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    Decadence of art and consequent change in the artistic milieu—Byzantine art—Its new views do not seem to favour old ways—Art patronage and collectomania tend to disappear—The medieval period—Character of the collections—No imitators but a few forgers.

The change affecting the world with the decadence of the Roman Empire was logically bound to stamp the successive course of art with the inevitable downfall of past glory. With the Christian era a new society had arisen and also a new art, entirely symbolic, no more satisfied with the early plagarisms, apparently lisping a new tongue but ready to dispel all pagan sentiment in art, to establish the elements of a new expression and purpose more in harmony with the reborn civilization. With an art that Taine considers “after five centuries to be unable to represent man except seated or standing erect,” symbolic and calligraphic at the same time, there seemed to be no room for amateurs and collectors of the old type.

There may have been sporadic cases, though Constantine’s severe censure of all the cults of the past doubtlessly made it a daring act at that time to profess worship for old traditions in art. Collectomania very likely became a thing of the past. There must have been dealers in art and antiques, as we can gather from the Digest, and transactions between artists and clients, as can be seen from a clause of the Justinian laws, but nothing like there were in the ancient Roman world that had been dispersed by the new civilization.

64 This clause Justinian was forced to add to a law on artistic property, as judges had so lost all sense of art appreciation that in a dispute between a painter and the man who had furnished the board on which the work was painted, they decided that the painting belonged to the one who owned the board. Justinian was forced to do justice by stating that if a quarrel arose between the artist and the one who furnished the board the owner of the work was the artist, as the value of the board could not be compared with the artistic one. “Think,” he concludes, “of comparing the value of the work of Apelles or Parrhasius with the price of a board of very small value.”

The time for lovers of art, for private speculations and the all but consequent faking, and all the characteristic figures of an art market had disappeared.

In the early medieval period there seems to have been no scope for faking and forgery. The collector, if the type then existing is entitled to the name, was like nothing that had been seen before or has since appeared. The objects treasured generally had more intrinsic value than real artistic merit. A collection represented a simple form of banking, a sound and good investment taking the place of what the French call “personal property.”

With such views, goldsmiths’ work, studded and ornamented with precious stones, or rich embroideries in gold, naturally had the preference. Articles of virtu then had a solid value, and while suitable for princely display, could be turned into money at any moment. The craze for manuscripts, rare penmanship, and early illuminated parchments may represent an exception, but only, apparently, as such objects—apart from their rarity, skill and supreme patience in miniature work—were of such an established value as to be regarded like precious gems.

The medieval collections of art and precious things give a true expression of those unsafe and uncertain times and were in harmony with the erratic career of the monarchs and potentates whose peculiar mode of life often necessitated the65 packing of the whole museum into a coffer and dragging it with them in their pilgrimages, wars, etc. This not only in some way explains the preference given to goldsmiths’ work but the fact that the dimensions of sculpture had to be reduced, and painting, when not for church decoration, was mostly restricted to miniatures, illumination, and designs for tapestries and embroideries.

Clovis, the “Most Christian King,” as Pope Anastasius called him, is supposed to have been an eager collector of rare and precious objects. Tradition claims that a saint one day broke one of his rarest cups of jasper all studded with precious stones, and seeing Clovis’ sorrow at such a loss, picked up the fragments and praying over them, performed a miracle, handing to the monarch the cup restored to one piece as before. Clotaire, the son of Clovis, had in his mansion at Braine a secret room with chests full of jewellery and precious vases.

Chilperic had a real ambition to collect rare objects of virtu. For this purpose he sent everywhere for all that might be worthy of his collection. Gregory of Tours tells us that he had a Jew as adviser, a man called Priseus.

It is said that when Chilperic exhibited at Nogent-sur-Marne the presents offered him by the Emperor Tiberius II, to show that they did not surpass in splendour the best pieces of his own treasure, he exhibited close to them one of his precious cups, a golden vase studded with rare stones and weighing fifty pounds. Twenty years later, between 560 and 580, Saint Radegond, the daughter of the king of Thuringia, received the poet and canon Fortunatus in her convent of Poitiers and gave him a dinner with the table covered in roses and the richest ornamented silver plates and precious jasper cups. Such a treat inspired the poet with one of his fine Latin poems. Dagobert was not only an enlightened collector of precious things but so extremely fond of artistic “vaisselle” that when Sisinande, a Gothic king, wished to induce the Frankish monarch to join him in his political schemes he promised Dagobert a fine gold plate weighing66 five pounds “and more precious still for the beauty of the workmanship.”

After a long lapse of time, in which the only museums of the art of the time seem to have been the churches, under Charlemagne and his successors private collections of treasures, art and fine pieces of work again seem to acquire importance. The Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris owns an Évangéliaire of rare artistic value, illuminated by a monk named Godescal of the year 781.

The Bible and Psalter of Charles the Bald are said to have been the work of the monks of Saint-Martin de Tours, and are considered a marvel of illumination. Together with these books, now kept in the Librairie Nationale of Paris, Charles presented to the Church of Saint Denis a famous cup known in his time as Ptolemy’s cup, a fine work carved from a piece of precious sardonyx. In the will of this monarch’s brother, the Marquis of Friuli, a document dated 870, there is, among other legacies, the enumeration of arms studded with precious stones, clothes in silk and gold embroideries, silver vases and ivory cups, finely chiselled, and a library in which among other notable works are the writings of Saint Basil, Saint Isidore and Saint Cyprian. From this time forward a collection of rare things and precious jewels is quite a necessary apanage of kings and princes, but as we have said, it mostly consisted of small objects in which art almost invariably seems to have played a secondary rôle, and in considering the art it is often hard to know whether to admire more the miniaturist’s patience or his workmanship.

Later on the cult of pagan art seems to have been revived by the Emperor Frederick II, the son of Barbarossa, but even at this time the case is somewhat of an exception.

Under patrons of art who were as a rule absolute monarchs or iron rulers and all-powerful princes, fakery would have played a dangerous and most sorrowful part, nor was there any inducement to indulge in any of the trickery that had characterized the world of lovers of art during the Roman decadence. A risky game at any time, it might have entailed67 one of those exemplary punishments which characterized the ferocious Middle Ages.

Coin counterfeiting was naturally the least artistic form of deceit, and being a less hazardous venture seems to have tempted ability in all ages. It represents a link between more proficient periods of art swindling.

Some of these early fakers certainly planted the seed from which sprang the arch-deceivers and clever medallists of the Renaissance.
There lies Romena, where I falsified The alloy that is with the Baptist stamped For which on earth I left my body burned.

These words Dante puts into the mouth of Mastro Adamo da Brescia, a skilful counterfeiter of coins whom he met in hell. Adamo was burned at the stake near the castle of Romena in the Casentino, for having cast, by order of the Count of Romena, the golden florin of the Florentine Republic.

About this time counterfeit coining tempted the most diverse classes of people. It had a long list of devotees, including even a king of France who honoured the Republic of Florence with not a few of his swindling specimens of the golden florin. Marostica, a village in the Venetian domains, challenged and defeated the powerful Republic of the lagoon by flooding the Venetian market with the most deceptive samples of false coinage.

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