Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Last English Road Trip, Part 2: Fishbourne and Chichester

On Monday morning, we left the car parked at the highly- recommended Rokeby Guest House and walked to the Salisbury rail station to hop on a train to Fishbourne, Sussex, by way of Southampton and Chichester. Anyone who has reached Unit 3 of the Cambridge Latin Course will remember the ill-fated King Cogidubnus, the client king who meets his doom at the hands of the evil Salvius while helping to illustrate cum-clauses and gerundives. Fishbourne Roman Palace, about two miles east of Chichester in Sussex, may have been the home of poor old Cogidubnus in the first century AD. Today, Fishbourne is home of the most spectacular Roman mosaics in Britain.

The foundations of the palace, with its mosaic floors, were discovered in the early 1960s, when excavation was being done to lay a water main for a new residential development nearby. The find was amazing. Because of its position on England's south coast, Fishbourne was settled soon after the initial Roman occupation in 43AD, and its mosaic floors are among the oldest in the country—many of them laid by foreign artisans, since there were as yet no native artisans skilled in the art of mosaics (as there would be, later, when Cirencester in the Cotswolds became a center of mosaic production). In Fishbourne, you can see the development of mosaics from early black-and-white floors (see above) to polychrome floors such as Fishbourne's masterpiece, the mosaic of Cupid riding on a dolphin (at left). Fishbourne is also remarkable for its reconstructed Roman garden (below). The box hedges are planted in the actual excavated trenches from the Roman palace, and thus reproduce the exact design of the original Roman hedges.

From Fishbourne, it was a short walk into Chichester, where we visited Chichester Cathedral and then walked around the city walls. Chichester, like Lincoln and York, started out as a Roman military camp, built around two main streets (the cardo and decumanus) meeting at right angles in center of the city, surrounded by walls pierced by four gates at the four compass points. Chichester has remarkably complete medieval city walls, built upon Roman foundations. At left are Clara and the boys on the walls, near Priory Park, with the spire of the cathedral in the distance.

The interior (nave) of Chichester Cathedral.

Unlike Salisbury Cathedral, with its expansive close, Chichester Cathedral is pressed right up against the town. Inside, it reminded me more of Winchester Cathedral or Tewkesbury Abbey, with its earlier Norman architecture updated with later Gothic additions and ornamentations. Beneath the cathedral, recent excavations have revealed even more Roman mosaics from the Roman praetorium. (As in Lincoln, the cathedral seems to have been built over the old Roman military command center in the town.) Chichester is quite a lovely little cathedral, and is noted for incorporating some surprising bits of modern art, such as the stunning Marc Chagall stained glass window pictured below, dating from 1978.

One of the things I love about England is that poetry occasionally pops up in unexpected places. There is, for example, the Edward Thomas poem in the bus shelter in tiny Adlestrop, about which I blogged in January. There is also a little Philip Larkin poem in the train station in Coventry. And in Chichester Cathedral, there is another Larkin poem, inspired by a tomb in the cathedral of one of the early Earls of Arundel. On the tomb (carefully reconstructed in the nineteenth century), the earl has removed his gauntlet so that he can hold hands with his wife, who lies beside him. Here's Larkin's poem:

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's lovely to see my home through the eyes of a visitor. Reading your blog this morning has made me realise what I take for granted.

I am a great admirer of Chagall, and it seems strange but somehow prescient that I should move to live so close to two more of his works.