Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 30, 2000
Mojmir Frinta Punched Decoration on Late Medieval and Miniature Painting Prague: Maxdorf. 556 pp. (8085800942)

This volume, the first of two, offers a catalogue raisonné of the diverse motif punch impressions in panel painting and book illumination collected by the auther over a span of thirty-five years. As indicated in the title, the volume covers such evidence in the period from the early fourteenth to the fifteenth century in Italy, and also in countries north of the Alps, especially Bohemia. It further includes some early Byzantine and late medieval material. The photos of the motif punch impressions have been enlarged threefold for better reading. An accompanying metric scale allows for precise measurement. The motif punches are catalogued according to specific type of shape. A list of paintings on which a particular punch appears is given below its image. A primary research advantage of the publication is that the quality of the reproductions is generally high. The author explains that the second volume will offer charts of the motif punches used by pertinent masters in specific autograph or shop works. As a preview, he adds the chart of those used by Pietro Lorenzetti in an appendix (548f). A bibliography is lacking, also to appear, it can be assumed, in the second volume.

The coverage of motif punch marks in the catalogue is impressive. In what can only be described as a labor of profound commitment, the author has collected more than 16,000 examples over a period of three decades. The data gathered in the catalogue contributes significantly to the detailed classification of late medieval and Renaissance painting. This applies especially to later medieval and early Renaissance panel painting in Italy when motif punches were widely used for the decoration of borders, frames and especially haloes.

Made of metal, the motif punch left the impression of a particular design in reverse relief when applied with some force on the yielding gesso ground. Careful scrutiny of these impressions can serve to trace the appearance of specific motif punches in a series of paintings. This mode of analysis only serves, however, when sufficient punch mark evidence survives and is comprehensively examined, as Frinta has done. Such scholarship introduces a quantitative means in the classification of paintings, informing assessments of authorship and shop affiliation, and in turn confirming, or in some instances denying and correcting, established scholarly opinion.

Such assessments are dependent on a painter’s extended use of diverse motif punches in a series of paintings. Changes in the collective appearance of the marks, as frequently occurs, may contribute to an awareness of chronological sequence. Obviously, their analytical interpretation requires considerable care, since motif punches can be shared by a number of painters who are active in the same shop. They can even be borrowed for specific commissions. The punches can also move from artist to artist and even from place to place, by way of travel, inheritance, sale or other means. A fascinating example is the move of a number of motif punches from Siena to Florence in the period following the Black Death, an incident that has been explored by Erling Skaug (see below). In essence, the motif punch forms part of the “genetic code” of the painting in which it appears, to be used in conjunction with traditional means of analysis for determining the painting’s art historical position.

The systematic collection of motif punch impressions on a wide scale for purposes of quantitative art historical analysis has only emerged in recent decades. Among the few scholars who have devoted themselves to this issue, Mojmir Frinta is joined by Erling Skaug, whose important book Punch Marks from Giotto to Fra Angelico. Attribution, Chronology, and Workshop Relationships in Tuscan Panel Painting c.1330-1430 (The Nordic Group, the Norwegian Section: 1993, 2 vols), has a narrower historical and geographical frame than does that of Frintaös book. Significantly, despite its less ambitious coverage, Skaug’s book sets an example for future work in its comprehensive presentation of the evidence: regarding how the motif punch serves in art historical analysis, and how it is positioned in the wider range of decorative practices used at the time. Comparing Skaug’s charts detailing Pietro Lorenzetti’s use of motif punches with the one included at the end of Frinta’s book, one becomes aware of certain limitations in the latter that should be addressed. For example, it would be useful if the diagrams of the motif punches corresponded to their actual size, and there should be reference (if applicable) to their provenance, including their passage to other masters.

Frinta limits himself exclusively to the scrutiny of the motif punch in Renaissance panel painting and book illumination. He excludes mural painting from his investigation. This is unfortunate, since it is through mural painting that Simone Martini developed composite motif punch design on haloes and thereby greatly influenced the future course of trecento panel painting. Similarly, in his book, Skaug refers Simone Martini’s innovations, but does not deal with them in detail. Furthermore, neither Frinta nor Skaug considers the potential contribution of scribed (manually shaped) ornament to the classification of paintings (with or without the complementary presence of punch marks). Particular artists have distinctive and idiosyncratic decorative preferences for such scribed ornament, as my work has shown. This is open territory for further investigation.

Although much relevant information can be culled by the patient scholar from the careful scrutiny of Frinta’s catalogue raisonné, difficulties do arise. For example, a survey of Simone Martini’s motif punches, discounting those used by his “shop” and “followers,” would require checking seventy-one separate entries. Furthermore, the catalogue does not include a summary of individual painters’ typical and/or preferred composite punched designs; a discussion of the idiosyncratic shapes can have diagnostic value. Finally, I also find that Frinta’s illustrations of paintings preceding the catalogue proper do not bear directly on the character of the respective ornament, since they are not sufficiently detailed.

Obviously, the sheer numbers involved have created immense logistical problems in the systematic gathering of this kind of information, and Mojmir Frinta is to be congratulated on his effort. The general high quality of his microphotographs is most helpful. His catalogue raisonné of motif punch impressions constitutes an important contribution to our understanding, and the further study, of late medieval and early Renaissance painting. One looks forward to his second volume.

Joseph Polzer
The University of Calgary.