by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Roman Museum, Rome
Portonaccio Sarcophagus depicting battle between the Romans and German Barbarians, c. 180 AD

Brave New World

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 May 2008


All empires eventually bite off more than they can chew. Rome and the Barbarians, the latest exhibition under the new management at Palazzo Grassi in Venice, suffers from the same syndrome. It aims to cover the entire first millennium of the Christian era by displaying more than 2,000 artefacts, from 200 collections in 23 countries, the material remains of Greeks, Romans and scores of barbarian peoples, from the Alamanni, Avars, Franks and Huns to the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals and Vikings.

There are some fine things here: a number of good Roman sculptures; wonderful ivory diptychs from Aosta, Florence, Novara, Rome, Paris and Liège; exceptional silverware, including the late 4th- to early 5th-century 'Achilles Shield' platter (fished out of the Rhône in 1656); the magnificent first-century Hildesheim Treasure from Berlin, and the 'Meerstadtplatte', with its exquisite engraved and gilded roundel of a port city, from Switzerland; glittering gold cloisonné ornaments and jewellery from sites scattered across Europe; rare books, from a 6th-century Arian text 'On the Trinity' to an 8th-century Irish gospel.

The exhibition is enlivened by colourful late 19th-century French history paintings of half-naked Germanic savages, marauding Huns, feeble and decadent royal courts, and noble Gauls and Romans. Entertaining though these allegories are, they tell us more about the aftermath of the Franco–Prussian War and fin-de-siècle politics in France than about anything that happened a thousand years or more earlier.

At the same time the show advances a tendentious political agenda. Gibbon described the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as 'the greatest, perhaps the most awful scene in the history of mankind'. The present exhibition is subtitled 'The Birth of a New World'. Only the 'Brave' is missing in introducing a narrative that proposes, in both the show and its catalogues – although the exhibition itself is often so opaquely presented that this conclusion emerges fully only in the main catalogue – the revisionist view that the destruction of the Western Roman empire has until now been seen in an exaggeratedly negative light, given it actually led to the creation of the harmonious united Europe that we inhabit today.

Between 1983 and 2005 Palazzo Grassi was Fiat's cultural flagship on the Grand Canal. It regularly featured ambitious shows on ancient civilisations: the Celts, Etruscans, Mayas, and so on. The French businessman François Pinault, owner of a luxury-goods empire that includes Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, took over the Palazzo nearly three years ago. He has employed it to show parts of his collection of modern and contemporary art, but has signally failed to attract the crowds that flocked to the Fiat events. Meanwhile Pinault has secured from the Venice municipality a long lease of the Dogana, or old customs house buildings at the mouth of the Grand Canal, which, when restored, will exhibit some of his modern collection longer term.

Rome and the Barbarians is therefore Pinault's first excursion into the territory of ancient civilisations once fruitfully cultivated by Fiat. The Turin-based motor-car manufacturer recognised its limitations when it came to interpreting archaeological remains and ancient history and called in international teams of first-class scholars, whose contributions were expertly co-ordinated by the cultural director Paolo Viti. Pinault, on the other hand, has entrusted both the intellectual and organisational input to his managerial deputies.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon is a career fonctionnaire, a former culture minister under Chirac and executive director of Palazzo Grassi (his latest appointment is as president of Versailles museum). He is the curator of the exhibition and editor of the main catalogue and of a small exhibition guide. The catalogue has nearly 700 pages, essays by 120 authors and weighs over 7lbs (3.25 kilos). The essays cover a wide range of Roman and barbarian topics, some figuring in the show, some not. There is no overall table of contents, no consecutive descriptions of the exhibits, and matching them to the text and illustrations is difficult, sometimes impossible. The much shorter exhibition guide has texts by Aillagon but provides only patchy information on the themes and artefacts.

In his introduction to the catalogue, Aillagon cites the debates surrounding the inclusion of some reference to Europe's 'Christian roots' in Giscard d'Estaing's Constitution for the European Union. He notes that 'there was little mention of the 'Barbarian roots' of European culture'. He goes on: 'This is a curious and unwarranted omission, no doubt resulting from the morally pejorative connotations of the word 'barbarian', which would have made any reference to it seem somewhat shocking or even scandalous to any European citizen who did not know much about the richness and complexity of the continent's history!'

Monique Veaute, a Rome-based cultural events organiser, is Aillagon's successor as executive director at the Grassi. In her introductory preamble in the catalogue, headed 'On the Good Use of Immigration', she quotes Alessandro Barbero's recent The Day of the Barbarians (which deals with the period around the defeat of the Emperor Valens by the Ostrogoths at Adrianople in 378) as saying: 'The Roman Empire was already in itself a multiethnic empire, a crucible of languages, races and religions, and it was perfectly capable of absorbing a mass migration without being destabilised.' But the fact is that the Roman empire proved itself incapable of defending itself against mass migration and, even though many incomers were already Christians (if frequently followers of Arianism), it was destabilised and did collapse, first in the West and then in the East.

Veaute takes a positive view of 'this beneficial migration', dismissing as 'reactionary history' more negative descriptions of the outcome. For, 'a new word, one that was to produce in Europe as many effects as the military conquests, if not more, finally prevailed: integration, the promise of a new world'.

Aillagon ends his notes in the exhibition guide: 'Rome and the Barbarians together had given birth to Medieval Europe.' Most barbarian peoples left little permanent mark and we know of their history only through the Greek and Latin annals and fragmentary remains, such as grave goods. It took centuries for Western Europe to recover from barbarian depredations. When the next great wave of invaders, the Mongols, erupted from Asia, Europe was so backward, and there was so little left to loot, that they turned their attentions to the Islamic world, where there were rich civilisations worth sacking.

The revival of European civilisation was spurred on primarily by the long and painstaking revival of knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages and cultures, and by the Christian Church, which had its origins and first flourished within the borders of the Roman empire.

Rome and the Barbarians continues at Palazzo Grassi in Venice until 20 July; then moves to the Kunst-und Ausstellungshalle in Bonn from 22 August till 7 December.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024