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Italian Romanesque - Influences

( Originally Published 1921 )



I. Geographical.—The long, narrow peninsula of Italy stretches from the snowy Alps on the north, right down through the waters of the Mediterranean, almost to sultry Africa on the south. These geographical variations were accompanied by other differences which influenced the architecture in such varying degrees that it may be most conveniently considered under (a) Central Italy, within the inner zone of Roman influence ; (b) Northern Italy, in contact with Western Europe ; (c) South Italy and Sicily, open to influences from the East.

(a) Central Italy.—The central region lies between Florence, commanding the passage of the Arno, on the north ; Pisa, the maritime power on the west ; and Naples, the naval port on the south ; while the Imperial City, rich in ancient pagan monuments and Early Christian churches, here exercised a paramount influence on architecture. (b) North Italy.—Milan, the capital of Lombardy, enjoyed great prosperity on account of its proximity to several Alpine passes and its situation in the fertile plains of Lombardy, where the cultivation 'of the vine and mulberry was then, as now, a staple industry. Venice and Ravenna, which were connecting trade links between East and West, fell geographically under the influences of Byzantine art. (c) South Italy and Sicily.—South Italy, including Calabria, was by position specially susceptible to influence from the East, and, after having been a Greek and Roman colony, it formed part of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian. Sicily, an island which is triangular in form, is situated in the Mediterranean sea, and, facing Greece on one side, Italy on another, and North Africa on the third, was exposed to influences from all three countries.

II. Geological.—(a) Central Italy.—Tuscany possessed great mineral wealth and an abundance of stone. Various building materials were used in Rome, including bricks, volcanic tufa or peperino, travertine stone from Tivoli and marble from Carrara, Paros, and other Greek islands. Much material was also obtained from the ruins of Classic buildings. (b) North Italy.—The low-lying plains of Lombardy supplied clay for making bricks, which, used with marble from the hills, gave a special character to the architecture. Venice on the Adriatic imported marbles in her merchant vessels. (c) South Italy and Sicily.—The mountains of South Italy and Sicily supplied calcareous and shelly limestone as well as many kinds of marble, while the sulphur mines, especially of Sicily, largely contributed to that prosperity which was conducive to building enterprise.

III. Climatic.—(a) Central Italy.—The brilliant sunshine demanded, as in the Roman period, small windows and thick walls, both in cities of the plain and in cities built on the hill-tops, both for defence and to be above the miasma of the low-lying country. The climate not only varies from north to south, but also from east to west according to the proximity to the Apennines, which are often snow-clad, or to the sea-board. (b) North Italy.—The climate resembles that of Central Europe, and varies between extremes of heat and cold. The towns from Milan on the west to Venice on the east lie below the Alps, and thus in the winter they are swept by the ice-winds from the mountains ; while in the summer these same mountains protect them from the north winds, when the heat in the plains is often excessive. (c) South Italy and Sicily.—The climate is almost sub-tropical ; palms grow in the open air and the orange and lemon groves of Palermo are famous. On the southern coasts of Italy buildings have the flat roofs and other characteristics of Oriental cities.

IV. Religious.—(a) Central Italy.—During this period the Popes, although they had only small temporal dominions, began to be a power in civil government, and thus started opposing policies and rival factions. Pepin, King of the Franks, sided with Pope Stephen II against the Lombards and restored to him Ravenna, the chief city of the Exarchate. In A.D. 755 Central Italy became independent under the Pope, and so inaugurated the temporal power of the papacy. Then Charlemagne, invited by Pope Adrian I (A.D. 772-779), advanced into Italy in A.D. 773, defeated the Lombards and entered Rome for the first time, in A.D. 774. He bestowed the Dukedom of Spoleto on Pope Adrian, and thus added to his temporal power, while the wealth of the Church rapidly increased, and from this period the papal connection with Byzantium was broken off. The decisions of Gregory VII (A.D. 1073-87) that the clergy should not marry, and that no temporal prince should bestow any ecclesiastical benefice, resulted in the long struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines (pp. 253, 498) . (b) North Italy.—The Emperor Theodosius had, in Early Christian times, been forced to do penance for the massacre in Thessalonica, and S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (A.D. 374-398), closed the church doors against him. This is significant of the great power the Church had acquired. The influence of S. Ambrose had been sufficient to establish the Ambrosian ritual, which introduced more metrical chanting into the service, and, owing to his fame, it was long maintained in Milan instead of the Roman liturgy. The power, both spiritual and temporal, of the archbishops of Milan, especially under Aribert (A.D. 1018-45), was firmly established by their espousal of the people's cause and their stand for popular rights against the Lombard kings. (c) South Italy and Sicily.—Under Mahometan rule (A.D. 827-1061), which reached Sicily from North Africa, even church facades were ornamented with geometrical patterns, because the Mahometan religion forbade representations of the human figure.

V. Social.—(a) Central Italy.—The artistic activity of Tuscany in the eleventh century showed itself chiefly in architecture, which provided a suitable setting for the daughter arts of painting and sculpture. The growth of an industrial population, the increase of commerce, and the rise of ruling families promoted the foundation of independent and fortified cities, such as Pisa, Lucca, and Pistoia, which were all competitors in architectural achievements. (b) North Italy.—The devastating inroads into the North Italian plains led to the gradual rise of the powerful Venetian State ; for the hardy northern traders planted their new colony on the islands of the lagoons. There, safe from serious attacks, they settled on a republican form of government, which afterwards became an oligarchy under a Doge, who was invested with supreme authority. Commerce and art were the special care of the Venetians. They raised glorious buildings in the sea and brought precious freights from the East, even including relics from the Holy Land. Thus did the East triumph in the West through its influence on the buildings of the Queen of the Adriatic. All the free cities, or independent commonwealths of Italy, such as Milan, Pavia, Verona, and Genoa, vied with one another in the beauty of their public buildings, and this spirit of rivalry gave life and vigour to architecture. (c) South Italy and Sicily.—The Mahometans introduced into Sicily valuable commercial products, such as grain and cotton. Civilisation there had been, however, considerably aided by Byzantine influences. The traditional use of mosaic in decoration was fostered by the Norman kings who established a school of mosaic at Palermo. Southern Italy, which always maintained a close connection with Sicily, has yet to be fully explored for traces of its architectural development.

VI. Historical.—(a) Central Italy.—Pisa, like Genoa in the north and Amalfi in the south, sent merchant fleets to the Holy Land for the Eastern Fair at Jerusalem, and thus were the Pisans brought into contact with Eastern art. At the commencement of the eleventh century Pisa was the rival of Venice and Genoa as a great commercial and naval power, and took the lead in the wars against the infidels, defeating the Saracens in A.D. 1025, 1030, and 1089 at Tunis. The Pisans also captured Palermo in A.D. 1062, and this contact with the Saracens probably accounts for the characteristic Pisan use of striped marbles. The Pisans were defeated by the Genoese in A.D. 1284, and this was the beginning of their decline. The rise of Florence dates from A.D. 1125, when the inhabitants of Fiesole moved there, owing to the destruction of their city, and in the following century Florence rivalled Pisa in commerce. Lucca, another important city during this period, was rent by the feuds of the Guelphs, supporters of the Popes, and the Ghibellines, who sided with the Emperors. This dual influence is traceable in architectural features of the city, such as battlements of castles and fortifications. (b) North Italy.—The close alliance which Venice kept up with Constantinople increased the commercial and naval importance of the sea-state so that, by the end of the eleventh century, her trade extended beyond Dalmatia, Croatia, and Istria to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean coasts. In spite of the intervening Alps, the invaders who had occupied the valley of the Po kept up commercial communications with those on the Rhine, by means of the Alpine passes ; so that Milan in the plains of Lombardy was subject, then as afterwards, to German influence in art, but the old Roman influence reasserted itself in the eleventh and twelfth centuries which witnessed great building activities in Lombardy. (c) South Italy and Sicily: In A.D. 827 the Mahometans landed in Sicily and gradually overran the island, which had formed part of the Byzantine Empire. The latter part of the tenth century was the most prosperous period of their sway, but sanguinary religious struggles ended in the downfall of the Mahometan dynasty. From A.D. 1061 to 1090 the Normans, under Robert and Roger de Hautville, were engaged in the conquest of the island, and in A.D. 1130 a descendant of the latter was crowned at Palermo. During the succeeding years Sicily was again prosperous, as may be judged by the number and beauty of the buildings of this period, and her fleet was powerful enough to defeat the Arabs and Greeks.



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