2018 International Congress on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University
IAS-Sponsored Session

Venice, Materiality, and the Byzantine World II

Schneider 1140
Saturday May 12, 2018, 3:30-5:00pm

Organizer and Presider: Brad Hostetler, Kenyon College

Organizer and Presider: Joseph Kopta, Pratt Institute

The Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Symposium leading to the 2010 publication of San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice introduced new perspectives on Byzantine and Venetian visual and material culture that extended Otto Demus’s survey of Saint Mark’s basilica. The authors’ application of more recent approaches—such as the social function of spolia, the act of display, the construction of identity, and cultural hybridity—brought fresh analyses to a complex and richly decorated monument. This panel seeks to expand this methodological discourse by taking into account questions related to materials, materiality, and intermediality between Venice and Byzantium. The arrival of material culture from the Byzantine world to Venice as gifts, spoils, or ephemera during the centuries surrounding the Fourth Crusade allowed for both appropriation and conceptual transformation of material culture. In light of the renewal in interest of Venice’s Byzantine heritage, this panel seeks to reflect on the interaction of material culture between la Serenissima and the Byzantine world, especially during the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. Topics are wide-ranging, including, but not limited to: issues of reception and cultural translation; changing concepts of preciousness; different valuation of materials between Venice and Byzantium; the fluctuating simulation of material visual effects; the transformation of Byzantine objects incorporated into Venetian frames; intermedial dialogue between Byzantine and Venetian art; and the process and technique of manufacture of works between Byzantium and Venice. Some points of departure include: the building of San Marco itself; Byzantine objects in the Treasury; Byzantine manuscripts included as part of the Cardinal Bessarion gift to the Republic; the monuments on Torcello; or issues raised as a result of recent conservation projects. New cross-cultural methodologies from art historical, anthropological, or sociological fields are welcome.


Justin Greenlee, University of Virginia
“The Staurotheke of Basilios Bessarion as a Weapon for Crusade”

In this paper, I focus on the Byzantine staurotheke, or reliquary of the True Cross, that was likely given by the soon-to-be patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory III, to Basilios Bessarion in c. 1438/40 and eventually donated to the brothers of the Scuola della Carità in Venice (1464). Building on the work of J.B. Schioppalalba and Holger Klein, I examine the so-called “Reliquary of Cardinal Bessarion” in light of Venice’s maritime empire in the fifteenth century, and more specifically the cardinal’s desire to convince the Senate to engage the Venetian fleet against the Ottomans. I argue that Bessarion’s Crusading efforts were motivated by the fall of the Peloponnesus, in particular, look to relate the cardinal’s gift to the contents of a speech he delivered to the Venetian Senate in 1462/63. On this occasion, Bessarion’s tried to rally the Senate’s support for Crusade (and effort that only succeeded, temporarily), and I suggest that the cardinal’s oration is integrally related to his later use of the staurotheke as an instrument for Crusade.

To further investigate Bessarion’s use of objects as forms of persuasive speech, I contrast the ritualized function of staurothekai in Italy and the Byzantine world, and examine the possibility that the meaning of Bessarion’s example was eroded during its cultural translation from Constantinople to Venice. While a Venetian audience would have no doubt appreciated the staurotheke’s material richness, they may not have grasped the reliquary as a weapon or appreciated it as an overt symbol of the need to “take up the Cross” and embark on Crusade. Such a meaning is suggested, however, by Bessarion’s coat of arms, which shows a staurotheke being grasped by members of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The heraldic, performative, and diplomatic context of the staurotheke come together to suggest a disconnect between Byzantine and Italian reception of the object, and I hope to investigate this loss of meaning throughout my paper.

Galina Tirnanic, Oakland University
“The Triumphal Gateway of Venice: Columns on the Piazzetta di San Marco”

Two granite columns supporting the statues of Saint Theodore and the lion of Saint Mark stand close to the edge of the Piazzetta di San Marco in Venice, where the land meets the sea and where medieval Venice met the world. The two-column ensemble consists of disparate parts, brought to Venice from disparate places and manufactured at different times out of a variety of materials, but the final result is a unified whole functioning as a symbolic gateway to the city of Venice. A prominent monument in its own right, the ensemble has received sparse attention from art historians. Scholars have investigated individual elements, such as the bronze lion, the hybrid statue of St. Theodore, the carvings on the bases of the columns, or the granite shafts themselves, but the significance of the columns as more than the sum of their parts is still elusive. Placed at the edge of the sea but at the same time in the heart of the city, the columns were used a as a backdrop for a variety of religious and civic ceremonies over the centuries. Imbued with an aura of liminality, they marked the threshold between Venice and the rest of the world, between ceremony and everyday life, and in some instances between this world and the next. Tracing the history of the columns from their Byzantine origins as structural components through their gradual transformation into a coherent monument of Venetian self-representation, this paper investigates how the material elements lost or preserved their original meanings and how those transformed meanings contributed to the effects of the whole both in its own setting and in its intertextual connections with comparable monuments in Constantinople and other cities.

John Witty, Emory University
“The Santa Chiara Polyptych: A Trecento Translation of a Hybrid Luxury Aesthetic”

An elaborate gilded architectural frame guides the viewer’s encounter of the Franciscan and Christological scenes that are the focus of Paolo Veneziano’s (active 1333-58) Santa Chiara polyptych in Venice’s Accademia galleries. The altarpiece’s architectural frame is a crucial aspect of the object’s design. The frame contextualizes the work within a hybrid visual culture that favored an aesthetic of heightened visual complexity. This taste for strikingly complex objects is built upon a legacy of interaction between Venice and Byzantium. A landmark example of this hybrid visual culture is the Pala d’Oro. Under the patronage of doge Andrea Dandolo (ruled 1343-54), the altarpiece’s Byzantine enamels were enclosed in minute gothic architectural frames. Dandolo’s interventions enshrine the precious enamel representations of angels, apostles, and prophets in a framework that creates the effect of saintly multitudes in a palace of gold: the Heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation.

As Paolo Veneziano’s workshop was commissioned to make the weekday cover for the Pala d’Oro, the artist and his collaborators would have been intimately familiar with the design of this composite object central to Venetian devotion. Based on the second chapter of my dissertation, this presentation will engage the Santa Chiara polyptych, the Pala d’Oro, and related objects to demonstrate how Paolo Veneziano’s workshop adopted the Pala d’Oro’s representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem as a conceptual and material framework. Translated and enlarged in the more humble medium of gilded wood in the Santa Chiara polyptych, gothic architectural framing devices guided late medieval viewers’ perception of devotional content. The conceptual framework of the heavenly Jerusalem is the means by which a visually complex aesthetic of spoliation encountered in the Pala d’Oro was translated into a repeatable, encompassing structure for facilitating devotional experience in altarpieces commissioned from Paolo Veneziano’s workshop for churches throughout the city of Venice and further afield.

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