Friday, May 17, 2024

Such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enameling To keep a drowsy emperor awake Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I woke with these lines from Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium" in mind. I have known them by heart since my early teens. I thought, as Yeats the magus did, of vehicles of soul and ancient statue magic. Then the historian in me wanted to check the details.

All Yeats said about the origin of his imagery was that “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang." [1]

Those who have investigated the spources available to Yeats in languages he could read have concluded that his main - and probably only - source was a brief passage in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on the emperor Theophilus. We can now range further.

The Frankish ambassador Liudprand of Cremona, who visited Constantinople in 949, reported that "In front of the imperial throne stood a certain tree of gilt bronze, whose branches, similarly gilt bronze, were filled with birds of different sizes, which emitted the songs of the different birds corresponding to their species."

The mechanical magic was not confined to singing birds. The emperor's throne was fitted out so it could be raised up to the ceiling, from whence the ruler could look down godlike on his courtiers and guests. Liudprand goes on: "The emperor's throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air. This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue". When a visitor was received, the lions began to roar and the bords started singing. The visitor was expected to prostartte himslef three times. When he rose, he would fimnd the meperor seated high above hom. Liudprand averred that "I was moved neither by fear nor astonishment [however] I could not think how this was done, unless perhaps he was lifted up by some such machine as is used for raising the timbers of a wine press".[2]

After the sack of Constantinople by the Franks in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Robert de Clari wrote that he saw mechanical figures of incredible verisimilitude that used to "play by enchantment" - giuer par encantement. "There were figures of men and women, and of horses and oxen and camels and bears and lions and of many manner of beasts, all made of copper, and which were so well made and so naturally formed that there is not a master in heathendom or Christendom who has enough skill as to make figures as good as these figures were made. And in the past they used to perform by enchantment, but they do not play any longer. And the Franks looked at the Games of the Emperor in wonder when they saw it." [3]
The more I read, the more I wanted to identify the golden tree. Historian Allegra Iafrate makes a convincing case that it was a plane tree (platanus). In the Greek world plane trees were admired for their longevity, stature and shade. In Persian tradition - interwoven with Greek, as the vine embraces the plane tree - the chinār (plane) was venerated. Herodotus and Xenophon both wrote that Persian kings had golden plane trees in their palaces. The Persians believed that plane trees sometimes housed souls of the dead, and listening to wind and spirit by a plane tree was a recognized form of divination. [4]
The "Grecian goldsmiths" were also influenced by the fabrications of the Abbasid court in Baghdad. In 917, Byzantine ambassadors arrived at the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir. They were greeted with an elaborate ceremony, and led through room after room in the palace. Near the end of the tour, they were shown into a chamber where "the amazement of the ambassador grew even greater upon entering the Tree Room [Dar ash-Shajarah]; for there he gazed upon birds fashioned out of silver and whistling with every motion, while perched on a tree of silver weighing 500 dirhams." [5] The Byzantine emperor Theophilus is said to have instructed his craftsmen to copy this marvelous tree. It stood at the centre of a pool, surrounded by armored knights, its branches full of singing mechanical birds - and who knows how many itinerant souls?

1. W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1933) 450.
1. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona trans. Paolo Squatriti (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2007), 197–98.
2. Robert de Clari, La Conquete de Constantinople, ed. Philippe Lauer (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Edouard Champion, 1924), 88. 3. Allegra Iafrate, The Wandering Throne of Solomon Objects and Tales of Kingship in the Medieval Mediterranean (Leiden: Brill, 2015) 79-80.
4. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi translated in Jacob Lassner, The Topography of Baghdad in the Early Middle Ages. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970) 88.

Journal drawing by Robert Moss

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