The Medieval Review 13.02.12

Sommerer, Sabine. Die Camera d'Amore in Avio: Wahrnehmung und Wirkung profaner Wandmalereien des Trecento. Medienwandel - Medienwechsel - Medienwissen, 21. Zürich: Chronos Verlag, 2012. Pp. 268. 31.00 EUR. ISBN: 978-3-0340-1021-4. . .

Reviewed by:

MacLaren, Shelley
Sewanee: The University of the South
sjmaclar@sweanee.edu

Located at the heart of the Castle of Sabbionara d'Avio, isolated high in a tower room, the walls and vault ceiling of the Chamber of Love were once entirely covered in frescos, completed for Guglielmo d'Azzone da Castelbarco sometime between 1330 and 1360. The walls of the Chamber are swathed with a fictive vair drapery that opens to reveal the protagonists and episodes of a love story: a youth wounded by a spear, a beautiful golden-haired lady with an approaching arrow, a threatening, blindfolded and claw-footed personification of Love, a tantalizingly revealed naked leg, and a scene of departure, where the youth on his horse leans over to kiss his lady farewell. Enthroned in the vaults above, four massive female personifications once dominated the room and overlooked the love story below. Other imagery appears beside and below the windows: a dragon, two hybrid monsters, a now obscure monochrome figure, and the climactic finish to a boar hunt. While the images play with familiar subjects--luxurious materials, a love story, virtues, a hunt--their overall meaning is far from clear, an ambiguity only partly due to the large areas of loss and the indecipherable state of the inscriptions that once accompanied the images.

The intimate, immersive environment of this Chamber of Love is still seductive, and Sabine Sommerer's close examination of its surviving imagery is a welcome addition to the limited scholarship on the room, and on secular painting in Trecento Italy more generally. Sommerer's case study joins Anne Dunlop's 2009 book Painted Palaces: the Rise of Secular Art in Early Renaissance Italy in its attention to the self-conscious play between real and fictive spaces in secular wall paintings of the period, and in the appeals made to engaged and active beholders. Where Dunlop's much broader synthetic account sees this appeal made through allegory and concomitant interpretation, Sommerer is, as evident in her title, interested in perception and the appeal to the senses.

Sommerer opens her study with an epigraph drawn from Giovanni Boccaccio's Amorosa Visione: "Quella parte dov'io or mi voltai / con gli occhi riguardando e con la mente, / di storie piena la vidi e d'assai" (XV, 1-3; 1342-1343). Sommerer uses this phrase to set the stage for her detailed exploration of how the fresco's narrative and formal cues prompt an active response to the images on the part of the (ideal) beholder, whose mind and senses are engaged by the process of viewing the images. The beholder effectively becomes a participant in the depicted action, and completes the image in their imagination. In this project she aspires to apply Reception Aesthetics, as modeled by Alfred Neumeyer, Klaus Krüger, and Wolfgang Kemp, to the room, and the strength of the book lies primarily in Sommerer's careful step-by-step descriptions that lead the reader along through the various parts of the fresco, thereby activating the reader's own perceptual engagement with the narrative and pictorial illusion of the paintings.

The methodical, and sometimes repetitive, organization of the book reflects its origins as Sommerer's dissertation. The first chapter, "Wandmalereien in der Camera d'Amore," systematically lays the groundwork. Here she briefly describes the room's physical setting, characterizes the position of the Castelbarco family and the other art patronage of Guglielmo il Grande and Guglielmo d'Azzone, and reviews the literature on the room to date. Sommerer then turns to the description and identification of scenes in the room. Two of the female personifications that once occupied the vault are reasonably identified as Justice and Magnanimity, based on what can be discerned of their poses, hand gestures, and subsidiary figures, and in comparison to other monuments, including, among others, the personifications invented by Francesco da Barberino for his conduct book the Documenta amoris (ca. 1315). The scenes in the love story below are described with close attention to reading the represented bodies for implied movement, and the clues those movements give the viewer about what is to happen next.

The second chapter, "Wahrnehmung und Wirkung in Schrift und Bild," is the heart of the book. Sommerer begins with a broad review of textual sources relating to the interaction between image and beholder as a prelude to the pictorial analysis to come. The sources under discussion are drawn from diverse contexts and kinds of writing, and range from Gregory of Nyssa's comments about the power of images to elicit emotion (circa 331-391) all the way to Leon Battista Alberti's praise for the inclusion of mediating figures in paintings (1435/36), with closest attention to the encounters with artwork described by Dante Alighieri in Purgatorio (X, 28-96; 1307-1321), and by Giovanni Boccaccio throughout the Amorosa Visione (1342/43). Sommerer uses the span of this survey to historicize her model of the relationship between the beholder and the picture; she argues that in the Trecento this relationship was understood to be a matter of mutual interaction, where both the qualities of the picture and the active engagement of the beholder had important roles to play. While the broad historical perspective is useful, deeper attention to the textual sources closest to the room, most notably Francesco da Barberino's Documenta amoris, would have better served understanding the imagery of the Chamber of Love and what it asks of the beholder.

In the following subsection of this chapter, "Con gli occhi riguardando e con la mente. Sehleistung des Betrachters," Sommerer guides the viewer through the room's narrative cues as implied in glance, gesture, and movement, thereby reenacting the process of seeing and understanding the love story. Here she also discusses the Chamber's central themes and motifs--the Virtues, Love, the Boar Hunt, and the draperies--and the associations these could have had for an ideal beholder, within a rough outline of their "horizons of knowledge and experience" (105). The boar hunt, for instance, viewed by an beholder familiar with the literary tradition entwining love and hunting, attentive to repetitive motifs in the paintings like the dogs and the spears, and observant of the alternate "level of reality" implied by the hunt's fictive stone background, would be best positioned to understand that scene as a metaphor for the sexual consummation of the love story (102-103, 121-129, 142).

In the next subsection, "III. Piena di storie: Wirkung auf den Betrachter," Sommerer discusses how the beholder's senses would have been activated by the illusion of the painting, and how the fictional space of the love story was fashioned to mingle with the real space occupied by the beholder, effectively inviting them to be an actor in the story, for instance, to take up the invitation offered by the lady's gaze and the naked leg, and to go behind the curtain (150).

The third and final portion of the book is a brief description of the late fourteenth century wall paintings of the Castel Roncolo, with the aim of demonstrating comparable use of pictorial illusion to engage the active participation of the beholder. In these rooms too, draperies demarcate thresholds, painted figures address the beholder with gaze and gesture, the beholder is made an actor who participates in the illusion, and the images play with different levels of reality.

In the end, Sommerer's reading of the Chamber of Love is very straightforward. She reasonably argues that the Chamber was a "Vorzeigeobjekt," meant to ennoble the patron by depicting luxurious wall hangings and courtly pursuits like games of love and hunting, with virtues associated with the ruler governing from above (155-158, 161-163). Her ideal beholder is reasonably cast as a member of an elite group, invited to visit this isolated room, and possessing the kind of social background needed to imaginatively participate in the room and to understand its themes and motifs. At times Sommerer goes so far as to argue that this ideal beholder could have been knowledgeable enough to recognize particular gestures and motifs as specific and meaningful references to other monuments, and able to evaluate the room's imagery as innovative, even "avant-gardische," most notably in the case of the figure of Love (118). In her reading, the high quality of the paintings, and the use of novel, modern imagery may also have served the function of ennobling the patron (158-160).

The book, however, disappoints at the level of interpretation. Sommerer's conclusion that the room served to ennoble its patron is very sensible, but hardly requires the immersive environment she has established for us.

The virtues, whose bodies once dominated the room below, receive much less attention here than the love story, perhaps understandably due to their much more fragmentary state. While Sommerer clearly establishes a strong contrast between the character of the narrative cues and spatial illusion in the vault as opposed to those on the walls, it is not clear that they should be understood as simply governing the scenes below, or that the virtues should be understood as so removed from the beholder.

More seriously, the book fails to follow through on the premises of the argument as established by the epigraph. While Sommerer very convincingly demonstrates how the senses and imagination of the beholder are engaged, she does not adequately address how their mind is engaged. Why is it important that the viewer becomes an actor in the love story? What are they to think of that experience? Sommerer's reading of the room's imagery as necessarily positive forces some awkward explanations. This is the case with the fearsome and carnal boar, here described as less threatening than in other examples (127- 129), but also with respect to the blindfolded and taloned figure of Love. While Sommerer holds that the figure would have been recognizable to some beholders as Francesco da Barberino's invention, the presence of the blindfold also indicates that the figure could not carry the positive reinterpretation assigned to the figure in the Documenta amoris. In her desire to avoid reading the entire love story in a negative light (162), Sommerer argues that Love is used here as an iconographic "Versatzstück," placed in a new context and divorced from previous interpretations (109-121, 160-162).

This may be the case, and certainly the valence of the room's imagery needs to be assessed in its own right. However, the literary and pictorial sources of Love's iconography also provide crucial models for the beholder's engagement with images and suggest the possibility at least of a far different interpretation of the Chamber of Love and of how the beholder was meant to engage with it. Unfortunately a review does not provide the space to fully explore the question, nor to fully develop another interpretation. Suffice it to say then, that, regardless of differences in iconography and media, the appearance of the figure of Love often represents a kind of test for the reader/viewer, a confrontation, and a turning point. In his Trattato d'amore (between 1285 and 1294), Guittone d'Arezzo presents the figure of Love and parses his features so that the friend he addresses will recognize his danger and be cured ("Caro amico, guarda la figura 'n esta pintura--del carnale amore, si che conosci ben la envratura mortale e dura--ch'al tu fatt'ha core,..." [1] As has often been discussed, in the Documenta amoris Francesco describes how he changed the representation of Love by removing the blindfold to reinterpret the figure in a positive way. This change, however, and Francesco's exhaustive accompanying gloss, was not simply a matter of minting a new iconography for Love, but a performance for the reader/viewer of a process of deliberate reinterpretation and conversion, of a figure who remains recognizably dangerous. These related examples suggest not merely iconographic sources, but also crucial models for the kind of engagement, and judgment, that might have been expected from an ideal beholder of the Chamber of Love. --------

Notes:

1. Francesco Egidi, ed., Le Rime di Guittone d'Arezzo (Bari: Gius. Laterza & Figli, 1940), 268.