Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 9, 2002
Anita Fiderer Moskowitz Italian Gothic Sculpture c. 1250–c. 1400 Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 401 pp.; 395 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0521444837)
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Anita Moskowitz has devoted her distinguished career to two distinct albeit related subjects: the study of Italian sculpture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the definition of the Italian variant of “Gothic” style. The period broadly defined by the chronological limits of this book is habitually called Gothic, yet pinning down precisely what is meant by this term in Italy is not an easy task. Moskowitz succeeds in defining and explaining Italian Gothic as it was expressed in sculptural form. As Moskowitz notes in her Conclusion, Italian Gothic sculpture was forged of a “complex dialectic produced by the absorption, adaptation, rejection, and reinvention of diverse stylistic and iconographic currents…combined with a creative eclectic openness to everything that could serve local needs” (324). And with admirably clear and direct prose, Moskowitz proves her case in the preceding chapters.

Italian Gothic Sculpture: c. 1250–c.1400 fills an important gap in Italian art-historical studies, for there are only two other such surveys in English: John Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1955; reissued several times by Phaidon with new appendices and updated bibliographies, most recently in 1997) and John White’s Art and Architecture in Italy 1250 to 1400 (London and Baltimore: Penguin, 1966; modified slightly in a second edition [Harmondswoth and New York: Penguin, 1987] and once more in a third edition [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993]), which includes some discussion of sculpture. These two books are long on style and connoisseurship while short on iconography and patronage; thus, in both, content and context are in short supply. Notable specialized studies in English include Julian Gardner’s The Tomb and the Tiara: Curial Tomb Sculpture in Rome and Avignon in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), which examines tombs of popes and prelates; Debra Pincus’s The Tombs of the Doges of Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Francis Ames-Lewis’s Tuscan Marble Carving 1250–1350: Sculpture and Civic Pride (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 1997); and Moskowitz’s own Nicola Pisano’s Arca di San Domenico and Its Legacy (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1994). A smattering of monographic studies of artists has appeared as well, including Moskowitz’s The Sculpture of Andrea and Nino Pisano (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), an exhaustive tome on style and iconography. Important essays in festschriften and in similarly obscure collections have been published in a variety of languages but are less easily obtainable. Moskowitz has done an excellent job digesting the secondary literature; even the occasional unpublished master’s thesis is cited and used in her latest book. Its comprehensive summation of the literature makes the book eminently useful for classroom use even as it functions as an indispensable reference tool for scholars.

The study of Italian Gothic sculpture has been eclipsed by that of painting in the period, perhaps unsurprising given the prominence of painters such as Giotto, Duccio, and the Lorenzetti brothers. This relative lack of attention, however, has its positive aspects; studies of Italian sculpture have not been weighed down by the two dominant and tired tropes of trecento painting studies: the impact (or lack of same) of the Black Death and the reading or misreading of Giorgio Vasari. Thus, the study of Gothic sculpture in Italy is lightly tilled but fertile ground.

There is much to admire in Italian Gothic Sculpture. The volume is clearly organized, beginning with a broad Introduction—aimed at the student or general reader—that reviews basic but important issues, such as working techniques, and provides some information about the historical context of the period. Abandoning the catalogue raisonné format of Pope-Hennessy’s book, in which full-page photos are sandwiched between a generalized expository text and the “real content” is organized by artist and located in the notes to the plates (and again in the appendix of later editions), Moskowitz develops her text as a narrative that unfolds systematically by region and period in ten chapters. Jettisoning an emphasis on individual artists allows Moskowitz to include a wide range of works whose creators are unknown. The layout, which places the relevant photographs and diagrams on the same pages as the text, combined with a forthright and jargon-free writing style, make the book eminently readable. Moskowitz’s sensitive eye guides us securely through the stylistic history of Italian Gothic sculpture. Excelling in articulating the compositional nuances of tomb design, she also does a masterful job describing the stylistic evolution of artists such as Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, as well as that of Arnolfo di Cambio. But Moskowitz does not take a solely monographic approach. Rather, she presents, perhaps for the first time, a unified view of Italian sculpture of the period, focused less on individual artists and more on the art itself. This alone is a wonderful contribution. Moskowitz skillfully explains how a work of sculpture would have looked to a contemporary viewer. For example, she observes that the structure of Nicola Pisano’s Pisa Baptistry pulpit, as well as “the sequence of the narratives, invited and determined the movement of the observer” (30–31) so that one’s first encounter from a distance would have been of reliefs with figures at a larger scale than those found on the rest of the panels. As the viewer moved closer to the pulpit and then around it, the unfolding story guided him or her to progressively more densely packed panels.

After examining regions chronologically, Moskowitz ranges across time and space to ponder broader thematic and typological questions in her important Chapter 8, "Characteristic Forms: Tradition and Innovation. In Chapter 9, “Some Problems in Italian Gothic Sculpture: Case Studies,” she introduces the reader to the complexities of the dating, attribution, and reconstructions of monuments. The discussion largely focuses on works of sculpture examined by Moskowitz in earlier publications. This section, brief but useful, reminds us of the stylistic work yet to be done and the difficulties encountered by the art historian in grappling with the subject.

While clearly more comfortable with matters of style, Moskowitz does endeavor to include something about the iconography and patronage of major programs, although in some instances this information is more limited than one might have wished. One neither expects nor wants fully evolved iconographic studies of every sculptural program in a survey book. Yet, for example, the iconography of the Tarlati Monument (Arezzo Cathedral), which Moskowitz rightly considers “the most impressive Sienese tomb of the fourteenth century” (117) for its size and narrative ambition, is developed less fully than it seems to warrant. Guido Tarlati, as bishop and lord of Arezzo, had positioned himself as an opponent to the Avignon pope John XXII, going so far as to crown Ludwig of Bavaria when he visited Milan in 1327, thus earning the opprobrium of the pope, who was exerting his own heavy hand into Italian politics. Moskowitz correctly notes that this tomb depicted “an unprecedented sixteen scenes from the bishop’s life, with the largest number devoted to military feats” (118). While she observes that the narratives carried a strongly political message about survival in a medieval commune, her discussion would have benefited from details on the particular narratives and more information about this immensely intriguing historical figure, his dealings with other communes, and his papal adversary. Without this context, the premise of the tomb’s singularity is not as powerful.

Other iconographic lacunae engage our curiosity. For example, in her treatment of the Arca di San Domenico in Chapter 2 (the subject of her earlier monograph), Moskowitz posits that the inclusion of the scene of Saint Dominic raising Napoleone Orsini was based on a need to demonstrate the saint’s power as a healer in a shrine that would claim thaumaturgical power (32). Certainly this is true. Yet the Orsini family, in addition to producing a great number of popes, was an energetic supporter of the papacy against the Ghibellines and Frederick II. “Orsini for the church, Colonna for the people” was the political slogan of the day. The Dominicans were at least as interested in being affiliated with Orsini papal allegiance as they were in Dominic’s miraculous powers, yet this rates no mention in Moskowitz’s book (nor is it considered in her earlier Arca monograph).

Similarly, matters of patronage could have been better developed. While laudably discussing the significant role of the mendicant orders in patronage, particularly of tomb sculpture, Moskowitz sometimes neglects to offer connections between patron and monument. For example, in observing the presence of the sovereigns of Cyprus together with members of the Visconti family in a relief on the Arca di San Pietro Martire (Chapter 6), Moskowitz rightly notes their joint participation as patrons of the tomb, but she never probes the reason for such a collaboration.

This reviewer, currently preparing a monograph on the tomb, would offer one correction: Moskowitz asserts that the Arca di Sant’Agostino in Pavia was erected by the Augustinian Hermits and the Pavian people in competition with the Arca of San Pietro Martire in Milan, seat of the “hated Visconti” (211). The source of this information, Giacinto Romano, was an early twentieth-century Pavian historian with an almost splenetic dislike of both the Visconti and the Augustinian Hermits. Yet, documentary material indicates that Galeazzo II Visconti, who was lord of Pavia when the first stage of the tomb was completed in 1362, not only gave money for the tomb himself, but also leaned on his allies and wealthy Pavians to pay for the tomb, supplying the bulk of the four thousand florins that it cost to build.

My quibbles aside, as with all seminal works, Italian Gothic Sculpture whets the scholarly appetite. The book presents a number of problems that can now be clarified by further studies. Art historians need no longer probe the stylistic core of Gothic sculpture in Italy. Thanks to Moskowitz, we now know what Italian Gothic sculpture is and what it looks like, where it happened and who were its major and minor practitioners. Moskowitz has provided a new foundation upon which the rest of us can build. Italianists and historians of sculpture will turn to this book first for years to come. Italian Gothic Sculpture’s sheer comprehensiveness renders it immediately the standard reference tool in the field.

Sharon Dale
Associate Professor of Art History, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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