Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2004
Maria Fabricius Hansen The Eloquence of Appropriation: Prolegomena to an Understanding of Spolia in Early Christian Rome Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2003. 368 pp.; 20 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Paper €105.00 (8882652378)


This book examines the use of architectural spolia in the early medieval church interiors of Rome. It begins with a narrative catalogue of some two-dozen churches and their spoliate components (focusing chiefly on columns and capitals) and then continues for another two hundred richly illustrated pages, laying out arguments both formal and interpretive about “the development, characteristics, and ideological or metaphorical significance of the new architectural practice of appropriation” (7). The author’s overarching argument is that in all cases where the fragments’ recycled status was visible in their new setting (usually by virtue of the heterogeneity of the pieces with respect to one another), their presence was never merely a practical or economic expedient. It was, rather, a stylistic and ideological desideratum, always “governed by rules or principles” (135), always charged with meaning, and always “eloquent” in its ability to convey that meaning to its audience. Formally, Maria Fabricius Hansen argues, the “rhythm and polyphony” generated by heterogeneous columns replaced the aesthetic ideal of “monotonous” classical colonnades (134 and passim). In terms of ideology, the author grants a wide range of meanings to spolia, from the appropriation of the glory of antiquity to Christianity’s triumphant conquest of that same pagan past. She seeks to link these formal and ideological concerns to broader “mental habits” and thence to a wide range of contemporary practices: “If logical and rational continuity were rejected, this was also the case in literature, poetry, visual arts, and architecture” (178).

Readers familiar with the basic literature on spolia will recognize that these arguments, while more stridently and broadly applied than has heretofore been the case, are not especially novel; Hansen works well within the parameters laid down long ago by Alois Riegl, Richard Krautheimer, F. W. Deichmann, and Beat Brenk. This latest instantiation of the Germanic, Geistesgeschichte tradition would have benefited, however, from a closer engagement with the more recent methodologically rigorous, and often theoretically sophisticated work on spolia, by Anglo American scholars such as Joseph Alchermes, Robert Coates-Stephens, and Dale Kinney, who focus on individual case studies and problems of reception. Not only does Hansen take as a given the universal recognizability of spolia as such, but by separating her catalogue from her interpretive discussion she also avoids analyzing the specifics of any given example, and ends up trafficking instead in the broadest possible generalizations. The phenomenon of architectural spoliation is linked to the Virgilian centos, to the simple style of biblical prose, to number symbology, to mnemonics, to rhetorical concepts such as metaphor, ekphrasis, adumbration, exhortatio, imitatio, and inventio, to developments in liturgical practices, and so on. In one typical section, Hansen compares passages of Augustine extolling the “helpful and healthy obscurity” and opacity of the Scriptures (which “refines their readers’ minds” and leads them to holiness while “cloud[ing] the minds of the wicked”) to “obstruction and obscurity in architecture,” such as the irregular ground plans and imprecise joins that often characterize buildings made up of spolia (219–21). This argument supports an earlier rebuke of those modern scholars who have anachronistically “presuppos[ed] that an accurate fitting of elements must have always been desired” (12).

Hansen’s association of spolia with such a wide range of cultural phenomena is intended to show that the architectural practice was in harmony with the contemporary worldview, a concept that for her seems to be something between a Zeitgeist and a period eye (although the theoretical literature on neither term is ever engaged directly). “Metaphorical thinking,” she claims, was a “fundamental aspect of the worldview” and “decisive to all levels of cultural thinking…. The inclination to understand the world metaphorically had nothing to do with specific learning or, say, a theoretical knowledge of biblical exegesis.… [It] was a general condition of being human at the time” (198–99).

This interdisciplinary approach to spolia allows for a much more imaginative discussion than the standard economic explanations, and the book should be praised for its ambition and the richness of its ideas. At the same time, however, one wonders whether we can generalize so broadly about how the “early Christian or medieval beholder” (168) would have responded to the architecture of spolia, or whether “specific learning” is as irrelevant here as Hansen suggests. For example, her frequent invocations of Macrobius’ Saturnalia—as a point of comparison for the culture of eclecticism and nostalgia that allegedly guided viewers’ responses to spolia—raise red flags. The ostentatiously elite milieu of the characters and intended audience of that text (set at an aristocratic dinner party where topics such as Virgil’s borrowings from Homer and the archaic Roman pantheon are debated) should be a tip-off that many of Hansen’s more abstruse interpretations of spolia can hardly have circulated beyond the realm of the most educated members of society. She is on firmer ground when discussing Paulinus of Nola’s descriptions of his own buildings (in which he praises their signs of “various workmanship” 173), or the significance of the desire of Pope Innocent II to be buried in a porphyry sarcophagus thought to have belonged to the emperor Hadrian (148). It is when the author attempts to generalize from such specific examples, via comparisons drawn from rhetoric, literature, and theology, making sweeping, transhistorical conclusions about the “eloquence” to all audiences of all instances of architectural “appropriation,” that she fails to convince.

In fact, not all spolia are equally eloquent in their “references to the past” (222). The difference is often one of framing, a concept almost never discussed in this book. Noting that one of the mix-and-match paving stones in the thirteenth-century floor of S. Lorenzo F.L.M. carries a fragmentary inscription block with the word “CONSTANTI” on it, Hansen asserts that this “can only be understood as positive in its referral to that legendary founder of Christian Rome who built the first basilica to Lawrence nearby” (232). Perhaps, but one would like to know first how many other inscribed stones were laid into this floor, and whether there was anything about the location or setting of this one that marked it out as something special and encouraged the viewer to stop and contemplate its significance. None of this important data about the physical context or framing of the spolia is provided. Instead, the author repeatedly asserts that heterogeneity alone is the sine qua non of spolia’s recognizability and the foundation of its aesthetic and ideological properties. If so, then churches like Sta. Costanza, Sta. Sabina, S. Pietro in Vincoli, and Sta. Maria in Domnica, whose spoliate colonnades are made up of complete (or nearly complete) sets of identical (or nearly identical) columns, would seem to be participating in an entirely different discourse. Hansen, however, barely acknowledges these rare but interesting exceptions to her rule.

Conversely, the author is equally reticent when it comes to the handful of cases of spolia that are not just eloquent but outright loquacious about their antique origins, such as the column at Sta. Maria in Aracoeli labeled “A CUBICULO AUGUSTORUM,” an inscription she mentions only in a footnote (150, n. 253). Nor is her discussion of the extraordinary spiral-and-vine columns at Old St. Peters any more extensive, despite how prominently they were framed in their original setting and how frequently their antiquity was discussed in medieval sources (47). There is no mention of the fact that many of the “sumptuously carved Ionic capitals” at Sta. Maria in Trastevere (103) bear figural representations of pagan deities, a feature that surely would have facilitated medieval appreciation of their antique origins. Hansen seems to miss the significance of these unusual examples of truly eloquent spolia. Concerning the column at S. Nicola in Carcere inscribed with a lengthy text referring to its prior setting in a different church, Hansen observes only that “the eloquence of this column, literally through its inscription, is only one particularly evident example of what must have been the case in reusing material in general” (151). On the contrary, one could argue that this inscription suggests that without such explicit marking of the spolia’s antiquity, reused architectural members were silent about their past. Indeed, next to these rare examples of very articulate spolia, the ordinary columns and capitals of which the vast majority of the Roman churches are built—and into which Hansen wants to read so many layers of meaning and historical resonance—seem comparatively mute.

One final, if obvious, concern: the pro-spolia partisanship that informs the book comes across as naïve and unduly polarizing, as in a lengthy historiographic footnote near the beginning that divides the field into those who are “spolia-friendly” and those who are not (12, n. 5). While Hansen rightly points out that earlier generations’ judgments of the architecture of spolia as “barbaric” and “chaotic” do little to further scholarly discourse, she herself is guilty of the same myopia, now in reverse. In order for the heterogeneity of spolia structures to be “good,” classical architecture must be disparaged for its quality of “monotonous coherence,” “monotonous repetition,” and “predictable monoton[y]” (168, 176, 179, and passim). And while she is no doubt correct in her observation that our appreciation of the accurate fit of architectural elements has been enhanced by our “modern aesthetics and ideals of rationality” (13), it is worth remembering that this feature also has the virtue of helping buildings to stand up, presumably a desirable end even in the antimaterialist medieval world.

Despite my reservations about its methodology and many of its arguments, this book is a valuable contribution to the field both for its extensive collection of high-quality photographs and for the breadth of ideas across which the interpretive chapters range. Future students of spolia will no doubt want to pay greater attention to the economic and material factors that surely also contributed to the employment of reused material in early Christian Rome, and should also be more sensitive to the particulars of the framing and reception of spolia in given settings. This volume nevertheless offers a useful introduction to the medieval architecture of spolia in Rome, and a boldly lavish buffet of interpretive frameworks for one to sample, albeit with caution.

Elizabeth Marlowe
Elizabeth Marlowe, Visiting Assistant Professor, Art Department, Colgate University

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