Sunday, December 23, 2018

When Jerusalem was in Tuscany. The Last Gasps of a Dying Empire

This post was previously published on "Chimeras." It is reproduced here with an introduction and some minor modifications

Did you know that in Italy there is a place called "Jerusalem in Tuscany?" In the monastery of "San Vivaldo," you can find a 16th-century sanctuary structured in such a way to make pilgrims go through an experience similar to that they would have by visiting the real Jerusalem. The sanctuary is still very much the same as it was when it was built, half a millennium ago.

The key feature of all empires is their centralized control over different social and economic subregions. Control is normally obtained by a combination of metal currency and military means, but that's not strictly necessary. Our modern Global Empire does not disdain the use of lethal force, but it is kept together largely by the soft communication techniques we call "propaganda" or, more recently, "consensus building." Some ancient empires were also based on communication techniques, in particular the Catholic Church which dominated Western Europe for about one millennium using its monopoly on Latin as regional 'lingua franca'. Here, I am examining the traces left by the last attempt of the Church to maintain its dominance by developing a completely new, image-based, communication system. It didn't work, but it was impressively modern and it compares well with our present icon-based communication systems. It may tell us something about where we are going in terms of the control of those large social organizations we call "states."

Imagine yourself in Europe during the late Middle Ages -- it was a different world for many reasons but one would perhaps be the most striking: language. Today, Europe is organized in terms of sharp borders of linguistic areas that usually correspond to national states. Inside the borders, there is one -- and only one -- "correct" language while dialects or minority languages are at best tolerated and often despised. But, in the world of the Middle Ages, languages varied smoothly as you moved from one village to another and, after a few hundred kilometers, people could barely understand each other. And, of course, there were fuzzy boundaries for the main language areas: the Latin, the Germanic, the Celtic, the Greek, the Slavic, and other minor ones. Europe was truly a Babel.

But there was a lingua franca that connected the various areas of Europe: Latin, an inheritance of the dead Roman Empire. The Romans had created a nearly homogeneous Latin-speaking language area that included most of Western Europe and of North Africa, while the rest of the Empire spoke Greek. That language unity had been lost with the fading of the empire, disappearing when its dominance tool, gold-based currency, had disappeared with the depletion of its gold mines.

But the loss had been only partial. In Western Europe, Latin was still thriving and, in a certain sense, the Empire was still alive. A new organization had taken the place of the Roman Empire, the Church, which proclaimed itself "Catholic" ("universal" from καθολικός) and used many of the same tools: its structure was patterned on the Imperial one, with the Pope in Rome playing the role of the Emperor, the overseers (bishops) playing the role of the Roman governors, and with Latin remaining the universal language, at least for Western Europe.

The difference was that the Church couldn't use military force to maintain its dominance: legionnaires had to be paid and that required hard currency which had disappeared in the metal-poor Europe of Middle Ages. So, the Church was a "soft" empire which never directly ruled Europe. It operated mainly influencing Feudal Rulers who needed overseers, interpreters, counselors, accountants, and the like. Latin was a fundamental tool for the role of the Church: a monk from Ireland would speak Gaelic with the other monks of his monastery, but he could speak in Latin with a visiting priest from Italy. And both could advise their local kings when it was the time for negotiations with some foreign warlord. All over Western Europe, a Church-based Latinized area had developed and it was the main cultural feature of Europe of the time.

But things always change and, sometimes, change fast. Europe's population kept growing during the Middle Ages, not smoothly but in a series of collapses and rebounds. By the mid 14th century, the "black death" had killed some 30 million Europeans, about one-third of the population of the time. Half a century later, Europe had recovered and the population was skyrocketing upward. It was the time of the great explorations, of the discovery of new lands, and of the return of abundant currency with gold coming from the Americas. The new wealth was creating new political structures: states much more powerful than the ragtag feudal kingdoms that had dominated Europe in earlier times.

With the economic changes, there came cultural changes. More people could afford to learn how to read and write and the monopoly of the Church on cultural matters was being threatened. Already during the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote his "Comedy" not in Latin, the language of the intellectuals, but in Vernacular Italian: a language that the people of Florence could understand. But it was with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, in the mid 15th century, that things really took a different path. As long as a book had to be laboriously copied by hand by a scribe, it was an expensive tool for a class of specialists and it made no sense to write it in a language that wasn't Latin. The printing press made books affordable by people who were not part of the Church's clergy.

Revolutions always bring unexpected changes: the 15th-century European bourgeoisie who could afford printed books were not professional clergymen and few of them had studied Latin. Suddenly, a new market appeared: that of books printed in vernacular languages. Already in the late 15th century, Bibles in German were being printed and you know how Martin Luther published a German version of the Bible in 1522. That was, possibly, his most revolutionary act. With Bibles in their language, people didn't need anymore a priest to interpret the holy scriptures for them. The Latin-based Catholic Empire had suddenly become obsolete.

Of course, the Catholic Church didn't just sit and watch as it was being pushed into the waste bin of history. You know about the counter-reformation movement, the Council of Trento (1545- 1563), and the thirty-years war, up to recent times the bloodiest confrontation recorded in human history. With the counter-reformation, the Church reaffirmed the primacy of Latin as the language of choice, truly the sacred language of Europe.

But that couldn't work. Latin could be a lingua franca, a tool for understanding each other, but it was hardly a sacred language. Moslems could claim that God had spoken in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad. But never in the Christian scriptures you could read that God had spoken in Latin to anyone, He had spoken in Hebrew or, at most, in Aramaic. And the Christian prophets of the New Testament had used Greek. Latin could provide translations, but it wasn't the real thing.

So, the Catholic Church was fighting an impossible battle. It must be said that it put up a spirited resistance and that, during the 18th century, there was an attempt to revive Latin as a cultured language, for instance, Isaac Newton wrote his "Principia" in Latin in 1687. But it was a brief revival, the tumultuous growth of national states in Europe destroyed all attempts to keep Latin as a universal language. By the late 19th century, Europe was what it is today: an ensemble of nation-states whose behavior could be likened to that of a group of drunken psychopaths at a party, each one armed to the teeth and ready to start shooting at the others at the slightest hint of provocation. Engaged in their local quarrels, the European States managed to destroy themselves in a series of internecine wars and the result was the expansion of the American Empire and the dominance of English as the world's lingua franca during the second half of the 20th century. At that point, Latin had become a language as dead as ancient Sumerian.

During the transition from Latin to English, for the Catholic Church it was impossible to maintain the fiction of universality. During the Great War, Catholic Priests were blessing the Austrian and the Italian soldiers on the opposite sides of the frontline and encouraging them to kill each other in the name of the same God. That made no sense, obviously, and the Church eventually admitted defeat with the Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965), when permissions were granted to celebrate the Mass in vernacular languages. With the demise of Latin, priests from different regions of the world were now speaking to each other in English. It was the end of an age: the Catholic Church was not universal anymore.  Even though theoretically still a structure dominated by the Roman Papacy, it was to become what it is now: a loose network of national churches, not unlike the Protestant Churches it had been battling against so strongly. The Catholic cycle of domination over Western European history had lasted more than a millennium -- now it was over.

But let's go back to the 16th century, when the battle lines were just starting to be drawn. The Catholic Church didn't just resist change, it tried to fight back. It did so by using the weapons it had, in particular, its rich and varied tradition of iconography, from frescoes to nativity scenes. There was a reason for this tradition: the Church had been using a language - Latin - that was completely alien to many of its followers, so it had used images as a way to make the message more easily understandable. Christianity had moved along a path different than that of Islam, which had instead capitalized on the capability of the Ummah of understanding, at least in part, Classical Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran. So, when the Latin-based claims to universality were threatened, the Church reacted with a bold move: trying to develop a new universal language. It was to be a purely iconographic one. 

This is what the sanctuary of San Vivaldo was: an original attempt to develop a new language, one that would bypass the Protestant target of the literate elites to speak directly to the illiterate masses (as we would call them today). The images of the sanctuary show strictly no text -- they are purely visual icons, based on color, movement, postures, expressions. They are very simple and direct, similar to our modern comic strips.

We can imagine that the visitors of the various chapels were accompanied by guides explaining to them what they were seeing in their vernacular language -- these guides would play the role of the "text balloons" in our modern comics. And the full-immersion experience would have been remarkable in a world that had none of the modern graphical tricks: movies and newspapers. 

Did it work as planned? For us, some five centuries after that San Vivaldo was created, it is difficult to judge. There are many "Holy Mountains" in Europe which attempt to provide the same kind of emotional experience that San Vivaldo does, all based on simple and high-impact dioramas. At least one more "Italian Jerusalem" exists in Val Sesia, the Holy Mount of Varallo, also based on dramatic and colored 3D images, as you see below.

Over time, with the development of the popular press and of TV, these sanctuaries lost importance and became obsolete. They were forgotten, although many of them still exist, scattered all over Europe. But the basic idea remains that of providing a non-text communication that bypasses the need for translation. Isn't it exactly what we are doing with the icon-based signs that you can find almost everywhere, today? 

Then, the development of machine translation may soon make universal languages obsolete. It is not a perfect technology, but today it is already good enough to turn the world from a Babel tower to a sort of gigantic train station. The new communication technologies may succeed in making writing and speech fully user-transparent: the interface will transform our input in whatever vernacular we happen to speak into a different vernacular understood by the person on the other side of the system. Is this the ultimate Esperanto? And what effect will it have on the seemingly all-powerful nation-states of today, so fond of warring and of killing people? 

Impossible to say, but, as usual, we are running into the future without ever wondering if we really want to go there. 


Note: I went to San Vivaldo in 2017, the place is truly impressive and nearly unknown. If you have a chance to visit Tuscany, by all means, take this less beaten path and enjoy this special jewel of Tuscan history.


  1. It's interesting when you go off peak oil and into history for a change (my peak oil is good; my history not so).
    I was made to learn Latin for 2 years in early high school in the late 1950's. I never used it, of course and can only remember a few words and none of the grammar. Other subjects would have been much more useful. I can't imagine why it was taught then.

  2. I took 3 years of Latin in (public) high school. I used it once. In my senior year of engineering school, I took a course in the History of Mechanics, at that time the only history course offered by any College of Engineering (University of Michigan) in the USA. Professor Jesse Ormondroyd told us of a Dutch monk who wrote what, as far as was known, the first dissertation on the impossibility of a perpetual motion machine. It was in Latin, which Ormondroyd did not know. So I stupidly volunteered to translate it. Over the weekend! At the end of a 16-hour Saturday, I had made it thru the first chapter! However, after church the next day, I was on a roll, and finished it before supper. Amazing, how easy it is to lose a language in just a few years without practice. (My wife's German is weak, my Dutch is long gone. Our Spanish, which we use (spoke, written, sung) on a daily basis is doing fine.)

    My wife spent the last six years of her pre-University education in a Catholic boarding school in Honduras, run by nuns. Latin every year. By the time we got married, we were both Latin-free. (She had picked up English, German & French in the meanwhile.) About all we use Latin for now is that the first one up in the morning fixes coffee and then announces to the other our version of the Vatican White Smoke announcement: HABEMUS CAFFEUM. (It confuses and amuses house guests.)

    Neither of us appreciates "emoticons" ― we write words alphabetically (id est, using letters of the alphabet). But the spelling used by the Great Illiterati is enough to make us appreciate some iconography, with exceptions (we don't like the heraldric symbols of Chicago's several noble houses, spray-painted on walls, gouged into elevators, et cetera).

  3. First results of the 2019 Collapse Survey now IN. Today we look at the Education Level of Kollapsniks.

    175 Respondents so far, 7 from Cassandra's Legacy. I supect those represent most of the Ph.Ds who responded. lol.

    You can still drop your opinions on HERE:

    Energy questions updates coming Sunday to a Laptop Near You, so if you want your responses counted in that update, you need to get them in by tomorrow.

    Survey closes after New Year's for the data analysis.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)