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Refinding the Way

Hendrik Dey Investigates the Via Triumphalis in Medieval Rome

Hendrik Dey, a professor of art history at Hunter College, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His research focuses on architecture and urbanism in the Latin West in late antiquity, with particular emphasis on the reshaping of Roman urban paradigms by the ideological and practical considerations of late antiquity. Dey’s recent research report, “Walking in the Footsteps of Giants: The Triumphal Way in Byzantine Rome,” analyzed the repurposing of the famous parade route during the period of Byzantine rule at Rome from the sixth to the eighth century. At a time when most of the city was depopulated and decrepit, Dey argued, the church and Byzantine administration sought to preserve and embellish the Via Triumphalis to serve their own purposes.

Brief Q&A with Hendrik Dey

In your talk you mentioned the work of Richard Krautheimer. For the uninitiated, myself among them, who was Krautheimer? What was the significance of his work, and how do you relate to it?

Richard Krautheimer was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in the thirties, when he was already a distinguished scholar. He taught at various places in America, eventually ending up at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He’s famous for being the lead author of the five-volume Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, the compendium of all medieval churches in the city of Rome, which was written in Latin. He was the undisputed expert on churches in the city of Rome, and when he was eighty-three, in 1980, he published a shorter, more accessible book, Rome: Profile of a City, 312–1308, which is his kind of synthesis, in some way, of a thousand years of medieval Roman topography and history of art and architecture. Then he went on to live until he was ninety-seven years old, and taught three generations of students—Krautheimer students, and their students, are everywhere around the world.

So he wrote this great book about medieval Rome, and people are still reading it today. But he wrote it in the seventies, which was just before people started doing serious medieval archaeology in Rome, so he could really only talk about the extant remains of the middle ages, in particular churches and monasteries. But forty years of medieval archaeology have told us all kinds of things—the shape of the city, where most people were living, how they were living—that Krautheimer had no idea about. He didn’t know where people were living in medieval Rome; he thought that most people were living on a tiny bend of the Tiber River in the sixth century. They weren’t; they were scattered all over the place. He didn’t know what people’s houses looked like in the early middle ages, because no early medieval houses had been found.

So I don’t want to say anything about churches. Krautheimer forgot more about churches than I’ll ever know. I’d like this to be a complement to Krautheimer. I’d like to do the rest of life in medieval Rome, daily secular civic life: how and where people were living and fighting and working and producing and eating and interacting with each other, outside of the church.

 

In broad terms, what was the purpose of revitalizing the Triumphal Way?

I think the purpose was to use what you already have in Rome, and what you have is a particularly beautiful, monumental, and architecturally distinguished parade street. In the early middle ages, you don’t have anything like the resources to maintain or even populate most of the city, so the people in charge—the civic administration, the representatives of the Byzantine administration—focus their efforts on the areas where they think that they can derive particular benefit from repairing and reusing. So if you want it to look as though Rome is still glorious, as though the city you minister is still directly tied to the majesty of what it was when it was ancient Rome, then the best place to do that is the Triumphal Way.

So the Byzantine administrators appropriate that space, and when they move the organs of civic government—the prisons, the places for judicial assemblies, the places where judges are, where ceremonial implements are kept—they put them in close proximity to that particular road, so that on the days when you have both civic and religious processions, the spectacle of the ancient city is as close to undiminished as it could possibly be. But if you go behind those colonnades, it’s a different story, and this is why colonnades are so useful; they’re the perfect screen for all the squalor and degradation and depopulation which is happening behind them. But within the monumental contours of the parade route things look like they’re just about as great as ever.

 

I’m interested in elements of the city that have been forgotten over time. In your talk, you discussed structures and locations—the Tarentum, the Porticus Crinorum—that seem to be symbolic points along the Triumphal Way, but you go about their meaning through etymological routes. How much of the uncertainty as to their true meaning and significance is modern, and how much was present back in late antiquity?

Well, we have to define our periods here. In the fourth century, which is still basically ancient Rome, people still understood the original significance of everything, and in the sixth and seventh and eight centuries, there was certainly more of a direct connection to ancient Rome. But names like the Porticus Crinorum only show up in the twelfth century. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t exist in the eighth century. I think that they probably did. One of the points I was trying to make in my talk is that, by the twelfth century, memories of the ancient city and ancient topography and ancient institutions are sometimes wildly fanciful. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes people remember what these things originally were. But very often they don’t.

We actually have good sources for this. There are guidebooks or compendia of the sights of Rome that are compiled starting in the twelfth century in which you get long accounts of all of these ancient buildings, some of which are identified correctly, and some of which are completely fantastic things. For instance, here was a dining room made entirely out of glass and crystal that spun to mirror the course of the stars through the sky; here there used to be a dragon, and so on. So I have to use a lot of twelfth-century sources because the sources for the tenth and eleventh centuries are basically nonexistent. To get at the seventh and eighth centuries, I need to look at both what was there before and, in some ways more importantly, what was there after, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and see if there are reasons for imagining that the kind of stories and institutions that are described then can plausibly be put further back in time. So you have to put together these chains of conjecture, and some of them will be plausible, and some of them won’t be.

 

Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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