Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2018
Ittai Weinryb The Bronze Object in the Middle Ages New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 305 pp.; 108 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Hardcover (9781107123618)
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In 1935 Otto von Falke and Erich Meyer published the first volume of Bronzegeräte des Mittelalters (Bronze Utensils of the Middle Ages), the long-running series of corpus-wide surveys of bronze objects (door knockers, cross bases, lavabos, etc.), whose seventh installment, Hiltrud Westermann-Angerhausen’s corpus of censers from ca. 800–1500, appeared in 2014. Each volume consists of a catalogue, rigorously formalist in method, prefaced by an introduction to the history, form, function, and material of the objects of study. The medium- and Gerät-specific mandates of these pioneering reference works helped to ensconce such otherwise marginalized objects within the discipline of medieval art history, and indeed, the Bronzegeräte series constitutes yet another reminder, familiar but still necessary, that medieval metalwork remains a field most thoroughly explored by French and especially German art history. Anglophone scholarship, especially recently, has contributed its own field-defining interventions, and yet the English-language engagement with medieval metalwork, be it precious, base, small-scale, or monumental, remains comparatively limited and therefore especially rich with potential.

Ittai Weinryb’s The Bronze Object in the Middle Ages thus signals a welcome, provocative, occasionally challenging, and decidedly fruitful addition to the field. A corpus-specific survey it is not. Instead, Weinryb offers a sustained and many-faceted meditation on how bronze objects, broadly defined, were conceived, perceived, and experienced; how they interacted with their environments and their communities; how they embodied marvelous technologies and different practices of knowledge—in short, how the bronze object was significant. Weinryb anchors his study in public monumental bronzes fabricated by the lost-wax casting process, such as doors, bells, fountains, and monumental sculpture, mostly Italian and German. Monumental candelabra, lamps, Radleuchter (wheel chandeliers), and portably scaled objects, with a few important exceptions, do not appear. Weinryb’s thesis, that the bronze object fostered “a unique form of engagement of humans and objects that is a result of the particular nature of its medium” (3), foregrounds not only material but, equally important, technique as primary bearers of meaning. Such a broad scope is necessary: a canonical and overarching framework for the study, in English, of medieval bronze—unlike Classical or Renaissance bronzes, or various other medieval media—is yet outstanding. (In German, the work of Ursula Mende, Norberto Gramaccini, and Thomas Raff remains foundational.)

The book’s four chapters—“Making,” “Signification,” “Acting,” and “Being”—progress, almost episodically, through a thematic chain of objects, texts, and hypotheses. A loose chronology underpins the whole: after nodding to antique precedent, Weinryb moves from canonical Carolingian and Ottonian monuments at Aachen, Mainz, and Hildesheim through a selection of eleventh- and twelfth-century bronzes, especially monumental doors in Italy and Sicily, and ultimately to the late-thirteenth-century Fontana Maggiore in Perugia. Interwoven throughout, and equally fundamental to Weinryb’s arguments, is a range of other bronze objects, including many that should loom larger for medieval art historians, including a variety of bells; the Krodo Altar and imperial throne in Goslar; the twelfth-century aeolipile now in Vienna; and the 1301 statue of Boniface VIII in Bologna.

In both the introduction and chapter 1, “Making,” Weinryb establishes key features of the definition, presence, and ontology of the bronze object in terms of material, form, and technique. Bronze must be understood not as a naturally occurring substance but as the alloy that it is, fabricated and man-made. Bronze, being a metal, is recyclable: it therefore exists as a material continuity that both precedes and persists through any number of formal iterations. Form, though mutable, is still necessary, Weinryb maintains: “Materials persist not as images but through their presence, even if this presence is always signified through form” (55). From this compulsory interdependence of material and form, Weinryb proposes that the monumental doors at Aachen and Mainz, so distinctive for their lack of decoration and “austere presence” (26), function “above all [as] a pure representation” of bronze (16)—the object, having been shaped into a socially identifiable thing (in this example, a door), occurs as not only presentation but representation of its constituent material.

The man-made, composite, nonnatural nature of the bronze alloy—perhaps redolent of the thrilling (and dangerous) possibilities of alchemical transmutation that had begun to seep into the Latin West during the eleventh and twelfth centuries—helps declare bronze as a marvelous technological feat to be admired as such, especially given the lost-wax casting technique. Lost-wax casting, known since antiquity but reintensified in use with the economic stabilization of the Carolingian West, was sufficiently remarkable to generate what Weinryb identifies as an “iconology of technique” that inhered within its artifacts (45). The man-made status of the lost-wax-cast bronze, and of metal alloys in general, invites comparison with the acheiropoieton, the image miraculously made not with human hands; the alloy, thus denigrated as something fictional, perhaps even idolatrous, would then be recovered by thirteenth-century natural philosophical traditions of the marvelous. Prerequisite to all these observations is the idea that medieval audiences were subtly attuned to not only presence but also process: the method of manufacture and sourcing of materials (and any potential afterlives of the object, including liquidation) were evident and discernible in the finished product.

Chapter 2, “Signification,” juxtaposes formless with formed matter and traces their respective significances. Using a late-eleventh-century bronze reliquary, now in Hamburg, whose openwork surfaces are composed of luxuriously leafy foliate scrolls, Weinryb offers a bold interpretation and application of Calcidius’s commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. Calcidius translates the Greek hyle (matter) as the Latin silva, which could mean “primordial matter,” and material potentiality in general, but also “forest” and untamed vegetation; Isidore of Seville, in turn, would describe this forest/matter amalgam as something “capable of all forms” (68). Medieval artists, having been charged with inventing form from matter, seized upon vegetal ornament to represent silva, this unformed, presignificant material that, as “the true materiality of the world” (68), embodied “the potential of abstract matter to become form again” (69). Weinryb connects this tradition of Calcidian silva to bronze itself, which, through its man-made composition and cast form, connotes this potentiality.

Such formless matter contrasts sharply with those objects, such as baptismal fonts and doors, whose form deliberately bore specific meaning. Weinryb sees eleventh- and twelfth-century doors in Italy, for example, as inhabitants of a wider Kunstgeographie of monumental, lost-wax-cast bronze doors; the Italian doors, members of the illustrious series inaugurated in Aachen, were thereby “linked to northern European and German dynastic elites” (107). For single-cast doors, such as one of the cathedral doors in Canosa di Puglia, the resonance with the northern tradition was clear, although those doors built up from multiple pieces, including those at San Clemente a Casauria in Pescara or the Cappella Palatina in Palermo, still evoked northern secular authority; Byzantine bronze doors, typically decorated with engraved surfaces and silver and niello inlay, also conveyed secular power.

Chapter 3, “Acting,” investigates the agency of bronze objects, especially in the guise of apotropaic figures (e.g., the Brazen Serpent now in Sant’Ambrogio, Milan; various images in the doors of San Zeno, Verona) and bells, whose sonority served to mark a controlled, protected, and Christianized space. Weinryb contextualizes such operative bronzes with medieval theories of the evil eye and the history of science across the Arabic, Greek, and Latin traditions. Bells, fascinatingly, were enlivened, animated things (as were all bronzes, per Weinryb), objects that had to be baptized, consecrated, sanctified with incense, and not infrequently exorcised to expunge any evil spirits residing within.

Chapter 4, “Being,” casts the bronze object as a public, communal monument that, through its sheer presence, functioned as an essential “centerpiece” (147) of the urban environment. Focusing on automata, water clocks, and ultimately fountains, Weinryb sees monumental bronzes as both loci for community formation and civic identity and, intriguingly, authoritative objects that surveilled their landscape. The marvelously complex and technologically enchanting Perugia fountain, for example, doubled, crucially, as “an overseer of the orderly commune” (198). The object, while gazed at, gazes back with command.

Multiple avenues for future research unfurl from Weinryb’s probing and multifaceted study. Questions of technological wonder, monumentality, the public sphere, and the marvelous, while tailored here to the bronze object, can apply broadly. The necessary emphasis on bronze as an alloy of variable composition teases vital questions of definition and appearance. For example, Weinryb establishes at the outset that medieval copper alloys, in both discourse and practice, were unstable and fluid entities that resist modern classifications of “bronze” and “brass”; Weinryb chooses, therefore, to refer to all copper alloys as bronzes (4–5), which may perhaps encourage future scholars to scrutinize this question of material identity (e.g., when can we speak of “medieval copper,” or “medieval brass”?). Questions of surface treatment and patination, always frustrating, continue to tantalize. Weinryb refers to monumental bronzes being covered with wax or oil, or their surfaces otherwise maintained to prevent corrosion, but he also mentions the alternative desire for spectacular patination (16n4 and 115n20). Gilding practices complicate further: How frequently were such monumental bronzes gilded, and when they were, as with the Bologna statue of Boniface VIII, how did their bronze substance, and the marvelous technology entailed therein, signify? These and other inquiries brim with possibility, and Weinryb has established a compelling framework of manufacture, knowledge, presence, and activation for their exploration.

Joseph Salvatore Ackley
Term Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Barnard College

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