Introduction to an article by Ursula and Franz Siepe in “Zeitensprünge” 1998 regarding the evolution of chronological development in the Italian Renaissance time.

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Berlin · 2014  Uwe Topper topper

Siepe, Ursula und Franz (1998): „Wußte Ghiberti von der ‚Phantomzeit‘? Beobachtungen zur Geschichtsschreibung der frühen Renaissance“ in Zeitensprünge 2-98, S. 305-319

SiepeThe authors were astonished by an unexpected phrase in the famous Propyläen World History (1964). They stated that the politician and historian Leonardo Bruni Aretino (ca. 1370-1444) harboured the opinion that between the fall of ancient Rome and the rise of humanist art in Italy only eight centuries (rather 700 years) had elapsed instead of the nowadays believed roughly one thousand years.
They couldn’t believe their eyes and quote the phrase a second time in order to make sure that this is really what the encyclopaedia meant: Between the 5th and 14/15th centuries there had only passed approximately 700 years. Even though the fall of Rome might not be fixed at a special date, nowadays it should roughly be located in the 5th century Christian time-reckoning while Brunis lifetime would be regarded as flourishing around 1400 AD.
Quite a number of famous Italian Renaissance writers and politicians such as Petrarca, Ghiberti, Bruni and finally Vasari (16th century) were convinced that the time between classical splendour and its revival in their own time amounted to seven hundred years. Famous modern historians are quoted to this effect, like Erwin Panofsky (1978) who adds another known humanist who held the same belief: Leone Battista Alberti. Moreover, Petrarca counts a full millennium gap between the last Roman emperor Julius Cesar and the new start with Carolus IV of Prague after the barbarian time, which again is short by roughly three centuries if compared to our modern time-scale.
The authors also reflect on the role Charlemagne plays in this obscure interval with the nearly only prominent date of 800 AD bridging a wide span between the two banks that are safely known: classical Rome and revival of art and philosophy in Florence. The great Charles might rather be looked upon as belonging to the sphere of myth.
Ghiberti is then quoted again with his second commentary to the history of art which is generally esteemd for its truthfulness and reliability by all experts. In the time of emperor Constantine and pope Silvester in the 4th century the splendour of Rome was extinguished as well as all knowledge and craftsmanship by the rise of Christendom, and it was only after 600 years that it awoke again. He even gives an exact amount of years: 382 Olympiads (that is 1528 years) after the founding of Rome (AUC: 753 BC) which brings us to 775 after Christ and that would get us far short of the modern date for Ghiberti. A modern historian (Julius v. Schlosser 1912 and 1941) tries to emendate this mistake by proposing that an Olympiad is to be reckoned with five years instead of four which only shows that the enigma is realised but not solved. By the way; even by this assumption it would not be enough anyhow.
On the other hand, when adding to Constantine‘s time of 323 AD the said 600 years as Ghiberti writes, then we arrive at 923 AD as the end of the dark age which again is far to short, because Ghiberti states clearly that only with Giotto (that is around 1300 for modern dating) the end of the dark time has come. For us, a millennium would roughly serve the purpose.
Since those surmises of the humanists concerning the timelag between them and the fall of Rome show that they cover distinct intervals only coinciding more or less in the fact that they end short by vaguely three centuries, they do not give the impression of having been copied nor adopted from each other. A misunderstanding on our part can also be ruled out as modern historians have noted the problem and tried to get around it by unscientific means. The authors of the article vividly object to the helpless efforts of modern historians who try to hush up the problem by wrong mathematics and absurd suggestions. The phantom time-thesis of Heribert Illig, chief in staff of the review „Zeitensprünge“, which allows for cutting out three centuries in the Middle Ages might eventually bridge the gap, is the suggestion of Siepes.
So far no objection on my part. But then I miss a clear statement in the „upshot“ the authors draw at the end of their article. They don’t mention the uncertain chronological knowledge of early Renaissance historians who hardly ever give any concrete vision of years accounting for the mentioned seven centuries, except once by using Olympiads which leads to an uncomprehensive amount of years. The humanists’ suppositions rather convey the idea that they are in want of a historic timetable and can only guess the time gone by in clumsy packages. This confirms my concept that our modern way of counting years began around 1500 and was completed by Nostradamus and Scaliger, among others.
Franz Siepe wrote another article which appeared just in the preceeding number of the same review which was to my knowledge the first article of Siepe in „Zeitensprünge“ of Heribert Illig and Gunnar Heinsohn:
Siepe, Franz (1998): „Heidentum und Christentum. Chronologische Friktionen in mittelalterlicher Sakralkunst“  in ZS 1-98, S. 66-82 (Mantis, Gräfelfing)

Here Siepe demonstrates that the official interpretation of Carolingian and ‚preromanic‘ art pieces with heathen aspect is forced by clerical concepts and ends up in unjustified twists by supposing the opposite of what the artists might have intended. We become aware of the unbridged gap that are the dark Middle Ages. It makes no difference whether we regard figures of classic antique pagan mythology or German pre-Christian heathendom, the Catholic Church adopted them all without hesitation.  Siepe does not yet have the idea of the Christian church being that young and just in the making during the Renaissance (as Edwin Johnson 1890 or Wilhelm Kammeier 1935 have worked out). But he sees clearly that the accepted chronology is not helpful in explaining those discrepancies.

Siepe‘s articles have strongly aided me in my proposal that the factual use of our reckoning the years after Christ has only been worked out after 1500 because early humanist historians had no command yet over such an enterprise. Yet nobody seems to have cared about the second issue which is hinted at only in the headline of the second article: Did Ghiberti know about the phantom-time? The authors neither gave an answer nor did they suppress the question, they just left it open. The answer is completely clear: No! They didn’t! Ghiberti and Bruni and the others reckoned with 700 years instead of 1000, that means they had no idea yet of the inserted 297 years Illig has proposed since 1991. They definitely had no knowledge of the time table we use today. So the insertion of three phantom centuries could only have been invented and put into practice after Vasari and his forerunners, most probably by Nostradamus and Scaliger and the like. Pope Silvester II and emperor Otto III could not have adopted this new chronology in the year 1000 AD as Illig had suggested.
Of course one would search in vain for this obvious result in „Zeitensprünge“ although the idea should have dawned on many a reader then.
The article of the couple Ursula and Franz Siepe was quoted by me in my book Kalendersprung (2006, S. 370) pointing to an important insight into the making of modern chronology. It is apt to prove that to the early humanists the length of the dark ages had been vague and that their conjectures – however they might have gained them, perhaps from Iranian-Arabic sources – did not convey the same idea as later writings proposed. They were still without any phantom-time of the type Illig had found. It is impossible that for five hundred years such a phantom-time should have been propagated by the church without politicians and philosophers following those lines or using the dates. Today, sixteen years after the articles of Siepe, our understanding of the making of modern chronology has progessed again by a great leap which is not subject of this review.

Uwe Topper, January 2014

Postscript: Franz Siepe, a known journalist and prolific writer, died on July 1st, 2013.

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