2015 International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI
IAS-Sponsored Session

Civic Foundation Legends in Italian Art I: Rome and the City-Republics

Bernhard 210
Friday, May 15, 2015, 10:00-11:30 am

Organzier: Max Grossman, University of Texas at El Paso

Presider and Respondent: Judith Steinhoff, University of Houston

Abstract for the 3 linked sessions:

Nearly every Italian civitas created one or more foundation narratives that glorified and advertised its origins. In Florence, for example, an anonymous writer drafted a chronicle circa 1200 that recounted the city’s ancient past and the heroic exploits of its early leaders. In the trecento, Giovanni Villani expanded upon the story and embellished it with the addition of fanciful anecdotes. Other major centers, such as Arezzo, Perugia, and Bologna, formulated similar narratives, which told of conquering Romans or the noble Etruscans before them. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, civic legends—typically a conflation of history and myth—were already being promoted and disseminated through art and architecture, long before the age of Coluccio Salutati and Flavio Biondo. In cities that had actually been founded in antiquity, such artworks commonly served to enhance or exaggerate the historical truth, often with propagandistic intent. Other cities, such as Siena and Venice, were not established until the Middle Ages and thus found themselves in the difficult position of having to invent their ancient pasts. In Siena, the communal authorities adopted the Roman she-wolf as the primary symbol of the Republic by the middle of the duecento, and it was systematically replicated in painting and sculpture, including on the exterior of public buildings, until the end of the Renaissance period. These sessions investigate the artistic programs of Italian cities in the medieval and early modern eras as they relate to their foundation legends. These sessions aim to advance our understanding of the interrelation between civic identity and visual culture while exploring the complex sociopolitical circumstances underlying the manufacture and propagation of historical narratives.


Catherine R. Carver, University of Michigan — Ann Arbor
"A City Divided: Geographic Hierarchy and Civic Identity in Late Medieval Rome"

While other medieval Italian cities sought to create foundation legends that associated their histories with the glories of Ancient Rome, the Eternal City has always been inextricably tied to its particular historical origins. This intimacy has complicated the study of civic identity in late medieval Rome. From the age of Augustus through the medieval period, the city of Rome was marked by the development of multifarious institutional topographies, systems of urban organization that provided religious, social and administrative identities to the different sectors of the city. These cartographic designations simultaneously addressed and determined the social and spatial realities of the inhabitants of each respective quarter. Yet in the complexity inherent in Rome’s urban character, different moments were marked by interrelated institutional topographies. This paper investigates a key moment of the development of a lasting institutional topography in Rome’s history: the transition period in the era of the Roman Commune, when the legacy of Augustus’ division of the city into fourteen sectors was revived and the organizational structure of the Rioni system emerged, the very moment that also witnessed the rise of the parish basilica, a phenomenon that changed the topographic face of the city. This study thus asks how the narratives driven by the desire to associate Rome’s institutional topography with her antique heritage melded with the realties of her physical topographical changes.

The scholars Louis Duchesne, Camillo Re, and Louis Halphen laid the foundation for studies of the development of Rome’s urban organization studies from Antiquity through the Middle Ages in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their investigations considered the systems of institutional topography in Rome as an evolution of successive responses, responses ultimately tied to Rome’s ancient foundation. Augustus’ division of the city into fourteen regions (vici) established the framework for the organization of Rome’s urban space. In the third century with the advent of institutionalized Christianity, the Augustan system gave way to a division of the city into seven ecclesiastic regions. Under the auspices of the Byzantine presence in the seventh and eighth centuries, the city was again divided into twelve administrative districts. The tenth and eleventh centuries witnessed a revival of the Augustan schema, solidified as the regio system by the thirteenth century.

These scholars held a meta-view of the city, calculated analyses that regard the division of the city as a practical division of administrative units. Yet this streamlined narrative, which privileges the Renaissance notion of Rome’s return to her antique legacy, belies the messy realities of the micro-urban existence and civic identities operative in Rome in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries. Rioni may have been an evolving administrative unit, but contrade, intimate neighborhoods, with their individual parish basilicas clearly acted as significant markers of topographic association. This paper, thus, seeks to tease apart the broader, post-medieval narrative of return to Augustan organization from the complex geographic hierarchies that marked civic identity in late medieval Rome.

Theresa Flanigan, The College of Saint Rose
"The Ponte Vecchio in Giovanni Villani’s History of Florence"

In his fourteenth-century history of Florence, the Nuova Cronica (c. 1300-1348), Giovanni Villani spins an apocryphal tale of the construction of Florence’s first bridge, now known as the Ponte Vecchio, as part of Charlemagne’s also apocryphal refoundation of the city in 801, almost 400 years after he claims the Roman colony of Florentia was destroyed by troops led by the barbarian commander Totila flagellum Dei (“the scourge of God). Villani is the first Florentine historian to state that Florence lacked a bridge until the Carolingian era – a claim that is contradicted by archaeological and demographic evidence. What led Villani to intentionally manipulate the history of the city’s first bridge in this way? Why was it so important to link this bridge with a fictitious refoundation of the city by the Christian emperor Charlemagne? This paper will trace the history of the Ponte Vecchio as it appears in Villani’s Cronica and demonstrate a connection with the bridge’s centrality at key moments in the city’s political and economic history. It shall be argued that the Ponte Vecchio’s role in events closer to Villani’s day, including the disastrous flood of 1333, led him to manipulate the early history of the bridge, which becomes a physical symbol of the city’s good and bad fortunes.

George Gorse, Pomona College
"Janus, John the Baptist, and Neptune: Foundation Myths in Medieval and Renaissance Genoa"

Overlooking the nave of the Cathedral of Genoa, a sculpted Janus head, “Primus Rex Italie,” is part of an epic foundation inscription of 1312. Pagan god of portals, the Golden Age, and New Beginnings, this was one of the homonymous foundation myths of medieval Janua. The specific placement of this bust over the entrance to the Chapel of St. John the Baptist in the left side aisle makes the connection between pagan to Christian traditions of mythic foundation and refoundation. This paper considers the development and significance of the Janus myth for Genoa, along with John the Baptist, whose relics were brought from Asia Minor during the First Crusade of 1096-99. Recorded miracles and interventions by these relics in the chronicle pages of Caffaro and his continuators from the 11th to 16th centuries highlight the “sacred” in “civic” foundations and rituals. Janus and the Baptist played a specific part in the “refoundation” of Genoa with the Genoese republic of Andrea Doria after 1528, a continuity of Medieval to Renaissance traditions, in terms of the iconography of the admiral in relation to his port city. In 1517, in the context of Andrea Doria’s first naval victory against the Turks, the admiral commissioned a small chapel to John the Baptist on the harbor front. This chapel became the terminus for the annual “Blessing of the Sea” by the Archbishop of Genoa on June 24 in processions from the reliquary Chapel of the Baptist in the Cathedral to the Molo. Identifying himself with this medieval “civic” tradition of Janus and the Baptist, the admiral commissioned a Renaissance sea villa opposite in the suburb of Fassolo, framing the harbor entrance. There, classical gods from Saturn to Jupiter (including Janus) and Roman republican civic themes gathered, focusing on the admiral’s personal iconography as Neptune, both in the city, at the Palazzo Ducale, governmental center, and at his suburban villa marittima. From Janus and the Baptist to the Baptist and Neptune, Medieval and Renaissance “civic” imagery literally embodied, it “refounded,” the maritime republic in Mediterranean world

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