bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Thoughts from Trier

Posted in Offbeat observations, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 15 September, 2013

Octavius Rooke's drawing of the Porta Nigra from his Life of the Moselle (London, 1858).

Octavius Rooke’s drawing of the Porta Nigra from his Life of the Moselle (London, 1858).

Last month saw me on annual leave (thus my yet-longer-than-usual silence) and our travels took my companion for life and myself to the ancient city on the Mosel: ‘Augusta Trevirorum of the Romans, Trier of the Germans, and Trèves of the English’. Practice has changed since Octavius Rooke wrote his account of The Life of the Moselle in 1858, and it is standard in English now to use its German name. Indeed, if we had taken Rooke’s work with us as our guide, we would have been lost, but I packed it for its historical quaintness rather than any practical value – and certainly not for the quality of the verses he sometimes includes, which would be a worthy candidate from the McGonagall Prize for Literature. More successful are the drawings from his travels that Rooke provides, including one of the imposing Roman gate to Trier, the Porta Nigra (following the example of another Englishman, William Clarkson Stanfield). And he makes some observations that caught my eye, one of which, as will become clear, acted as a stimulus to this attempt to gather my own thoughts. At the same time, Rooke is interesting for what he leaves out: for instance, he provides no mention of Trier’s most famous son, even though, at the time of writing, he could not have been unaware of The Communist Manifesto or of its British-based mastermind, Karl Marx.

Karl Marx's childhood home near the Porta Nigra - complete with tourist train.

Karl Marx’s childhood home near the Porta Nigra – complete with tourist train.

Trier has little compunction about increasing its capital through Marx’s fame. His iconic status is the subject of an engrossing temporary exhibition at the civic museum; a permanent site for pilgrimage is Brückenstrasse 10 (once Brückergasse 664), the place of his nativity in front of which frequently congregate shoals of smiling Chinese visitors. Where you do not see them gathering is Simeonstrasse 8, the house to which the Marx family moved the year after Karl’s birth and where he grew up, even though this building with its prospect onto the Porta Nigra must have provided his first formative memories. The square which the young Marx could have seen when he was tall enough to peer out of the window was for a while in the century after his death known as Adolf Hitlerplatz.

That the cult of Marx should focus on his birthplace rather than where he spent his formative years is partially a result of the Nazi years: they had commandeered the house in which he was born, which had been bought by the Social Democratic Party in 1928, and burnt all the memorabilia gathered there associated with the philosopher of Communism. The history that thus accrued to the place perhaps made it inevitable that it should be re-born as the site of veneration after the Second World War. Earlier, when it was first identified as a focus of celebration of Marx’s life and influence, there may well have been practical reasons for attention centring there: presumably, it was available while the house in the prime location next to Porta Nigra was not. And, yet, there is still something notable about the selection: the sense that the birthplace has a particular poignant status, where the figure we visualise with manly full beard and know as the father of an unforgiving politics was at his gentlest and most vulnerable, a crying baby, the result of hours of anguished labour pains for his mother. The birthplace celebrates his beginning but also it honours beginnings, the elemental moment in family life. This is where and how it all began.

I mused on this because I sensed a parallel with the life of several of the major monuments of Trier, where their history has been effaced so that they can return to something closer to their pristine condition. The Porta Nigra itself now stands as a testimony to the Romans’ engineering prowess and to the city’s importance as Augusta Treverorum, but when Marx gazed it as a child, he was surely told that only a few years before it had been a church and monastery, its arches filled in and its west end adorned with a tower. That those medieval accretions are – for the most part — no longer standing was the result of an intervention begun by Napoleon and completed by the Prussians who followed him as rulers of Trier: Bonapartist anti-clericalism freed the Roman building from its Christian reuse. Half a century later (when Marx was in his British exile), a pro-Protestant agenda drove the re-building of the so-called Basilica, part of the Emperor Constantine’s Palace which had once housed the bishop’s fortified dwelling and which had been threatened, in the eighteenth century, with complete demolition to make way for the new Electoral Palace. That removal had been only half achieved, and the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV decreed it should be restored in order to be the new Lutheran church of the city, consecrated in 1856. War has twice played its part in creating its present setting, the open space that affords a vista on it being originally created as a drilling yard for Napoleon’s troops, while the austere interior is the result of post-War reconstruction after the Allied bombing had left the Basilica in ruins and without its roof: the nineteenth-century decoration which emulated the marble of Italian Romanesque churches like San Miniato above Florence was damaged and not replaced, so the walls were laid bare and unadorned.  It is, then, only since the middle of the twentieth century that visitors to the Basilica could imagine they were entering into an ancient space, unmediated by later additions.

South-east of the Basilica, the destruction of war also freed the ruins of the ancient baths (never, in fact, used for that purpose) from much of their later accretions, as the Allied bombing flattened their surroundings. It was not the case, however, that all its medieval connotations were removed, for the baths, which acted as a corner of the city walls through which a gate passed also became inhabited by a tower which now appears integral to the remains. But it is not because of its presence that tourists are invited to pay a visit to the Kaiserthermen.

These re-formations of a classical identity speak to or help define our cultural sensitivity; they exemplify an impulse to the pristine, undefiled by later interventions, allowing us to stand face-to-face with our ancient forefathers. It is a mentality of what might be called pristinism in which the accretions of the centuries are perceived as unfortunate degenerations from the original with which we want to have immediacy. But the later history of the buildings can rarely be entirely effaced: if we admire the Porta Nigra from outside the city we are taking in not just Roman construction and Napoleonic destruction but also Romanesque intervention – the curved wall to the left of the structure is the medieval apse of the church (as can be seen in Rooke’s drawing). My response to this was not what I expected: it was not the sense that the medieval inhabited a classical inheritance like baggy, once elegant hand-me-down clothes, too large and simply too refined for their new wearer, but rather a feeling of the grandeur of the Romanesque, able to compete in height and mastery with the Roman remains it made useful again by its own handiwork.

I had a similar sensation when first seeing the twelfth-century frontage of the cathedral which, with its western apse, appears audaciously to present its back to the visitor. We spent our first evening sitting in the square with it and its younger neighbour, the gothic Liebfrauenkirche, as our companions.  I was spell-bound by the stonework of the cathedral and only realised later that I was looking in the wrong direction, at least for nineteenth-century tastes. This brings me back to Octavius Rooke and the comment that inspired my musings in the first place. Describing the two churches, Rooke was lyrical about the Liebfrauenkirche, ‘a beautiful Gothic edifice, with noble arches of extreme lightness and delicacy of appearance’, and went on to compare it to its neighbour:

‘The Cathedral is a fine building and stands side by side with the Liebfrauen Kirche which it far exceeds in size but to which it is inferior in beauty…’

The Cathedral of Trier, with the Libefrauenkirche to its right.

The Cathedral of Trier, with the Libefrauenkirche to its right.

The under-valuing of the Romanesque reminded me of words that Proust puts into the mouth of M. de Norpois, berating the young narrator for his liking of a style that ‘in no way seems to foreshadow … the delicate inventiveness of Gothic architects, who could work stone like lace [ne laisse en rien présager l’élégance, la fantaisie des architectes gothiques qui fouillent la pierre comme de la dentelle]’. It was when reading those words that I felt I first gained insight into a cultural preference which I find so alien. I would not want to deny the Liebfrauenkirche with its star-shaped design held up by slender columns its accolades but I think that our contemporary tendency is to seek out the less intricate, seeing more beauty in the apparent simplicity of the Romanesque. But perhaps this taste is itself informed by the tradition of pristinism which expects the original to be unrefined, like the bare walls of the Basilica, transporting us back, as it were, to the unclothed new-born. If I am right in my assumption that this is an element of pristinism, then that attitude cannot be considered simply a form of classicism. What it is, instead, is a sort of post-humanist condition, in which the call ‘ad fontes’ has been transferred beyond its own original limits.

More fundamental than this – it struck me, walking Trier’s history-heavy streets – is the need to choose, the imperative for taste to compare and so to devalue as well as to prize. Taste and tourism, both: a monument or a city must be sold with a headline, not a narrative, and so you are enjoined to visit Trier in order, in the words of the Rough Guide, to ‘wander Europe’s most impressive Roman remains’ (the adjective ‘northern’ must have dropped out of that sentence at some stage). In this mindset, that the Porta Nigra spent much of its life as a church or the Basilica decades in ruins are accidents of each building’s nachleben that unfortunately cannot be ignored but can be relegated to being matters of incidental interest; they are not part of the essence of the building or of its valency. And if that mindset is necessary to tourism, it means the heritage industry is in the business of privileging in a building or a place a single element of its heritage and employing a process of industrial cleaning which washes away its other aspects like specks of stubborn dirt.

Trier's semi-detached Basilica and Electoral Palace.

Trier’s semi-detached Basilica and Electoral Palace.

Leaving aside the economics of tourism, does this have to be so? After all, it is surely our human flaw that we can only perceive partially, that we have to select where we concentrate attention. At the same time, we can recognise that elements need to be understood in dialogue with each other, particularly in a place like Trier where we cannot avoid seeing a combination of identities jostling together in one place. This is best epitomised by the remarkable cohabitation created for the Basilica with its neighbour the Rococo Electoral Palace, where Friedrich Wilhelm’s building project entailed the demolition of part of the palace so that they could co-exist as semi-detached properties. Similarly, we might be able to appreciate that the Liebfrauenkirche was built next to the Cathedral not to distract attention from it but to provide in unison with it a focus for devotion. If we can understand this, then we should also be able to comprehend a single building as having had several lives – Porta Nigra, gate, hermitage, church, monument. Or  Brückergasse 664, legal offices and family home, memorial to the birth of Karl Marx, Nazi offices, tourist attraction for visiting Chinese.  But we can only reach that comprehension if we shed our post-humanist instinct to seek the source, the original – if, that is, we move beyond a pristinism that denudes a place of all but one of its histories. But would such a step be itself a return to a purer accommodation with the past?