Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 21, 1999
Francis Ames-Lewis Tuscan Marble Carving, 1250–1350: Sculpture and Civic Pride Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1997. 270 pp.; 12 color ills.; 146 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (1859283764)

This book offers undergraduates and lay enthusiasts who have not had the good fortune of attending one of Professor Ames-Lewis’s courses at Birbeck College in London an opportunity to see and understand key monuments of Italian Gothic sculpture through his sensitive and insightful eyes. It offers many insights for more sophisticated readers, as well. Patiently introducing readers to the historical circumstances in which Tuscan sculptors worked, Ames-Lewis cites intriguing examples of how economics, the growth of cities, improvements in roads and communications (including a general concern for improving and beautifying civic infrastructure), and local patriotism led to the production of impressive amounts of didactic and programmatic figurative sculpture in late medieval Tuscany. Rather than seeking to define artistic personalities, “it is the function of sculpture in civic display, in commemorating the individual, or in decorating liturgical furnishings that are of primary concern here” (Author’s Preface, xvi). In this account, artists are not considered primarily as distinct individuals with particular personalities and styles, but we see their work as highly creative and resourceful responses to the particular circumstances in which they worked.

Ames-Lewis admirably prepares his readers for appreciating his sculptors’ accomplishments in the first three chapters. After surveying the broad historical and sociological topics mentioned above, he moves on to materials, techniques, and workshops, very helpfully distinguishing marble carving from work in other media. He also alerts the reader to the fact that marble itself is hardly a uniform material. Carvers chose different qualities of the stone depending on local availability and the nature of the task at hand. They also polychromed and gilded many of the surfaces that later generations expected to leave unadorned. Building on John White’s fundamental studies of the facade reliefs at Orvieto Cathedral, he shows students how to “read” unfinished works of sculpture for evidence of how artists used their tools and divided tasks in their workshops. He concludes his trilogy of introductory chapters by focusing on survival and reconstruction, alerting readers that much of what we currently see in the monuments themselves—let alone in photographs—is extremely misleading. Not only have works of sculpture been disassembled, moved, and drastically cleaned; they have too often been studied without regard to their intended placement and viewing conditions. Here Ames-Lewis provides some stunning comparisons among photographs taken from different angles, distances, and lighting conditions that well illustrate his point about the need to examine works firsthand and to consider original placement before moving on to offer interpretations and evaluations.

It takes Ames-Lewis fully one-third of his book to lay this groundwork, but it pays off magnificently when he then takes a closer look at key types of sculptural commissions: pulpits, cathedral facades, funerary monuments, and the rather unfortunately amorphous category he calls “sculpture in civic context.” In his discussion of pulpits he first examines the design and setting of the four best known examples of the period: those from Pisa Baptistry, Siena Cathedral, S. Andrea, Pistoia, and Pisa Cathedral. Analyses of inscriptions, the treatment of relief, and figure style follow. Again and again, readers will sense that a master teacher has prepared them for the task, especially when we noddingly agree at the end of the chapter that critics have been too severe on the Pisa Cathedral pulpit. Ames-Lewis is surely right that the oft-remarked “decline” in quality from the Pistoia pulpit to the Pisa Duomo has much to do with the fact that the Pisa example was intended to be fully polychromed. As Ames-Lewis astutely remarks, “Giovanni’s skillful carving on the Pistoia pulpit would have served no purpose at Pisa and would indeed have been counterproductive” (p. 118).

Unlike many introductory survey texts, this book does not seek to squeeze in as many examples as space allows. Instead, three cathedral facades (Siena, Florence, and Orvieto) serve in the next chapter to complement the previous discussion of four pulpits. Here the civic theme is more definable and the sense of competition implied by the book’s subtitle becomes more evident. Ames-Lewis is particularly attentive to urbanistic differences and historical circumstances as well as local stylistic traditions that distinguish one center from the other. Thus, Siena and Florence Cathedral facades are not different simply because Arnolfo di Cambio and Giovanni Pisano had such different artistic personalities: one facade (Siena) was the culmination of a long evolving Marian program, the other (Florence) its first expression; Siena Cathedral stood triumphantly alone on its hilltop site, while Florence Cathedral was part of a triad with the Baptistry and eventual campanile; and because of the relative chronology, we can be confident that the Florentines would have been well aware of what had been planned for Siena and therefore were intent to vary their program and even its style accordingly, purposefully choosing (or at least preferring) Arnolfo’s reserve and blockiness over Giovanni’s freer expressionism.

As Ames-Lewis turns to funerary monuments in Chapter 6, he necessarily enlarges his number of examples, carefully noting the widespread destruction and dismemberment we first learned about in Chapter 3. In the face of such fragmentary evidence, he is wise to offer a series of suggestions for reconstructing the tombs of Henry VII and Margaret of Luxemburg, a real boon for general and novice readers, who too often are provided overly simple answers to complicated problems. Ames-Lewis also widens his geographical boundaries, making brief and somewhat unsatisfying forays to Rome, Naples, and Bologna. Having defined “Tuscan” marble carving by its makers rather than its intended location, Ames-Lewis begins to lose the tight focus of his earlier chapters. To his credit, we are particularly aware of the difficulty, because he has done such a good job convincing us about the importance of local traditions and circumstances. We are sometimes able to appreciate them still (as, for example, in the Bishop Tarlati monument in Arezzo), but there is a curious weakening of analysis here. One almost senses the exhaustion of the end of the semester. By Chapter 7 (“Sculpture in Civic Context”) we are presented with odds and ends of what is actually funerary art (portrait figures and narratives from tomb monuments) along with a cursory look at the Campanile reliefs and Andrea Pisano’s bronze doors from Florence and the Fontana Maggiore in Perugia (the latter ostensibly having motivated the creation of the chapter in the first place). It is an unfortunately ragged ending for such an engaging and previously rigorous enterprise.

I have two other concerns about this otherwise thoughtful text. One was probably somewhat out of the author’s control (the less than user-friendly distribution of black and white illustrations—surely the designer’s failing), but he must take direct responsibility for the other: the absolutely inferior quality of most of the color plates (all of which are reproduced from the author’s own photographs). After being warned about the flattening and distorting effects of flash photography, it comes more as an insult than a shock (which it is) to examine the largely grainy, smudged, and out of focus color images, let alone the glowing white plaster fig leaf dominating the photograph of Giovanni Pisano’s Fortitude in Pisa! It is hard to imagine what students will make of such pictures, especially in a text that is so beautifully attuned to visual nuances. Will they be motivated to buy a plane ticket and see the real thing, or will they assume that the author has overstated his case (which he has not)? The main problem with the layout is that the black and white illustrations are largely keyed to the last three chapters rather than the three introductory ones, so the reader is fully a third through the book before text and image work well together.

This said, let me reiterate how much there is to be gained from this book. Lecturers will want to consult it to refresh and augment their understanding of many of the key monuments; patient students will probably find the first three chapters particularly helpful in arming themselves with the tools necessary to approach the subject. Dedicated lay enthusiasts would certainly enjoy putting the book’s observations to the test in front of the monuments themselves, which Ames-Lewis has clearly demonstrated deserve and reward close scrutiny.

Gary Radke
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Syracuse University