On the Transport of a Culture Overseas
In his 1976 essay “How New the New World Was”, Italo Calvino describes an exhibition held at the Grand Palais in Paris - "America Seen by Europe".* The European conception of America from the time of its discovery and for some time after, was as a largely mythical land of naked cannibals and strange flora and fauna. Eventually it evolved into one in which America had come closer to Europe and gradually embodied European political and intellectual ideas (democracy and the struggle against slavery) alongside myths (the idea of the noble savage). Calvino noted that the final exhibit on display was a late nineteenth century painting showing the Statue of Liberty shortly before 1886, when it was under construction and appeared standing, not against the skyscrapers of Manhattan as we know it today, but set against a scene of the mansard roofs of Paris. Calvino ends his essay in remarking that Europe has by now absorbed so much of America that it can no longer look down from "the heights of its past, its knowledge and sensibilities" and that observing America now is more like looking in a mirror (as indeed the view from across the Atlantic is for an America that has been so much changed by Europe).
With the image of that last exhibit in mind - the statue so quintessentially American in our minds, against the backdrop of Paris - my thoughts go further back to a by no means less remarkable architectural incongruence that also represents a transportation of European culture to a new world. The construction of Gothic architecture in the Levant was part of a more embracing process of bilateral influences, which I have discussed elsewhere and will discuss again. It was in particular a process of the expansion of Europe out of Europe, one that ignited a debate about whether or not the Crusades should be regarded as an earlier European colonialism.** The architectural aspect of that process is, I think, nowhere more dramatically observed today that in the Cypriot city of Famagusta.
Famagusta's medieval past is breath-taking. Its craggy Gothic remains stand tall and prominent above the modern houses, like the trunks of burnt-out arboreal giants after a forest fire, physical survivors, splendid even in their ruin but quite dead, shells of a long-vanished glorious past. A similar dramatic landscape of Gothic ruins towering over later houses was once to be seen in the destroyed Frankish towns along the mainland coast, and can be observed today on a panorama of Akko drawn in 1686 that is located in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Gothic churches were made to tower. By doing so they displayed the wealth and potency of the Church. In the case of these two cities; thirteenth century Acre and fourteenth century Famagusta; they towered over the houses of prospering merchants in cities that served, each in its time, as the economic hub of the eastern Mediterranean. But there is today something almost pathetic about the Gothic giants of Famagusta , still dominant, but now dominating decrepitude, for Gazimağusa, like seventeenth century Akko, is worlds away from its illustrious past and there is a dissonance that results from the decline in the fortunes of this once great city.
In their time these magnificent structures would probably have appeared less anomalous. Many of the surrounding domestic buildings were also European in appearance, having been built by the Italian merchants and probably, as was the case in Acre, taking the form of Italianate palaces and tower houses. As the French scholar Camille Enlart noted in the nineteenth century, Famagusta's houses have almost all disappeared, but "in the fourteenth century which was the period of the city's greatest splendour, it was certainly rich in handsome domestic buildings..."***
The pride of Famagusta's ecclesiastical architecture is the Cathedral of St Nicholas, the most prominent and elaborate building in the city. Its magnificence was appropriate for its role as the venue of coronations of the Lusignan kings of Jerusalem who were crowned there after first receiving the crown of Cyprus in Nicosia. Enlart suggested that this role was the reason why the design of St Nicholas so obviously imitated Rheims Cathedral, which served since the time of its consecration in the thirteenth century until the French Revolution as the place where French kings were crowned.**** It was a bold move to create a cathedral almost as splendid as that of Rheims, and it points to the importance of the fourteenth century kingdom of Cyprus and of the entrepôt of Famagusta that at its peak was rather more than a surviving outpost of European culture in a receding East.
* Italo Calvino, Collection of Sand, New York, 2013, pp. 10-17.
** On this debate see "The Crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem - The First European Colonial Society?" (Symposium), The Horns of Hattin, ed. B.Z. Kedar, Jerusalem and London, 1992, pp. 341-66.
*** Camille Enlart, Gothic Art and the Renaissance in Cyprus, trans. David Hunt, London, 1987, pp. 454, 458.
**** Ibid., p. 222.