W. B. Yeats published 'Sailing to Byzantium' in his collection The Tower (1928), at the age of sixty three. In it he deals with growing old, his unease with his native Ireland and his desire to find some state of being outside or beyond the failing human condition. He discovers this in the ancient city of Byzantium, and in doing created some of the most famous images of that world.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees ---
Those dying generations---at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
By the time that Yeats was writing, British interest in Byzantine art, architecture and culture was well established, yet in comparison with Classical or Medieval cultures it retained (as Yeats' poems suggests) an air of the remote, the exotic , and the mysterious. Yet that interest was less than one hundred years old. The Enlightenment, and particularly the writers Voltaire and Gibbon, condemned Byzantine culture as a tissue of superstition and barbarism, and art historians looked upon its art as childish, awkward and undeveloped.
It was not until the sudden destruction by fire of the Byzantine basilica of San Paulo Fuori le Mura by fire in 1823 that people began to consider the contribution of Byzantium to Christian history.
The image on the left is of San Paolo as it appeared on 15 July 1823. That on the right as it appeared on 16 July.
At this point it is necessary to distinguish the two dominant forms for Byzantine churches: the 'domical' and the 'basilican'
The domical has the dome as its centre and has, in the twentieth century, come to be associated most strongly with Byzantine architecture.
In the nineteenth century the basilican was also identified with Byzantine architecture and indeed there were many of these long churches built within the Byzantine tradition. In the twentieth century, however, when the Romanesque style was considered separately from the Byzantine, many of these basilican churches were placed in the category of 'Romanesque'.
This interest was taken up by Ludwig's Protestant brother-
in-law, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, who adopted Ravenite Byzantine style almost as an emblem of his Prussian state.
|Ludwig Persius, Heilandskirche, Potsdam (1841-3)|
|Ludwig Persius, Friedenskirche, Potsdam (1843-8)|
Friedrich also made moves to investigate, record and repair Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
One of the most striking Byzantine revival buildings, however, was constructed by Ludwig II or Bavaria, the grandson of Ludig I. A reluctant monarch he created environments into which he could escape from the pressures of civic life.
Encouraged by Richard Wagner and the story of Parsifal he sought refuge in fantasies of the Byzantine Empire, and at huge cost built Neuschwanstein: Gothic outside, Byzantine inside.
Britain had to wait until the 1840s for the first interest in Byzantine art and architecture. The pioneer in this field must be the remarkable Sara Losh, scholar, philanthropist and architect who lived near Wreay in Cumberland. Her St Mary's Chapel of Ease was completed in 1842. To our eyes it appears Romanesque, but to contemporaries who had not yet identified Romanesque as a separate style, it was indisputably Byzantine.
Losh was almost entirely overlooked in her own day, so it was left to the giant of British art criticism, John Ruskin, to open the eyes of the British to Byzantine architecture and Byzantine mosaic.
Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, published 1851-53, was enormously influential.
Before Ruskin, Venetian Byzantine and Gothic architecture, mosaic and painting were ignored as representing a barbarous interlude before civilization returned with the Renaissance. St Mark’s was abhorred as a monstrous blot.
Ruskin’s views were deeply conditioned by his psycho-sexuality and his life-long attachment to Venice and Byzantine building was connected with an adolescent experience of love there. From 1841 onwards Ruskin drew, measured and sketched Byzantine and Gothic Venice, and some of those drawings are in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Furthermore he felt that art and architecture were a barometer of the spiritual and moral health of a society. His dithyrambic account of the decoration and architecture of Byzantine St Mark's appeared in the second volume in a section entitled 'First of Byzantine period'. This began to change attitudes to Byzantium all over Europe. Above all his lyrical, impassioned, almost erotic account of the view of San Marco from across the piazza opened the eyes of thousands of readers to the beauty of Byzantine art and helped to place it securely in the history of post-classical architecture and culture. He wrote:
One of those who fell under the spell of Ruskin's powerful prose was the high priest of the British Gothic revival, George Gilbert Scott, perhaps best known for his Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station. He met Ruskin in Venice in 1852 and tried a number of projects in the Byzantine style. In 1860 he offered a Byzantine design for the Foreign Office in Whitehall.
But it was soundly rejected by Lord Palmerston. On a smaller scale he suggested a Byzantine chapel for Worcester College, Oxford.
But this was too strange for the master and fellows, and it too was rejected. Scott even suggested a design for the Royal Albert Hall based on Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, but the commission was given to an architect/engineer with more sobre tastes!
Designed by Willliam Blomfield, its interior looked back to San Clemente in Rome and its exterior was a reminiscence of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, a very early Venetian Byzantine building.