Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Monumental (Part Two): The Cunning Work of Giants

Here’s David again, picking up his chain of thought from yesterday…



“That wide and deep reading and a certain intellectual audacity (scroll down for yesterday's post) could, for example, take you from Cibber's bas relief and the 17th century to 297 A.D. To ‘the other Roman invasion’, the one that most people don't know about. To Constantius Chlorus and the Medallion of Arras.

The story is that in the second half of the 3rd century the cracks in the Roman Empire were beginning to show. There was a breakaway Gallic Empire. Roman Britain was part of it. In 297 the Romans mounted an invasion to get Britain back in the fold. The Supreme Allied Commander was Constantius Chlorus, ‘the restorer of light’, as the inscription reads.

A medal was struck to commemorate the event (above). The medal – it's known as the Medallion of Arras – shows London. And like Cibber's bas relief on the Monument, it also personifies the city. Though as a man, not a woman. He's kneeling, submissive. But also perhaps getting back to his feet – like Lady London on the bas relief. But look also at the background. You can see some buildings – castle-like buildings. That's London circa 1300 years ago! What you're looking at is probably the first ever visual representation of London.

And the ‘connections’ race out from that centre like the cracks in a splintered pane of glass. For example, just as there are buildings behind ‘personified London’ in the Arras Medallion, there are buildings behind Lady London in Cibber's bas relief. Burning buildings on one side. Buildings being rebuilt on the other side. The burning buildings are of course London being felled by the fire. The buildings being rebuilt are London being ‘restored’.

And another connection? Well, I for one can't look at those castle-like structures in the Arras Medallion without being put in mind of the superstitious awe with which the Anglo-Saxons regarded Roman ruins. (You want a modern analogy? Think of a yokel seeing Manhattan for the first time. In short, the Anglo-Saxons weren't town dwellers – for several centuries they had no knowledge of stone building.)

As an Anglo-Saxon poet put it, ‘Cities are visible from afar… the cunning work of giants’.”

(Last part tomorrow…)

David guides in The City every Sunday on the Shakespeare’s & Dickens’s London Walk.

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