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To Have and Have Not: On Renaissance Art and Byzantine Art in Italy

Italy is important for the western narrative of self, who western people are and where we came from. Narratives in textbooks that chronicle western civilization begin with accounts of the Greeks and Romans and always discuss the importance of the Renaissance as the rebirth of civilization after the Dark Ages. Less attention has been paid to the Byzantine art produced in the centuries before the Renaissance, art like that can still be seen in Ravenna, Italy.

Renaissance Art

Renaissance humanism found its artistic form in the city states of Milan and Florence, a form associated with the rediscovery of classical art. In the sixteenth century, Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary of Davinci and Michelangelo, pointed to Giotto as the Florentine painter who, in the fourteenth century, decisively broke with the prevailing Byzantine style, drawing from life and adding three dimensionality to human figures, thereby initiating “the great art of painting as we know it today” in the Renaissance. The considerable artistic production of the Renaissance was enabled by the patronage of the powerful political families who ruled during this period, the Sforza in Milan, the Medici in Florence, others, and served as a sign of their wealth and power.

According to John Berger, it was the greater realism of Renaissance oil painting that made it different from earlier artforms and, because of this, gave it a function different from the Byzantine art which preceded it: “What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.” Such paintings depicted what was desirable and what could be possessed: food, women, land, other types of property and objects of value. Claude Levi Strauss writes, “For Renaissance artists, painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession, and we must not forget, when we are dealing with Renaissance painting, that it was only possible because of the immense fortunes which were being amassed in Florence and elsewhere, and that rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world. The pictures in a Florentine palace represented a kind of microcosm in which the proprietor, thanks to his artists, had recreated within easy reach and in as real a form as possible, all those features of the world to which he was attached.”

In Florence, things seem familiar, already so well documented. We have seen many of these artworks reproduced countless times. Their importance has been explained. So what might give a visitor to the city already familiar with this kind of art more food for thought is the vastness of the galleries and the massive accumulation of objects in them. It is not surprising that the Futurists reacted against the weight of so much history. How could anything new be done where so much had already been amassed? It was suffocating. They wanted to destroy it.

The increase in the production of oil paintings in places like Florence occurred at the same time as the rise of an open art market in which paintings came to be commissioned not only by the church or the most elite strata of society, as had been the case earlier, but

A seventeenth century art collector

also by all who had the means to buy, sell and display them, not only because of their aesthetic value but also for their value as commodities. It is no accident that an artform so associated with the importance of possession coincided with the rise of European capitalism, individualism, humanism, colonialism and imperialism, all these things at the same time. The art market is still today, more than ever, a commodity market in which the value of a painting is determined by how much it can be bought and sold for. The price paid for artworks can be astronomical and the value of an artwork increases when the name of the artist is wellknown – a Van Gogh, a Picasso, a Warhol.

Exhibition Value vs. Cult Value

Walter Benjamin lamented the importance assigned to what he called the “exhibition value” of art and the devaluation of what he called its “cult value.” By exhibition value, he meant the aesthetic value assigned to an artwork by critics and the public. From this it is not hard to get to the idea of art valued as a commodity that can be given a numerical value: how many seats sold, how many views, how much an object was sold for. By cult value, Benjamin meant the social, spiritual or ritual value of certain art objects for a particular group of people or culture: the significance for Greeks of the Parthenon marbles, removed by Lord Elgin and exhibited in the British Museum; the value for the Edo people of the Benin Bronzes, taken from the palace of the Oba in Benin City in Nigeria where they were used in ritual, and bought by collectors; the image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe that miraculously appeared on the cloak of the campesino to whom she appeared in the sixteenth century, an object of veneration and a national symbol for Mexicans, which is housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadelupe in Mexico City. Of these examples, it is only in the last case, that the object of value still housed in a place accessible to those for whom it retains its cult value.

Byzantine Art

The Byzantine art that precedes that of the Renaissance possesses cult value. We do not know the names of most of the artists that created it, and for Vasari it was inferior to the art that came after it. In fact, it simply has another kind of beauty. Byzantine mosaic murals generally represent religious figures and rulers against a luminous golden ground that suffuses the entire mosaic with the aesthetics of wealth and power. Often these murals are found in elevated settings in churches, that make it necessary to look up at them. Clad in luxurious beauty, these figures of authority and power stare into the distance with the confident but vacant stare of those who do not need to acknowledge anyone but themselves. They exist on a plane so far above that of mere mortals that they can never be possessed. They can only be venerated. They induce what Paul Schrader calls “an I-Thou devotional attitude between the viewer and the work of art.”

Schrader writes about Byzantine art as an example of transcendental artistic style by which he means “a style which has been used by various artists in diverse cultures to express the Holy function of transcendental art…to express the Holy itself (the Transcendent), and not to express or illustrate holy feelings.” Both the Romanesque churches constructed during the Byzantine period and the Gothic cathedrals that started to be built in the Middle Ages were structures that, in their design, encouraged worship and emphasized the transcendent. In the Gothic, Otto Von Simson explains, this was achieved by the light filled spaces created by delicately ribbed vaults that encourage the visitor to look heavenwards. It is the architecture, not the imagery, that signifies transcendence: “Here ornamentation is entirely subordinated to the pattern produced by the structural members, the vault ribs and supporting shafts; the aesthetic system is determined by these.” In contrast, in earlier Romanesque or Byzantine churches, “architecture structure is a necessary but invisible means to an artistic end, concealed behind painted or stucco ornaments.” The larger amount of uninterrupted wall space in Romanesque churches provided the space for Byzantine murals. With the rise of Gothic architecture that space decreased and the art of the Byzantine mural began to fade.

The emphasis on transcendence during the Byzantine period is the opposite of the humanist value placed on individual expression, on individual desire, characteristic of western art and culture from the Renaissance on: “Transcendental style stylizes reality by eliminating (or nearly eliminating) those elements which are primarily expressive of human experience,” Schrader writes. Because it is about form, not experience, transcendental style “eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and, finally, rationalism.” Instead it gives us “complete stasis, or frozen motion,…the trademark of religious art in every culture,” which “transforms empathy into aesthetic appreciation, experience into expression, emotions into form.” Byzantine art is anonymous and impersonal, expressionless and two dimensional. It is not about individual experience. It is about collective experience, hierarchy, formality, ritual. As Schrader writes, “Byzantine iconography was a function of the liturgy. The spectator’s attitude toward the icon was the same as his attitude toward the mass. The individual became absorbed into the collective order, the collective order hardened into a form, and the form expressed the Transcendent. Consequently, the icons became stylized, rigid, hierarchical, further and further apart from the world of verisimilitude and sensation.”


Ravenna is near the east coast of Italy, equidistant between Florence and Venice. Today, it a small regional city, a little sleepy. But, long before the Renaissance, in the years when the Roman Empire was being pulled apart by the forces that would eventually cause it to collapse, it was the Iast capital of the Western Roman Empire, looking eastwards towards Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. Constantinople would continue to exercise its power and influence as the Christian capital of what had been the Roman Empire for another thousand years before it was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The Italian city would not last that long.

Ravenna became the capital of the western Roman Empire in 408 AD. This followed on

The Tetrarchs

the earlier attempts to prevent the fall of the vast but increasingly fragmented Roman Empire. In the year 293 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian, had abdicated and created the tetrarchy, a system which divided the administration of the empire among four different rulers in cities in different parts of the empire, in the east and in the west. There is a bas relief sculpture of the tetrarchs that once occupied Constantinople, but which can now be found in Venice, that expresses viscerally the importance of the unity of these four, and of the different parts of the empire they represented, a unity which was starting to slip away. The tetrarchy only lasted thirteen years. In 476, Ravenna fell to the Visigoths. But then, in 552, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian recaptured the city. In 584, the Exarchate Ravenna, the seat of the Byzantine governor of Italy, was

Dante's Tomb in Ravenna

established. The Exarchate lasted until the Lombards conquered Ravenna in 751, finally ending the Byzantine presence in the region.

By the fourteenth century, when Dante Alighieri lived in Ravenna, it had become a city of much less importance than the ascendant cities of the Renaissance, most notably Florence. Dante, condemned to permanent exile from Florence wrote The Divine Comedy at least partially in Ravenna, died there, and was buried in a small mausoleum next to the Church of San Pier Maggiore. On the tomb is a verse written by his friend Bernardo Canaccio, which ends with the words:

Here lie I, Dante, exiled from the shores of my homeland, I, whom Florence, mother of little love, did beget.

Dante's Tomb in Florence

Some years after Dante’s death, the Florentines began to ask for his body to be returned, even building a tomb for him in the Basilica de Santa Croce inscribed with the words “Honor to the most exalted poet,” a quotation taken from The Divine Comedy. But, Ravenna never returned the body and the elaborate tomb in Florence stands empty.

The Romantic poet Lord Byron also lived in Ravenna shortly before he travelled east to join the Greeks in their fight for independence from the Ottomans, who ruled over the empire from Constantinople after having wrested it from Byzantine control.

Byzantine Art in Ravenna

Not surprisingly, Ravenna is known not for its Renaissance art, but for its late Roman and Byzantine art. Seen from the outside, the Romanesque buildings that house these murals are sober. This, for example, is the exterior of the mausoleum of the Roman empress Galla Placidia:

Only upon entering into the interior of this dimly lit small building can a visitor discover the richness and complexity of the murals that cover the walls and ceiling:

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ceiling Detail

In talking about cult value, Benjamin emphasizes the importance of place, of the aura a work of art has when we experience it in its correct context, when we understand its ritual function as part of a particular belief system. What is interesting about the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna is that they exist intact in the places they were intended for. This is important because it is not the same to see a photograph of the murals in the mausoleum as to actually go from a spare daylit landscape into the small, dark space of the interior and then, when your eyes adjust, begin to make out the richness of the colors and the intricacy of the designs as they emerge out of the darkness.

Likewise, when viewing the murals in the Basilica of San Vitale, it is important that the visitor is in the quiet darkness of a church where the resplendent mosaics around the altar attract attention and draw the eye upwards towards figures of both religious and earthly authority:

Two murals high up on the walls flanking the altar depict the Byzantine emperor Justinian and empress Theodora with their entourages. Both have halos. This together with the placement of the murals show their earthly power and authority, their status as figures to be venerated:

Both have the qualities that Paul Schrader describes as Byzantine, “Frontality, nonexpressive faces, hieratic postures, symmetric compositions, and two-dimensionality.” This art is not expressive in the way that some later art is, nor does it aspire to be. It is static and fixed because it is about form and immutable hierarchy. It is “concerned not with the psychology but with the physiology of existence.” These murals have the force and the splendor they do precisely because of their formal qualities and their opulence, and because they represent beings who, everything about the murals shows us, exist on a plane well above the one we live on. They have power not because they represent us, but because they do not. They cannot be possessed. We gaze up at them in admiration and forget about ourselves.

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