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  • Topography as Historiography:Petrarch, Chaucer, and the Making of Medieval Rome
  • Jennifer Summit

The inspiration for The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, as Edward Gibbon famously recalls in his memoirs, came from ruins: "It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind."1 In its topographical specificity-the Capitol lies in ruins while the temple of Jupiter has been taken over by "fryers"-this scene captures the broadest historical argument of Gibbon's enormous work: Rome fell to ruin when the city became Christian and its new leaders destroyed or neglected the former monuments of its classical past. Nearly a century later another great historian, Jacob Burckhardt, followed Gibbon by visiting Rome during his own grand tour in 1846; but in the famous ruins Burckhardt found inspiration for a very different history from Gibbon's. While the ruins prompt Gibbon to mourn the end of a glorious empire, they fill Burckhardt, as he writes in a letter at the time, with unexpected pleasure: "Part of the pleasure of Rome is that it keeps one perpetually guessing and arranging the ruins of the ages that lie so mysteriously, layer upon layer."2 This pleasure of uncovering the past is one that Burckhardt would assign in his own monumental work, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), to the Italian humanists, for whom "the material knowledge of old Rome" inspired and defined a new epoch of cultural rebirth, the Renaissance.3

Between them, Gibbon and Burckhardt create the most enduring modern narrative of the premodern era by establishing the borders that divide and define its three constitutive epochs: where Gibbon's subject is the border between classical and medieval, which marks a decline and fall, Burckhardt's is the no-less irrefragable border between medieval and Renaissance, which marks a cultural reawakening and rebirth. As the above passages show, [End Page 211] Gibbon and Burckhardt both anchor those epochal boundaries in Rome's ruins, which provide a physical emblem for a historiography of violent breaks and ruptures by recalling the loss of civilizations.4 But in reading those ruins as symbols of classical loss on the one hand or Renaissance recovery on the other, both Gibbon and Burckhardt virtually erase all material trace of the centuries that passed between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Renaissance humanism, except to designate them as an intervening period-"the Middle Ages." For both Gibbon and Burckhardt, "the Middle Ages" does not describe a period in Rome's history so much as it does a suspension of that history, the onset of which brought about classical Rome's loss and ushered in a period of historical darkness from which that buried past could later be recovered. Thus for Gibbon, the medieval period is notable for its destructive ignorance of Rome's past glory, when "the forms of ancient architecture were disregarded by a people insensible of their use and beauty" (2433), and when, furthermore, "the statues, altars, and houses of the daemons were an abomination" that merited only violent extirpation (2431). Burckhardt upholds a similar notion of a Middle Ages whose response to the classical past was at best ignorant and forgetful, and at worst, iconoclastically repressive, which underwrites his representation of the Renaissance as a time of recovery: in the Renaissance, Burckhardt writes in a passage of unusual intensity, "the newly-awakened memories of antiquity were rapidly growing up to a gigantic size, and soon cast into the shade all the fantastic creations of the Middle Ages" (167). Where the classical period is the object of memory and the Renaissance is the remembering subject, the Middle Ages is a time of forgetting and fantasy which itself must be disavowed ("cast into the shade") to allow a return to history. "The Middle Ages" occupies a crucial but paradoxical position within both Burckhardt's and Gibbon's historiographical models: at the same time that it guarantees a narrative of history...


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pp. 211-246
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Archived 2004
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