Italy – Spalato And Diocletian

The lowest point on the Dalmatian coast to show important Roman ruins is Spalato, which is also the landing-place for a visit to Salona. The ancient conditions are reversed. Salona was then a great city; Spalato a late imperial palace built three miles away, beyond its suburbs. Now we stop at a hotel in Spalato and drive in a hack to the ruins of Salona, fortunate if we can have the guidance of the prince of Dalmatian archaeologists, Mgr. Bulic, whose home is Spalato. As Salona embodied Augustus and the beginnings of the Empire, Spalato typifies Diocletian and its twilight. It is almost like a night-blooming cereus, a splendid, lurid flower, unused to the light of day but superb in tone and outline.

One is fairly tempted to say that Spalato is the best remaining embodiment of late Roman ideals. In the first place it is thoroughly cosmopolitan, representing many races and centuries both as heir and progenitor, with one hand stretched out to Rome and the other to the Middle Ages. In its plan and system it em-bodies the militarism and centralization so characteristic of Diocletian. It accentuates the Oriental idea of the separation of the sexes in its double parallel apartments, and in this as well as in its style illustrates the Eastward tendency of the emperors of the third century which was soon to culminate in the founding of Constantinople. The artists who built Spalato may have been in fact more thoroughly Oriental, than those who built Constantinople.

Earlier emperors left their palaces on the Roman Palatine. Diocletian cared little for Rome and had never lived there. Born at Salona in a land always in the debatable zone between East and West,—part Roman and part Byzantine,—Diocletian seems like the Colossus of Rhodes, with one foot in each of these opposing spheres. By temperament thoroughly Oriental and therefore despotic; by experience a military precisian; by education an indefatigable worker in a way quite un-Oriental, he became the most logical, and the ultimate centralizer, among the emperors. His success was partly due to the hypnotism exercised by absolute fearlessness. He never showed it more clearly than when he chose to abdicate of his own free will at a time long previously planned, amid perfect peace, and leaving the empire in the hands of men of his own choice. He then came to Spalato.

In approaching Spalato after rounding the island of Bua one can hardly feel its original atmosphere without eliminating a few modern buildings that disfigure the left side of the ancient site. The natural surroundings are superb, with Mount Mossor as a background and the rocky foothills reaching almost to the shore to frame the enormous bulk of Diocletian’s palace, with its southern façade crowning the water’s edge.

This is both the palace and the tomb of the last really great emperor. As we skirt its water-front for about six hundred feet we gradually understand that there is no parallel to what we are seeing: a medieval city of nearly twenty thousand people built largely inside the walls of an imperial fortified villa-palace, planned like a military camp and yet a monument of luxury and magnificence.

We can leave our baggage at a modern hotel recently opened, mirabile dictu, by a Philadelphian, and avoiding the distractions of medieval details and native costumes, project ourselves into a monument which will give us a more arresting sense of imperial despotism than the scattered and bald ruins of the palaces of the Caesars in Rome. In doing this we can still follow the restoration made by the English architect Adam more than a century ago, with the help of the modern plan.

As usual, the ancient level is considerably be-low the modern street, so that it is only in the excavated area about the mausoleum that the original proportions and effects can be judged. The land slopes gradually upward from the sea, so that the shoreward façade is considerably the highest.

The rectangular plan, in place of the square, is borrowed from the typical permanent Roman camp, as it had been borrowed in the fortified cities of the Augustan age such as Aosta and Turin. From the camp is also copied the general scheme of the plan, with its division into four main sections by two intersecting avenues—the decumanus (east-west) and cardus (north-south) —each ending in a gateway flanked by projecting octagonal towers. The defense is completed by square towers at the four corners and by smaller towers between them and the gates.

The Porta Aurea, by which we will enter the palace, corresponded really to the “Porta Decumana” of the camp, though it is on the north. It somewhat resembles a triumphal arch, with its niches to contain statues and busts. At the same time it embodies striking premonitions of medieval design in the arcades surrounding these niches in which we can see in embryo the arcades that formed the main outside ornament of so many Lombard and Tuscan as well as of some Byzantine churches. No other Roman monument of the West foreshadows this scheme! It is said that the imperial sculptures in the niches were destroyed by the hordes of the fifth century.

The other gates were plainer: the water gate (“Porta Aenea”) , was necessarily insignificant, the “Porta Argentea” on the east is destroyed but the “Porta Ferres” on the west is well preserved.

Aside from these two gates there are four principal architectural masterpieces inside the walls: the arcaded court, the mausoleum of Diocletian, the temple of ” Aesculapius,” and the vestibule of the throne room.

The northern half of the palace, facing inland, was given up to the rank and file of the large imperial household and to stores, in the same way as this part of the camp was assigned to the common soldiery. In the southern half of the camp the “praetorium” stood, the headquarters and administrative buildings, and the quarters for the staff, the imperial guard and other select troops. In the palace plan this scheme was carried out: the vestibule and imperial throne room stand at the end of the avenue where the “praetorium” would be and beyond it the dining and reception halls flanked on either side by the apartments for the emperor and his suite and guests. Through the large central hall one reached the long covered gallery or “cryptoporticus” over-looking the sea, which extended along the entire southern façade.

The area inclosed by the walls is a trifle under ten acres, with sides measuring 570 feet from east to west and about 700 feet from north to south. Though the walls are 70 feet high along the sea line and 50 feet on the land side, they hardly show their height. The sea has now with-drawn itself but it originally more than lapped the wall below the long gallery, giving it an effect as of a magnified Venetian palace on the Grand Canal. A large watergate opened in the center and boats could enter directly into the lower part of the palace.

The gallery is now closed, but there is no difficulty in reconstructing its original appearance if we eliminate the walls that fill up the more than fifty intercolumniations and arcades. There was no monotony. The design was diversified by three arcades which broke the long architrave and are among the characteristic unclassic and Oriental features of the palace. The old print which is here reproduced helps one’s imagination. I do not know of any similar work of ancient architecture on such a large scale and so well preserved.

The other façades, with their towers and plain walls, were purely military, except for the statuary and other decorations of the Porta Aurea, the main entrance on the land side.

After entering by the “Porta Aurea” we pass through the entire northern section along the central street without seeing hardly a trace of Roman work, but as soon as we reach the central cross street, the scene changes abruptly, as we come to the arcaded court. In the original design the arcades were open on both sides, there being only a low parapet between the columns. On the right one caught a glimpse of the temple of “Aesculapius” standing isolated in the center of its little square, and on the left, in another square, the concentric mausoleum. Immediately in front was the façade of the throne room. A volume could be written on these four works, because they are not only so well-preserved but are historically so pregnant with interest.

It is true, the court has suffered eclipse by the buildings which, beginning in the seventh or eighth century, have closed its arcades. But they remain a classic and noted example cited in every text-book; the earliest use of lines of free-standing arcades resting on columns. For the first time the old straight architrave is discarded. Here we find the source and type of the arcaded interiors of the early Christian basilicas, built soon after under Constantine, some of which had architraves while others had these lines of arcades on either side of the nave. One could therefore not unreasonably conclude that the arcade came into Christian churches from some Oriental school of architecture, because, as we shall see, the palace was the work of men from Syria or Asia Minor.

This appears very clearly in the little façade of the throne room. The base of the gable in classic architecture is formed by a straight cor-nice and entablature. But here the arch is introduced to occupy nearly the entire space. This broken gable space is characteristic of temples in Syria, Cilicia and eastern Asia Minor, and if we find it in a few scattered instances in the West, in Spain or Italy it is in late works that imitate Oriental models. It is interesting to find it in the remains of the palace built for Diocletian’s colleague Maximian in Milan, now annexed to the church of S. Lorenzo. Sixteen large columns of its façade remain, their long architrave broken in the middle by an arch. The design is almost identical with that of the Spalato water-front, and was perhaps the work of the same architects. This same broken architrave appeared three times, we have seen, in the cryptoporticos ; so it is a characteristic of our palace, which thus illustrates not only the complete change from architrave to arcade in the court but the earlier transitional stage which had been practised for at least two centuries in the East.

The temple on the right is the imperial place of worship, corresponding to the chapel in the medieval palace fortress, and to the papal chapel at the Lateran and Vatican. It has perhaps the best preserved cella of any temple in existence, so we can overlook its small size and rough finish and the loss of its portico. The basement is quite high and rather throws the building out of scale. The decoration of the doorway is almost over rich, but the proportions are so effective as to exclude any “barocco” effect. The tradition which makes of it a temple of Esculapius seems to be baseless and not earlier than the thirteenth century. The thunderbolts on the corbels and the eagles seem to me good reasons for calling it a temple of Jupiter. This is quite a logical inference, because Jupiter was Diocletian’s patron: his epithet was “Jovius” in the same way as that of his colleague Maximian was “Herculeus.” After Diocletian’s death the palace was called Jovense.

The photograph of the tunnel-vault which covers the cella shows a perfect example of rich coffered vaulting, better preserved than its main rivals in a few of the triumphal arches.

Finally, we reach the gem of the palace, the mausoleum of Diocletian. It was a strange idea of the emperor to be buried in his own house, but there can be no doubt that he planned it from the beginning, and that his body rested here in a porphyry sarcophagus placed, probably, under the center of the dome. A casual visitor is hardly likely to remember that this is the only well pre-served imperial tomb in existence. The mausoleum of Augustus and his successors and their families is now a formless mound. Of the mausoleum of Hadrian which held the imperial remains of the second and early part of the third century, only the mutilated and transformed shell remains. The emperors buried not in family memorials but in special sepulchers have fared even worse. We must pass to the times immediately following Diocletian to find single quasi-imperial tombs in any preservation; of these the tomb of Helena, mother of Constantine, near Rome, has lost everything but part of its bare brickwork, and those of her, granddaughter Constantia and of Romulus Augustulus have been transformed.

This mausoleum of Diocletian stands pre-eminent in preserving not only its entire structure but practically all of its decoration. Hardly any ancient monument of any class is so intact. Also as a type it is extremely valuable. It is the heir of the early circular tombs of Asia Minor and Etruria and the progenitor of the Christian baptistery. The structure of its dome, with fan-shaped interdependent internal arches in the masonry, is perhaps unique, and much discussed by architects. The entire design, with its peripteral portico, its central dome and its interior order with free-standing shafts and figured frieze, may be taken as typical of a late imperial tomb.

The thorough restoration which has been carried on for so many years has had its disadvantages. A large portion of the internal details has been thrown away or transferred to the museum because they were regarded as too injured to be retained in the structure. The whiteness of the material of the new parts prevents any delusion; and, in a way the workmanship of the capitals and other details can be better seen in the museum. But, as a matter of fact, we do not care to see them in this way. They were in-tended for effective display in the semi-darkness of the dome at a considerable height, and were admirable for their purpose. Close study is a cruel injustice.

We cannot leave without a glance at the origin and history of the palace. Diocletian became emperor in 284 and a year later took as his col-league Maximian, to whom he assigned the West, keeping for himself the East, and so establishing a precedent for partition. Better to hold the empire in control, he established in 293 the famous tetrarchy, by making Galerius and Constantius Chlorus Caesars and dividing the Roman world into four administrative sections. His reorganization of the basis of provincial ad-ministration, his perfecting of paternalism, and his superb organization of central authority are commonplaces. The other three men never questioned his supreme direction. He was training the two Caesars to the succession.

Diocletian had long planned to retire on the twentieth anniversary of his accession, at the age of 58. He announced his decision. He then put it off for a year to allow Maximian to complete his twenty years. The solemn abdication took place on May 1, 305.

It was then that Diocletian withdrew to Salona to live in the palace which was being built in a small bay near the city, under the name Aspalathos. Here he lived and “grew cabbages” until his death in 313, except for a few journeys including a long stay at Sirmium in 306, perhaps in connection with work at the quarries for the palace. He had a meeting at Sirmium in 307 when he was begged to return to power to quell increasing disorders.

We must believe that the palace had been in course of construction for a number of years before 305, even though it was not then completed. Probably it had been begun as early as 293 when the two Caesars were selected as successors for himself and Maximian. The emperor had other large palaces. That at Nicomedia was the most extensive, like a superb camp. Others were at Aquileia and in the east.

The architects are unknown. From similarity to work at Palmyra and elsewhere in Syria, we may conjecture that they belonged to the school of Antioch, though the schools of Asia Minor, such as Nicomedia, need not be excluded. The two provinces had been for centuries in the closest artistic relation.

The emperor’s last years, as we know, were embittered by the struggles between Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius, and, at last, by the tragic fate of his own mother and wife. After his death the palace was turned by the government into a factory for cloth weaving in which the personnel was entirely female, under official inspection. In memory of the emperor it was called Jovense. It was threatened and damaged by barbarian hordes in the fifth century and seems to have been abandoned. After all it was no fortress.

Meanwhile Salona, though threatened, had not been captured. When the final disaster came between 625 and 639 the survivors of Salona fled to the islands and the East, where they had been preceded by most of the well-to-do, who had foreseen it. One of the patricians, though, bearing the homely name of John, established him-self within the abandoned walls of the palace as soon as the storm had passed, and gathered around him many of the fugitives. A church was soon organized and its bishop received the same privileges as the ancient church of Salona. But, how desolate and impoverished was the land, a shadow of the sleek and confident past! The picture of these poor survivors burrowing among the ruins of the church of Salona for the relics to put in their new church is typical of the common ruin of the ancient culture.

The mausoleum became the cathedral, the temple became the baptistery. The citizens easily found room inside the walls, turning the passage-ways and courts into streets and squares.

It was long before its magnificence was de-faced. As late as the tenth century, the famous emperor and writer, Constantine Porphyrogenetos, himself a great lover and connoisseur of art, familiar with the gorgeous monuments of Constantinople and the Orient declares “that it surpassed even in its ruin all powers of description.”

In course of time, thanks to the inspiration of the ancient monument and the pride of being the seat of religious supremacy, Spalato became a power in the modest early Middle Ages. Its school of art ruled a great part of Dalmatia. Its crowning glory is the really superb campanile of the mausoleum-cathedral, and hardly less extraordinary, though less conspicuous, is the richly carved pulpit. Earlier than either and very rare of their kind are the carved doors by the native artist Andrea Guvina, dated in 1214. He was probably also the author of the extremely Oriental openwork carved wooden choir stalls, which are unequaled in the West.

Nothing is more convincing of the strength of tradition than the way in which the campanile reproduces the antique designs, and the choir stalls continue the Oriental influence of the past.

The palace has been ignored or sneered at by purists who show their narrow-minded prejudice in setting up in this connection the “bogey” of decadence because the style does not square with certain canons of perfection. This is easily laid by any person of aesthetic sense who admires composition and the play of light and shade; who can see how monumental effects can be produced, as they are here, out of very small materials. In the matter of pure construction nothing could be more original or better planned than the dome and colonnade. Historically we can best study here not only the type of funerary chapel and the origin of the basilical interior, but also that peculiar style of decorative sculpture in flat re-lief or openwork in marble which forms the basis of Byzantine and early Italian design, especially the geometric work which prevailed throughout Dalmatia, Istria and nearly the whole of Italy even under the Lombards. In fact the palace is one of the indispensable land-marks of history ; the latest produced by Roman imperial art.