Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 30, 2021
Bryan C. Keene and Karl Whittington, eds. New Horizons in Trecento Italian Art Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2020. 320 pp.; 200 color ills. Cloth €115.00 (9782503586182)

This volume of papers from the Andrew Ladis Trecento Conference held in 2018 attempts to relocate the study of Italian art, 1300–1400, a field historically dominated by attribution and connoisseurship, into new art historical methodologies and critical methods. The editors identify some of these as the study of gender, reception of art by diverse audiences, and interrelationships between artistic imagery, sermons, and vernacular texts; they also discuss the exploration of abstract concepts like time or knowledge, theoretical approaches to pictorial space, and a shift in scholarly attention to the later trecento. For this reviewer, the most innovative papers address the significance of materials, reception of and response to narrative and nonnarrative art, and international cross-cultural exchange. Altogether the volume offers a rich collection of fresh research that can be mined for content and methodology by the next generation of students and scholars.

Finding the connective tissue that transforms a group of conference papers into a cohesive print volume is a difficult editorial challenge. The first issue that confronts the reader in this instance is the chapter organization: Matter and Material; Narrative and Response; Prototypes: Local and Global; Art and Identity; Time and Knowledge; Local Sanctities; and The Trecento in the Present. These rubrics struggle to encapsulate the chapters’ subjects and methods, and many of the papers could have been situated in different chapters. In Matter and Material, two papers clearly fit. Sarah Kozlowski’s “Stone, Paint, Flesh: Fictive Porphyry Exteriors in a Group of Multipart Panel Paintings from Angevin Naples” asks the questions: Why porphyry? How did its painted imitation create meaning for patrons in Naples in the 1330s–40s? She suggests that the fictive purple stone referenced imperial monuments of Constantine and Norman Sicily, eastern Mediterranean icons, and, of course, the slab of stone on which Christ’s body was laid. George Bent’s “Jacopo, Niccolo, and Paintings in the Books for Santa Maria degli Angeli” finds a blurring of boundaries between illuminators and panel painters. The choral books, dating to 1368–1418, were like small panel paintings or predellas, and neither patrons nor artists perceived a sharp distinction between these two materials. Thus, Bent suggests, we need to rethink their categorization by material. Patricia Simon’s paper in this part of the volume, “Altar as Stage,” features a multifaceted methodology, examining "the visual, material and experiential aspects of church performances that informed narrative frameworks” (39). The content mainly concerns liturgical practices and experiential engagement by viewers, which would have fit better under the Narrative and Response rubric. Finally, even though Ana Munk’s “Painted Wood Caskets for Saints in Trecento Venice” highlights the symbolic power of wood, exploring how the original packing crates for shipping bodies and relics invested the wooden casket and relics of saint’s body with authenticity, it was not included in Matter and Material. 

Three papers present thought-provoking analyses in the realm of Narrative and Response. Claire Jensen’s “The Reliquary of the Column of the Flagellation: A Case for Narrative Reliquaries,” looks at these understudied objects and argues for a new genre of narrative within “speaking or shaped reliquaries.” She applies Seymour Chatman’s formalist-structuralist theory of narrative to support her claim. This represents a rethinking of critical approaches to these objects. Theresa Flanigan’s “Seeing and Sensing Compassion: Giotto’s Naturalism in the Arena Chapel” explores the relationship between four frescoes and a contemporary Paduan commentary on the Problems of Aristotle by Pietro d’Albano (1257–1316), who speaks about compassion and sharing another’s pain even if we are not directly affected by the original cause. Flanigan points out that this is a medieval text that offers a medieval way of conceptualizing response. Finding such a text that correlates with Giotto’s naturalism adds to our understanding of his style. Laura Leeker’s “Fragmented Narrative in the Chapter House of San Francesco, Pistoia” explores a fresco cycle, attributed to Antonio Vite and dated ca. 1386, which has a puzzling discontinuous narrative and chronological flow. She concludes that it should be understood as a unique visual commentary that adapts the temporally disunified character of late medieval sermons. The frescoes invite meditation by viewers who themselves uncover and assemble their meaning. 

Viewer response to nonnarrative imagery is the focus of essays by Karl Whittington and Anna Majeski. In “Diagramming Triumph in Trecento Painting: Augustine and Thomas from Page to Wall,” Whittington outlines a new typology and the relationships between diagram, narrative, and allegory. Paintings of theological hierarchies and doctrines have been less studied because of their static style, poor preservation, and authorship by minor artists. In the trecento they were found in chapter houses, sacristies, private family chapels, and on public walls of churches, and they functioned as important advertisements for the teaching and theology of the Dominican and Augustinian Hermit orders. As with the fragmented narrative, they were open to interpretation by different audiences. Particularly striking is Whittington’s insight that they could be a reminder of communal identity for insiders while presenting an aspirational community for the public, like jamb figures on a cathedral facade. This turns upside down the old view of such paintings as dry, abstruse images created for a limited audience. Majeski also discusses public response in “Towards a New Reading of the Fifteenth-Century Astrological Cycle at Palazzo Ragione in Padua.” The enormous fresco cycle painted 1425–35 in Padua’s civic law courts has often defied description. Majeski sees the cycle as more than a representation of astrological science with coordinated images of labor, the zodiac signs, and planets, and proposes that it stimulated Paduans to meditate on their own position within natural and social cosmologies. 

New horizons are exceptionally clear in essays on international architectural exchanges. Erik Gustafson’s “Locating the Duomo of Milan in the European Trecento” is notably revealing. The traditional view of the Duomo’s elevation as an aspect of northern French style falls to new evidence of an architectural family of churches in the Kingdom of Aragon. Gustafson demonstrates that ducal and Episcopal patrons sought to make Milan a center of politics and prestige by drawing broadly from Mediterranean sources. Lorenzo Vigotti’s “The Ilkhanid-Italian Relationship during the Trecento: Medieval Persian prototypes for Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence” illuminates more distant cross-cultural networks. Enlarging upon Sanpaolesi’s analysis of the dome construction, Vigotti documents the presence of Italian friars and merchants in the Tartar court and the flow of luxury items from Tabriz to Venice. Thus far, no watertight evidence linking Brunelleschi’s dome to the mausoleum at Soltaniyeh has emerged, but international research efforts are expanding through collaborations between Italian and Iranian universities.

Art and identity is the concern in three studies of portraiture and the commemoration of individuals in their political and social context. Sonia Chiodo’s “A Tribute to Dante: The Giottesque Portrait in the Palazzo del Podestà in Florence” recaps arguments in the debate about whether the portrait was a true likeness or a later commemorative image created to celebrate the famous poet. She suggests that the iconographic detail of the twigged branch shows it was a tribute and exemplum in the civic context of the chapel. Elena Brizio’s “Visual Representation of Women’s Legal Duties in Medieval Siena,” the only gender study in the volume, uses archival documents to identify and interpret subjects and iconographic details in Sienese painting. She focuses on four pivotal life moments for women—betrothal, marriage, the tornata, and motherhood—and argues that women’s lives can be better understood using complementary visual and legal sources. Although placed in another section, Cathleen Fleck’s “Art of an Emblematic King: Robert I of Naples as King of Jerusalem in the Fourteenth Century,” also discusses artistic imagery that subtly promotes Robert’s descendancy from the Old Testament rulers of the Holy Land and his larger Mediterranean identity as King of Jerusalem. 

Other essays in the volume might have been gathered under a rubric of Time and Place. Luca Palozzi’s truly groundbreaking “Giotto and Time” investigates how the idea of time as motion, preached in sermons and seen in mechanical clocks, affected Giotto’s depiction of Christ’s physical death in the Santa Maria Novella crucifix and Giovanni Pisano’s round design for the Pisa Pulpit. Sandra Cardarelli’s “The Lignum Crucis and the Veneration of the Cross in the contado of Siena” discusses artworks at Massa Marittima that promoted the cult of a True Cross relic. Amber McAlister’s “The Bodies and Blood of Christ and the Virgin at Santa Maria Novella, Florence” analyzes the physical and spiritual interaction of miraculous images and their locations. In addition, two essays take more recent perspectives. Cathleen Hoeniger’s “Rising from the Rubble of World War II: The High Altar of Impruneta” documents the destruction and restoration of this local cult image, and Caroline Campbell’s “Engaging with the Trecento” discusses strategies used by the National Gallery, London, to make this period more interesting and accessible to the contemporary museum public. Campbell’s most timely and relevant remarks look toward future audiences, another “new horizon” for trecento art. 

Kathleen Giles Arthur
Professor Emerita, School of Art, Design, and Art History, James Madison University