Sunday, 24 January 2016

Reconstructing the impossible: Diocletian and Split

Just no. And no again!
What is it about art, sculpture and architecture that really makes me tingle passionately? Why is it such an obsession with me? This latest lecture from the combined British-Croatian and Split based Croatian-British Societies, given by Goran Nikšić, Conservation Architect, Head of the Service for the Old City Core of Split, provides the perfect answer. He is an architect unravelling a historic architectural mystery; romantic nineteenth century myths are less interesting than the late antiquity/Roman life he is actually uncovering. As he talked about his findings, my brain tingle awoke and once again, I was gripped by an art story.

Even before I went to Split last year I knew that the city had been built upon, and around, the so-called palace of Diocletian. I knew the Romans had made their mark on the Dalmatian landscape cultivating vines and olives, quarrying local limestone, and continuing to make use of the ancient trading routes. After visiting the place briefly, I was left with a sense that there was something a lot bigger there historically than merely an Emperor's residence. Although the mountainous landscape on one side would have made land-access time consuming and difficult, the sweeping natural harbour would have made this city perfect for Roman seafarers.

What I didn't know was that the Illyrian settlers were shepherds, famous for their wool production. And this is an important clue to keep in mind, when putting together the historic jigsaw that Dr Nikšić has been working on. The beautifully imagined tourist information images of Split are pure fantasy. Gentleman of the Grand Tour, amateur architects from the 18th century onwards projected their classical ideals and education onto the city, but modern investigations are proving how shockingly wrong their ideas were. For instance, the reconstruction drawing by the French town planner Ernest Hebrard (above) was published in 1912 and is complete fiction.

Incidentally Diocletian is also swathed in myth. Historical sources state that he abdicated in 305, and then asked to return because of the problems facing the Roman Empire. But he refused, and as this article states, '[a]t Split Diocletian enjoyed himself gardening and when Maximian returned to the political arena and wrote to suggest that Diocletian should do the same, he replied to the effect that if you could see my cabbages you would understand the impossibility of the suggestion'. Dr Nikšić questions the veracity of this. Further stories about trout swimming up the aqueduct and straight to the table were also mythical. However these are lovely images of the man and the city.

Robert Adam was famous for his classically inspired architecture, known as neo-classicism. In his images of Split, he depicts the place as a fortified imperial villa/small town. However Dr Nikšić pointed out that the palace made up only a quarter of the space, which begs the question what was the rest of it used for?! Perhaps servants quarters, military accommodation etc? The sub-structure of the imperial quarters suggest a small halls and apartments, smaller in fact than the Diocletian baths in Rome, so it wasn't particularly grand.

The reconstruction illustrations show a fortress with one side facing the harbour, dramatically rising out of the sea. Excavations and research reveal foundations of a landing platform or accessible water front so it was never in the sea. Therefore the south of the villa was not fortified. The towers had external doors, and the walls were connected to the outer world by arches and facades. Dr Nikšić suggests that the complex grew out of early buildings with fine decoration and thick walls, and certainly wasn't built in the middle of nowhere. There were substantial buildings around it, and there must have been an existing settlement because it was so conveniently located.

Split is a living city which leads to problems of interpretation and understanding from an architectural point of view. He sees the existing classical pieces as being put together in a rather unorthodox fashion, with mistakes, lack of coordination, and some parts just left unfinished. Frankly he says it's a bit of a mess - so why was this? He suggests that the stones were already cut and the design brief changed dramatically through out construction. There is also the problem of lack of structural integrity. Potentially disastrous horizontal push has been averted over the past 1700 years by the actions of the architect. The architecture may be bad, but he was a genius. He offered seemingly impossible solutions, including a gothic style flying buttress, which was well before its time. Some of the workarounds are less visible now that the Roman structure has been added to.

The illusion of a harmonious whole is given by clever use of colour in the peristil. The balance of the  red granite columns from Egypt make you feel like you're in the middle of a square courtyard when you enter from the steps down from the Mausoleum. The grey columns from Greece at the end set that area aside. The eight-sided circular centred Mausoleum is inside the city not outside as is usual. The later Romanesque campanile was added in the same architectural language. The red plaster frieze is a mystery but isn't part of the original. The proportions demonstrate that the golden section used and the internal brick dome is perfect. However a mistake was made and the pitch of the external roof was wrong so it was changed in 13th century, raising the roof and creating a plaster frieze.

Again the Temple of Jupiter combines sheer genius with an unorthodox mistake. The vaulted coffered stone barrel vault is technical genius but the architect didn't leave enough room for the external roof. The Dr had an explanation for the shallow basins - the timber coverings were inserted into grooves and an improvised roof covering should have been created. However it was unfinished because the emperor came back! Only now is it covered. Interestingly there is a suggestion that this unintentional incomplete stone temple roof inspired the cathedral of St James in Sibenik

The Aqueduct

The aqueduct gives another clue to the interpretation of the palace. It was designed by the same architect as the palace. It was 9km long and it was another feat of technical wizardry, with plenty of problems to solve. The archaeologists have been searching for the water course and the last bit has not been found but they are working on it! The water tank where the water was distributed needs to be found, as well as the pipes that would have pressurised the water. But what has really baffled archaeologists is the sheer quantity of water which this aqueduct supplied - it would have satisfied a large town.

Dr Nikšić suggests that the large expanse of buildings was actually a suit of dyeing and textiles factory. On this useful blog, it says,

One of the few certainties about Aspalathos in Diocletian’s day is that it contained textile works, as the office of textile works manager, ‘Procurator gynaecii Iovensis Dalmatiae - Aspalato’, is listed in ‘Notitia Dignitatum’, a comprehensive document listing Roman officials and their administrative offices up to the late 4th and 5th centuries. Textile production was extremely profitable, and Diocletian made the whole purple dyeing industry a state monopoly. There were numerous textile production and cloth dyeing facilities around the Empire, including at Salona. A lot of water was needed in textile production. Aspalathos was close to a river, which, together with the extended aqueduct, meant that water was plentiful. Sulphur was used in the bleaching process, and Aspalathos had sulphur springs, near the present-day fish market. These might have been among the reasons for Diocletian choosing Aspalathos for his Palace.

A recent PhD thesis on the palace suggests that the area was founded in textiles.They have recently found shallow basins and  weights for looms. It was originally a square building but was modified to incorporate the Emperor's residence - porticoes and pavements were added. It wasn't supposed to be so lavish, however, there were issues regarding the aqueduct. It was planned as a factory and then adapted as including a place of retirement.

Dr Nikšić sees many clues and possibilities within the departure from the regular. Again the skills of the architect demonstrated that they could make the impossible possible. The aqueduct entered the complex along the top of the walls. The walls were thick below not because of defence, but the combined weight of pipes and water. This has led to him obsessively looking for stray tubes/pipes built into the fabric of the buildings.

He brought the talk to a close observing the thoughts of Gustavo Giovannoni and discussed the excavation and reconstruction of the old roman gate. The obsession with 'classical' open views of the complex in the 19th century contributed to the destruction of later buildings, which was then encouraged through allied bombing and fire. Whilst the creation of a myth has flourished, many conflicting ideas around conservation have arisen,

In his 1931 book, Old Cities and New Construction, Giovannoni sets out his urban theories, which are largely based on those of the great Viennese urbanist Camillo Sitte; like Sitte, Giovannoni believed that the historic centers of the great European cities could be adapted to modern life without destroying their architectural character, not by the massive demolitions required by the model of Hausmann’s Paris, but by what he called diradamento—a thinning out or pruning of the urban fabric, as one cares for a forest by clearing underbrush and trimming the trees.

He concluded by stating that it is a complex monument and gives us an insight into what the brilliant architects from Roman and medieval times could achieve under very difficult circumstances.


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