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Isaac Komnenos Porphyrogennetos: Walking the Line in Twelfth-century Byzantium

Valeria Flavia Lovato writes about the international workshop on Isaac Komnenos Porphyrogennetos which took place in Odense on March 5-6, 2020.

In March 2020, I had the pleasure to host an international workshop entirely devoted to Isaac Komnenos Porphyrogennetos, which took place in Odense as part of my current postdoctoral project Isaac Komnenos Porphyrogennetos: Walking the Line in Twelfth-century Byzantium (Swiss National Science Foundation Postdoc.Mobility P400PH_180700). A bit more than a year after, I am thrilled to revisit those stimulating two days and to provide exciting new updates on recent developments stemming from the workshop. Before talking about the event itself, however, it is worth introducing its protagonist, the “purple-born” (porphyrogennetos) Isaac Komnenos (1093–after 1152). Isaac was awarded this epithet because he was the third son of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, the founder of the Komnenian dynasty. But Isaac was not only the son of an emperor, he was also the brother of one, the much-praised John II, who enjoyed a remarkably good press both in the Byzantine and in the Latin sources. Despite his ostensible popularity – or probably because of it – John was not equally appreciated by his closest of kin, who tried to dethrone him more than once. Amongst these would-be usurpers, we can count his sister Anna Komnene, the famous historian, and Isaac himself. Differently from Anna, who is known and appreciated first and foremost because of her literary work, Isaac is mostly remembered as an ambitious but unsuccessful political plotter, according to the picture painted by Byzantine sources. The aim of the Odense international workshop was to propose a reassessment of this fascinating – but still neglected – member of the Komnenian dynasty.


In addition to being a major political player of 12th-century Byzantium, Isaac was also a writer, a scholar, a patron of the arts, a world-traveler, a skillful diplomat and a monastic (re)founder. The papers presented at the workshop finally brought together all these facets of Isaac’s persona, while shedding new light on his political agenda and on his role in the Komnenian dynasty. A short description of each paper will illustrate how each speaker contributed to enrich and illuminate our perception of both Isaac and his times. 


Isaac’s scholarly interests, as well as his relationship with the most prominent intellectuals of the time, were the focus of the workshop’s first two sessions. 

Marina Loukaki and Nikos Zagklas delved into the patronage relationship between Isaac and Theodore Prodromos, probably the most prolific court poet of the Komnenian era. How is Isaac portrayed by Prodromos and why? What does this connection between a learned prince and a court poet tell us about Komnenian patronage more broadly? Aglae Pizzone focused on the disputed authorship of the Three Opuscules on the Providence, a paraphrasis of three Proclian texts which are alternatively ascribed either to Isaac, the brother of Alexios, or to ‘our’ Isaac. But is it possible to find a solution to this long-standing dilemma? A key to this enigma, argues Pizzone, can be found only by putting these texts in conversation with the cultural atmosphere of Komnenian Byzantium.

Isaac’s scholarly activity was the topic of the papers presented by André-Louis Rey and Filippomaria Pontani, who both focused on Isaac’s introduction to and scholia on the Iliad. By analyzing Isaac’s description of the Homeric heroes, André-Louis Rey demonstrated that much can be gleaned from these “portraits in words”, which open new perspectives on the literary tastes and working methods of this learned prince. Filippomaria Pontani examined some “political notes” featuring in Isaac’s scholia on the Iliad. Which are the signs of kingship in the Iliad and who is the most perfect hero, according to Isaac? More importantly, what do these unedited texts reveal about his conception of kingship? 

The final session of day one revolved around Isaac’s patronage activities and his original literary production. 

One of the most famous illuminators of 12th-century Byzantium was the so-called Kokkinobaphos master, whose work was sponsored by Isaac at least twice. Focusing on this case-study, Kallirroe Linardou challenged dominant paradigms informing the study of Komnenian book production and aristocratic tastes: what does the Kokkinobaphos master teach us about the working methods and patronage relationships of 12th-century Constantinopolitan artists? Margaret Mullett’s paper illuminated both Isaac’s architectural enterprises and his complex authorial persona by focusing on the typikon of Isaac’s monastic foundation, the monastery of the Kosmosoteira at Bera (Thrace). What can this document tell us about the last period of Isaac’s life? What “portrait” of the founder can we glean from this intriguing text? I was delighted to close this last session with a presentation focusing on Isaac’s so-called poem to the Virgin. This composition is generally believed to have been penned during one of Isaac’s many exiles. But which exile does this poem refer to, if any? And what does Isaac’s self-characterization as a xenos tell us about his authorial agenda and the poem’s “function”?


The pleasant speakers’ dinner restored us from this intense and rewarding first day and prepared us for what was to be an equally exciting second day. 


The first morning session explored Isaac’s position in the Komnenian dynasty. Vlada Stanković’s paper investigated the strategies through which Isaac tried to reposition himself within the first generation of the Komnenoi “born in the purple”. How did the competition between Isaac and his brother John unfold? To what extent did it influence their manifold enterprises, such as the ideology of their monastic foundations, or the role played by the Holy Land in their self-fashioning strategies? Angeliki Papageorgiou’s contribution was crucial to place Isaac’s usurpation attempts within the broader context of the Komnenian dynasty. While during the Middle Byzantine period most usurpers came from outside the emperor’s immediate family, in the 12th century the situation changes. As mentioned, John’s throne was threatened by his sister and his brother. But what triggered this development? Papageorgiou’s reply to this and other questions is the result of a detailed exploration of Byzantine domestic politics from 1081 to 1180. 

The last session focused on change, whether as an inherent trait of Isaac’s persona or as a feature of Komnenian society. Through a comparison of older (literary and archeological) evidence with new material gathered during a recent field trip in the Holy Land, Maximilian Lau shed new light on the reasons behind the apparent transformations of this Protean prince, focusing especially on his shifting relationship with his brother John. Alex Rodriguez Suarezconcluded the day with a study on the evolution of hairstyles in the Komnenian court, showing that Isaac may have been one of the initiators of a fashion that was to take root in the following years. But why would Isaac be interested in such an innovation and what connections may it have with his other artistic and architectural enterprises?


I hope that this short overview of what was an extremely instructive couple of days was enough to arouse your curiosity as to the answers that each speaker gave to the many questions I have briefly presented here. If so, make sure to stay tuned, since the workshop’s proceedings, along with additional (exciting) papers by further invited contributors, will appear in a forthcoming volume, to be published in the Routledge series Studies in Byzantine Cultural History! More details will follow on the CML blog as well as my Academia profile…


Before concluding, I would like to thank the friends and colleagues whose help has been crucial for the conception and organization of this event. My gratitude goes to Aglae Pizzone, who not only inspired and supported my Isaac project from its earliest stages, but was so kind as to share part of her DIAS personal research allowance to cover some of the event-related expenses. The workshop benefited from the generous support of the Carlsberg Foundation. My gratitude also extends to Thomas Heebøll-Holm and Christian Høgel, whose advice, help and time were instrumental in securing this Conference Grant. Special thanks are owed to the CML and to Lars Boje Mortensen, who also kindly contributed to the workshop’s organization – making possible, among other things, the lovely conference dinner! Further, I would like to thank the many friends and colleagues who kindly accepted to act as respondents and chairs, coming both from the CML and other institutions. My gratitude goes especially to Silvio Bär, Nikos Chrissis, Thomas Heebøll-Holm, Christian Høgel, Divna Manolova, Margaret Mullett, Aglae Pizzone, Rosa Rodriguez Porto and Julian Yolles: without their remarks, interventions and observations the workshop would not have been half as stimulating (and pleasant) as it was!

Last but not least, I am deeply grateful to Maiken Bundgaard Villumsen, the Academic Manager at the CML, who makes all the magic happen from behind the scenes! 


Editing was completed: 25.04.2021