Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 29, 2003
Victor M. Schmidt, ed. Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, 2002. 528 pp.; 24 color ills.; 369 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300094612)

In 1939, and in response to the massive Mostra Giottesca of 1938, Roberto Longhi wrote a sour, intentionally provocative piece that he curtly called his Guidizio sul Duecento, or judgment regarding the thirteenth century. In the essay, Longhi fretted that writers on medieval art had become so absorbed in establishing the authorship and origins of images that they had largely forgotten to act as responsible critics. They had thus also begun to forget that the majority of dugento works represented—in Longhi’s unshrinking opinion—tired and often-confused debasements of Byzantine imports. Using terminology that was all too common in Fascist Italy, Longhi saw dugento aesthetic tendencies as basically alien, forced improbably into the body of a once-pure Italian tradition. And while he did admit the presence of several native masters, the century as a whole was, in Longhi’s eyes, unrewarding artistic terrain.

Longhi’s essay is rarely read now, but it remains a relevant piece—especially in light of the recent publication of Italian Panel Painting of the Duecento and Trecento, a collection of twenty-three papers delivered at two CASVA symposia held in Florence and Washington, DC, in 1998. This is a fine book. Edited by Victor M. Schmidt (who also contributes two essays) and generously illustrated, the volume includes papers by many influential scholars working on the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Almost without exception, these are provocative and worthwhile essays. They focus, as the title suggests, on panel paintings (although there is one essay on the Florentine baptistery mosaics, processional panels, something of a hot topic in the past few years, are excluded). As a result, certain bands of evidence tend to predominate: most of the contributions examine Tuscan and Umbrian altarpieces and polyptychs. Despite this focus, however, the essays vary considerably in their scope and subject as well as their methodology. And so, while the volume makes no effort at exhaustiveness, it offers, without necessarily even meaning to, an interesting overview of late-medieval Italian art history. In other words, if this book is not entirely typical of work in the field, it is more typical than most, and so affords a reader interested in the state of the field a chance to issue a judgment regarding Longhi’s assertion. Has scholarship in the area continued to rely largely upon connoisseurship, and to abdicate a critical role? And, if so, is this to be lamented?

The answer to the first question is a qualified yes. In the years since 1939, historians of dugento art have moved even further away from true criticism, and the essays here demonstrate this. With a few exceptions, historical fact, rather than aesthetic reaction, is primary. (Even the exceptions are telling: witness Hayden Maginnis’ happily enthusiastic response to a dugento Annunciation, which nevertheless soon gives way to a more sobering consideration of authorship.) And historical fact still means, in many of these essays, a basic concern with issues of authorship, date, and production. Thus Jaroslav Folda describes a range of cultural influences that may have affected the painter of the Mellon Madonna, and Jerzy Miziolek uses various sources in arguing that the earliest historiated marriage chests, or cassoni, can be assigned to the 1380s. Both Maginnis and Gaudenz Freuler, in an intriguing piece on images of the Virgin that were apparently painted on spec, concentrate on aspects of workshop practice.

At the same time, however, several of the authors are more interested in use and reception than in production. Elisabeth Mognetti examines a painted crucifix by Lorenzo di Bicci for signs of wear that might indicate patterns of usage, and Peter Seller reads Duccio di Buoninsegna’s famous Maestà in light of liturgical geography and practice. This interest in the actual uses of late-medieval images, and in the intended audiences of such works, is fully welcome, for the audience was largely overlooked in much early-medieval art history. But it is hardly radical; rather, it is merely a sign that reception theory has begun to shape this corner of art history, and still in terms that are literal and concrete. There are few echoes, in these essays, of the playful, punning formulations of Michael Camille or the probing interest in the body as a system of discourses that has characterized much post-Foucauldian writing on medieval literature. In fact, with the exception of a piece by Lars Jones on the ambiguities of frames in a group of panels, these are not essays generally driven by theoretical concerns—and perhaps they should not be. After all, the essays’ guiding concern with the essential facts of production parallels the pragmatism of most medieval contracts and inventories. Dugento painters did not think in Lacanian terms, and neither, clearly, do many of their most devoted scholars. Perhaps conservative artistic periods deserve relatively conservative methodologies.

That said, though, the essays in this volume are interesting in their tentative, but also very optimistic, enthusiasm regarding close chemical and physical analysis. This is a sign of something new, but as an approach it remains undeveloped. Several authors stress the potential importance of what Marco Ciatti calls material analysis, but few of them—with the notable exceptions of Ciatti, the director of the paintings conservation laboratory at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, and Mognetti—do much more than speculate. Barbara John might be taken as typical in this regard: in an otherwise helpful essay on a now disassembled narrative cycle by Guido da Siena, she rather generically adds that “it is to be hoped that further scientific examination of all the panels involved will yield new information” (287). Schmidt, likewise, pauses at different points to urge further physical study of objects at hand. Such comments, which are more gestures toward a nascent methodology than expressions of dissatisfaction with traditional documentary work or pure formal analysis, nevertheless suggest a growing interest in the communion of art history and hard science—a point that perhaps ought to be heeded by graduate students with the chance to take a conservation class.

Curiously, though, this interest in close physical detail has not replaced an abiding, and much more abstract, fascination with typologies. Categories still beguile the mind of these medieval art historians, much as they held captivated Romanesque encyclopedists. In his introduction, Schmidt urges the further study of the origin and development of specific types, and several writers make this a central concern. Thus Gail Solberg examines the types of polyptychs produced by Taddeo di Bartolo, linking them to patrons’ desires for regional associations, and Joanna Cannon compares three large rectangular vita panels, from different cities, that feature female saints. This preoccupation with fundamental typologies, already evident in Edward Garrison’s well-known Italian Romanesque Panel Painting: An Illustrated Index (Florence: L. S. Olschki, 1949), is perhaps most interesting in its implications for workshop practice. If artists and patrons did think in terms of basic types or genres, then carpentry shops and painters may have specialized in specific forms. On the other hand, the study of typologies does have its limits; as both Cannon and Kees van der Ploeg (in an essay on the use and placement of medieval altarpieces) note, a single type of image cannot always be associated with a single function. Specific types of panel paintings clearly existed, but a similarity in form did not necessarily imply a similarity of function.

In fact, dugento and trecento paintings and their uses may have been characterized by considerable fluidity. Several of the essays in this volume suggest various possible functions for single images. Clearly this is occasionally due to a lack of data, but clearly, too, images were commonly recycled or variously used. As Elvio Lunghi notes, in an essay on early Franciscan imagery, the Franciscans evidently inherited some of their first images, and were deeply influenced by Cistercian ideas as well. This fluidity of practice was paralleled, in turn, by an apparent exchange of artistic ideas and forms. It is becoming increasingly clear that works in different media influenced one another, and that artistic ideas crossed political boundaries with surprising ease. The basic idea that Italian panel painters may have been influenced by metalworkers and ivory carvings is not new, but it is extended and refined in several of the essays here; Folda, for example, adduces French ivories as a possible source for the Mellon panel. Thus the search for sources continues, but now with a wider and more flexible net.

Perhaps this fact also represents, as much as any other, a response to Longhi’s final charge. Dugento painting may have been greatly shaped by Byzantine example, but it is clear that that process of influence was far from simple or singular. And this enjoyable new entry in the field proves that many writers, more than a half century after Longhi, still find something of basic value in dugento panel painting. This is a field that is conservative by nature, but that is hardly sterile. Despite Longhi’s dire warnings, in fact, it continues to grow.

Kerr Houston
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, Maryland Institute College of Art

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