2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies,
IAS-Sponsored Session

Obscured by the Alps: Medieval Italian Architecture and the European Canon

Organizer: Erik Gustafson, George Mason University

The traditional canon of European architecture has been well established through both formal-stylistic aesthetics and periodized criteria, rooted ultimately in Hegelian notions of the underlying spirit of an age and Modern nationalist identities.  Viewed from northern Europe, the canon’s trajectory moves fluidly from the halcyon days of Greece and Rome to the stunted but ambitious Early Christian and Byzantine era, developing into the solidly reliable Romanesque until the revolution of the transcendent Gothic is decapitated by the Renaissance counter-revolution and its florescent Baroque iteration, to be overshadowed by the enlightened and reasoned Neoclassical age, leading to the search for identity of the 19th century Historicist styles and the return to the classically pure clarity of Modernism.  The contributions of the Italian peninsula are periodic, and are generally defined within the canon by returns to classicism.  In recent decades, architectural historians have begun to challenge the Italian canon, expanding its geographic scope from the old Rome-Florence-Venice vector while also undermining chronological waypoints such as the Medieval-Renaissance divide.  The canon, however, remains infrangible, still underwritten by the formalist priorities established at its inception.
This session seeks to examine the utility of the European canon in assessing the historical significance of Italian medieval architecture.  Is there more to Italian architectural history than recurrent bouts of classicism?  How can Italian architecture be understood positively within the European context, rather than in opposition or subjection to the canonical narratives?  Possible avenues of inquiry might include exploring the historiographical lacunae of the canon, considering alternative criteria for structuring new canonical narratives, examining socio-cultural phenomena otherwise elided by the canon, or investigating other historically contingent trends which reflect different scholarly treatments of Italy and the north.  Medieval architectural history has been “rethought” several times in the past decade, bringing “new approaches” to old questions.  Shifting the discussion, this session seeks papers that ask broad new questions about medieval architecture’s place in the history of European culture, grounding such investigations in local Italian contexts.  While Italy has long been obscured by the Alps, this session seeks to begin new conversations about medieval architecture driven by Italian challenges to canonical understandings.


Angelo Passuello, Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia
“The Church of San Lorenzo in Verona: A ‘Hapax’ in the Romanesque Architectural Context in Europe”

The development of constructive ideas from different cultural backgrounds is one of the characterizing features of Romanesque architecture in Verona. In ancient times the city was at the crossroads of the main routes connecting northern Europe with northeastern Italy (via Postumia, via Gallica, via Claudio-Augusta) and it played a central role in the reception and retransmission of the influences coming from the north of the Alps.

The greatest expression of the meeting between Continental references and local elaboration was reached by the realization of the church of San Lorenzo towards the end of the 11th century. The church is still requiring a rigorous study: my paper aims at filling this historiographical gap on the bases of my Ph.D research. My purpose is to increase the knowledge of one of the most peculiar Romanesque monuments of Northern Italy.

The church of San Lorenzo is a complex building: it shows elements which are not attributable to a single constructive tradition. First, the plan is made up by a large presbytery with three apses, which are in sloping progression with the chapels of the transept (chevet échelloné). Second, two particular round towers are attached to the façade. Third, there are extensive upper galleries running above the aisles. Finally, a refined Venetian sculptural apparatus has been adopted, (especially in the capitals). Architects were able to adopt the incentives offered by the Germanic and the high-Adriatic areas and to adapt them to the medieval constructive techniques typical of Verona, which had been influenced by the numerous classical examples of the Roman period. In this way they produced an original monument, which is without compare.

I will discuss the archeological, historical-artistic and conservative aspects of the church with a multidisciplinary approach: analysis of ancient archival sources, study of restoration documents of the 19th and 20th century, stratigraphy of the walls, chemical analysis of the materials forming the building and use of new technologies (laser-scanner 3D, georadar). As a result, I will make unpublished data about the architectural structure of the church known, in order to trace the cultural relations which make the building remarkable in the context of European Romanesque architecture.

Evan W. Grey, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
“Italian Octagonal Piers and Late Medieval Anti-Classical Modernism”

In this paper, I propose to address the origin and development in Tuscany of the use of the “anti-classical” octagonal pier in late medieval European architecture, and the implications and consequences of its Italian origin for the “canons” of medieval architectural history.

Many structural features used in late medieval European church architecture either replaced or subverted the free-standing columns that formed the primary structural supports in classical Greek and Roman temples.  Such features can be viewed as “anti-classical” either for their role in the conscious elimination of free-standing columns entirely or their employment of forms derived from the constituent parts of classical columns — base, column, capital – that deliberately distort the individual parts and avoid the classical proportions among the parts that were fundamental to the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian “orders” in the classical world.

One such late medieval structural form – the octagonal pier – arose relatively late in the development of “gothic” architecture and was used relatively infrequently until it became more common in 15th– and 16th century German churches.  Unlike most other anti-classical structural features in late European medieval church architecture, such as pointed (or broken) arches, compound piers and flying buttresses, which were first developed in France, the first uses of free-standing octagonal piers as “column-replacements” in monumental church naves occurred in Tuscany – specifically in Bologna and Florence — in the mid-13th and early 14th-century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the development of this new anti-classical structural feature did not arise in a cathedral or parish church under the control of a bishop or cardinal at the center of power in the local Catholic hierarchy.  Rather, they arose in two monumental churches that reflected the rapid expansion of the Franciscan order:  San Francesco in Bologna (built from 1236 to 1263), considered to be the first “gothic” church in Italy; and Santa Croce in Florence (beginning in 1295).  Relatively stout unitary octagonal piers also were used in several secular buildings in Tuscany at the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th century, including in the first floor of the grain market (Orsanichele), the courtyard of the Bargello, and the Sala d’Armi at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and in a courtyard and loggia of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.

The modernist, anti-classical octagonal pier introduced at San Francesco in Bologna, and subsequently adopted (and adapted) in significant buildings in Florence and Siena, was rapidly disseminated (albeit by uncertain means of transmission) to Mallorca and Catalonia (where it would receive especially monumental and modernist treatment at the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca and the parish church of Santa María del Mar in Barcelona), and to Franciscan churches in Germany, without any evident effect in France. The Italian origin of this significant feature of late gothic architecture represents one example of innovative development in late medieval architecture outside of France that supports a reappraisal of the European architectural canon.

Francesco Gangemi, Bibliotheca Herziana
“Enlightened by the Alps: Reconsidering the Role of Northern Tradition on Frederick II’s Architecture in Southern Italy”

The role of Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) in architectural history is basically related to his character as a renovator of imperial authority in the Kingdom of Sicily and in Europe. His regime is connected to a striking episode of imperial art, that reawakens the classical canon. Nevertheless, the iconography of power has always been supported by a specific rhetoric, rooted in classical Antiquity. For any medieval sovereign, the reference to the Roman Empire has thus always been unavoidable. This paper aims to demonstrate that such an obvious interpretation of the emperor’s image is superficial. It conveys an historiographical cliché, which has influenced the analysis of Frederick II’s patronage, leading to the equivalence “arte federiciana = arte all’antica”. Such a stereotypical point of view of Frederick as “puer Apuliae” has overrated the weight of Italy’s classical tradition, while underrating the role played by the German imperial heritage.

Actually only some elements of Frederick II’s buildings, such as the monumental gate of Castel del Monte, show a classical lexicon. In fact, Castel del Monte itself is basically a gothic artwork. According to traditional historiography, typical elements of gothic architecture – but only limited to the Bauplastik – arrived in Southern Italy through Frederick II’s construction sites. This has led to a sort of “inferiority complex” of the Italian art, which has been described as a disease called “gothic syndrome” (Legler 2007).

The purpose of my research is to deconstruct the contrast between Italian and German historiographies, especially in a multicultural space such as the Mediterranean. In order to achieve this goal, I will examine the case study of Foggia’s cathedral (Puglia), a building beyond any stereotype. As a religious building, it was supposed to be irrelevant to Frederick II’s business. But this was the main church of the major administrative town of the Kingdom, and it was erected together with the Swabian palace, and by the same workshop.
The cathedral was a three-aisled basilica, concluded by an octagon- shaped choir over a crypt. It was a unique building in Southern Italy, but while some architectural solutions and the octagon itself were used in many castles built by Frederick II, the double structure of the choir and its Zentralbautendenz are reminiscent of the German tradition of the Doppelkapelle and of many palatine chapels.

Through a functional analysis of the Foggia’s cathedral, I will show how Frederick II needed a reference to his German heritage in order to create a new imperial architecture. As a result, I will reconsider the phenomenon of Frederician architecture in its northern and Mediterranean components, far beyond the common categories of “classical” and “gothic.”

Catherine R. Carver, University of Michigan
“Beyond the Gilded Frame: Connectivity of Sacred Space in Medieval Rome”

Late Antiquity. The Sistine renaissance. The Carolingian renaissance. The twelfth-century renaissance. The Italian Renaissance. These historical moments and the focus on monuments so closely associated with them – Old St. Peter’s, Sta. Maria Maggiore, S. Prassede, S. Clemente, St. Peter’s – represent an episodic approach to the portrait of the development of architecture in medieval Rome. This narrative moved the medieval period out of the “Dark Ages,” but nonetheless defined the era as a conduit, tying Rome’s classical past to its Renaissance future. Such a narrative privileges, of course, the products of the powerful. Bricks, mortar, marble, and mosaic express ideologies of authority. Concomitantly, urban development is framed within transcendent moments of papal power. This phenomenon of a gilded frame shaping our understanding of medieval urban space does not rest with Rome alone. The study of medieval architecture across Europe has long placed emphasis on the great monuments of an urban environment, often to the exclusion of a myriad of buildings that make up the urban environment. Yet, these often less magnificent monuments provided the texture within the gilded frame, not only shaping the urban topography, but also directing the urban experience. Consideration of the intricate spatial relationships of Rome’s medieval parish churches, between sites across the city and in the creation of continuity of sacred space within the urban environment, provides an alternative approach to the study of the medieval urban environment.

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