Invisible cities. Czernowitz, where people and books lived

“A Czech architect who studied in Vienna and became immersed in the characteristics of Bukovinian folk architecture and art, builds up with the help of local Hutsul, Polish and Romanian craftsmen and artists the palace of the Romanian Orthodox Metropolite in Czernowitz – can you imagine a more convincing example of a mutual cross-fertilization of cultures?” (Martin Pollack: Mythos Czernowitz)
Czernowitz, wo Menschen und Bücher lebten. This is how Paul Celan, the great poet of Czernowitz remembers his native town, and it’s not sure which of the two is rarer and more flattering for a city. The easternmost large city of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was created almost from nothing at the end of the 18th century, when Galicia and Bukovina became part of the Hapsburg empire. The Viennese government intended it from the beginning as a model city, where the representatives of all the nationalities of the Monarchy would harmoniously live with each other, united by the enlightened Hapbsburg government and the common German language. Each of the forty-two ethnic groups constituting the population of the city had their own social, religious and cultural institutions, societies, streets and newspapers, while they were proud that in all the empire, it was in Czernowitz where the most beautiful German was spoken. This diversity and unity of the city’s spirit was also reflected in its built texture, where the planned structure, the large public spaces and public buildings were in a harmonious balance with the quarters and institutions of the single nationalities.

This is the structure we will walk through on the next occasion of our “Invisible cities” series, on 17 September 4 p.m. in the FUGA Center of Architecture (Budapest, Petőfi Sándor u. 5.). In contrast to the previously examined cities, Prague and Tbilisi, Czernowitz became invisible not by destruction. Its old town still preserves its turn-of-the-century fabric virtually without change. Only its diverse and sophisticated culture disappeared, which had created this fabric and filled it with meaning. In our presentation we reconstruct this life and these meanings with the help of contemporary photos, descriptions and local press, thereby showing how Czernowitz indeed became a Hapsburg model city, and later a nostalgic “myth of Czernowitz”, still alive in the memory of its former inhabitants.

Chak Chak

When the traveler sets from Yazd, the adobe city standing on the edge of the desert, where for thousands of years the caravans gathered to start together on the thousand-kilometer-long road across the desert, and follows their traces toward east, the city of Mashhad lying on the other edge of the fertile fringe of the Iranian plate, after eighty kilometers arrives to the adobe village of Kharânaq. Here, a smaller road branches off the ancient caravan road sharply to the left, among the mountains bordering the road. It meanders between ragged mountains and barren rocks of bizarre shapes, where only the scattered dry tufts suggest some life, and the traces drawn in the sand by the snakes, who in the daytime hide from the scorching heat under earth. After thirty more kilometers an even narrower road turns left again, slowly spiraling in between the giant mountains. When we are already deep in the belly of the mountain, we suddenly catch sight of the sanctuary of Chak Chak, one of the holiest places of pilgrimage of the Zoroastrians, sticking high upon the huge mountain wall, like a swallow’s nest. At that point, a believer dismounts his horse or, more recently, parks his car, and continues his way on foot.

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Chak Chak means drip-drip. This is how the cave sanctuary, opening in the rock wall, speaks, by falling a drop of water every few seconds on the floor of the sanctuary. The water flows out, and creates a small green life among the barren rocks. This gives the other name of the place: Pir-e Sabz, the Green Sanctuary.

The mountain mourns for Nikbanu, the daughter of the last Persian king, Yazdegerd III, who, when in 636 the Arab conquerors coming from nowhere destroyed the Persian army in the Battle of Qadisiyyah, fled to the east. Here she was caught up by the Arab horsemen sent to pursue her. To avoid falling among their hands, she prayed to the God of Zoroastrians, Ahura Mazda, to whose command the mountain opened up and embraced her.

We also climb on foot the steep stairs to the sanctuary. On both sides we read quotes from the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, carved in stone or engraved on metal plates, in the original Old Iranian language, or translated to modern Persian. Not a soul can be seen, the large covered terraces are now empty, which between 14 and 18 June of each year accommodate thousands of Zoroastrian believers coming from all over the world. From the hot walls, large green lizards curiously stare after us. Planted in the middle of the stairs, a tall green cypress, Zarathustra’s sacred tree.

Arriving to the highest terrace, a door opens suddenly. A guard comes out. He absently greets us with a “ya Ali”, he is probably a Muslim guard paid by the Zoroastrians. He calls for an entrance fee and for donations. The he lethargically flops on the little chair, as if amidst the endless idleness even this much effort would be fatal. “Do you want some tea?” he asks the obligatory Persian question of courtesy, and, without waiting for the answer, he fills it only to himself. Then he continues staring into the space, like a particularly overgrown lizard.

The sanctuary might have been renewed in the days of the last Shah, perhaps in 1971, in preparation to the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, when the Pahlavi regime tried to efface the conservative Muslim clergy and petty bourgeoise by emphasizing the country’s national traditions. This is evoked by the retro feeling of the equipment, the pavement, the eternal lights, and the holder of the food offering, as well as the Persepolis bodyguards, the indispensable decoration of Pahlavi-era public buildings, on the bronze doors. A label states that we have to take our shoes off, we have to cover our head, and if we were in the days of menstruation, we could not enter the sanctuary. Inside, the holy water patiently drips on the floor, like it has done for several millennia. From the side of the shrine, a huge old plane tree grows out, which, according to tradition, is Nikebanu’s cane, and otherwise a holy tree in the Zoroastrian tradition. As Herodotus mentions it, when describing the way of Xerxes marching to the Greek war:

“…found a plane-tree, which he adorned with gold because of its beauty, and he assigned one of his immortals to guard it.” (Historiae, 7.31)

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In the first centuries after the conquest, the Arabs took in possession rather the western half of Persia, the fertile plain of the large rivers, today’s Iraq. Yazd and its surroundings at the edge of the desert for another half millennia only payed tax to the caliph. An Arab governor and army were rarely seen here. The great number of local or refugee Persian Zoroastrians and Judes – for ten of Israel’s twelve tribes were settled here, “in the cities of Media”, after the Assyrian deportation – could freely practice their religion for a half thousand years. Only in the 13th century, after the establishment of the Muslim Yazd government, are the Zoroastrians and Judes chased from the old towns to the outskirts or the neighboring villages, where their communities have survived up to recent decades. Yazd is still a center of the few living Zoroastrian and Jewish communities in Iran, with a working fire temple, and, in a circle of a radius of 100 km, with fifty other pirs, holy places, the remains of former fire temples and holy sources.

Among the pirs stand out six ones, which are considered especially sacred, and where thousands of pilgrims come together between March and August of every year. The legends of them are identical: in all six places, a member of the fleeing royal family was embraced and hidden from their Muslim persecutors by the earth, one of the four Zoroastrian sacred elements. In Pir-e Sabz and Pir-e Banu, Princesses Nikbanu and Banu, in Pir-e Narestane, Prince Ardeshir, in Pir-e Naraki, the daughter of the governor of Persia, in Pir-e Herisht, the royal maid of honor Morvarid, and in Pir-e Seti, Queen Shahbanu Hastbadan herself. As the event had obviously no Persian witness at any place, therefore in all six locations the hidden majesty him- or herself appeared in the dream of a local shepherd or hunter several centuries later, entrusting him with the construction of a sanctuary.

The emblem of the Zoroastrians stenciled on the wall of a house in the desert town of Iraj

We do not know exactly how many children King Yazdegerd had. The Arabic, Shiite, Jewish, Bahaʿi, Indian and Chinese sources say different things, each trying to locate a royal descendant on his own half-court. However, Nikbanu and Banu, Prince Ardeshir and Morvarid are not mentioned by any source. Perhaps they were subsequently created by the Zoroastrian tradition, when they had to give a new meaning to those lonely sanctuaries, lying on the top of high mountains, where before the Islamic conquest they offered sacrifices to the one God, Ahura Mazda, as Herodotus writes:

“It is not their custom to set up statues and temples and altars, because they have never believed the gods to be like men, as the Greeks do; but they call the whole circuit of heaven Zeus, and to him they sacrifice on the highest peaks of the mountains.” (Historiae, 1.132)

According to the Zoroastrian theology, every soul returns to heaven, to God the Creator. Thus they need no holy intermediaries. Therefore they do not go on pilgrimage to the graves of holy persons, to seek for their intercession, as the Shiites or the Christians do. Their sites of pilgrimage are the locations of memory. In the pilgrimage season from March to August, when they go from sanctuary to sanctuary, they tour and refresh in their memory a sacred topography, like the Christians who follow the traces of Jesus in the Holy Land, or the Jews who on pilgrimage to the wall of the Temple. This is the topography of their religion, which developed in Iran, and was fixed in the Avesta.

Several items of this topography are missing by now, those holy places, which were carefully expropriated by the Islam through the building of a mosque, as they expropriated the memory of the Jewish Temple with the Dome of the Rock. The missing items are compensated by incorporating into the tradition such sanctuaries, which are not mentioned in the Avesta, and which were originally only sacrificial sites, but now, linked to the last Zoroastrian royal family, become part of the sacred geography of the Zoroastrian memory. As the sanctuary of the Indian Udvada, the most important Zoroastrian place of pilgrimage is called Iranshah, and dedicated to the returning King of Iran, and as the Zoroastrian years are still calculated from the ascension to the throne of the last king Yazdegerd III, so are the former sanctuaries linked to the members of the royal family. By visiting them again and again, they embrace their former land and and make it again theirs. In the tears dropped by the mountain, as the historical summary reads on the sanctuary wall, they see the tears of the orphans and the oppressed. In the fate of Nikbanu, they recognize their own fate.

Plethon’s tombstone

Gemistus Plethon’s portrait from Benozzo Gozzoli’s Three Magi fresco (Firenze, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, 1459-1461)
An interesting inscription is hiding in the unfinished cathedral of the excommunicated condottiere, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the town of Rimini. I mean, not in the church itself, but on its external side, on the sarcophagus in the third window niche to the right. Since 1466 here lays, half in the open air, the body of one of the last great Greek Neoplatonic philosophers, Georgios Gemistus Plethon. His importance is shown by the fact that, as Marsilio Ficino recalled, he inspired the foundation of the Florentine Academy, and thereby, symbolically, the whole Italian Renaissance humanism:
“In the Synod of Florence, organized with the participation of Greeks and Latins, Cosimo de’ Medici often heard a Greek philosopher named Gemistus Plethon, to explain the Platonic mysteries. His inspired lectures made so big impression on him, that at that time the idea of the foundation of the Academy was conceived in him.”
The corpse of Plethon were stolen in 1466 by his former students and by Venetian mercenaries led by Malatesta from the Peloponnese city of Mystras, which came under Turkish rule, and brought to Rimini, “so our great teacher could lay among free people”, and in order to authenticate with his authority the shockingly pagan Neoplatonic iconography of the Malatesta church. The inscription of his tomb poses an interesting geographical and historical problem: since when is Byzantium called Byzantium?

The question may seem pointless at first. It is therefore worth to go over from where this term comes from.

The “Byzantine” Empire in the reality never existed under this name, which put roots and is exclusively used in historiography. The term was coined about a century after the fall of the Roman Empire – as it was really called – by a German humanist historian, Hieronymus Wolf.

Wolf learned self-taught Greek. In 1549 he published the first translation of Demosthenes’ speeches. From 1551 he worked the Augsburg Fugger library, where he catalogued the medieval Greek manuscripts brought from Venice. In 1557 he published his main work, the Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, compiled from the Greek sources in the Augsburg library, with which he unintentionally rewrote the world history. When in the early 17th century the compilation of a similar summary from the surviving Constantinople sources was encouraged by Louis XIV of France, it obviously had to be based on Wolf’s work, so that Philippe Labbé, the Jesuit scholar leading the project did not even try to find a new title for the 34-volume collection: it was also published as Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. The scholars dealing with the late Roman Empire, centered on Constantinople, all adopted this terminology (e.g. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1822-1897). The adjective “Byzantine”, which during the Enlightenment spread worldwide, especially due to the writings of Montesquieu, was impossible to be detached from the (late) Roman Empire. And the adjective was also associated with an explicitly negative connotation, which was deduced from the supposed qualities of state power: courtly intrigues, complicated bureaucracy, incomprehensible and over-decorated ceremoniality and fraudulent diplomacy.

Emperor Constantin I donates the city to Christ and the Virgin Mary. Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, ca. 1000

The problematic character of the “Byzantine” adjective can be shown in three examples:

A country? – A state called “Byzantium” or “Byzantine Empire” never existed in world history. If someone used this term between the 6th and 15th centuries, nobody would have understood what he meant. The official name of the Constantinople-centered and Greek-speaking state was Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων (Basileia tōn Rōmaiōn), that is, Rome, to its very end. Its own citizens called themselves Romans, even though they were also aware of their Hellenistic cultural heritage. In history, it is not possible to draw a caesura, that is, to mark a date when Rome became Byzantium. The root of the problem is that with the coronation of Charlemagne, the Roman Empire got a challenger, who sought to strengthen his own legitimacy. Therefore they tried to deprive the Empire from its Roman character, by calling it Greece, or the Empire of Constantinople, but never Byzantium. This endeavor appeared during the Holy (German) Roman Empire of Otto, but it could overcome only after the real Roman Empire was finally swallowed by the Turkish flood. When Wolf came into scene, there was no longer anyone who could have protested against the “Byzantine” title.

The map of Constantinople (1422). This is the oldest surviving map of the city, and the only one made before the Turkish conquest

A city? – The city of Byzantion did exist, in the place of Constantinople, the modern Istanbul, on the peak of the headland reaching into the Golden Horn bay and the Marmara Sea, opposite to Chalcedon, the “city of the blind”, who did not notice that the opposite coast was much more suitable for the foundation of a city. It was founded by Megaran colonists under the leadership of Byzas, on the altitude which was later called “the first hill”. In 330, this settlement was completely rebuilt on Roman model by Emperor Constantine, who called it Constantinople, or New or Second Rome. It cannot be therefore associated with the (Eastern) Roman Empire, since the history of the town of Byzantion ended at the moment when this latter was born through the foundation of Constantinople.

The heraldic animal of the Palaiologos dynasty, the two-headed eagle

A famous person? – Until Christmas of the year 800, apart from a few self-proclaimed emperors, nobody called in question that the Roman Emperor rules from Constantinople. Even the Roman popes recognized his supremacy as long as the late 8th century, they minted money on Constantinople model, and dated their documents by the years of the emperors until 781/782. After Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome, they had to coin a new title for him, because despite the fact, that the Eastern Roman Empire was ruled for the moment by a woman, nobody imagined that Charlemagne would move to Constantinople to rule from there the rest of the Roman Empire. Between 800 and 1461, the titles of the Eastern and Western Roman Emperor existed parallel to each other, and in this period it was the Western emperors who felt it more critical to prove the “Romanness” of their empire. A mean to this was to call “Greek” the Emperor of Constantinople, who since Heraclius did not use the title “Augustus”, but adopted the Greek “basileus”. The official language of the empire was Greek, but the state itself, its rulers and its organization was the legal successor of the Roman Empire. This is why in Constantinople they did not know greater diplomatic insult than the terms of “Greek” Emperor or “Greek” Empire. Liutprand of Cremona, the envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto tells this about the reception of those who came with letters addressed like this.
“The Greeks scolded the sea and cursed the ocean, and were extremely amazed that the waves did not open by themselves to swallow the ship on which such a monster was traveling. «A foreigner», they shouted, «some Roman beggar dares to call the only great and majestic Roman Emperor, Nicephorus, the Emperor of the Greeks! What should we do with these unholy, crooked people? They are poor maggots; if we kill them, we contaminate our hands with vile blood.» Therefore, they put the papal emissaries in prison, and they forwarded the sinful letter to Nicephorus in Mesopotamia…”
But what has all this to do with the inscription on Plethon’s tombstone?

The Rimini epitaph calls the philosopher “Byzantine”:

“The mortal rests of the Byzantine Gemistus Plethon, the greatest philosopher of his age was brought here by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, son of Pandolfo, commander of the Peloponnesian war born against the Turkish ruler, and, inspired by his ardent love to erudite people, he placed them here in 1465.”
Apart from Gemistus Plethon, there were a number of other “Byzantine” famous people, for example the astronomer Epigenes of Byzantium, who lived around 200, and thus actually came from the town of Byzantium. The same is the case with his contemporary, the linguist Aristophanes, who also was a “real” Byzantine. In a more complicated situation is Stephanus Byzantinus, who was known for his geographical work Ethnica, written about the ancient Greece. In his works published in Europe, his name was only written “Stephanus” as long as 1678, their Amsterdam edition. In the Leiden edition of 1688 he is already mentioned as Stephanus Byzantinus. That is, he was simply renamed sometime in the last third of the 17th century.

If we assume, that the tomb inscription was not made after Wolf’s work of 1557 (and the tombstone-carver did not keep pace with the latest scientific research), then we must also assume, that the term “Byzantine” already existed before 1557, as a typical Renaissance hyper-classicism (like Istropolis instead of Posonium), but it was only applied to the city, and not to the state. Wolf was probably aware of this use, and as he tried to draw a caesura between the ancient and medieval Greek literature and sources, he adopted the term “Byzantine”, which was later extended on the basis of his work to the Constantinople-centered Roman Empire.

Byzantium, like a ghost, definitively broke free from Wolf’s bottle, and it is unlikely that we will ever squeeze it back there. Nowadays, if anybody talks about the Roman Empire in connection with the period between the 6th and 15th century, he will shock his listeners just as much as if he used the term of Byzantine Empire in those very centuries.

Piero della Francesca: The Baptism of Christ, 1448-1450 k. London, National Gallery. According to Carlo Ginzburg and other art historians, the exotically dressed figures in the background are Eastern Orthodox theologians, who are discussing the central topic of the Synod of Florence (1439-1442), the Filioque, that is, the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. Thus, after many centuries, they are the first Byzantine figures in Western art, and there is a good chance that also Gemistus Plethon can be found among them.

El sepulcro de Pletón

Retrato de Gemisto Pletón en Benozzo Gozzoli, Viaje de los Magos (Florencia, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, 1459-1461)
La catedral inacabada del excomulgado condottiere, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, en la ciudad de Rímini, esconde una curiosa inscripcion. De hecho, no la esconde, digamos que más bien la exhibe discretamente en su exterior, en un sarcófago dispuesto en la tercera ventana a la derecha de la nave. Desde 1466 está allí, medio a la intemperie, el cadáver de uno de los últimos grandes filosófos neoplatónicos griegos, Georgios Gemistos Pletón. Prueba su grandeza el que, como recordó Marsilio Ficino, fuera él quien inspiró la creación de la Academia Florentina y, en consecuencia, de manera simbólica, fundara todo el humanismo renacentista italiano:
«En el Sínodo de Florencia, organizado con participación de griegos y latinos, Cosimo de' Medici escuchó a menudo a un filósofo griego llamado Gemisto Pletón explicar los misterios platónicos. Sus inspiradas lecciones le provocaron tan fuerte impresión que por entonces concibió la idea de crear una Academia».
El cadáver de Pletón fue robado el año 1466 de su tumba en el Peloponeso, en la ciudad de Mystras –caída en manos turcas–, por sus antiguos discípulos con ayuda de unos mercenarios venecianos a las órdenes de Malatesta, y conducido a Rimini «para que nuestro gran maestro descanse entre gente libre», y para autorizar con su presencia la fuerte iconografía pagana neoplatónica de la iglesia de Malatesta. La inscripción del sarcófago plantea un interesante problema histórico y geográfico: desde cuándo Bizancio se llamó Bizancio.

La pregunta podría parecer trivial de entrada. Vale la pena revisar el origen del nombre.

El Imperio «bizantino» en realidad nunca vivió bajo tal denominación, que nace y se usa exclusivamente en la historiografía. El término fue acuñado cerca de un siglo después de la caída del Imperio Romano –como era realmente llamado– por un historiador humanista germano, Hieronymus Wolf.

Wolf aprendió griego de modo autodidacta. En 1549 publicó la primera traducción de los discursos de Demóstenes. Desde 1551 trabajó en la biblioteca Fugger de Augsburgo, donde catalogó los manuscritos medievales griegos llegados desde Venecia. En 1557 publicó su trabajo principal, el Corpus Historiae Byzantinae, compilado a partir de las fuentes griegas de la biblioteca de Augsburgo. Con él, inadvertidamente, reescribió la historia del mundo. Cuando a principios del s. XVII Luis XIV de Francia encargó una similar compilación de las fuentes supervivientes de la historia de Constantinopla, tuvieron que basarse, obviamente, en el trabajo de Wolf. De este modo, Phillippe Labbé, el jesuita responsable del proyecto, ni se molestó en buscar un título alternativo para sus colección de 34 volúmenes: Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae. Los estudiosos dedicados a las postrimerías del Imperio Romano, al centrarse en Constantinopla, todos asumieron esta terminología (p.e. Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn 1822-1897). El adjetivo «bizantino» que durante la Ilustración se extendio por todo el mundo, especialemnte gracias a los escritos de Montesquieu, ya fue imposible de despegar del (último) Imperio Romano. Y el adjetivo iba también cargado de connotaciones explícitamente negativas deducidas de las supuestas características del aparato de poder: intrigas cortesanas, burocracia compleja, ceremonialismo sobrecargado e incomprensible y diplomacia fraudulenta.

El Emperador Constantino I entrega la ciudad a Cristo y la Virgen María. Mosaico, Hagia Sophia, ca. 1000

El carácter problemático del adjetivo «bizantino» puede verse en estos tres ejemplos:

¿Un país? — Un estado llamado «Bizancio» o un «Imperio Bizantino» no han existido nunca en la historia real del mundo. Si alguien hubiera usado tal término entre los siglos VI y XV, nadie le habría entendido. El nombre oficial del estado centralizado en Constantinopla y de lengua griega era Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων (Basileia tōn Rōmaiōn), es decir, Roma en su fase final. Sus ciudadanos se autodenominaban romanos aun siendo conscientes de su herencia helenística. En la historia no se marcan cesuras tan tajantes como la de una fecha a partir de la cual Roma devino Bizancio. La raíz del problema es que con la coronación de Carlomagno el Imperio romano ganó un contendiente que buscaba fortalecer su propia legitimidad. Para ello buscó despojar al Imperio de su carácter romano, llamándolo Grecia, o Imperio de Constantinopla, pero nunca Bizancio. Este empeño adquirió carta de naturaleza con el Sacro Imperio Romano (Germánico) de Otón I, pero no obtuvo su victoria definitiva hasta que el auténtico Imperio Romano fue engullido por la marea turca. Cuando Wolf entró en escena ya no quedaba nadie que fuera a protestar contra el apelativo «bizantino».

Mapa de Constantinopla (1422). Es el mapa más antiguo que se conserva de la ciudad, y el único
anterior a la conquista por los turcos

¿Una ciudad? — La ciudad de Bizancio existió, en el sitio de Constantinopla, la moderna Estambul, sobre el promontorio que toca la bahía del Cuerno de Oro y el Mar de Mármara, frente a Calcedonia, la «ciudad de los ciegos», que no se percató de que aquella costa opuesta era mucho mejor para instalar una ciudad. La fundaron colonos de Megara a las órdenes de su caudillo Byzas, a la altura de lo que luego se conocería como «la primera colina». En el 330 el emperador Constantino rehizo por completo bajo patrones romanos el primitivo asentamiento, que pasó a llamarse Constantinopla, o Nueva o Segunda Roma. No podía de este modo asociarse con el Imperio Romano (Oriental) pues la historia de aquella ciudad de Bizancio acabó en el momento en que éste nació con la fundación de Constantinopla..

El animal heráldico de la dinastía de los Paleólogos, el águila bicéfala

¿Un personaje famoso? — Hasta la Navidad del año 800, aparte de unos pocos autoproclamados emperadores, nadie cuestionó que el Emperador romano gobernaba desde Constantinopla. Incluso los papas de Roma reconocieron su supremacía hasta finales del s. VIII, acuñaron moneda según el modelo de Constantinopla y fecharon sus documentos siguiendo los años de sus emperadores hasta 781/782. Una vez que el papa León III coronó a Carlomagno en Roma, tuvieron que definir un nuevo título porque, a pesar de que por entonces el Imperio Romano Oriental estaba regido momentáneamente por una mujer, nadie pensaba que Carlomagno fuera a desplazase hasta Constantinopla para gobernar desde allí todo el Imperio Romano. Entre 800 y 1461 los títulos de Emperador del Imperio Romano Oriental y Occidental convivieron en paralelo. Y en este periodo fueron los emperadores occidentales quienes se sintieron más proclives a ostentar la «romanidad» de su cetro. En consecuencia, llamaban «griegos» a los emperadores de Constantinopla, que desde Heraclio dejaron de usar el título de «augustus» para adoptar el griego «basileus». El idioma oficial del imperio era el griego pero el estado mismo, sus gobernantes y su organización eran los sucesores legítimos del Imperio Romano. Por esta razón nada sentían en Constantinopla como mayor insulto diplomático que oírse nombrar «imperio –o emperador– griego». Liutprando de Cremona, legado del Sacro Emperador Romano Otón, cuenta cómo recibían a quienes llegaban con cartas dirigidas de este tenor:.
Los griegos reñían al mar y maldecían el océano, y se mostraban vivamente extrañados de que las olas no se hubieran abierto para engullir el barco en el que un monstruo tal viajaba. «Un extranjero», gritaban, «un mendigo romano se atreve a llamar al único, grande y majestuoso emperador romano, Nicéforo,  "¡emperador de los griegos!" ¿Qué debemos hacer con estas gentes sacrílegas, y perdidas? Son pobres gusanos; si los matamos, contaminaremos nuestras manos con sangre vil.» Y así, encerraron a los emisarios papales en prisión y remitieron la carta pecaminosa a Nicéforo en Mesopotamia……
Pero qué tiene todo esto que ver con la inscripción del sepulcro de Pletón.

El epitafio de Rímini llama al filósofo «bizantino»:

Los restos mortales del bizantino Gemisto Pletón, el más grande filósofo de su tiempo, fueron traídos hasta aquí por Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, hijo de Pandolfo, comandante de la guerra peloponesa emprendida contra el imperio de los turcos, y, inspirado por su ardiente amor hacia las personas sabias, los depositó aquí en 1465.
Aparte de Gemisto Pletón hubo más gentes «bizantinas» conocidas. Por ejemplo, el astrónomo Epígenes de Bizancio, que vivió hacia el año 200 y, por tanto, realmente era de la ciudad de Bizancio. Lo mismo ocurre con su contemporáneo, el lingüista Aristófanes, que también fue un auténtico «bizantino». En situación algo más confusa está Esteban de Bizancio, lexicógrafo griego conocido por su obra geográfica Ethnica, sobre la antigua Grecia. En sus obras publicadas en Europa su nombre se escribió solo como «Stephanus» hasta 1678, en la edición de Amsterdam. En la edición de Leiden de 1688 ya se le nombra como «Esteban de Bizancio». Es decir, fue sencillamente rebautizado en algún momento del último tercio del s. XVII.

Si asumimos que la inscripción del sarcófago no se hizo después de la obra de Wolf de 1557 (y el tallador estaba al tanto de las últimas investigaciones científicas), tendremos que admitir también que el término «bizantino» ya existía antes de 1557 como otro de los típicos hiperclasicismos renacentistas (como Istrópolis en lugar de Posonium), pero aplicado exclusivamente a la ciudad, no al estado. Wolf probablemente estuvo al tanto de este uso, y mientras trataba de marcar un corte entre la literatura y las fuentes griegas antiguas y medievales, adoptó el término «bizantino» que luego se extendería, gracias a su obra, para designar a todo el Imperio Romano con centro en Constantinopla.

Bizancio, como aquel genio del cuento, salió volando escapado de la lámpara de Wolf, y es improbable que podamos comprimirlo de nuevo allí dentro. Hoy en día, si alguien habla del Imperio Romano en relación con el período entre los siglos VI y XV, sorprende a sus oyentes tanto como si aplicara el término Imperio Bizantino en aquellos mismos siglos.

Piero della Francesca: Bautismo de Cristo, 1448-1450 (Londres, National Gallery). Según Carlo Ginzburg y otros historiadores del arte, las figuras ataviadas de manera exótica al fondo son teólogos ortodoxos orientales que están discutiendo el tema central del Sínodo de Florencia (1439-1442), el Filioque, es decir, la relación entre las personas de la Trinidad. Por lo tanto, después de muchos siglos, son las primeras figuras bizantinas representadas en el arte occidental, y hay una buena probabilidad de que Gemisto Pletón se encontrara entre ellos

Purim in Czernowitz

In turn-of-the-century Czernowitz, the easternmost city of the Monarchy, the “little Vienna”, or, from another perspective, “Jerusalem on the Prut”, forty-two nationalities coexisted, thereby modeling on a small scale the diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The paralel is even more fitting, because the city’s residents proudly declared, regardless of nationality: in all the Empire, the most beautiful German is spoken here. Indeed, after the disintegration of the Monarchy, those poets of the city who did not choose to write in the languages of the successor states, from Paul Celan through Rose Ausländer and Karl Emil Franzos to Gregor von Rezzorii, became great figures of German literature, before they also disappeared, and the city became Stadt der toten Dichter.

In turn-of-the-century Czernowitz, however, the individual nationalities aspired to develop not against each other, but side by side. The smaller ones – the Serbs, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians – traditionally had their cultural centers in their churches, merchant’s and boyar’s houses. The larger ones, however, after the turn of the century built their own Nationalhäuser, national houses of culture. First the Romanians, then the Poles, the Ruthenians, the Germans, and finally, in 1908, the Jews.

The Jüdisches Nationalhaus was built not far from the Town Hall, along the long promenade which first was called Fischplatz, and later, when all the squares of Czernowitz were named after the members of the Hapsburg dynasty, this one also was baptized Elisabethplatz. In 1904-1905, in the focus of the square was built the new pride of the city, the city theater, a work of the Viennese office Fellner and Helmer, who designed the fifty most representative theater buildings of contemporary Europe. The Jewish “national house”, standing in a highlighted place, next to the theater, was designed by an architect invited from Lemberg, T. Lewandowski, by repeating the acclaimed motif of the Fellner-Helmer theaters, the monumental column-arch-frame embracing several stores. But while the arch of the theater is only two stories high, that of the Jewish national house unites four stores, thereby actually stealing the show from the theater, and although it pulls aside, nevertheless it becomes the most spectacular building of the square.

Since the late 19th century, this area became the center of Reform Judaism, whose followers tried to assimilate and move upward into the city’s elite, by breaking with the traditional Orthodox center established much lower, in the Synagogengasse along the Prut river. The following postcard displays, to the right of the Nationalhaus, the large green dome of the Reform synagogue, the “Tempel”, and below it, the condition when the Fischmarkt was not yet reformed into a representative urban square. The Tempel is still standing today. Although in 1942 the Germans blew up its dome, they could not overcome its massive walls, so they left it to its fate. In Soviet times it was transformed into a movie theater, which is still functioning, so the Czernowitz slang refers to it as “the cinegoga”.

The Soviets also took over the Jewish national ouse, and they established here the textile workers union center. In order nothing should remind of the former builders, they removed all the six-pointed stars from the rich interior decoration of the building. Among other things, they sawed this central motif out of the iron railing of the stairs, whereby the stairs became dangerous. Only after 1990, when the building was returned to the three-thousand-strong Jewish community of Czernowitz, were the stars of David welded back into the railing, so now you can safely climb the stairs. But we do not need to do so, as on the higher stories there are only offices closed to us. The museum commemorating the Jewry of Czernowitz and Bukovina is on the ground floor, to the right of the entrance.

A prayer for Emperor Franz, 1792. In the Jewish Museum of Bukovina

In the two rooms of the museum we mainly find photographs about the former synagogues, cemeteries, and prominent members of the Jewish community. The few original objects include, in a glass case, this painted tin label, which appears to the untrained eye as an inn’s shop sign, as if the memory of an old fish restaurant returned here, to the former Fischmarkt.

However, Két Sheng gives a more accurate report on it:

No shop label, but a so-called Purim table or Adar table. Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, and, as a joyful expectation to it, a table is usually hung in the Jewish houses on the eve of the first day of Adar, with this Hebrew inscription: “Adar is coming, joy is multiplying” (Talmud Bab., Tractate Taanit 29a.) This is what the upper, red-letter line says in the Czernowitz table (“Mi-she-nichnas adar marbin be-simha”). Traditionally, one or two fishes are also displayed on the table, because Adar stands in the sign of Pisces in the zodiac. This is written in the black-letter text of the table: “Adar, sign of Pisces” (“Adar mazal dagim”). The wine bottle to the right is an alternative complement to the composition, for at Purim it is a mitzvah [a meritorious deed] to drink so much that at the end one is unable to tell Haman from Mordecai. The Yiddish text on the bottle is especially gemütlich: “Lechaim, brider!”

“Reb Burech Bendit drinks lechaim”, not far from here, on the stage of the Yiddish theater of Czernowitz. See here

In the lower right corner of the table, there is a date: (5)687, which corresponds to the civil year of 1927. The lower left corner commemorates the artist’ name: Yitzhak Eisikowicz.

The table has two unusual features. First, that it was made of enameled metal, not paper, and second, that the appeal to drinking is particularly stressed in it. On this basis, and the emphasized date and signature, I suspect hat it might have been pending in a restaurant or wine shop.

Jewish restaurants and wine shops were plentiful in the hundred-thousand-strong Czernowitz, the Jerusalem on the Prut. To provide so many places with Purim tables at the beginning of Adar, and to refresh their shop signs during the year, might have given enough bread for a small painting company.

And the small company did exist. If we descend to the shore of the Prut, the old Synagogengasse, from where the Nationalhaus and the Tempel climbed up to the main square, we see a small house, in one row with the big Orthodox synagogue, the Jewish hospital, the mikveh and the Hassidic synagogue, which shows its importance. And on the facade of the house, you can read a ghost text which has survived the adversities of the century, with the same name as on the Purim table in the museum: “J. Eisikowicz signboard painter. Established in 1910”.

The fate has mysteriously selected what to preserve from the old Jewish Czernowitz.

Elmer Bernstein: Trinkt Le Chaim! (4'23") (From the film Thoroughly Modern Millie)

The Synagogengasse in Czernowitz around 1930, just when Yitzhak Eisikowicz painted the Purim table. The red dot marks the sidewalk in front of the Eisikowicz shop, behind which the Orthodox great synagogue rises. The street view has changed almost nothing in the last eighty years.