Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Summary of Lecture Eight

The Carolingian era--anchored by Charlemagne's imperial coronation in 800--shows both continuity and innovation. Like their Merovingian predecessors, whom they supplanted, the Carolingians (including Karl der Grosse/Charlemagne) were Franks. Their regime, which emphasized education and competent administration, was at bottom another barbarian kingdom. As we saw in the previous lecture, their scribes refined the binary system of manuscript page layout, bequeathing it to all later generations, including ours.

Charlemagne's empire embraced much of what became the core of the European Community, that is, France, (northern) Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The capital was located at Aachen in Germany, a little more than a stone's throw away from the borders of today's Netherlands and Belgium. Of course, the revival of the imperial idea (in competition with Byzantium) proved to be problematic. Charlmagne's grandsons effected the separation of France and Germany (previously a unit) in 843, with fateful consequences down to 1945.

As seen in two paintings by Jacques-Louis David, the heritage of Charlemagne was alive in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. The equestrian portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps evokes both Hannibal and Charlemagne by name. The big canvas of the imperial coronation of 1804 tracks the similar event a millennium before, with the required participation of the pope.

In the course of the tenth century, the Carolingian family faded away. Its hegemony was succeeded by the Saxon Ottonians, who used their Frankish precessors as a template. In 962 Otto the Great achieved imperial coronation in Rome, inaugurating what came to be called the Holy Roman Empire.

The Carolingian Ebbo Gospels in Epernay (about 835) set the tone for a similarly exhuberant type of manuscript illumination in the Ottonian school of Cologne. We looked at the Hitda Gospels, a manuscript made for an intellectual-abbess. The protoexpressionism therein embodied also appeared in two ivories and the famous bronze doors of Hildesheim of 1015, where we noted the scene of the Expulsion.

The most extraordinary accomplishment of the Ottonians was the revival of monumental sculpture, a tradition that had been essentially extinct for 500 years. The Essen Madonna (slightly under life size) has a barbaric intensity that is understandable
given the novelty of the task. It has (or had, prior to replacement with plastic) a wooden core, over which a gold-leaf covering was fashioned. The Crucifix of Archbishop Gero in Cologne Cathedral is highly expressive. It is one of the first pieces of art to show Christ as dead. Both works derived their "permission" (as it were) from their function as reliquaries. They are the lineal ancestors of all subsequent monumental sculpture in the West, a tradition that did not start in the Italian Renaissance, as sometimes assumed.

Two wood sculptures by Ernst Barlach were briefly noted as 20th-century avatars of the Ottonian expressionist tradition.

In addition we examined some vivid manuscript illuminations of the Beatus (Apocalypse) text, products of the Mozarabic culture, a Spanish counterpart of the Ottonians. The appeal of their intense, saturated hues and striking simplifications to the modern sensibility needs no emphasis, though we did mention the influence of the Saint-Sever Apocalypse on Picasso, ca. 1930.

In conclusion we examined some points raised by the paper assignment. While capitalism is conventionally regarded as antithetical to the "feudal" Middle Ages, we noted two medieval anticipations: the use of the check in banking, and the sweatshop, which appeared in the late medieval cloth industry of Flanders and northern France. The four ethnic types seen in the heads of the Woolworth Building probably allude (following an 18th-century tradition) to the four continents--and by implication to the global aspirations of the Woolworth firm.

Finally, we discussed the supercession (at first gradual and partial) of historicism in public buildings by the austerities of the International Style (from 1922 onwards). Lionel Feininger's 1919 flyer of the Bauhaus still assumes that one can appeal to medieval precedent--in this case the presumed Gothic ideal of community. Gropius' 1925 building at Dessau rejects historical allusions. The key to this vast shift in attitude and ideology is not Louis Sullivan, as sometimes assumed, but the penetration in the years immediately following World War I of the ideas of the Viennese architect Adolf Loos. In a 1908 lecture, "Ornament and Crime," Loos condemned all ornament as a hangover from earlier, less enlightened times. He put his ideas into practice in the severe design of his Steiner House (1910), among others. If there is a culprit for the triumph of routine corporate modernism, it is Loos--though this charge is surely unfair, as he could not have anticipated the for-profit routinization of his ideas after World War II.

[Note: Lecture Seven, out of sequence, precedes this one in the queue.]

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