The Decline of the West


WHILE Islam was on the march, and Byzantium was recovering from seemingly fatal blows, Europe fought its way up through the “Dark Ages.” This is a loose term, which any man may define to his prejudice; we shall arbitrarily confine it to non-Byzantine Europe between the death of Boethius in 524 and the birth of Abélard in 1079. Byzantine civilization continued to flourish during this period, despite severe losses of territory and prestige. But Western Europe in the sixth century was a chaos of conquest, disintegration, and rebarbarization. Much of the classic culture survived, for the most part silent and hidden in a few monasteries and families. But the physical and psychological foundations of social order had been so disturbed that centuries would be needed to restore them. Love of letters, devotion to art, the unity and continuity of culture, the cross-fertilization of communicating minds, fell before the convulsions of war, the perils of transport, the economies of poverty, the rise of vernaculars, the disappearance of Latin from the East and of Greek from the West. In the ninth and tenth centuries the Moslem control of the Mediterranean, the raiding of European coasts and towns by Normans, Magyars, and Saracens accelerated this localism of life and defense, this primitivism of thought and speech. Germany and Eastern Europe were a maelstrom of migrations, Scandinavia was a pirates’ lair, Britain was overrun by Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Danes; Gaul by Franks, Normans, Burgundians, and Goths; Spain was torn between Visigoths and Moors; Italy had been shattered by the long war between the Goths and Byzantium, and the land that had given order to half the world suffered for five centuries a disintegration of morals, economy, and government.

And yet during that long darkness Charlemagne, Alfred, and Otto I gave intervals of order and stimulus to France, England, and Germany; Erigena resurrected philosophy, Alcuin and others restored education, Gerbert imported Moslem science into Christendom, Leo IX and Gregory VII reformed and strengthened the Church, architecture developed the Romanesque style; and Europe began in the eleventh century its slow ascent to the twelfth and thirteenth, the greatest of medieval centuries.

I. ITALY: 566–1095

1. The Lombards: 568–774

Three years after the death of Justinian, Byzantine rule was extinguished in northern Italy by the Lombard invasion.

Paul the Deacon, who was one of them, thought that the Lombards or Longobardi owed their name to their long beards.1 They themselves believed that their original home had been Scandinavia,2 and so Dante, their descendant,3 apostrophized them.4 We find them on the lower Elbe in the first century, on the Danube in the sixth, used by Narses in his Italian campaign of 552, sent back to Pannonia after his victory, but never forgetting the fruitful loveliness of northern Italy. In 568, pressed on north and east by Avars, 130,000 Lombards—men, women, children, and baggage—moved laboriously across the Alps into “Lombardy,” the lush plains of the Po. Narses, who might have stopped them, had been deposed and disgraced a year before; Byzantium was busy with Avars and Persians; Italy itself, exhausted by the Gothic War, had no stomach for fighting, no money to pay for vicarious heroism. By 573 the Lombards held Verona, Milan, Florence, and Pavia—which became their capital; in 601, they captured Padua, in 603 Cremona and Mantua, in 640 Genoa. Their mightiest king, Liutprand (712-44), took Ravenna in eastern Italy, Spoleto in the center, Benevento in the south, and aspired to unite all Italy under his rule. Pope Gregory III could not allow the papacy to become a Lombard bishopric; he called in the unsubdued Venetians, who retook Ravenna for Byzantium. Liutprand had to content himself with giving northern and central Italy the best government they had had since Theodoric the Goth. Like Theodoric, he could not read.5

The Lombards developed a progressive civilization. The king was elected and advised by a council of notables, and usually submitted his legislation to a popular assembly of all free males of military age. King Rathari (643) published a code of laws at once primitive and advanced: it allowed money compensation for murder, proposed to protect the poor against the rich, ridiculed the belief in witchcraft, and gave freedom of worship to Catholic, Arian, and pagan alike.6 Intermarriage absorbed the Germanic invaders into the Italian blood and won them to the Latin tongue; the Lombards left their signature here and there in blue eyes, blond hair, and a few Teutonic words in Italian speech. As the conquest subsided into law, the commerce natural to the valley of the Po was resumed; by the end of the Lombard period the cities of northern Italy were rich and strong, ready for the arts and wars of their medieval peak. Literature faltered; from this age and realm time has preserved only one book of significance—Paul the Deacon’sHistory of the Lombards (c. 748); it is dull, poorly arranged, and without a grain of philosophic salt. But Lombardy left its name on architecture and finance. The building trades had retained some of their old Roman organization and skill; one group, the magistri Comacini, or masters of Como, took the lead in compounding a “Lombard” style of architecture that would later ripen into Romanesque.

Within a generation after Liutprand the Lombard kingdom broke against the rock of the papacy. King Aistulf seized Ravenna in 751, and ended the Byzantine exarchate. As the ducatus Romanus or duchy of Rome had been legally under the exarch, Aistulf claimed Rome as part of his widened realm. Pope Stephen II called upon Constantine Copronymus for aid; the Greek emperor sent a harmless note to Aistulf; Stephen, in a move of endless results, appealed to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Scenting empire, Pepin crossed the Alps, overwhelmed Aistulf, made Lombardy a Frank fief, and gave all central Italy to the papacy. The popes continued to acknowledge the formal suzerainty of the Eastern emperors, but Byzantine authority was now ended in northern Italy. The Lombard vassal King Desiderius tried to restore the independence and conquests of Lombardy; Pope Hadrian I summoned a new Frank; Charlemagne swept down upon Pavia, consigned Desiderius to a monastery, ended the Lombard kingdom, and made it a province of the Franks (774).

2. The Normans in Italy: 1036–85

Italy was now abandoned to a thousand years of divided and alien rule, whose details we shall not chronicle. In 1036 the Normans began the conquest of southern Italy from the Byzantine power. The lords of Normandy were wont to transmit land to all sons equally, as in modern France; but whereas in France the law resulted in small families, in medieval Normandy it resulted in small holdings. With no taste for peaceful poverty, and with a zest for adventure and rapine still warm in their Viking memories, some lusty Normans hired themselves out to the rival dukes of southern Italy, fought valiantly for and against Benevento, Salerno, Naples, and Capua, and were given the town of Aversa as their reward. Other Norman young bloods, hearing of lands to be won for a blow or two, left Normandy for Italy. Soon the Normans there numbered enough to fight for themselves; and by 1053 the boldest of them, Robert Guiscard (i.e., the Wise or Wily), had carved out a Norman kingdom in southern Italy. He was such stuff as myths are made of: taller than any of his soldiers, strong of arm and will, fair of features, blond of hair and beard, splendid in dress, greedy and liberal of gold, occasionally cruel, always brave.

Recognizing no law but force and guile, Robert overran Calabria, took Benevento almost over the dead body of Pope Leo IX (1054), struck alliance with Nicholas II, pledged him tribute and vassalage, and received from him title to Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily (1059). Leaving his younger brother Roger to conquer Sicily, he himself captured Bari (1071), and drove the Byzantines from Apulia. Fretting at the Adriatic barrier, he dreamed of crossing it, taking Constantinople, and making himself the mightiest monarch in Europe. He improvised a fleet, and defeated the Byzantine navy off Durazzo (1081). Byzantium appealed to Venice; Venice responded, for she could not be less than queen of the Adriatic; and in 1082 her skillful galleys routed Guiscard’s ships not far from the site of his recent victory. But in the following year Robert, with Caesarean energy, transported his army to Durazzo, defeated there the forces of Alexius I, the Greek Emperor, and marched across Epirus and Thessaly almost to Salonika. Then, on the verge of realizing his dream, he received a desperate appeal from Pope Gregory VII to come and save him from the Emperor Henry IV. Leaving his army in Thessaly, Robert hurried back to Italy, raised a new force of Normans, Italians, and Saracens, rescued the Pope, captured Rome from the Germans, suppressed an uprising of the people against his army, and allowed his angry soldiers to burn and sack the city so thoroughly that not even the Vandals of 451 could equal this destructiveness (1084). Meanwhile his son Bohemond returned to confess that his army in Greece had been destroyed by Alexius. The old buccaneer built a third fleet, defeated the Venetian navy off Corfu (1084), took the Ionian isle of Cephalonia, and died there, of infection or poison, at the age of seventy (1085). He was the first and greatest of the condottieri, the robber captains of Italy.

3. Venice: 451–1095

Meanwhile, at the northern end of the peninsula, a new state had been born, destined to grow in power and splendor while most of Italy withered in anarchy. In the barbarian invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries—above all during the Lombard invasion of 568—the populations of Aquileia, Padua, Belluno, Feltre, and other towns fled for safety to join the fisher folk who dwelt in the little islands formed by the Piave and Adige Rivers at the head of the Adriatic Sea. Some refugees remained after the crises passed, and founded the communities of Heraclea, Melamocco, Grado, Lido … and Rivo Alto (Deep River)—which, as Rialto, became the seat of their united government (811). A tribe of Veneti had occupied northeastern Italy long before Caesar; in the thirteenth century the name Venezia was applied to the unique city that had grown from the refugee settlements.

Life was hard there at first. Fresh water was difficult to secure, and was valued like wine. Forced to market on the mainland, in exchange for wheat and other commodities, the fish and salt that they drew from the sea, the Venetians became a people of boats and trade. Gradually the commerce of northern and central Europe with the Near East flowed through Venetian ports. The new federation, to protect itself from Germans and Lombards, acknowledged Byzantium as its overlord; but the inaccessibility of the islands, in their shallow waters, to attack by land or sea, the industry and fortitude of the citizens, the mounting wealth of their spreading trade, gave the little state an unbroken sovereignty through a thousand years.

Twelve tribunes—apparently one for each of the twelve principal islands-managed the government till 697, when the communities, feeling the need of a united authority, chose their first dux or doge—leader or duke—to serve until death or revolution should depose him. Doge Agnello Badoer (809-27) so skillfully defended the city against the Franks that the doges were chosen from his descendants till 942. Under Orseolo II (991-1008) Venice revenged herself against the raids of Dalmatian pirates by storming their lairs, absorbing Dalmatia, and establishing her control over the Adriatic. In 998 the Venetians began to celebrate, on every Ascension Day, this maritime victory and mastery by the symbolic ceremony of the sposalizia: the doge, from a gaily decorated galley, flung into the open waters a consecrated ring, and cried in Latin: “We marry you, the sea, in sign of our true and perpetual dominion.”7 Byzantium was glad to accept Venice as an independent ally, and rewarded her useful friendship with such commercial privileges at Constantinople and elsewhere that Venetian trade reached out to the Black Sea and even to the ports of Islam.

In 1033 an aristocracy of commerce ended the hereditary transmission of the ducal power, returned to the principle of election by an assembly of citizens, and compelled the doge henceforth to govern in collaboration with a senate. By this time Venice was already called “the golden” (Venetia aurea), and her people were famous for their luxurious dress, their widespread literacy, and their civic devotion and pride. They were a restlessly acquisitive tribe, clever and subtle, courageous and quarrelsome, pious and unscrupulous; they sold Christian slaves to the Saracens,8 and with part of the profit they built shrines to the saints. The Rialto shops had able craftsmen who inherited the industrial skills of Roman Italy; a busy local trade moved along the canals, silently but for the terse cries of the gondoliers; the island quays were picturesque with adventurous galleys laden with the products of Europe and the East. Mercantile voyages were financed by capitalist loans, paying normally twenty per cent.9 The gap between rich (maggiori) and poor (minori) widened as the rich became vastly richer, the poor only slightly less poor. No mercy was shown to simplicity. The race went to the swift, the battle to the strong. The minori walked on bare ground, and the refuse of their houses ran along the streets and into the canals; the maggiori built splendid palaces, and sought to appease God and the people with the most ornate cathedral in the Latin world. The Palace of the Doges, first raised in 814, burnt in 976, bore many changes of face and figure before finding its graceful blend of Moorish ornament and Renaissance form.

In 828 some Venetian merchants stole from an Alexandrian church what purported to be the relics of St. Mark. Venice made the apostle her patron saint, and ravaged half the world to enshrine his bones. The first St. Mark’s, begun in 830, was so damaged by fire in 976 that Peter Orseolo II began a new and larger edifice. Byzantine artisans were summoned, who modeled it on Justinian’s church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople—with five domes over a cruciform plan. For nearly a century the work proceeded; the main structure was finished in substantially its present form in 1071, and was consecrated in 1095. The relics of St. Mark having been lost in the fire of 976, and their absence threatening the sanctity of the cathedral, it was arranged that on the day of consecration the worshipers should gather in the church and pray that the relics might be found. According to a tradition dear to good Venetians, a pillar succumbed to their orisons, fell to the ground, and revealed the evangelical bones.10 The building was repeatedly damaged and repaired; hardly a decade but saw some alteration or embellishment; the St. Mark’s that we know is of no one date or period, but is a stone and jewel record of a millennium. Marble facings were added to the brick walls in the twelfth century; columns of every variety were imported from a dozen cities; Byzantine artists naturalized in Venice executed mosaics for the cathedral in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; four bronze horses were appropriated from conquered Constantinople in 1204, and were placed over the main portal; Gothic artists in the fourteenth century added pinnacles, window tracery, and a sanctuary screen; and in the seventeenth century Renaissance painters covered half the mosaics with indifferent murals. Through all these changes and ’centuries the strange edifice kept its character and unity—always Byzantine and Arabic, ornate and bizarre: the exterior overwhelmingly brilliant with arches, buttresses, spires, pillars, portals, pinnacles, encrusted polychrome marble, carved cornices, and stately bulbous domes; the interior with its dark wilderness of colored columns, carved or painted spandrels, somber frescoes, 5000 square yards of mosaic, floor inlaid with jasper, porphyry, agate, and other precious stones; and the Pala d’oro, or golden reredos, made of costly metals and cloisonné enamel in Constantinople in 976, overloaded with 2400 gems, and set up behind the main altar in 1105. In St. Mark’s, as in St. Sophia’s, the Byzantine passion for decoration outran itself. God was to be honored with marble and jewelry; man was to be terrified, disciplined, encouraged, and consoled by a hundred scenes from the Christian epic, from the creation to the destruction of the world. St. Mark’s was the supreme and characteristic expression of a Latin people exuberantly won to an Oriental art.

4. Italian Civilization: 566–1095

While eastern and southern Italy remained Byzantine in culture, the rest of the peninsula evolved a new civilization—a new language, religion, and art—from its Roman heritage. For even amid invasion, chaos, and poverty, that heritage was never wholly lost. The Italian language was the rude Latin of the ancient populace, transforming itself slowly into the most melodious of all tongues. Italian Christianity was a romantic and colorful paganism, an affectionate polytheism of local and protective saints, a frank mythology of legend and miracle. Italian art suspected Gothic as barbarous, clung to the basilican style, and finally, in the Renaissance, returned to Augustan forms. Feudalism never prospered in Italy; the cities never lost their ascendancy over the countryside; industry and commerce, not agriculture, paved the roads to wealth.

Rome, never a commercial city, continued to decline. Its senate had perished in the Gothic War; its ancient municipal institutions, after 700, were empty tools and rebel dreams. The motley populace, living in a squalor alleviated by sexual license and papal alms, could express its political emotions only by frequent uprisings against foreign masters or disfavored popes. The old aristocratic families spent their time competing with one another for control of the papacy, or with the papacy for control of Rome. Where consuls, tribunes, and senators had once forged laws with rods and axes, social order was now barely sustained by the decrees of ecclesiastical councils, the sermons and agents of bishops, and the dubious example of thousands of monks, of every nationality, not seldom idle and not always celibate. The Church had denounced the promiscuity of the public baths; the great halls and pools of the thermae were deserted, and the pagan art of cleanliness was in decay. The imperial aqueducts having been ruined by neglect or war, the people drank the waters of the Tiber.11 The Circus Maximus and the Colosseum, of bloody memory, were no longer used; the Forum began in the seventh century to revert to the cow pasture from which it had been formed; the Capitol was paved with mire; old temples and public buildings were dismembered to provide material for Christian churches and palaces. Rome suffered more from Romans than from Vandals and Goths.12 The Rome of Caesar was dead, and the Rome of Leo X had yet to be born.

The old libraries were scattered or destroyed, and intellectual life was almost confined to the Church. Science succumbed to the superstition that gives romance to poverty. Only medicine kept its head up, clinging with monastic hands to the Galenic heritage. Perhaps out of a Benedictine monastery at Salerno, in the ninth century, a lay medical school took form which bridged the gap between ancient and medieval medicine, as Hellenized south Italy bridged the gap between Greek and medieval culture. Salerno had been a health resort for over a thousand years. Local tradition described its collegium Hippocraticum as composed of ten physician instructors, of whom one was a Greek, one a Saracen, one a Jew.13 About the year 1060 Constantine “the African,” a Roman citizen who had studied medicine in the Moslem schools of Africa and Baghdad, brought to Monte Cassino (where he became a monk) and to nearby Salerno an exciting cargo of Islamic medical lore. His translations of Greek and Arabic works in medicine and other fields shared in the resurrection of science in Italy. At his death (c. 1087) the school of Salerno stood at the head of medical knowledge in the Christian West.

The distinctive achievement of art in this age was the establishment of the Romanesque architectural style (774-1200). Inheriting the Roman tradition of solidity and permanence, the Italian builders thickened the walls of the basilica, crossed the nave with a transept, added towers or attached pillars as buttresses, and supported with columns or clustered piers the arches that upheld the roof. The characteristic Romanesque arch was a simple semicircle, a form of noble dignity, better fitted to span a space than to bear a weight. In early Romanesque the aisles—in later Romanesque the nave and aisles—were vaulted, i.e., roofed with arched masonry. The exterior was usually plain, and of unfaced brick. The interior, though moderately adorned with mosaics, frescoes, and carvings, shunned the luxurious decoration of the Byzantine style. Romanesque was Roman; it sought stability and power rather than Gothic elevation and grace; it aimed to subdue the soul to a quieting humility rather than lift it to a heaven-storming ecstasy.

Italy produced in this period two masterpieces of Romanesque: the modest church of Sant’ Ambrogio at Milan, and the immense duomo of Pisa. The building from whose doors Ambrose had barred an emperor was rebuilt by Benedictines in 789, and again decayed. From 1046 to 1071 Archbishop Guido had it completely remodeled from a colonnaded basilica into a vaulted church. Nave and aisles, formerly roofed with wood, now sustained—by round arches springing from compound piers—a vaulted ceiling of brick and stone. The groins or ridges formed in the vault by the intersecting masonry arches were reinforced with “ribs” of brick; this is the oldest “ribbed vault” in Europe.

The simple front of Sant’ Ambrogio seems all the world apart from the complex façade of the cathedral of Pisa, but the elements of style are the same. After the decisive victory of the Pisan over the Saracen fleet near Palermo (1063), the city commissioned the architects Buschetto (a Greek?) and Rinaldo to commemorate the battle, and offer part of the spoils to the Virgin, by erecting a shrine that should make all Italy envious. Nearly the entire massive edifice was made of marble. Above the west portals—later (1606) equipped with superb bronze doors—four tiers of open arcades spanned the facade in immoderate iteration. Within, a profusion of elegant columns—booty of varied provenance—divided the church into nave and double aisles; and over the crossing of transept and nave rose an unpleasantly elliptical dome. This was the first of the great cathedrals of Italy; and it remains one of the most impressive works of medieval man.

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