Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 29, 1999
Judson J. Emerick The Tempietto des Clitunno near Spoleto University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998. 446 pp.; 208 b/w ills. Cloth $105.00 (0271017287)

In his long-awaited monograph on the Tempietto del Clitunno, Judson Emerick seeks to dispel the myths surrounding this enigmatic building. The fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanists who discovered the building saw it as a Roman temple converted to Christian purpose. Thus, Leon Battista Alberti observed, “I myself have seen in Umbria a small ancient temple…” (book 1, chapter 8). Modern scholars however, have concluded that the structure was built in the medieval period, principally because the carved tympana bear cross monograms unknown before the early fourth century. Subsequent debate has centered on the dating of the monument—with proposals from the early Christian to the Romanesque periods. Emerick joins this debate but also raises cogent questions about the nature and interpretation of the classical forms used in the Tempietto.

He begins the book, rather curiously, without any introductory chapter to frame the questions, or forecast his conclusions. Adopting a strict monographic format, Emerick first gives a description of the monument (chapter 1), and then provides the history of scholarship on it (chapter 2), and a survey of the written and visual records (chapters 3 and 4). He presents the archaeological analysis of the structure in chapters 5 and 6.

Emerick then treats each of the puzzling classical elements of the building in turn, considering the Corinthian orders (chapter 7), the richly carved tympana (chapter 8), the classical inscriptions with their anti-Arian sentiment (chapter 9), and the newly restored iconic frescoes (chapter 10). A final chapter (11) considers the problematic dating of the Tempietto.

Following de Rossi and others, Emerick argues that the building was constructed as a Christian chapel. His discussion of the Corinthian screen facade (chapter 7) forms the heart of his argument. Emerick first establishes that the builders incorporated spolia, but also created new and “matching” elements to create a facade convincingly Augustan in form and style. He links its design to imperial festive architecture, but rejects the notion that it should be read as a conscious classical quotation. Instead, he argues that screen facades continued to be used in festive buildings through the fourth century, and were appropriated by Christian church designers in late antique and medieval examples well into the twelfth century. He cites comparanda such as the sixth-century Baptistery of Saint-Jean in Poitiers, the ninth-century monastic church of Santa Prassede in Rome, and the twelfth-century facade of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard. On the basis of this rather limited but diverse set of examples, Emerick argues that the reuse of the screen does not signal a deliberate revival of forms read as Augustan, but rather the continued reuse of decorative schemes that were normative for the Middle Ages. He further argues that such forms are not themselves the carriers of meaning, but are “empty” and can only be invested with a range of meanings by successive viewers. Here, a fuller engagement with the rich scholarly debate on classical revival would have helped to situate Emerick’s conclusions within a broader context.

In his final chapter, Emerick wisely does not attempt to identify a single date or patron for the Tempietto, but rather suggests three possibilities. The first reading would place the building in the orbit of Lombard-Byzantine alliance in the early seventh to eighth centuries. The second alternative would see the building as a product of the period between the years 729 and 779. Emerick proposes that the building during this phase could either have been a stational church for papal display, or a chapel built by pro-imperial factions. The third alternative is the period between the late eighth and ninth centuries, when the dukes of Spoleto acted as agents of the new Frankish overlords. The decoration during this period would thus be seen as reinforcing Frankish theocratic statehood, though Emerick resists casting it as a product of the Carolingian “renascence.”

In this book, Emerick provides a new, more open-ended approach to the Tempietto. He also provides a full and critical survey in English of the largely Italian literature on the monument. Given the potentially wide appeal and utility of his work, and the importance of his controversial argument, it is all the more regrettable that the book lacks a true introduction and conclusion, and that the rich bibliographic apparatus amassed for this book is limited to the footnotes rather than a separate bibliography. Despite these limitations, Emerick’s book will remain not only the standard reference for the Tempietto del Clitunno, but should also stimulate debate on the nature of classical revival.

Sheila Bonde
Brown University