Living Stone. A culture-semiotic reading of spolia and its impact on the medieval conception of Rome
Spolia – the architectural remains of ancient Rome – have had a profound effect on the face of the western world. Export commodities already in the sixth century and gradually developing into a sizeable Roman industry, spolia embellished early Italian medieval cities and was sought after as far away as present day Germany. What the renaissance “discoverers” of classical culture came to call spolia – spoils - the Romans themselves called saxa rediviva – reanimated stone. In the middle ages, these living artefacts transgressed cultural and temporal boundaries and mediated a weave of past and present, the alien and the familiar, a deeper understanding of which enriches our views of the early medieval urban landscape and of the transmission and reinterpretation of synchronic and diachronic concepts. Previous research, while extensive, has suffered from fragmentation as several academic disciplines have developed disparate modes of interpretation. This project straddles history, art history, architectural history, archaeology and cultural geography, and explores the advantages of cross-discipline approaches in historical research. The theoretical point of departure for this research is that spolia should be interpreted as cultural-semiotic signifiers of ideas and concepts, and that the content of these signifiers was in constant flux as the interpretations of classical Rome and the needs of the present changed. They can therefore only be understood through a number of perspectives, including their spatial relation to other objects and modes of acquisition. The aim of my three-month stay in Rome is to apply these cultural-semiotic theories in an attempt to identify the specific meanings of a selection of spoliatic objects in Rome and other important medieval Italian cities.
Spoliatic column base, Salerno cathedral. Photo: James D'Emilio