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Perception Of Late Antique and Byzantine Art in the eyes of art historians:

From Vasari to Panofsky

Duygu Hogr

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The long time period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire to

the beginning of fully characterized Christian Eastern Roman Empire is

challenging to conceptualize. Not Roman but not yet completely

Christianized, this period holds traces from both sides of history, often

difficult to fit in the periodization formula that the Western history making

much depends itself on. Moreover, the art produced during this time in the

geographical areas where the Greco-Roman world existed, is often taken as

products of a period of decline where traces of Classical antiquity is still

apparent but not present in its entirety. Beginning with Vasari whom we call

the first art historian of the Western art history and continuing on with

scholars like Bernard Berenson, Alois Riegl and Erwin Panofsky, this paper

aims to portray Western art historians gaze on the artistic production

between 2nd to 8th centuries A.D. in regions under the reign of Eastern Roman

Empire. Instead of referring to the aforementioned art production as a form of

decline, I would like to support a view that embraces change, which is an

indispensible element of the process of art making where understanding of it

is divorced from formulas of good and bad.

Late Antique, Byzantine, Early Christian or Late Roman art?

The term late antiquity- that was initially introduced in German as

spatrmisch is now being used for over a century. It connotes a

periodization, along with an expansive geographical area, including

numerous central themes surrounding it but most of all it portrays a judgment

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of an overall value that is difficult to address otherwise.1 The formulization of

the term is well beyond the scope of this discussion yet it is still crucial to

include the main breaking points in the making of its history. These breaking

points are mainly concentrated around the questions: What should be the

chronological boundaries set when defining Late Antiquity? What should be

the limits of the geographical area to be studied? How much of the Greco-

Roman heritage apparent in the wake of the Late Antique world? Finally, is it

possible to reach to a synchronic and yet spatial point of view towards Late

Antiquity?

Peter Brown, in his 1971 publication The World of Late Antiquity set the

timeline between 200-800 A.D. while defining Late Antiquity, beginning with

the fall of ancient Mediterranean world and ending with the creation of three

civilizations: Western European, Byzantine and Islamic. Later on in his 1978

book, The Making of Late Antiquity, he identified religious and cultural

aspects of this periodization, including Roman, Sasanian and Umayyad

territories in his model. Evidently, scholars did not and do not meet Browns

understanding of Late Antiquity with complete agreement. The decline,

suggested in the 18th century by Edward Gibbon was once more taken up,

this time stressing connotations of the time frame and the geographical

aspects of it. Scholars like Henri-Irenee Marrou and Andre Piganiol however

resisted the decline and the surrounding abrupt fall ideas developed earlier

and stood by the continuation of Roman ideals through the fourth and fifth


1 Johnson, Scott Fitzgerald. The Oxford handbook of late antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 2012. 3.

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centuries. They strongly opposed with pushing the decline of form as an

aspect of the perversion of Christianity that poisoned the classical ideals.2

Norman Baynes, in his Hellenistic Civilization and East Rome similarly

defended Byzantium as an empire that had close ties with Hellenistic

heritage that cannot be summarized as a hopeless non-classical society with

oriental characterization. Through his analysis of Byzantine culture, he

proposed although there were differences of expression, Hellenistic heritage

was still very much a part of Byzantine art and subsequently this presence

paved way for Hellenism to lend its roots in the cultures of Near East. 3

Brown returned to his 1971 publication of The World of Late Antiquity in

2008, and he identified some problems with his initial formulations about Late

Antiquity. He believed at the time of his writing he kept the geographical

focus too narrow, depending his ideas on the area of Mediterranean too

much. His notion of Late Antiquity thus suffered from too much focus on the

Roman state, which he prematurely portrayed as a totalitarian monster that

turned out to be incorrect after the 1960s. 4 This historical misconception of

the Roman Empire revealed Browns social fluidity model was too simple of a

structure to describe the Late Roman society with too much emphasis on the

elites omitting the homogenization it required to depict the totality of the

population. Brown depicted the Late Antique world as a time of change, a

period of variety and creativity, which reflected new values in both visual arts


2 Various Authors, "SO Debate: The World of Late Antiquity Revisited," Symbolae Osloenses 72

(1997), 11
3 Ibid.11.
4 Ibid. 17.

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and cultural life. 5 He underlined polytheism as well as the rise of holy men

and the creation of cult of saints. Though he was not the first scholar to see

Late Antiquity in a positive sense rather than a decline, he was the one who

popularized the notion. The major shift looking towards cultural history in this

holistic sense and thus creating the idea of long late antiquity surely is the

product of Browns work.6

Vasari and crude art of the Byzantines

Vasari was a prolific painter and an architect but we do not initially know

him due to the art or architecture he produced. His enduring legacy is based

on the book he has written, The Lives of the Artists. Presumably the first

compilation devoted to the detailed accounts about artists lives, the book

served as an encyclopedia on Renaissance artists and much of what we

know about the rebirth of painting comes from Vasaris devotion to his

project of completing his book. Spanning more than 300 years, The Lives tell

us about a period of explosion of creativity that gave the world artists like

Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael and it is still the essential guide to learn

about these Old Masters. From artists biographical stories to the techniques

they used, Vasari made a tedious study of each and every artist he listed in

his book. However for the purposes of this paper, I will be concentrating on

the introductory chapter where Vasari expresses his thoughts on earlier art


5 Cameron, Averil, "The 'Long' Late Antiquity: A Late Twentieth Century Model," in T. P. Wiseman,

ed., Classics in Progress. Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome, (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2002), 167.
6 Ibid. 169.

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namely what has preceded and paved the way towards Renaissance.

Raphael, in 1519 letter, described the Arch of Constantine as very feeble and

destitute and compared this Constantinian work with Trajanic, Hadrianic and

Antonine works that he addressed as being done on perfect style.7 Vasari

agreed. Vasari believed that sculpture especially declined during the reign of

Constantine and he thus suggested that decline came even before the Goths

invaded Rome. 8Though he gave some examples of architectural structures

erected by Constantine that kept the good style before he moved his

government to the new capital Byzantium. But when it came to the Arch,

Vasari took a different stand. He knew that there was a lack of good

sculptors in Rome at the time (313-15 A.D.) and he also was aware that the

bas-reliefs, statues, columns, the cornices and other ornaments were all

taken from different works of art of varying epochs. According to Vasari, the

Arch has rude portions as well as crude details, which he judges the overall

style as very poor.9

Berenson and the yawning artist of the Arch of Constantine

Berenson published his study of Arch of Constantine in 1954, only five

years before he passed away. At 84 years of age during the time of his death,

he enjoyed a long life leaving numerous seminal works on the Italian

Renaissance. The American connoisseur Berenson moved to Florence quite



7 Elsner, Jas' "The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901." Art History 25, no. 3

(2002): 364. doi:10.1111/1467-8365.00326.


8 Vasari, Giorgio. The lives of the artists. Translated by George Bull. Harmondsworth, Eng.:

Penguin Books, 1965. 21


9 Ibid.22.

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early in his life, where he lived for almost 60 years. Though not always

religious about his authentications, Berensons vetting process of Old

Masters made great collectors out of American tycoons, filled the American

museums and made Lord Duveen outstandingly rich. As famous as his

authentication was his rejection of the famous painting then attributed to

Leonardo Da Vinci by Lord Duveen- La belle ferronniere - which resulted with

the end of their friendship and damaged both mens reputation.

In his book, Studies in Medieval painting, Berenson begins in the preface

by declaring that art historian should be no more of a prophet or a priest,

patriot or politician than anybody else who tries to find out just what

happened in the past, how it happened, and, if possible, why.10 He reveals

that he speaks on medieval art with diffidence although his expertise on

Italian Renaissance brings on some intuition about speaking on preceding art.

As he begins his first chapter on two twelfth-century paintings from

Constantinople, he asserts that since the Vasarian tradition of referring all the

paintings of the Byzantine period to Giottesque paintings have been correct

in direction but the field has grown and now it is possible to distinguish styles

from different provinces of Byzantium and a better understanding emerged

while differentiating this art from the art of Western Christendom.11 He goes

on explaining that much of the art remaining from Byzantine period have

suffered numerous attacks affecting their physical state, whether it be the

period of Iconoclasm, the invasion of the Turks, the use of sacred oils and


10 Berenson, Bernard. Studies in medieval painting. New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1930. IX-X
11 Ibid. 1.

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nailing ornaments the mural paintings and the frescoes are in a pitiful state.12

Constantinople, until the Latin invasion served as a metropolis of both

European and nearer Asian civilization with a flourished art scene where

good craftsmanship was never lost. According to Berenson until 1200, all

painting in Europe was originated in Constantinople as much as it was

Parisian originated in the 20th century.13 He compares two paintings (Fig 1,2)

that are in private collections in the United States at the time of his writing

and concludes they come from roughly from 11th century and both belong to

the same painter who is from Constantinople. He basis his argument of a

single painter to similarities in the color palette, the tempera technique, the

way highlights are rendered and the overall resemblance of form and style

that is apparent in both Madonna depictions. He comments that the skill

used in both depictions are the same and they fit well within the traditions

and methods used in Constantinople during 11th century.14 He adheres the

perfection of the execution as a quality that was not available anywhere else

in the Christian world at the time. Berenson takes a more critical stand while

writing about the Arch of Constantine, a monument that symbolized the

decline of form. His famous phrase summarizes his approach very clearly

when he predicts the artists most likely yawned, stretched, stumbled and

tumbled into making the arch. 15 The historical background of the Arch falls to

the tetrarchy era where four individuals governed the Roman Empire and this

was a monument to celebrate the victory of Constantine against his rival



12 Ibid. 2.
13Ibid.3.
14 Ibid.7.
15 Spivey, Nigel. Stumbling Towards Byzantium: The Decline and fall of Late Antique Sculpture

Apollo 142, 21

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Maxentius in Milvian Bridge. (Fig.1) Berensons aesthetic prejudices towards

the Arch escalates on the fact that much of its parts were borrowed from

other monuments in Rome, creating a fusion of styles that did not fit together.

Especially the Hadrianic roundels (Fig.2) that separate the lower registers

from the upper ones focus the eye even more to the separateness.

Furthermore, Berenson believed Constantine did a cardinal mistake by

borrowing these parts, eventually leading to borrowing the ideological

program of the previous emperors.16 Berenson thought the Arch was stodgy

and dull as a final product lacking coherence and meaning.17

Riegl and optic farsighted Late Antique art

Riegl was born Linz and he studied law, philosophy and history, finally

leading to him working in art history in the University of Vienna. He studied

connoisseurship of the Morellian method in analyzing paintings. Although his

dissertation was on the study of Jakobskirche in Regensburg, he started

working in Museum fr Kunst und Industrie where he specialized in antique

oriental carpets while holding the position as the director of textile

department. His foremost contribution to the historical field is his early

inclusion of decorative arts into the chronology of art history. 18Though he

originally worked on the history of ornament, soon he shifted to writing about

the theoretical aspects of art history, beginning with his seminal publication


16 Ibid.22.
17 Ibid.23.
18 Elsner, Jas' "The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901." Art History 25, no. 3

(2002): 358-79. doi:10.1111/1467-8365.00326.

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of Late Roman Art History in 1901. His foremost contribution to the art

historical writing is presumably originating the concept of kunstwollen- a

rather difficult notion to grasp that roughly translates as will of art. Yet

Panofsky defined it to have a meaning that can be interpreted neither

pschologistically as the will of the artist nor as a psychological reality but

rather as a metemprical subject, an immanent sense within an artistic

phenomenon.19

Late Antique or Early Christian art was repetitively and persistently labeled

as an art of decline by Riegls time. According to this understanding, inability

of artists and artisans of the Early Christian centuries caused the art to not

live up to the great models of classical beauty and the Late Roman buildings

and images showed marks of barbarization. Yet Riegl looked at Late Antique

art in a rather different point of view where he attempted to identify the

specific form and values of the era.20 He suggested the argument demanded

different criteria for the judgment on Late Antique art and he emphasized the

importance of specifying objects with both the haptic/tactile and the optic

qualities. Stressing touch and vision as two different aspects of human

perception, Riegl thought addressing the contrast and conflict between the

two senses is a vital process in understanding art as a whole.21These two

modes of sensual experience postulated with the cycle theory-a popular idea

during Riegls time that can be associated with Hegels model of three

19 Panofsky, Erwin. "On the Relationship of Art History and Art Theory: Towards the Possibility of

a Fundamental System of Concepts for a Science of Art." Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (2008): 44.
20 Barasch, Moshe. Modern theories of art. From Impressionism to Kandinsky. New York: New

York University Press, 1998.152.


21 Ibid. 154.

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historical stages presented in Aesthetics - allowed him to perceive art as a

huge cycle beginning with Early Egyptian period and ending with Late

Antiquity where he identified three main stages illustrating a transition from

the haptic to the optic.22

While applying his theory to the transformation of the Classical art in to

the art of Late Antiquity, Riegl used the term optic-farsighted-optisch

fernsichtig. The categories of periods he proposed for the evolution of the

entire history of art started with haptic nearsighted stage, which was

apparent in Egyptian art to the haptic optical stage where he categorized

Classical Greek art and finally reached to the optic-farsighted stage.23 The

haptic-nearsighted art required the closest approximation of material

appearance of the figures on the plane, where Riegl exemplified the Egyptian

figures with sharp outlined that do not merge with the background. In the

haptic-optical stage these principles are loosened allowing variations of

depth to be stylized on the plane that was apparent in the Classical Greek

art.24 Lastly, in optical-farsighted stage Late Antique art reached a full three

dimensionality where the existence of the plane is not an infinite deep space

but rather serves as a surface where material figures and object interrupt and

invalidate the continuity it provides. 25In this way, objects create the illusion to

be seen as merely outlines when looked at from a distance that blends them

with the background. Riegl applied this understanding to the arch of



22 Ibid.156.
23 Kaschnitz-Weinberg, Guido. "Review of Alois Riegl,Die Sptrmische Kunstindustrie, 1927." Art

History 39, no. 1 (2015): 87.


24 Ibid.88.
25 Ibid.

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Constantine and found optical-farsighted elements that received much

negative judgment from other art historians. However he believed these

elements of Late Antique art developed an expressive meaning much similar

to our understanding of modern expressionist art.26Riegl studied a range of

different modes of art production, from early mosaics, reliefs, manuscripts as

well as decorative arts such as brooches, fibulae, gems and glass vessels.27

Riegl did call the Late Antique art crude, weak and awkward28 but in his later

work Late Roman Art Industry this attribution changed. Overall, Riegl was

harshly criticized for remaining stuck in the purely visual domain of art. He

included the historical elements while excluding the cultural background that

the artworks were created into.29

Panofsky and surviving legacy of the myth in Byzantine art

Panofskys influential ideas about interpreting paintings through the

mechanisms of symbolic forms paved way for many art historians to apply

his methods. Panofsky studied the Gothic church of St. Denis, Jan Van

Eycks Arnolfini marriage, Albrecht Drers and many other artists works in

great detail. In his analysis of the classical mythology in medieval art he

exemplifies this method to a substantial degree where he illustrates


26 Ibid.89.
27Elsner, Jas' "The Birth of Late Antiquity: Riegl and Strzygowski in 1901." Art History 25, no. 3

(2002): 363. doi:10.1111/1467-8365.00326.


28 Ibid. 364.
29 Ibid. 358.

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comparative examples proving a continuation of the theme of mythology

throughout ages.

The Italian writers Vasari, Ghiberti and Alberti all expressed that classical

art was overthrown during Late Antiquity due to the invasions of barbaric

races and it did not revive until the beginning of Renaissance.30 It is now clear

to us that the literary, philosophical, scientific and artistic conceptions of

classical antiquity did not die during the middle ages. On the contrary, during

Byzantine period, the classical subject matter was preserved in rather

different forms, but by no means the heritage was forgotten. Though it is

difficult to compare a Byzantine mosaic with a Michelangelo fresco by means

of form and style, we can build up a list of iconographical parallels and

overlaps between the two on the subject matters used. Panofsky, with his

analysis of the theme classical mythology hunts for what is not lost during

this time and what is preserved through Late Antiquity reaching its way to the

Medieval West. Although he believes medieval Western art was either unable

or unwilling to reproduce the form and style of classical antiquity, he stands

on the firm ground of proving the iconography survived. Panofsky believed

Byzantine art never lost its connection to antiquity and thus it was incapable

of establishing a style, a statement that can further be understood as

Byzantine art being a distorted form of classical antiquity.


30 Panofsky, Erwin, and Fritz Saxl. "Classical Mythology in Mediaeval Art." Metropolitan Museum

Studies 4, no. 2 (1933): 228.

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According to Panofsky, even Christ is depicted with borrowed

iconography from Roman emperors, Alexandrian shepherds, Greek

philosophers and Hellenistic Orpheus. 31 Farnese Globe, the 2nd century

Roman copy of the Greek original sculpture represents the celestial sphere in

one of its earliest forms, first appearing as a man carrying a large globe on

his shoulders whereas in later representations the man was depicted with the

attributes of Hercules. 32 Soon after the celestial globe was depicted in

Byzantine illuminated manuscripts that were modeled after manuscripts of

Late Roman period called the aratea. 33In later versions of celestial sphere

representation of the original iconography becomes less and less apparent,

showing the gradual process of the fading effect of classical tradition.

The Byzantinist view: Weitzmann & Kitzinger

Kitzinger, the scholar who made Dumbarton Oaks worlds premiere

Byzantine studies center is best known for his 1977 book, Byzantine Art in

the making. He spent long years studying the Sicilian mosaics, which were

initially discovered by Otto Demus. Among the generation of German art

historians who fled Nazi persecution, Kitzinger wrote extensively on the early

history of Christian art. He linked the basis of Eastern Roman Empires

artistic tradition with Hellenistic roots following Ainalovs thesis that


31 Ibid. 230.
32 Ibid. 232.
33 Ibid. 236.

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Byzantine art was of a Hellenistic background rather than the Latin West.34

The continuity Kitzinger proposed understands that Byzantine heritage owed

much of its artistic knowledge to the Romans but he underlines the fact that

it is the Hellenistic world Romans borrowed much of their artistic skill35,

through conquering Hellenistic lands and bringing back spolia. Kitzinger

suggested that in the 10th century Menologion of Basil II, the 430 separate

illustrations depicting the martyrdom scenes of saints, the idyllic landscapes

are strangely serene when compared with the gory torture moments as if

they are reminiscent of Hellenistic theater settings.36

Weitzmann studied the continuous existence of classical mythology

appearing in ivory caskets and illuminated manuscripts produced during the

Early and Middle Byzantine period. Through his work, we are now able to see

that not only classical heritage merely survived but also it continuously

existed as a source of reference in Byzantine art. Among the migrated ideas

from the classical era are the hunting scenes illustrated in Pseudo-Oppian

inspired by Cynegetica of Xenophon produced during the Macedonian


37
Renaissance. Furthermore, Weitzmann identified a great number of

Heracles figures through his research in illustrated classical texts which then


34 Ainalov, D.V. Ellenisticheskiaa osnovy vizantiiskago iskusstva. St.Petersburg, 1900.

Ainalov was a student of Kondakov and along with scholars like Josef Strzgowski and Charles
Rufus Morey they supported the idea that early Christian stylistic forms were drawn from
Hellenistic origins rather than Rome, an idea that was later supported and further developed by
Kitzinger.
35 Kitzinger, Ernst. "The Hellenistic Heritage in Byzantine Art." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17

(1963): 97. doi:10.2307/1291192.


36 Ibid.106.This idea met much criticism and some scholars did not agree.
37 Weitzmann, Kurt. Greek mythology in Byzantine art. Princeton: Princeton University Press,

1984. XII

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reappeared in a 3rd century papyrus called The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. 38

Weitzmanns study of survival of classical tradition in pictorial representation

in Byzantine art contradicted everyone beginning from Vasari to Berenson

who believed it was dead during this period.

James Trilling proposes a rather different reasoning behind the so- called

vulgarity of the style Late Antique art developed. He believes the use of

material predominantly effects the expression as in the case with mosaic

depictions where there is a conflict between the underlying vision of the artist

and the outward form he finalizes. In many mosaic depictions, the figure has

three dimensions, with firm aspects of foreshortening applied but the manner

the work is executed disrupts humanistic representation. A shortcoming of

mosaic as a medium, it is nearly impossible to establish the shading and

modeling achieved by paint through painted pieces of small glass. He

portrays two examples of similar depictions coming from later Roman

pictorial art, which share these characteristics. Trilling also supports the idea

that the there was no sudden change or abrupt decline in arts during Late

Antiquity but a shift towards abstraction happened as a gradual process.39.

Conclusions


38 Ibid. XXII
39 Trilling, James. "Late Antique and Sub-Antique, or the "Decline of Form" Reconsidered."

Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987): 472. doi:10.2307/1291582.

16
The legacy of Byzantine Empire is too vast, too ever-present and too rich

for being dismissed as a decline from the classical world.40 Aside from the

negative connotation of decline, the understanding proposes that the

catastrophic event of the fall of Rome was continually present in the image of

an empire that ruled for eleven centuries. Approaching it with a sense of

skepticism, much of what has been proposed earlier about the world of Late

Antiquity is not true. However, special care should be directed towards the

periodization, geography and several cultures that coexisted in its larger

frame. Furthermore, characterizing Late Antique art within the very

framework of a decline immediately leads to a dichotomy- as there was a

height of technical mastery and formal sensitivity in the classical tradition and

if we accept Late Antique art represents the decline from it then there must

be a reason for the end result in this process.41 It is often explained to be the

product of a Christian era where spirituality of the age led to a need for

abstraction rather than using the perfected humanistic expression.42 Rather

than classifying Late Antique and Byzantine art as a period of decline in arts

my proposal stands with perceiving it as a positive product of an age that

was defined by different notions and belief systems than the classic era. The

needs of this new era, certainly strikingly different than earlier periods led to a

partial or complete disregard of modeling, a freedom of outline and letting go

of humanistic ideals in arts. But simultaneously it brought an extremely

forceful and direct expression that is very able to convey a message to



40 Various Authors, "SO Debate: The World of Late Antiquity Revisited," Symbolae Osloenses 72

(1997), 90.
41 Trilling, James. "Late Antique and Sub-Antique, or the "Decline of Form" Reconsidered."

Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987): 469. doi:10.2307/1291582.


42 Ibid. 469.

17
everyone. Lastly, I would like to pose a question for the reader to ramble on

about: If we stop for a moment and detach ourselves from year 200, knowing

all the historical processes of art preceding and succeeding Late Antiquity

and keeping in mind the definitions of decline, where would modern (I mean

beginning with Impressionism) and contemporary art stand? Would it stand,

on its own, in the deepest pit of decline or at the height of visual expression?

Fig.1 The Arch of Constantine, 313-315 A.D. Rome, Photo Credit: Author

18
Fig. 2 Detail of the Arch of Constantine, 313-315 A.D. Rome, Photo Credit:
Author

19
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