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

Civic Foundation Legends in Italian Art II: The Southern Kingdom

Bernhard 210
Friday, May 15, 2015, 1:30-3:00 pm

Organizer: Max Grossman, University of Texas at El Paso

Presider: Nino Zchomelidse, Johns Hopkins University

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.


Evanthia Baboula, University of Victoria, Canada
"A Phoenician Past for Norman Palermo"

The legend of the establishment of Palermo by Phoenician settlers is grounded both in ancient historical documents (Thucydides) and archaeological finds, but it is not discussed as an important foundation myth for the period when Sicily passed from Byzantine and Arabic to Norman rule in the late eleventh to the late twelfth century. The status of this legend is not known for the period of Norman kingship of southern Italy.

On the other hand, what seems almost like a chance mention of “the Phoenicians” in a twelfth century ekphrastic text deserves further examination. The reference, contained in a description of the Cappella Palatina written in Greek, is intriguing and its meaning yet unresolved. Various scholars have identified these Phoenicians as a group involved in the making of textiles for the royal chapel. The term “Phoenicians” has been read as an archaizing indication of the Middle Eastern origins of this group. I propose that the usage of the term in this instance is only one element of a larger pattern of connections promoted between medieval Palermo and its Punic/Phoenician past. Such connections include a collaborative set of linguistic, textual and visual pointers to a deliberate construction of civic identity by the Norman rulers, especially Roger II and his successor, William I. I also suggest that the effort to reconnect Palermo to its ancient history reflects the wish to form a new identity for the city, which would benefit from the material and cultural leftovers of past Islamic rule, but would be disentangled from the political power of the recent past through placing emphasis on a more malleable, ancient past.


Alexander Harper, Bryn Mawr College
"Angevin Cult or Cult of the Angevins? The Procession of the Santa Maria Patrona Statue in Lucera"

The city of Lucera in northern Apulia, the location of a Muslim settlement from the 1220s until 15 August 1300, commemorates its fourteenth-century re-foundation and re-Christianization every year during a celebration of the Feast of the Assumption. The festival focuses on the veneration and multiple processions of the Santa Maria Patrona, a freestanding wood and polychrome statue of the Virgin and Christ Child. Viewed today as a palladium and liberator of the city, the Patrona possesses an ancient genealogy according to local legends. These myths state that the statue was rescued from Byzantine iconoclasts, brought to Lucera after 744, hidden during Muslim occupation, and then processed by the city’s Angevin liberators during the feast of the Assumption 1300 in thanksgiving for the recent Muslim purge of the city. The statue is central to the myths surrounding the re-foundation of Lucera in 1300 (from Muslim to Christian). Moreover, current manifestations of the legends state that a procession of the Patrona has taken place on the feast day every year since in commemoration of the statue’s role in Lucera’s re-foundation.

The reality, however, is that the Patrona statue is not Byzantine, nor has it been the object of a procession operated annually for the past seven centuries. In fact, the statue, an Italian example of the so-called Throne of Wisdom statues, is much later in date than the eighth century, bears Gothic formal qualities, and is the product of artistic “modernization” under the Angevin Kings of Naples. Moreover, the festival that commemorates the Patrona’s status as palladium and Lucera liberator dates only to the eighteenth century. This paper examines the tensions that have formed between the Patrona statue as a work of art—or more precisely a product of an Angevin cultural milieu as argued by Pierluigi Leone de Castris and others—and the statue as an important cult object and the center of Lucera’s foundation legends. Second, it examines the tension between the local legends’ claims that the procession was initiated in 1300 by the Angevin crown, and the reality that the Assumption procession was institutionalized only after a period of pro-Angevin nostalgia at the turn of the eighteenth century. While the paper focuses on essential historical and art historical issues for medievalists, its conclusions could be illuminated further through work from scholars in the fields of anthropology of religion and ritual, early modern studies, the Italian Risorgimento, and folklore.

Tamara Morgenstern, Independent Scholar
"Imperial Fabrications: The Habsburgs in Messina and Palermo"

The sixteenth and early seventeenth century was an epoch of dramatic urban interventions in the Sicilian ports of Messina and Palermo. A succession of Habsburg monarchs undertook vast building programs to facilitate military ends and to establish a civic identity emblematic of the Spanish conquerors. Architectural patronage, a calculated instrument of informal imperialism, aided in reinforcing Habsburg control. To establish dynastic legitimacy, Spanish Humanists devised mythical historiographies and royal genealogies tracing Habsburg lineage to ancient Rome and to Jerusalem. Charles V was metaphorically equated with the Roman gods and, as Holy Roman Emperor, was proclaimed successor to the Spanish-born Emperors, Hadrian and Trajan. In 1535, following his victory in Tunisia, Charles V sojourned through Italy on a triumphal procession where he was greeted with the pomp and ceremony accorded to the ancient Roman triumphators. Ephemera for these lavish receptions took form in a proliferation of Renaissance classicism based on the imagery and traditions of the Roman Empire. Embellishments for these royal visits provided a model for subsequent urban restructuring.

This paper examines the propagandistic motives behind Habsburg myth-making in Messina and Palermo, and how metaphorical narratives imposing a new collective memory were embedded in stone in both urban settings. Varied strategies in each city were largely based on each town’s legends of origins. Greek mythology played a greater role in Messinese history and subsequent Habsburg symbolism than it did in Palermo. Legendarily, Orion separated Sicily from the Italian peninsula and aided Zanclus, the fabled first king of Messina, in forming Messina’s sheltered harbor. Complex iconography in two fountains by Francesco Maurolico, both memorializing apparati devised for the entry of Charles V, linked the Emperor with the mythical genesis of Messina. Crowning the Orion fountain, the statue of Charles V was equated with Messina’s heroic founder. At the portside Neptune Fountain, figures of Scylla and Charybdis, two monsters guarding the Straits of Messina encountered by Odysseus, melded the theme of territorial domination with tales of antiquity.

To appease the Palmeritans, the Spanish preserved the rich material heritage from the city’s complex history. In that spirit, planners incorporated images of the ancient patron deity of the city—the Genio di Palermo—a crowned and bearded figure with a serpent biting at his chest, into their sculptural narrative, subtly conflating the enigmatic pagan figure with the Habsburg monarchy. In addition to a citywide allegorical program, with suggestions of a fictitious Roman past, the very form of the city was reconfigured to evoke hermetic meaning and Vitruvian ideals. The seaside Porta Felice, emulating the Pillars of Hercules, and the inland, eagle-capped Porta Nuova opened onto a quadripartite urban form that evoked the Garden of Eden and the Heavenly Jerusalem. At the city’s core, the sculpture-laden facades of the Quattri Canti exalted patron saints and Spanish kings. Surviving city maps, vedute and contemporary texts facilitate this analysis of Habsburg mythmaking engrained in the architectural environment of these early modern cities

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