BMCR 2021.03.60

Rome in the eighth century: a history in art

, Rome in the eighth century: a history in art. British School at Rome studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xx, 292; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9781108834582 $99.99.


Anyone passingly familiar with early medieval Rome knows at least some of the illuminating contributions to the field that John Osborne has made over some four decades, which have typically appeared as closely-focused book chapters and articles, many published in the Papers of the British School at Rome. As the first monograph produced by Osborne since his 1979 Ph.D. thesis (Early Mediaeval Wall-Paintings in the Lower Church of San Clemente, Rome; republished in 1984 in the “Outstanding Theses from the Courtauld Institute of Art” series from Garland Press), Rome in the Eighth Century is something of a departure from the norm, in terms both of length and scope. The new volume is an enterprising, wide-ranging synthesis unlike anything the author has attempted before—and is all the more welcome for it. While readers of his earlier scholarship will encounter a range of familiar themes and topics here, the book is much more than an extended rehashing of the older work. It is a panoramic résumé of Rome’s cultural and institutional evolution over the course of the eighth century, that pivotal period when the city passed from imperial to papal control, presented through the lens of ‘art.’

In the preface (pp. xiv-xv), Osborne pays tribute to Alan Gowans, an early colleague and mentor in whose department of History in Art——not ‘of’ art—the author held his first academic position. In the same vein as Gowans, Osborne intends to use art and architecture as primary documents, on par with written sources, for the practice of social history. As he puts it later on (p. 87), “The Liber pontificalis passages are instructive, but the full flavour and deep cultural roots of early medieval Rome are perhaps best revealed in its functional spaces and their decorations.” These spaces and decorations thus serve to illustrate shifts in political and institutional structures, in devotional practices, in linguistic and cultural orientation, and so on. Early in the book (p. 19), Osborne notes that the ‘art’ of his title comprises material culture broadly, rather than ‘fine art’ in the modern sense, and due consideration is given to ceramics, coins, and inscriptions, along with a few of the most revealing recent excavations of early medieval sites, notably the Crypta Balbi. But he is mainly concerned with (religious) art and its bearing on our understanding of the urban collective, in both human and topographical terms. Osborne thus weaves between broad-brush historical and archaeological synthesis on the one hand, and, on the other, close analysis and interpretation of mosaics and frescoes.

The first chapter, “Rome in 700: ‘Constantinople on the Tiber’” (which cites the evocative phrase of Per Jonas Nordhagen), does double-duty as an introduction to the cityscape at the beginning of the period in question, and to the main themes developed in the rest of the book. The depopulated urban shell that emerged from the mid-sixth-century Gothic Wars was fitfully reshaped and to some extent enriched by its new ‘Byzantine’ overlords. Recently-arrived civic administrators and soldiers maintained vital infrastructure and collaborated with the Church to embellish the city center with a host of new churches and charitable institutions, many dedicated to eastern saints; burials moved inside the city walls; trade and commerce revived, as goods and people streamed in from north Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. At the dawn of the eighth century, then, Rome remained a peripheral but vital part of the Byzantine koine, still firmly anchored in a Mediterranean-centered web of cultural and economic networks, as Osborne stresses. And herein lies the foundation for the rest of his project. Already in 700, theological rifts with Constantinople and the growing inclination of the increasingly assimilated ‘Byzantine’ ruling establishment to support the popes over the distant imperial authorities were paving the way for the institutional rupture with Byzantium, and the strengthening of ties with the Franks and western Europe that culminated in the later eighth century. Political horizons, however, shifted faster than cultural ones. In terms of art and thus also—as Osborne strives to show—of (Greek) language, cultural orientation, and ‘identity,’ “the traditions of the larger Mediterranean Christian world” (p. 27) endured in Rome for considerably longer.

The meat of the book begins with Chapter 2, on the brief papacy of John VII (r. 705-707). Like many before him, Osborne sees John VII as a pivotal figure in the rise of a more assertive and independent-minded papacy. He was an aggressive artistic patron and avid self-promoter whose portraits featured prominently in the mosaics of the new chapel he installed inside St. Peter’s and the frescoes he commissioned for S. Maria Antiqua at the Forum-entrance to the Palatine, a symbolically-pregnant location where he took up residence in preference to the Lateran palace, according to the Liber Pontificalis. The bulk of the discussion revolves around John’s frescoes at S. Maria Antiqua, which Osborne, drawing on the work of Nordhagen in particular, presents as rooted firmly within the technical and iconographical traditions of the eastern Mediterranean. Native-born Roman and staunch defender of the traditions and institutional prerogatives of the Church of Rome though he was, John VII thought, and spoke, much like any upper-class citizen of the lands controlled from Constantinople.

Chapter 3 turns to non-papal patrons and actors in the early eighth century: clerics, monks, and pilgrims, in that order. The first group ‘speaks’ via the recently discovered, early eighth-century frescoes inside the narthex of S. Sabina; the second via the fragmentary frescoes from the monastery of S. Saba, an offshoot of the mother community of Mar Saba in Palestine established on the Little Aventine by the mid-seventh century; and the third via a pair of wall-frescoes installed (probably) in the second quarter of the eighth century in the Catacombs of Callixtus. In all three cases, Osborne identifies elements of facture, style, and iconography as redolent of a Hellenophone, trans-Mediterranean artistic commonwealth.

There follows a brief historical interlude on Rome’s widening separation from Constantinople, as popes Gregory II (r. 715-731) and Gregory III (r. 731-741) clashed with Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741) over the latter’s promulgation of iconoclasm and subsequent confiscation of the revenues from Church lands in Sicily and southern Italy. In the growing political and economic isolation that ensued, popes strove to provide some of the services previously assured by the civic administration (such as stewardship of public buildings and infrastructure, and provision of essential foodstuffs), gradually but steadily supplanting imperial officials as de facto leaders of the Roman collective. By the time of pope Zacharias (r. 741-752), Rome was well on its way to becoming a “city of the church,” in the words of Federico Marazzi, reprised by Osborne.

The following two chapters delve deeply into projects undertaken during the pivotal years of Zacharias’ pontificate. Chapter 5, on the ‘Theodotus Chapel’ at S. Maria Antiqua, is the centerpiece of the book and its longest chapter. It exemplifies many of the virtues of Osborne’s approach, which sensibly eschews any pretense of comprehensiveness and instead deploys evocative vignettes to reveal wider thematic vistas. He begins with some fifteen pages of punctilious analysis of the frescoes themselves, commissioned in the 740s by Theodotus, a prominent son of the Byzantine ruling establishment. Theodotus migrated from imperial service (he had been the ranking dux at Rome, probably in the 730s) to elevated positions (primicerius defensorum and then primicerius notariorum) in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy in the 740s and 750s. Theodotus’ involvement in the administration of two diaconiae (S. Maria Antiqua and S. Angelo in Pescheria) leads to a discussion of the expanding role of Church-sponsored charity in general. Osborne then pivots to Theodotus’ family connections and genealogy, which can be reconstructed in some detail. He descended from several generations of prominent members of Rome’s ruling class: Greek speakers, landowners, holders of prominent civic offices, and intimates of popes, Zacharias included. His brother, Theodore, founded a church and donated large estates to the Church before dying early, leaving a son, the future pope Hadrian I (r. 772-95), whom Theodotus adopted.

Osborne deploys this family history to illustrate seismic shifts in the composition and aspirations of Rome’s ruling classes, as they gradually adopted the trappings of Roman identity (note Hadrian’s Latinate name) and transferred from imperial service to that of the Church, just as effective authority in Rome was passing to the latter. He finishes by circling back again to the eastern Mediterranean flavor of the Theodotus Chapel’s style and iconography, emphasizing that the scions of Rome’s Hellenizing elite, senior clergy and nobility alike, became politically ‘Roman’ well before becoming culturally so. His understated conclusion that “in sum, the Theodotus Chapel may be seen as painting a broad canvas illustrating the religious and cultural background of at least one prominent member of the newly emerged Roman aristocracy,” belies the richness and depth of his wider historical analysis, which is eminently sensible and firmly grounded both in the primary sources (written and artistic) and the conclusions of recent scholars (including T. S. Brown, T. Noble, F. Marazzi, and P. Delogu), who anticipated many of the conclusions he draws. Indeed, if there is a quibble, it is perhaps that most of his points about the transformation of the Roman nobility might be, and often have been, arrived at without such extensive grounding in the fresco-program of one, small chapel. This point extends beyond Chapter 5, given that something between a quarter and a third of the volume gravitates around the multiple eighth-century fresco-programs at S. Maria Antiqua.

Chapter 6 mostly comprises Zacharias’ renovations and additions to the Lateran palace, which he transformed into a seat of power, along Constantinopolitan lines, befitting the papacy’s growing pretensions to secular authority. Perhaps Osborne’s boldest claim here, based in part on a recent suggestion by Robert Coates-Stephens that an inscription quoting Aeneid (I: 274-78) on Romulus and the she-wolf dates to the mid-eighth century, is that Zacharias was responsible for transferring the Capitoline lupa (or, just as possibly, another statue of a she-wolf), along with other classical bronzes (Marcus Aurelius, the Spinario), to the environs of the palace.

The remainder of the volume covers developments in the later eighth century, beginning with another short chapter (7) of historical synthesis on “Rome and the Franks.” Chapter 8 deals with the pontificate of Paul I (r. 757-767), who founded a monastery in his family home, today’s S. Silvestro in Capite, and initiated the large-scale translation of relics from extramural cemeteries into the protective cordon of the city walls. Chapter 9 addresses the burgeoning autonomy of the papacy during the long reign of pope Hadrian I (r. 772-795), and Chapter 10 the beginning of Leo III’s pontificate, principally his interactions with Charlemagne and his improvements to the Lateran palace. S. Maria Antiqua again features prominently (under Paul I and Hadrian I), as do other examples of eastern-inflected art and architecture (the frescoes at S. Adriano in the Forum; S. Maria in Cosmedin with its characteristically ‘Byzantine’ triapsidal configuration; Leo III’s triclinia at the Lateran palace). Osborne shows that the shift of papal attention toward western Europe notwithstanding, Rome “still remained in the cultural orbit of the Christian Mediterranean into the third quarter of the eighth century” (p. 193) and beyond.

Those who have kept abreast of recent work on eighth-century Rome will find few radical novelties here, but they will also find little cause for substantive disagreement with Osborne’s deft framing of the city’s shifting cultural and artistic horizons. He is a surefooted guide to the panoply of themes, both historical and historiographical, that he covers. He is generous in acknowledging the scholars whose work informs his views; sober and sensible in his presentation of differing perspectives; and scrupulous about not going beyond what the evidence permits, while acknowledging uncertainties and controversies where they exist. We are fortunate that he has, at last, devoted another monograph to the city whose artistic heritage he knows so well.