Friday, April 27, 2018

Architecture of Charlemagne

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Damien F. Mackey






“… Aachen loses its distinction as a Carolingian building. This means that this period loses its best building, and the most important city of the Frankish Empire loses its ecclesiastical heart. With the loss of this dome alone, the tradition of Charlemagne's giant empire crumbles to dust”.


Dr Heribert Illig



Dr. Illig introduces into the discussion about the historical reality of emperor Charlemagne an architectural anomaly, to go with the archaeological anomalies we discussed in Part Two (a):


…. in the west, there is Charlemagne, a luminous figure who is supposed to have reigned from 768 to 814 [AD] and who supplies evidence for this period because of the Carolingian Renaissance he is supposed to have initiated. However, he only illuminates this time, because immediately before and after him all is dark. Gregorovius, in his "History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages," described it thus:

"The figure of the Great Charles can be compared to a flash of lightning who came out of the night, illuminated the earth for a while, and then left night behind him." Thus, in my search for "superfluous times" I had hit on the Early Middle Ages, but I did not yet know whether there was one or two Dark Ages. Therefore I had to look closely at a German national treasure, Charlemagne.

There are various methods for testing whether a period is real or fictitious. First, written source will have to be held against written source. Then architectural finds can be compared with architectural history. Above all, the existing architecture will be compared with the existing written sources. With certainty, the best method is the comparison of archaeological finds with written sources. These are not new methods; yet they appear not to have been used sufficiently until now. I would like to illustrate the different possibilities.

Sources vs. Sources

This comparison is easy to illustrate using the reports on the life of Charlemagne. Comparing all the biographies, I soon noticed that this ruler's achievements would have required the lives of two, three, or four "normal men." In 44 of the 46 years of his reign he goes to war. Like a Medici, he has a court of scholars at Aachen that gathers the cleverest Europeans of his time. Depending on whose calculation we use, during the course of his life he traveled the equivalent of two or even three times around the globe. At the same time he was a perfect lawmaker: he formulated more than a hundred decrees, he updated jurisdiction by introducing the jury system; wherever he was he administered justice.

But he was also active as a folklorist and mythologist, ordering old legends and folk tales to be collected; he was a linguist both for German and for Latin; he ordered - remember he was illiterate! - a cleaned-up version of the Bible for he was obviously an exceptional theologian who even conducted ecclesiastical synods himself. He was a grammarian, a founder of schools, of libraries and universities - all of these long before the time when such institutions are first mentioned in Europe. In my book I have collected more than a hundred of the Great Charles' characteristics. This makes an extraordinary list: he was his own minister of agriculture; he was the physical as well as the spiritual ancestor of half of Europe; he was sole ruler to whom omniscience was ascribed; he was a classical philologist, architect, astronomer, builder and so on.

The conclusion is simple: far too much is ascribed to this one person. How much of it is true? The written sources cannot answer that question, though even while he was alive and before he was crowned emperor they speak of the beacon of Europe and the father of Europe. For the moment, let's leave aside the written sources and consult the material evidence. For the item Architectural Findings vs. Architectural History, the famous Aachen Palatine Chapel, today's Aachen Cathedral, is the best example. For this structure, his most important palace, Charlemagne was not only the patron but, according to some reports, also the architect and building supervisor. Because this building has survived to our time, we can study it thoroughly. In doing so, I found more than 24 building details that - according to architectural history - are present here already in perfection, before AD 800. But these architectural features have neither predecessors nor direct successors. All these details had to be rediscovered independently during the subsequent Romanesque Period. This is a riddle of a complexity that does not occur elsewhere.

As an example, I would refer to the central dome.

The inner octagon at Aachen has, at a height of over 30 m, an octagonal dome 15 m in diameter. It is assembled from carefully hewn stone and at its weakest points it is 83 cm thick (not quite 33 inches). This means that above every visitor, a ton of stone is suspended. The enormous weight and the thrust it produces need to be supported by the walls. This has been achieved perfectly, otherwise the building would not have survived World War II. But where did its builder learn to build so well?

The Franks were builders in wood and did not have any larger buildings. Did the knowledge come from the Romans? The Romans had two techniques for building domes and vaults. In Rome itself domes were made from cast concrete. Concrete consists of cement, water, and aggregate materials such as gravel or sand. The Romans had the volcanic Pozzulan earth which sets just like cement. The most famous example for this technology is the dome of the Pantheon. But no such dome was built later than AD 400. There was no building tradition that could have transported this knowledge to the Franks more than 400 years later.

In Byzantium, domes were made from tiles and other clay elements that were as light as possible, such as amphorae. The most famous examples are the domes of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Here, too, there was no continued building activity that could have transported the knowledge from Istanbul to Germany. However, knowledge that is not written down requires oral transmission from generation to generation. Thus, the Aachen Palatine Chapel appears to be a masterpiece without a predecessor.

Neither does it have a successor, for there is no Carolingian building with a dome after 820. The technology appears to have been totally forgotten. In the Occident, buildings with domes started up again only around 970, but the first domes had a span of only 3.5 meters (about 11 1/2 feet). From that point onward, the span of the vaults was increased inch by inch. Around 1050, it was possible to construct vaults over the aisle of the imperial cathedral at Speyer on the Rhine: with 7.5 meters (approx. 25 feet) they were the largest vaults of their time. Then started the building of the large Romanesque domes at Toulouse, Cluny, Santiago de Compostela, and again in Speyer. Shortly after 1100, in that city, the central nave and the transept were also given vaults. As in Aachen, the transept is an octagonal dome with a diameter of around 15 meters (approx. 50 feet).

With regard to Speyer, everything is right: there are the indispensable precursor buildings, there is the building evolution, and there are the successor buildings. For Aachen nothing is right: Aachen stands as a masterpiece with no precursor, no successor, as an erratic within the so-called Carolingian Renaissance.

Since this debate began in Germany in 1996, this line of evidence has not been refuted. On the contrary, one of the few who looked into it, Prof. Jan van der Meulen, confirmed in writing that - despite what art histories tell us - the Aachen dome is not Carolingian. It's either Gallo-Roman or Ottonian. Which means that Prof. van der Meulen places it either in the period before 650 or in the Ottonian period, which lasted from 918 to 1024.

In 2004, the architectural historian Volker Hoffinann, Berne (Switzerland) went public with the suggestion that Aachen cathedral is to be placed historically in the early 6th century. In favor of this idea is the "sister building" of San Vitale in Ravenna, though the method of building the dome of San Vitale is against the comparison because the Romans did not practice such building techniques. The dome in San Vitale, like that of St. Gereon in Cologne, was built with light clay elements.

From my point of view, Aachen was built at the same time as Speyer II, shortly after 1100. Whichever view is accepted, Aachen loses its distinction as a Carolingian building. This means that this period loses its best building, and the most important city of the Frankish Empire loses its ecclesiastical heart. With the loss of this dome alone, the tradition of Charlemagne's giant empire crumbles to dust.

Or, in other words: Carolingian buildings do not fit into the history of the arts as it is taught today. ….



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