Translatio: The Presence of the Past

“L’art Roman.” As we have learned, this phrase does not simply mean art “in the Roman style,” but art in the vernacular. It involves inheriting the best elements of a tradition and translating them into the vernacular of one’s own time, one’s own place.

Tradition is not something that is unthinkingly inherited. As the poet T. S. Eliot explains in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which […] involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This is the idea at work in the concept of translatio: to understand the presence of the past.

While the translatio that took place in the so-called “Dark Ages” between 410 and 800 extended to the wider cultural and political infrastructure of Europe, this idea of engaging with the pastness of the past and becoming a part of its presence is certainly at work. And much of this translatio centers around Plato’s Timaeus. In the Timaeus, Plato inherits the tale of Solon and his visit to the Egyptian priest, who teaching Solon the value of keeping records and writing down stories to preserve one’s cultural legacy. During the Carolignian period, this Platonic text was in high circulation, second only to Scripture. After the unique political translatio that occurred at Strasbourg, where Rome’s power was translated into the Holy Roman Empire, a vernacular literary boom occurred. Alongside Plato’s Timaeus, scribes copied the Chanson de Roland, a vernacular epic about Roland and Charlemagne and the ushering in of the new Carolignian era. Under this new era of translatio, learning and culture would experience a resurgence not seen since the fall of Rome in 410. Chretien de Troyes writes not in Latin, but rather “en Roman,” in the vernacular. Marie de France does not offer retellings of Greco-Roman myths, but takes the translatio even further and write of the vernacular stories of the Atlantic seaboard. Here especially we can see how the “presence” of the past comes into play in translatio. Marie de France records the stories of her own culture, here own place, in her own vernacular language.

Traslatio finds expression in the art and architecture of this period as well. Romanesque art takes the principles in the classical tradition, but orients it to new ends. In the simplest of instances, old pagan temples are converted into baptistries and chapels. But this too gradually develops into a Romanesque style of building, which later develops into the Gothic style. Again, we see the presence of the past emerge as the “Dark Ages” progress. The art and architecture of this era directly correspond to the shift in the vernacular culture of translatio, as the preservation of local culture presented in the framework of traditional models is reflected in the art and architecture emerging throughout what will become “France.”



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