Sunday, February 20, 2011


Aquileia may take the prize as the hardest Ambrose site to visit, but it rewards the effort.  Not all do, by the way.  Faenza is a nice enough place and most well known for its pottery, which was highly coveted in the Middle Ages. And Europe’s museums are full of it...heavy, tending to browns and yellows, and a spiral pattern on the bottom.  Bu as far as Ambrose is concerned, it was a bust...though to be fair I arrived on a very sleepy day.  It was 20 minutes before I saw any two people speaking to one another and the roads and piazzas were deserted.  Anyway, it was my first disappointment.  To be honest I cannot even remember what Ambrose was doing there, except that he was very influential in many northern Italian cities: even appointing bishops and receiving the vows of women religious.  The point is that he was unusually influential outside his own diocese nd that in itself is worth remembering. He was, in effect, acting like a Prelate.  He was the most powerful bishop of the west, governing from the capital city.  That and his personality, talents and even flaws explain why he was called upon for help administer places ever further afield from Milan.

            At Aquileia he assumed a role even closer to that which will quite soon be identified with the "Pope."  That title, by the way, seems to have been used first by Ambrose himself, and in reference to the Bishop of Rome.  For centuries already the Church of Rome had enjoyed the status of 'first among equals' with the other great metropolitan areas of the Empire--Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and most lately Constantinople.  Not, please, exactly because it had been the capital (and would remain to the end the most potent symbol of the empire--it wasn't just for its wealth that it was singled out for barbarian pillage) but because it was where Peter and Paul were martyred.  Other cities could boast of their martyrs, a few could claim to have been the residence of an Apostle (Jerusalem, Ephesus, even Thebes) but Rome claimed Two Apostles, and not just any two...Peter and Paul: the two great Apostles.

            In the ancient and, since Napoleon, 'former' monastery of Ravenna, outside the walls,  which serves at once as an archaeological site and an archaeological museum, there is a most famous rondel in marble that shows Peter and Paul, in bust, looking right at each other with a hand on one another's shoulder.  It is just remarkable.  Peter has a more trim, Roman look about him, Paul looks more like a balding Greek philosopher.  But the remarkable thing is the pose: it is exactly the sort of image mounted in public places during the tetrarchy of Diocletian (he tried to organize the empire with two Emperors, each with a Caesar as assistant...hence the "tetrarchy") to demonstrate the harmony between the various co-rulers.  Get it? Peter and Paul are equals and co-responsible for the Church.  I might also add that their professional relationship while not always smooth (compare the "Council of Jerusalem" accounts of Acts and Ephesians) it seems to have had better results than the ill fated tetrarchy, which didn't even survive Diocletian.  By the way, other "propaganda" pieces demonstrating not only the authority and equality of the two, but their mandate from Christ, are found in the astonishing figures in gold printed on glass that I have seen in every museum I have visited...including Istanbul...that shows Christ handing what looks like a diploma to both the one and the other Apostle.

            So..all of that is to say that the Bishop of Rome had a certain power-of-prestige based on the "Apostolic Succession" that made HIM heir of Peter and Paul.  Ambrose gladly embraced this, indeed he asserted it, not only by offering the endearing title "Papa" (Dear Father) but, I suspect, he had a hand in the Emperor Gratian offering the Bishop of Rome the vestments and sacred items associated with the ancient chief of the Cult of Rome: the Pontifex Maximus.

            Ambrose, then, was not interested in fighting over ultimate authority in the Church...something that wouldn't be settled (some would stay still isn't) for decades, even in the West.  But he WAS interested in administration and in going wherever he needed to go to assert Nicaean doctrine.  He clearly believed he had all the authority of position and personality that was needed.  So he went to Aquileia.

            He not only went there, he called a Council of Aquileia there and used it to bring to a head a long simmering problem with certain bishops of the Eastern Frontier who were, in his words, Arians.  Paladius, Bishop of Raeteria, was a contemporary, but no friend of Athanasius, whose text became the Nicaean Creed.  That means that by the time Ambrose tangled with him the man was an ancient and revered holy leader who already had big problems: his diocese sat plum in the middle of the barbarian controlled areas in the post-Hadrianopolis period.

            Why Aquileia, though?  Did I mention it was hard to get to?  A train from Milan to Venice, then another train in the direction of Trieste, but dismount at the tiny village of Cervignano del Friuli then wait patiently for the bus that will eventually show up to take you the last 15 or so k. down the road toward the coast.  We are, by the way, on top of the Adriatic in a part of Italy that I bet a lot of people think is already Croatia.  It is a broad open and wet plain just above the ocean and not quite in the foothills of the Alps.  It is, in other words, near the frontier.  That's a clue: get it?  Oh, it is also the place where Justina's first husband--one Maximin--died trying to become emperor.  He wasn't the only one to die there either...Maximinus Thrax was killed here by his own men while besieging the city (the just completed public works of the harbor had had to be quickly dismantled and re-used to reinforce the defensive walls of that part of the city...the Tracian's only monument); Quintillan, the brother of Aurelius, was pinned down here and committed suicide, Constantine II was killed trying to kill his brother Constans.  Magnus Maximus will be brought to bay near here and his own troops offering Theodosius his head.  Frigidus, the last battle fought by Romans under the Pagan banners of Zeus and Hercules (defeated by Theodosius, bearing images of SS John and Phillip) was also near here.  Still later a would-be usurper, Johannes, would be killed here by Valentinian III and Galla Placidia.

            If Florence has more art per square meter than any other city on earth (and I believe that to be the case) then Aquileia has more archaeology per square meter than any living city that I have ever seen, except maybe for Rome itself.  There are 12 publically owned sites, another 8 or so privately owned, and virtually every house in the village has chunks of statuary mortared into its walls and god knows what is in their basements.  Even the fields are fertile: On my hike down the very narrow country road back to my B&B I found a handle of an amphora without even looking: the whole thing was littered in brick, clay, stone, and marble...must be hell on plows.  I was staying about 2 K out of town, by the way, which made late night walks up the road more than interesting and left me the more grateful that the town itself is so small.

            It has a very pleasant small town feel to it.  The traffic cops stopped pulling people over for document-checks to help me, and one of their recent victims corrected the directions as she drove off.  The sweet Freulian woman who administers the B&B for its German owners was shocked that I'd arrived on foot and insisted on waiting to drive me back to the village...and to the train station 3 days later (which was nice, as it was Sunday making the already erratic busses very irregular).

            Yep, it is tiny now (the old train station is now a boarded up bacci court and the tracks are buried under a bike path) and it was never all that large.  I am beginning to appreciate just how remarkable Rome Urbs (the city) was to any ancient person who would have visited.  Aquileia boasted one of the largest theatres in the empire, it had a race track, baths, a forum and basilica, and amphitheatre and somewhere a palace for when the peripatetic Emperor was in town (which was often).  It had two river ports, walls, and an extramural emporium.  It was the center of trade for the whole empire in such items as amber, terra cotta oil lamps, iron ware, votives, glass, gems, and ivory.  It exported everywhere and imported from everywhere.  It was a big deal...but it wasn't big.  It was perhaps the 5th largest city of the empire, but it wasn't big.  Even before the inevitable decline (not just because of the Barbarians, but because the court had settled fairly permanently at Milan) when the city contracted to about 1/2 of its maximal size, it was about as big as a medium sized public university campus.  Romans liked to live rather crammed close together, it seems.

            In the utterly fantastic church that still boasts its IV century mosaics intact on the floor (they've raised a glass walkway so that no one actually walks on it anymore) the very nice caretaker let me into the archaeological zone under and a bit outside the main church.  This is what happens, I suppose, when you are about the only visitor of the day, and the only one to show particular interest (she also looked up for me in her massive and worn tome that there was, in fact, a fresco of St. Ambrose in the chapel that still bears his name).  The mosaics are spell bindingly remarkable for so many reasons...they are not distinctly or obviously Christian, for one (Christ, if it is Christ, is a shepherd boy complete with a pan flute; the "fishers of men" are puti (you know, fat little naked cherub babies...pagan cupids) and they are catching real fish, and eels, and octopi; the sheep and the goats aren't separated, but munch, lounge, and scratch their ears with their back legs in Paulo/Petrine harmony; ducks and partridges occupy pear trees, grape vines mix with acanthus leaves; a rooster is having a fight with a turtle; hares tangle with eagles.

            Of course, all of these images can be allegorically interpreted: the hare is the Christian who must run the good run (but who also, despite his long ears, often does not hear the word of God) the rooster not only announced Peter's betrayal, but announces the coming of the Sun/Son, while the turtle dwells within itself and so in the darkness of sin; even the pagan acanthus leaves are given a (dubious, in my mind) link to the vine and the isn't a vine.  The same images are in the scavi, and others which, according to something I read in one of the museums (the village boasts at least 3) are supposed to have an Arian tint to them.

            And this brings us to Ambrose.  He would have seen these same mosaics--and liked them, if I have gauged correctly his own remarkable predilection and talent for squeezing Judeo-Christian themes out of Rome’s tradition.  But if those mosaics had cast a reflection of Aryanism, he would have tom them out as ruthlessly as any iconoclast.  He came to Aquileia to put Aryanism on trial.

            This is not, in my opinion, Ambrose's finest moments.  He Got Gratian and Theodosius to lend (tepid) authority to the Council, but it was very badly attended.  It overlapped, in fact, with Theodosius' own Council of Constantinople, which is infinitely more important for the history of the Church and which included, among other things, the assertion of the primacy of the Sea of Rome (and Constantinople a close runner up).   Bishops Palladius and Secundus felt themselves lured into a trap and what was advertized as a Church discussion of doctrine became very quickly a court case that put Palladius and Secundus in the hot spot.  Ambrose did not administer the proceedings, at least not formally, but it seems that everyone agreed that he really did manage the affair thanks to his mastery of the Roman legal system, laws, and procedures, not to mention his stunningly quick thinking and skill with Biblical texts.

            The proceedings are very well documented, including a fairly unprejudiced account of what Palladius thought of the whole thing.  I probably said this before, but most of the folks that Ambrose called Arians weren't, they were just people who didn't like the Nicaean solution and wanted to keep talking about it.  But Ambrose would have none of it...he caught the old man in a few Biblical errors (remarkable for many reasons, including that they were all reciting from memory, and that, in any case, there was not yet any definitive Latin, or even Greek version of the New Testament with which to fence) and pushed it home.  His rhetoric also got out of hand.  In a ploy that reminds me of the worst of American political mud slinging he suggested that Palladius' "Aryanism" made him an ally of the barbarian hoards that were not even yet completely mastered--remember that these 
were, in fact, Arian barbarians.

            In the end, Palladius and Secundus were removed from their positions.  In the rhetoric of Ambrose as the defender of the Nicaean faith, I do have to wonder what became of that ancient and humiliated servant of the Church.  It is sad.

            This would not have been Ambrose's only visit to Aquileia, I imagine, if for no other reason than that it was the next main "bead" on the rosary like chain of imperial cities that connect Milan to Constantinople.  I wonder if he had a chance to visit its other sites the city offered?  There is, in one of the archaeological sites that are all over this town (none of them active: the Italian government, while benefiting from new tourism taxes, hasn't put any money back into the research and preservation...this isn't me, this is a security guard at one of the museums speaking) a house church.  This is cool, but more remarkable since there had been a very large and public church in town for decades and so the old house church would seem to be an anachronism.  In any case, apparently Ambrose is known to have celebrated mass in such a place (though I don't personally remember reading any evidence for this).  He would have been right at home in this place.  While it is culturally different (indeed, even today the signs are in both Italian and "Friulian" the local dialect that sounds as much German as Italian) it had all that a Roman needed to feel at home.  The evidence of this is in the fantastic archaeological museum.  Once again, I was the only visitor, so had my usual personal attendant who followed me discretely through each room, never giving sign of boredom or annoyance.  I guess they had to be there anyway.  Although, I will say, they followed me with their eyes till I got out of the courtyard and electronically locked the gates right behind me!

            I like these small town museums because, apart from being uncrowded--and so more likely to elicit help or comments or at least conversation from the attendants--they are not so vast that one can't settle in and notice gems, coins, small bronzes, the expressions on the busts (only one from the IV century but, sorry, "no photos without prior permission.")  There was a display of Roman military belts.  This is a huge deal.  They were the single item that identified a Roman soldier, even out of uniform.  It was his sign of position and he took it very seriously.  When Roman soldiers were arrested for being Christians during the persecutions, they would dramatically remove their belts and drop them to the floor.  An official at the court of Justina did that when being compelled to act 
against Ambrose and the Nicaeans in the Affair of the Portiana.

            Yep, the belt had already become a more broadly recognized symbol, by Ambrose's day, used by all Roman authorities...something like the briefcase is to the bureaucrat of today's world, or more like that silly ID badge that folks have to wear to work in some places (but a lot more useful: belts DO something).  The belt was invented and disseminated from Aquileia and it even evolved over the centuries.  It was always about 10 cm wide, always leather, and always decorated.  It was cinched in such a way that the "extra" piece hung down in front like a tongue, or a cinch strap on a horse's saddle.  It could be decorated with boy-scout like cookie cutter patterns or, later, embossed with metal decorations and amulets and little hooks for hanging things off of.  It would, of course, also have held the scabbard.  I will go out on a limb here and say that there an be no doubt that Ambrose wore one of these things, at least prior to his becoming bishop when he too might well have "let fall the belt."

            One more detail and I will end:  in the Monastery museum is a very strange marble slab with an incisement--not a bas-relief.  It shows a small nude female figure standing in a conch shell.  Over her head is a sphere filled with stars and dominated by a dove.  Water is pouring out of this sphere onto her body.  To her left is a young man in what looks very much like a blazer, tie, and kilt  His hand is on her head.  On her right is a haloed beardless man in a toga offering a gesture that seems to say "behold."  Framing the men are trees in leaf and at their feet flowering bushes and a lamb.  The inscription reads “In Peace The Lord chooses the Innocent Spirit" with a date.

            The museum description notes that this otherwise nameless girl was being baptized before her young death, but I just wonder if she is what she is said to be, not a particular girl, but "The Innocent Spirit" baptized by the Church and acknowledged by Christ.  Obviously I have no talent for interpreting Aryanizing propaganda, so I just don't know if this piece would have been liked or not by Ambrose, had he seen it.  Personally, I found it so moving that--once again photos being rather oddly forbidden--I delayed my long suffering personal guide long enough to record the whole thing in my notebook.

            Yes, Ambrose would have felt quite at home here, though perhaps chaffing at its small and compact design.  He would have enjoyed seeing the lamp makers offer patterns specifically suited to Christians: the chi rho, the good shepherd, the dove, the orantes, the crown, star, palm branch, peacock, rooster, fruit bearing tree, phoenix, sheep, goat, shafts of wheat, running water...oh, that's right--most of these were not all that distinctly Christian, and that too, I think, Ambrose would have enjoyed...just so it didn't betray any stain of Aryanism.

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