BiographyI was attending the final year of the secondary school (Classical studies) at Rimini when my German aunt, a painter of young female figures bravely facing their inner isolation, called on me entreating me to participate with her in an art contest of provincial importance taking place in the near-by city of Forlì. I was in my spare time painting landscapes of the naive sort, then popular in Italy, and picking up one of them I sent it to the contest. After a month or so, to my aunt’s amazement and my own dismay, I received the notification that I had been awarded the first prize. I would make use of this very personal contact with art practice later by drawing either monuments or objects as in my postgraduate research at the University of Bologna on the architectural ornament of middle Byzantine churches of the peninsula of Mani in the southern Peloponnese and of Tuscan Romanesque churches and even more so in my book on the acanthus motif, La trasformazione del motivo dell’acanto dall’antichità al XV secolo. Ricerche di teoria e storia dell’ornamento, published by Peter Lang in 2002. This is an extended form of my PhD thesis at the Université de Lausanne, a research I had the pleasure to undertake under the supervision of Carlo Bertelli and of Artur Rosenauer as adviser, then head of the Department of art history in the University of Vienna. In this book, although I took Alois Riegl’s investigation as a starting point, I dealt with historical theories about ornament only in my Introduction without enlarging on them. In fact, the chief aim of the book was to extend also to the Middle Ages and the fifteenth century the formalistic treatment Riegl reserved to the Greek and Late Antique acanthus ornament. If the book has still its worth, it resides less in the attentive selection of examples analytically described in their own historical context than in its effort to show that acanthus ornament had good potentialities from the iconographical point of view – high recognizability of features, ubiquity in different media, and persistence over time – to become an art historical subject all of its own.
I never relinquished the desire of investigating the theories on ornament but I had also been aware as much as other students in the field that the subject is multifaceted and refractory to a global treatment. One needs Ariadne’s thread to journey into the theories on ornament, one needs to cut a section according to some working criteria. And so, the idea dawned upon me to submit a session proposal to the 2010 CAA annual conference in Chicago with the title “Ornament. Theoretical Perspectives”. It was accepted and having a number of applicants, I decided eventually not to be a speaker as I had initially envisaged. The final selection included Margaret Olin on Riegl’s possible sources of classification of motifs; Christiane Hertel on August Schmarsow’s theory on ornament; Debra Schafter on Semper, Loos and Worringer; Isabelle Frank on Gombrich’s book The Sense of Order, and Jean-Claude Bonne on Matisse and his notion of environmental ornament. This is the forbear of the book just published by Routledge with the title Ornament and European Modernism: From Art Practice to Art History. To become so it took some years of creative work of development and of patient work of sifting and revising. There have also been changes and novelties. Margaret had already promised her contribution, while Jean-Claude, having presented an aspect already treated in his book on Matisse, felt that it could not justify the composition of an essay. Further, Isabelle moved to a topic familiar to her (Owen Jones’s Grammar of Ornament), which is now expanded and made precise; Pavlos Jerenis and I set out to explore Ernst Gombrich’s theory of perception as a whole (by pointing at and explaining the perplexities found in The Sense of Order, we have accordingly been able to unify perception of representation and perception of ornament in a unique system) as well as the relevant historical claims, while Ole Fischer took up the challenge to discuss Henry van de Velde’s and Hermann Muthesius’s theories in favor and against ornament.
The fact that ornament as an art historical subject cut across boundaries of periods and areas, makes us think of it as enjoying a normal distribution more or less all over art history but, when all is said and done, I believe that medieval illumination is rightly given preeminence here especially on the strength of the initials but, also, of the relation between text and image which is more than an interrelation. What is ornament’s symbolic aspect and what is the decorative one? And to what extent is the symbolic aspect a matter of convention or expression? Even the decorative aspect may become meaningful, apart from its aesthetic function which, however, even as horror vacui, will be in need of further clarification. A good many of my essays do belong in some respect or other to ornament but the latter is conceived as encompassing more and, at least in part, different possibilities than we usually grant it.
In general and not just in the case of ornament, I am hardly prepared to endorse neither the concept of ‘problem situation’ in its engineering-like acceptation (employed by Baxandall in his Pattern of Intentions, which shows a Gombrichian stance; the book’s popularity, however, is due to Baxandall’s attractive treatment of language bearing on description) nor that of artistic individuality so dear to such, in other respects very different, art historians as Schapiro and Ruskin, nor even that of ‘essentially’ important cultural values – though no doubt there are conventions – which is what makes me feel uncomfortable with ‘Kulturwissenschaft’. Not that there are no ‘intentions’ or, to speak in a less psychological way, ‘purposes’ but they are embedded in multi-factorial social dynamics in which chance occurrences do play a crucial role (to my mind Foucault was after something like this in his stimulating if at points redundant text L’archeologie du savoir, once his subjectivism is stripped of its metaphysical turn).
It is a right and, perhaps, a duty of the art historian as well as the historian – not seldom, however, welshed – to seek after similar dynamics. I am now putting the final touches to a book entitled The Prayer and the Land. Abbesses Eriza, Berta and Humbrina at the time of Countess Matilda of Canossa, forthcoming in 2018. In this latest work I attempt to probe situations where purposes cross each other and with other factors among which the keen desire of expansion. I had to understand the legitimacy of different levels of actions – some prescribed by the Benedictine rule, others by the social rules regarding, for example, family and possessions ties. Since this book is about three twelfth-century abbesses of the Tuscia region (now Tuscany) in the then surroundings of Lucca, it would seem a queer presentation if not a profane talk downright to speak as I am doing. Where does religion lie and, also, where does art? With regard to religion, I hope not to annoy if I am telling you that to construe it as social dynamics does not mean to deprive it of its theological scaffolding. On the contrary, theological questions are becoming meaningful if considered as immersed in social commitment. Political elements such as organization, paradigm groups and/or classes, agreements and discords, strategies of cooperation and influence, forcing issues, and crisis, are all part and parcel of what I am calling ‘social dynamics’. I have dealt with the latter by keeping the city always in the background while the near-by countryside – with its meadows, woods, brooks and rivers, watermills and bridges, churches, monasteries, and hospitals – in the foreground for a span of time of about 50 years (c. 1080-c. 1130). It is within this frame that my subjects have been made to rise in all their strength and weaknesses, their courage and fears, in their attempts to envisage purposes, to enroll attention for them, to devise plans, while at the same time responding to others’ purposes. In this light anything can become a ‘visual document’, the necessary and sufficient condition be that a spectator construes it as the materialization of a thought/emotion or action/emotion however complex or simple.
It is evident that the category of ‘artifacts’ is subsumed under that of ‘visual documents’ but there is a flow from the latter into the former category whenever a pure visual document as say signatures turns through evaluation and exhibition into a group of artifacts. In my book I take into consideration as visual documents and artifacts a number of elements ranging from illuminations to seals, to charters, signatures, objects, and buildings. Thus, also ornament becomes an image – true, a different one but image all the same (in this connection I warmly recommend the reading of the essays contained in the collection volume Ornament and European Modernism I referred to above). The Prayer and the Land is a cultural-anthropological work belonging to gender studies, an open field that – as I understand and propound it – shows two aspects of equal worth: one relates to social and cultural insights for women’s life and organization (as Linda Nochlin has evinced), the other to anthropological insights towards such general issues as global culture and politics, social development and restructuring (to name two of the most important) – the two aspects, however, are bound together and amount to a thorough critical education.
I would like for the reader’s benefit to make plain what I mean by the term ‘cultural-anthropological’ study through which I eventually defined my forthcoming book while I was speaking of ‘social dynamics’ all the while: are these two terms ranging over the same map of meanings? In my opinion stretching the meaning of ‘anthropological’ to cover globalizing circumstances because of their upsetting of and fusing ethno-historical values at least to some extent, is on the whole very promising. Of course, we are not under ‘global conditions’ – we are on our way to but we do know neither the road, nor the duration of our journey – we do not know and I do doubt if we would ever know what is to be understood by ‘global’ in concrete terms so that we could point at it and state ‘this is the global condition, our point of arrival and rest’. Peirce had solved the problem of recognition of the final point in his historical cosmology by envisaging it as the attainment by men of complete knowledge of the First Cause of the changing process of natural laws thanks to their ever-improving social cooperation. On the other hand, modern and ultimate as the complex term ‘global conditions’ sounds, its correction here with ‘globalizing conditions’ allows us to recognize that such states were present also in the past though in a very different form than ours towards a comprehension of which, however, they can be made to work.
The distinctive features of such states on account of some sort of expansion and intermingling of different ways of interpreting and experiencing human society are instability of values, restructuring of institutions, and generally speaking adaptation to transitions. With regard to the concept of adaptation, however, I am anxious to stress once more that it implies an imagination shaped up in purposes and crisis, when one finds oneself on the horns of a dilemma, and these circumstances are significantly beyond engineering-like state of affairs requiring just problem-solving ability. It is in this light that I called The Prayer and the Land a cultural-anthropological work – it probes expansion and crisis of female religious institutions as instanced by the three abbesses of Lombard stock and Countess Matilda of Canossa whom they took, I argue, as their model. The concepts of ‘adaptation’, ‘historical imagination’, and ‘role-playing’ are dealt with in the Introduction of the book in relation to such thinkers as Johan Huizinga, Robin George Collingwood, and Heinz Hartmann. Some friends who have read the three published essays from which the book proceeds (in 2012, 2015, and 2016) as soon as they accomplished the reading of the manuscript told me in confidence that the book bears just a surface relation to them. Apart from some historical personages absent in the essays and other structural differences relatable in part to new documental evidence, I believe that this opinion may be justified by virtue of the conception of the topic: in the book cultural-anthropological (as described above), while in the three essays more sociological (this is the source of the difference in the ‘visual documents’ considered in each case). Nevertheless, we should never forget that we always speak of ‘social dynamics’ in ‘globalizing conditions’.
I take here the occasion to make two points relative to documents and the search for them which are known to all and, for this very reason, not seldom somewhat neglected. The first is that the student should be discouraged to consider as Foucault put it “the document as monument” but, also, to turn the series of documents into trumpery. Documents are leading to other documents and where one could arrive is a matter of experience and intelligence in selection and classification so that during the search we ought to hold a watching brief as we should in respect to secondary sources. The second point regards the natural complication in the archival classification which when not modernized – but even then, inconveniences are not hard to come by – is mainly the invaluable if imperfect work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century librarians. Apart from documents pigeonholed differently than they ought to be or might be, defective and even misleading descriptions of them are by no means an exception. Of the medieval Latin is well known that there is a national and even regional variability, which also appears at least as much in the vulgar tongues, so that one should seek advice for both. In respect of the use of documents, let the student cut her or his teeth on secondary sources according to arguments before stepping into field-work, where she or he should be encouraged to prize the images encountered even though they may sport a disarmingly harmless appearance.
Now I briefly refer to two other books of mine. The one, Four Essays Umeå, Sweden: Umeå University Press, 2007, was published on the occasion of a series of lectures I had the privilege to give at Umeå University in April 2007, invited by Professor Kristi Burman. Apart from one about relics and another on a sixteenth-century nun illuminator, the other two essays deal with Baudelaire, Gombrich, Panofsky, and ‘irony’ – all topics related to modern culture I now co-author with Pavlos Jerenis. This tiny book may carry some interest on account of few sparse ideas proposed there and left unplumbed. The second, Il Manoscritto Oliveriano 1. Storia di un codice boemo del XV secolo Pesaro: Cassa di Risparmio di Pesaro, 2004, is an iconographic study of a rare illuminated Psalter-Hymnal from Bohemia written in 1482 in Latin and Czech (for the translation of the latter I have been aided by an expert). Now it is held in the private Oliveriana library of Pesaro, built up chiefly by an eclectic eighteenth-century collector. I argued that the manuscript was illuminated by Valentin Noh in his workshop in Prague and commissioned by King Vladislav II Jagello as to testify to his fidelity to the Roman Catholic church after the Hussite turmoil – a proposal that has generally been accepted. The book is in Italian but includes a helpful summary in English.
PhD, History of Art, Université de Lausanne, 1998
Areas of Research / Professional Expertise
Art history, medieval and early modern illumination, cultural-anthropological studies, history of visual literacy, gender studies
Literature, Classical music