Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Edward Gibbon and his “Capitoline Vision”

15 October 1764, 250 years ago on Capitoline Hill in Rome, Edward Gibbon saw monks singing Vespers in the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, his “Capitoline Vision” that inspired him to write “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“.

"Another damned fat book, Mr Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?" (attributed to King George III)




A vedute by Gibbon’s contemporary Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 -1778), another Roman antiquities fancier in the wake of Winckelmann who became famous for his etchings of the state of ancient ruins of Rome, Pompeii, Paestum and  other sites along with a series of quite Gothic dungeons - here an illustration of the remains of a Temple of Jupiter in Rome in 1756. 


Describing Christianity as one of the major factors that brought about the fall of the Roman Empire was certainly the most controversial thread of argument Gibbon followed in his mammoth body of history since the first of its six volumes was published in 1776. Contraposing tolerant, urbane and sophisticated pagan political leaders full of Republican virtues and Christian zealots certainly had its charm during the Age of Enlightenment and the dawn of Classicism when everything from the days of antiquity, preferably pre-Christian, shone in a quasi sacral light. However, the unenlightened establishment as well as the faithful were shocked for the next two centuries and nobody voiced his taking offence more witty than the British Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh who let Constantine the Great’s advisor, the early Christian author Lactantius, give voice the author’s hurt in the historical novel “Helena” from as late as 1950: “You see it is equally possible to give the right form to the wrong thing. Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s trouble are over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,“ and he nodded towards the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again, but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does – it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”



"Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?" - Joshua Reynolds' portrait



Two hundred years after the end of the Age of Enlightenment, Gibbon’s evaluation of Christianity’s role in the corrosion of the Roman Empire is challenged by contemporary historians, rather than Christian apologists, and with reason. And since Gibbon was rather generous with his assessment and opinion of historical events, large passages of his work are considered passé, outdated by more modern research results. But his immense literal skills, his profound learning, the wit and humour he expresses especially in his sumptuous footnotes, Gibbon’s “table talk”, and his impressive, if not always critical use of primary sources available in mid-18th century stands unchallenged at the beginning of modern historical scholarship and since he was the first modern historian who brought critical assessment to the period of late antiquity and, to a certain degree, the Eastern Roman Empire, he is still the unmoved mover later exegetes reference to, even if their conclusions have become quite different from Gibbon’s in the meanwhile. And, of course, the first modern historian, in regards to the Roman Empire at least, was prone to create his own myths. His “Capitoline Vision” inspired by monks chanting in the Temple of Jove is very probably one, a later invention of his own though that declines the literally and symbolic significance of the event in no way.



More of Piranesi’s astonishing work can be found on:


http://www.wikiart.org/en/giovanni-battista-piranesi/mode/all-paintings

And more about Edward Gibbon on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Gibbon