Spolia (Latin, 'spoils') is a modern art-historical term used to describe the re-use of earlier building material or decorative sculpture on new monuments. The practice was common in late antiquity (for example, the Arch of Janus, the earlier imperial reliefs on the Arch of Constantine, the colonnade of Old Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome); in Byzantium (for example, the exterior sculpture on the Church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos in Athens); in the medieval West (for example, the re-use of Roman tiles in St Albans Cathedral, the porphyry columns in the Palatine Chapel in Aachen, and the colonnade of the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere); and in the medieval Islamic world (for example, the columns in the hypostyle mosques of Kairouan and Cordoba). Although the modern literature on spolia is primarily concerned with these and other medieval examples, the practice is common and there is probably no period of art history in which evidence for "spoliation" could not be found.

Interpretations of spolia generally alternate between the "ideological" and the "pragmatic." Ideological readings might describe the re-use of art and architectural elements from former empires or dynasties as triumphant (that is, literally as the display of "spoils" or "booty" of the conquered) or as revivalist (proclaiming the renovation of past imperial glories). Pragmatic readings emphasize the utility of re-used materials: if there is a good supply of old marble columns available, for example, there is no need to produce new ones. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and there is certainly no one approach that can account for all instances of spoliation, as each instance must be evaluated within its particular historical context.

See also


There is a large modern literature on spolia, and the following list makes no claim to be comprehensive.

  • J. Alchermes, "Spolia in Roman Cities of the Late Empire: Legislative Rationales and Architectural Reuse," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 48 (1994), 167-78.
  • S. Bassett, The urban image of late antique Constantinople (Cambridge, 2004).
  • L. Bosman, The power of tradition: Spolia in the architecture of St. Peter's in the Vatican (Hilversum, 2004).
  • B. Brenk, "Spolia from Constantine to Charlemagne: Aesthetics versus Ideology," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), 103-09.
  • B. Brenk, "Sugers Spolien," Arte Medievale 1 (1983), 101-107.
  • R. Brilliant, "I piedistalli del giardino di Boboli: spolia in se, spolia in re," Prospettiva 31 (1982), 2-17.
  • C. Bruzelius, "Columpnas marmoreas et lapides antiquarum ecclesiarum: The Use of Spolia in the Churches of Charles II of Anjou," in Arte d'Occidente: temi e metodi. Studi in onore di Angiola Maria Romanini (Rome, 1999), 187-95.
  • F.W. Deichmann, Die Spolien in der spätantike Architektur (Munich, 1975).
  • J. Elsner, "From the Culture of Spolia to the Cult of Relics: The Arch of Constantine and the Genesis of Late Antique Forms," Papers of the British School at Rome 68 (2000), 149-84.
  • A. Esch, "Spolien: Zum Wiederverwendung antike Baustücke und Skulpturen in mittelalterlichen Italien," Archiv für Kunstgeschichte 51 (1969), 2-64.
  • F.B. Flood, "The Medieval Trophy as an Art Historical Trope: Coptic and Byzantine 'Altars' in Islamic Contexts," Muqarnas 18 (2001).
  • M. Greenhalgh, The Survival of Roman Antiquities in the Middle Ages (London, 1989). (Available online, provided by author)
  • M. Greenhalgh, "Spolia in fortifications: Turkey, Syria and North Africa," in Ideologie e pratiche del reimpiego nell'alto medioevo (Settimane di Studi del Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo 46), (Spoleto, 1999). (Available online, provided by author)
  • M. Fabricius Hansen, The eloquence of appropriation: prolegomena to an understanding of spolia in early Christian Rome (Rome, 2003).
  • D. Kinney, "Spolia from the Baths of Caracalla in Sta. Maria in Trastevere," Art Bulletin 68 (1986), 379-97.
  • D. Kinney, "Rape or Restitution of the Past? Interpreting Spolia," in S.C. Scott, ed., The Art of Interpreting (University Park, 1995), 52-67.
  • D. Kinney, "Making Mute Stones Speak: Reading Columns in S. Nicola in Carcere and S. Maria Antiqua," in C.L. Striker, ed., Architectural Studies in Memory of Richard Krautheimer (Mainz, 1996), 83-86.
  • D. Kinney, "Spolia. Damnatio and renovatio memoriae," Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 (1997), 117-148.
  • D. Kinney, "Roman Architectural Spolia," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145 (2001), 138-161.
  • D. Kinney, "Spolia," in W. Tronzo, ed., St. Peter's in the Vatican (Cambridge, 2005), 16-47.
  • D. Kinney, "The concept of Spolia," in C. Rudolph, ed., A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe (Oxford, 2006), 233-52.
  • L. de Lachenal, Spolia: uso e rempiego dell'antico dal III al XIV secolo (Milan, 1995).
  • P. Liverani, "Reimpiego senza ideologia: la lettura antica degli spolia dall’arco di Costantino all’età carolingia," Römische Mitteilungen 111 (2004), 383-434.
  • C. Mango, "Ancient Spolia in the Great Palace of Constantinople," in Byzantine East, Latin West. Art Historical Studies in Honor of Kurt Weitzmann (Princeton, 1995), 645-57.
  • H.-R. Meier, "Vom Siegeszeichen zum Lüftungsschacht: Spolien als Erinnerungsträger in der Architektur," in: Hans-Rudolf Meier und Marion Wohlleben (eds.), Bauten und Orte als Träger von Erinnerung: Die Erinnerungsdebatte und die Denkmalpflege (Zürich: Institut für Denkmalpflege der ETH Zürich, 2000), 87–98. (pdf)
  • R. Müller, Spolien und Trophäen im mittelalterlichen Genua: sic hostes Ianua frangit (Weimar, 2002).
  • J. Poeschke and H. Brandenburg, eds., Antike Spolien in der Architektur des Mittelalters und der Renaissance (Munich, 1996).
  • H. Saradi, "The Use of Spolia in Byzantine Monuments: the Archaeological and Literary Evidence," International Journal of the Classical Tradition 3 (1997), 395-423.
  • Annette Schäfer, Spolien: Untersuchungen zur Übertragung von Bauteilen und ihr politischer Symbolgehalt am Beispiel von St-Denis, Aachen und Magdeburg (M.A. thesis, Bamberg, 1999).
  • S. Settis, “Continuità, distanza, conoscenza: tre usi dell’antico,” in S. Settis, ed., Memoria dell’antico nell’arte italiana (Torino, 1985), III.373-486.
  • B. Ward-Perkins, From Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages: Urban Public Building in Northern and Central Italy A.D. 300-850 (Oxford, 1984).

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