by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
Ostrogoth King Theodoric's Palace with Arian Cathedral (left) and
Catholic Cathedral (right), Sant' Apollinare mosaics, 6th-century

Traces of the Vanished Goths

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 9 April 1994


Spirited from the grave and placed before Notre Dame in Paris, a revived Goth would be utterly baffled to be informed that this building was a masterpiece of 'Gothic' architecture. For the term is entirely the result of a misapprehension propagated by the father of modern art historians, Giorgio Vasari who erroneously believed that the Goths were responsible for 'that barbarous style, vast and ornate but showing little grasp of sound architectural principle' that replaced the cool, perfectly proportioned structures of the ancient world, which Vasari and his fellow Renaissance architects were in the process of reviving and emulating.

Vasari's error was understandable: The Goths, who between the first and eighth centuries had at one time or another ruled most of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Crimea, much of France and all of Italy and Spain, had, it seemed, vanished without trace.

Rescuing this Germanic race from oblivion is the aim of 'I Goti', (The Goths), a complex and fascinating show at the Palazzo Reale, next door to Milan's Duomo, that soaring heap of masonry and forest of spires - one of the most fantastic 'Gothic' structure of all. The scope of the exhibition, which runs until May 8, is impressive, with objects not only from all the key collections in Italy, but from every part of the Gothic world from Russia to Spain.

There is a vast array of cloisonne jewelry and ornament (of stones, glass and glass-paste set in gold) that for centuries the Goths remained unwaveringly devoted to from graves and excavations as far apart as the necropolis at Kerch in eastern Crimea, to treasure troves unearthed in Italy and caches of brooches and buckles in the same style that have come to light in Spain.

Skillfully displayed in brightly lighted cases set in subtly darkened rooms, these barbarians' baubles - judging by the gasps of delight elicited from many elegantly dressed Milanese - may well provoke a Gothic revival in the city's jewelry shops.

The Goths. originated on the Scandinavian shores of the Baltic, gradually speading in the first century into what is now Poland and descending through Eastern Europe and the Balkans as far as the Crimea in a series of mass migrations as they abandoned old territories and settled in new. During the second century they appear to have split into two groups: the Visigoths, who in the fifth century were to take over much of France and then, between the sixth and eighth centuries, Spain: and the Ostrogoths, who reached the acme of their splendor in fifth- and sixth-century Italy.

By the early fifth century, the Roman Empire in Italy, overwhelmed by various barbarian tribes, had collapsed and the Western capital was moved to Ravenna on the Adriatic coast, which, surrounded by lagoons and marshes, was pretty well impregnable and had a secure maritime lifeline to Constantinople, the New Rome in the East.

In 476 even Ravenna surrendered to the barbarian general Odoacer, the last emperor in the West abidicated, and Odoacer, granted the title of patrician, ruled as King of Italy with the acquiesence of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno in Constantinople. With the dual aim of putting as much distance between these dangerous neighbors and the capital, and getting rid of Odoacer, who in Zeno's view was becoming too big for his boots, the emperor encouraged the Ostrogoth king Theodoric to invade Italy.

The march of Theodoric and the Ostrogoths was a spectacular event - a hundred thousand or more of them, men, women and children, trekking from their homeland on the southern banks of the Danube (now Bulgaria) in a vast wagon train to northern Italy. 'It was', a contemporary wrote, 'a world that migrated.' Theodoric defeated Odoacer in battle and having persuaded his rival to deliver Ravenna to him after a two-and-a-half-year siege, on the promise of sharing power with him, Theodoric killed Odoacer - cutting him nearly in half, with his sword and remarking afterwards: 'I think the wretch had no bones in his body.'

This not altogether promising start ushered in a reign that was to be the most remarkable in Gothic history. Never honored even with Roman citizenship, Theodoric nonetheless proved himself a barbarian more Roman than the Romans. His grandiose public works projects raised not only Ravenna but also cities such as Milan, Verona and Pavia to levels of civility and prosperity that had not been seen since the great days of the empire. 'Aqueducts,' Theodoric declared in one of his decrees, 'are an object of our special care. . . . Now we shall have baths again that cleanse not stain . . . drinking water, too, such as the mere sight of which will not take away all appetite for food.'

Gothic was the first 'barbarian' tongue into which the Gospels were translated, and the Goths' devoutness was praised by many Roman authors, despite their adherence to the Arian heresy that God and Jesus were distinct beings and that Christ, though divine, was not the equal of the Father. Yet under Gothic rule, Arians and Catholics worshipped freely in their own churches in Ravenna and throughout Italy. This unusual tolerance is borne witness to by the stupendous mosaics of Theodoric's palace chapel in Ravenna - now Sant' Apollinare Nuovo - which depict his splendid residence, the curtains beneath the porticos knotted to admit the cooling breezes of the Adriatic, and in the background Ravenna's Arian cathedral (on the left) and the Catholic one (on the right) politically and socially linked by the solid presence of the Palatium.

The Italian Goths' Arianism in time led to their marginalization. Orthodox Catholic Christianity was in the ascendant and in the early sixth century Emperor Anastasius recognized the Catholic Frankish warlord Clovis, who overthrew the Visigothic kingdom in France. Later the Visigoths in Spain, who had achieved a greater autonomy from the empire than Theodoric - though they never equaled his civic and artistic impact - formally renounced Arianism, hastening their loss of identity before being overwhelmed by the Moorish invasion.

Ironically, while Vasari was penning his ill-informed definition of Gothic architecture, in the mid-16th century, the Flemish diplomat Busbecq, a man of exceptional intelligence and curiosity, was in Istanbul as the Habsburg's ambassador to the Ottoman sultan Suleyman. One night Busbecq received a visit from a Goth from a community in the Crimea still in existence hundreds of years after the Goths had died out in Europe, accompanied by a Greek familiar with their customs and language (from whom Busbecq was able to collect a valuable list of words), This was the last recorded sighting of a living Goth.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024