Second Golden Age of Byzantine Art (The Imperial Palace of Constantinople)

From historical accounts it is possible to conclude that the Imperial Palace of Constantinople was divided into three parts, namely: 1) the Chalke (Bronze) gate at the Augustaion or main monumental entrance to the Palace with oratories and barracks for the palace guards known as Scholae Palatinae, and to which the general public had free access; 2) the Palace of Daphne, which was a group of rooms used for receptions and administrative services; and finally, 3) the Sacred Palace itself, with the big rooms for the ambassadors, like the Triconca or reception hall of the 19 Accubita (“Nineteen Couches”) and the  Chrysotriklinos or main throne room, plus the private quarters of the emperor.

Reconstruction of the Chalke gate at the Imperial Palace of Byzantium

The Chalke, which occupied the area right next to the Augustaion, had several levels of windows. Inside the palace itself, the different rooms were decorated with great luxury, sometimes showing a dramatic effect. The great hall of the Magnaura and the Chrysotriklinos were the biggest of the palace and were used mainly as reception halls. The great hall of the Magnaura was famous for its great solemnity, and was used only for exceptional occasions.  It retained the original basilical layout from Roman times, with three naves and the throne at the end of the room. The Chrysotriklinos, however, was genuinely Byzantine, with octagonal floor plan and eight apses which supported a dome. One of the apses served as the emperor’s dressing room; another was used as an oratory; in a third the jewels of the treasure were exposed; and at the bottom, inside another apse, was the imperial throne guarded at its feet by two golden lions, and behind it stood a banana plant, also in solid gold, with its leaves full of birds.

Reconstruction of the Magnaura palace or Senate (left), to the right is depicted the Chalke gate.

Although there is nothing left of the Imperial Palace in Turkish Constantinople, we can see some of its former beauty by isolated fragments and some columns that are spread in different mosques of Istanbul and in the Topkapi Saray or Palace of the Seraglio. In the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, there are abundant capitals and marble ledges decorated with reliefs, all brought from Constantinople by the galleys of the Serenissima Repubblica, which certainly must have been taken from one of the imperial palaces of Byzantium.

A capital brought from the Imperial Palace of Constantinople now in display in one of the courtyards of the Topkapi Saray at Isanbul, Turkey (“Second Court Topkapi 2007 76” by Gryffindor – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http: //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Second_Court_Topkapi_2007_76.JPG#/media/File:Second_Court_Topkapi_2007_76.JPG)

The Imperial Palace was almost abandoned in the twelfth century: by then the emperors preferred another palace, called the Blachernae, near the Golden Horn and the city’s walls. Little is known about this palace of Blachernae, called Tekfur Saray by the Turks, we only know that in the general layout of its doors and windows was a clear influence of Latin, romantic, and western styles.

Remains of the northern facade of the palace of the Blachernae or Tekfur Saray (also known as the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus) in present day Istanbul, Turkey. (“Palace of Porphyrogenitus 2007 016” by Gryffindor – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http: //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palace_of_Porphyrogenitus_2007_016.jpg#/media/File:Palace_of_Porphyrogenitus_2007_016.jpg).

The houses for the ordinary citizens of ancient Byzantium must resemble more the Syrian and Eastern house types, with all rooms at the end of a courtyard, and most probably did not resemble the ancient Greco-Roman house type with the rooms surrounding a square atrium*. Generally, the Byzantine house had a porch facing the street: when this had to be suppressed due to lack of space, then it was built a hall on the top floor with a series of windows forming a kind of gallery or veranda. Many palaces in Venice, built in the time of the peak of Byzantine influence, have this layout: with a low porch, with the upper gallery, or with both. The Byzantine house can be studied in Venice better than anywhere else as some of its palaces differed very little from those built in Byzantium. Even the gondolas are the flat-bottomed rowing boats that are still in use in the Bosphorus.

Reconstruction of the Palace of Daphne at the Imperial Palace of Constantinople.

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*Atrium: The Latin word atrium referred to the open central court, from which the enclosed rooms led off, in the type of large ancient Roman house known as a domus. The impluvium was the shallow pool sunken into the floor to catch the rainwater. As the centerpiece of the house, the atrium was the most lavishly furnished room. Also, it contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.

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