Rome: The Eternal City had long since become the goal of Christian pilgrims

The Eternal City had long since become the goal of Christian pilgrims, who carried to their homes tales of her ancient as well as her Christian 'marvels'. Such a pilgrims' saying, dating from Charlemagne's early years perhaps, is that linking the Colosseum, or the colossal statue which had once stood near it, with the fall of Rome and of the world. The emperor's emphasis on the learning of the ancient world revived nostalgic interest in the city's past. Charlemagne's great scholar, Alcuin, has left one of the earliest in the long series of medieval laments for her vanished glory:

' Rome, once head of the world, the world's pride, the city of gold,
Stands now a pitiful ruin, the wreck of its glory of old.'

Though the literature of Rome persisted despite waning empire and crumbling walls, there is a gap, reflecting the decline of classic art, in the pictorial record of her monuments after the fourth century. A picture of Rome which belonged to Charlemagne and was described by his biographer, Einhard, may have been done during his time or may have been a survival from late Roman days. Einhard simply says that among the emperor's treasures was a silver table, 'round in shape, inscribed with a picture of Rome', which was bequeathed to the Bishopric of Ravenna. Since this table has long since been lost it is impossible to tell its date, but its influence may have been felt in the popularity of round panoramic views in the Middle Ages.

A circular plan is believed to have accompanied the oldest surviving pilgrims' guide to Rome, the Einsiedeln Itinerary, compiled by an eighthcentury Swiss monk, which lists the pagan and Christian 'marvels' to be seen along different routes. By the time this document was discovered in the seventeenth century in the Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln, the plan had disappeared and it is left to scholars to ponder whether it may have suggested or been suggested by the shape of Charlemagne's picture.

With Charlemagne, Rome was once more firmly bound to the West, but this connection only added to her trials. The centuries immediately following the emperor's coronation were among the darkest of her history. Islam was at her gates. In the ninth century the Saracens came so close that they plundered the great churches of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Worse yet, popes and emperors, mutually jealous, locked forces in a struggle which tore the city into factions. This struggle accelerated the transformation of ancient Rome, cosmopolitan mistress of the world, into a provincial medieval city. Probably the most destructive sack in her history was due to this contest between popes and emperors; in 1084 one of two rival popes called in the Normans from Sicily to expel the emperor, and let loose an orgy of fire and plunder unequalled by those of Goths and Vandals. But more than to wars and sacks and earthquakes and fires, the destruction of Rome's monuments was due to plundering by her own citizens, too crushed by misfortune to do more than take their building materials from the easiest and most available sources -- the crumbling edifices about them.

The disastrous eleventh century finally wore to a close; the twelfth brought a renaissance of interest in the Roman past on the part of the Romans themselves. To the early part of the century belongs Hildebert of Tours' famous lament, echoing that of Alcuin and setting a pattern for those to come:

' Rome, thy grand ruins, still beyond compare,
Thy former greatness mournfully declare,
Though time thy stately palaces around
Hath strewed, and cast thy temples to the ground.'

A little later in the same century appeared the great medieval guide to Rome, the Mirabilia Romae, or Marvels of Rome. The first version of this guide was probably written about 1150. Like the Einsiedeln Itinerary the Mirabilia mingled pagan and Christian 'marvels'; unlike the Itinerary, it never lapsed into complete obscurity. In many expanded and differing versions, together with books related to it or based upon it, this guide coloured the thinking of the Middle Ages concerning Rome and influenced even the early Renaissance. In its twelfth-century form it contained a short classified list of monuments, a group of legends, pagan and Christian, and an account of sights to see in walking from Saint Peter's into the city and back.

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