while still drawing on a classical vocabulary of forms, from the basilica plan to the different orders of ornamental capitals. The argument of this book might have been strengthened by more clearly articulating the characteristics of this new spiritual need, before attempting to read it back into the architectural shape of monuments.