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The Dark Ages: What Petrarch Didn’t Know

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The Dark Ages: What Petrarch Didn’t Know

Jayne English

Hunnic jewelry. From Dark Ages Art and Architecture: What the Barbarians Did for Us.
Hunnic jewelry. From Dark Ages Art and Architecture: What the Barbarians Did for Us.

“My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms.”
   — Petrarch

We all have them, dark times of struggle. Whether they last an intense day or long years, whether they’re about money, health, or relationships, they settle on us like night. They create tunnel vision, and can blind us to what lies beyond their shadows.

From his vantage point in the 1330s, Italian scholar Petrarch called the 6th to 14th centuries the Dark Ages. He thought they lacked artistic excellence and he longed for days that could rival the literature and art of classical antiquity. What Petrarch couldn’t know that future historians, scholars, and archeologists would learn, was the amount of art barbarian tribes scattered throughout the Roman Empire as they invaded or (as sometimes happened) migrated to it.

If Petrarch had explored the corners of the crumbling Roman Empire he would have found remarkable art in the Dark Ages. In his video series on the Dark Ages, Waldemar Januszczak shows us surprising examples of barbarian art. Vandal artists left cloisonné, mosaics, palaces, and poetry. The Huns made jewelry, gold plated crowns, and adorned their horses with gold trappings. The Ostrogoths built the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Ravenna with its many mosaics, and the Visigoths built the church of St. John the Baptist in Palencia with its delicate and open horseshoe arches, a style that would later be adopted by Islamic artists.

Petrarch waited for “a better age,” which is how we often relate to our personal dark ages. We remember our golden past while overlooking present rarities.

But darkness is sometimes the best backdrop for beauty. As Theodore Roethke writes, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Roethke knew darkness. At 14, he lost his father to cancer and his uncle to suicide. In later years, Roethke experienced numerous mental breakdowns. Yet, he was determined to explore the dark reaches, and he brought from them lines like this:

I learned not to fear infinity, The far field, the windy cliffs of forever, The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow, The wheel turning away from itself, The sprawl of the wave, The on-coming water.

Why do humans (Greeks and Romans, invading hordes and migrating tribes) have this mysterious compulsion to create art, even in dark times? Maybe Roethke knew, “All finite things reveal infinitude.” What art is in your dark ages?