Maureen Miller

title.none: Radke, Viterbo (Miller)

identifier.other: baj9928.9703.011 97.03.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Maureen Miller, Hamilton College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Radke, Gary M. Viterbo: Profile of a Thirteenth Century Papal Palace. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. $85.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-48200-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.03.11

Radke, Gary M. Viterbo: Profile of a Thirteenth Century Papal Palace. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. $85.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-48200-3.

Reviewed by:

Maureen Miller
Hamilton College

In the mid-thirteenth century, some citizens of Viterbo--a small hill-town about fifty miles north of Rome--began expanding their bishop's palace to provide accommodations for the entourage of Pope Alexander IV. This building activity and the city's hospitality to the papal court intensified in the 1260s: Urban IV (1261-4) and Clement IV (1265-8) died in Viterbo and the most significant accretions to the Palazzo dei Papi date from their pontificates. Nicholas III (1277- 30) used the palace as a summer residence, but by the close of the century Viterbo no longer regularly hosted the papal court. The imposing palace abandoned by the popes, however, remained. Now, thanks to Gary Radke's rich study, it may receive the attention of scholars--which will, hopefully, be more enduring than that of the papal guests for whom the palace was built.

Indeed, this volume constitutes a major contribution to the architectural history of the Middle Ages. The fruit of close to two decades of research, Radke's admirably complete and detailed description and analysis of the Palazzo dei Papi at Viterbo provides important material illuminating the history of the papacy, the history of elite domestic architecture, the development of medieval building techniques, the dissemination of the gothic style, and the origins of scientific perspective.

The book is divided into two parts. The first traces the history of the building of the palace, placing it in the context of both the local history of Viterbo and the broader panorama of the papacy from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. Radke undertakes here a detailed formal analysis of the structure, emphasizing its function as the seat of a substantial papal household and curial bureaucracy. Beyond looking to analogous structures--other papal residences, particularly the Lateran and Avignon, and secular palaces-- for comparative material and hypotheses to bridge lacunae in his Viterbese remains, Radke incorporates evidence from papal ceremonial and ordines to illumine the use and function of the complex. The organization of this section by architectural elements (halls, loggias, staircases, etc.) will make it extremely useful to architectural historians. Scholars who have studied the papal complex at Avignon will be particularly interested in Radke's identification of Viterbese precedents for the subsequent refuge of the popes on the Rhone. A final chapter in this first part analyzes the stylistic significance of the palace's architecture and decoration--and this is where the author's most significant and suggestive arguments cluster.

One is Radke's reading of the frescos in the palace's camera of Alexander IV as a precocious example of scientific perspective. The centrally composed series of frescoed arches was executed in the 1290s making it contemporary with recognized early forays in perspective from Assisi ("The Approval of the Rule" and the Isaac Master's "Pentecost"). Moreover, Radke suggestively links this perspectival development to interest in optics at the papal court in Viterbo. Radke also identifies the palace's loggia as the "earliest surviving precisely dated example of gothic bar tracery on a secular building in Italy" and credits this stylistic innovation to the influence of the French pope Clement IV, who resided at the palace from 1266 to 1268. Certainly the most progressive gothic experiments in the palace date from this period. Moreover, through an analysis of late thirteenth-century structures in the town, Radke convincingly traces significant Viterbese experimentation with these new stylistic elements and his analysis of the interaction of a local building tradition with new stylistic ideas is quite interesting. Radke shows, indeed, that this French influence on the local architectural lexicon was short-lived and rather superficial: the decorative aspects of the gothic were adopted without any of their more important structural innovations. This stylistic encounter in many ways paralleled the town's interaction with the papacy itself.

Less compelling is Radke's historical interpretation of the building of the palace at Viterbo as the result of an aggressively pursued communal strategy to lure the papal court to the city. Surely, as the author points out, the commune pursued the prestige and political benefits that came with the presence of the papal court when it was advantageous to do so and providently courted imperial favor when Frederick II was the more proximate and powerful ally. Indeed, Radke's characterization (13) of the commune's political behavior as "opportunistic" is more accurate than his assertion of a "Viterbese strategy for gaining international prestige and superiority over her traditional adversaries" through a papal alliance grounded in the construction of the palace. The chief problem here is the assumption of a unanimity and intentionality unlikely in a medieval commune. Radke alludes to internal political and social tensions within the city (22, 24) but still tends to treat the city/commune as acting with one mind, "obsessed with the idea of rivaling and even replacing Rome as the papal capital" (3). The evidence--particularly the economic details of the 1266 and 1278 agreements between the commune and the curia, and the prominent role of one family (the Gatti) in the palace project--suggests that hosting the papal court may have been more the result of internal social and political struggles than an ambitious strategy to promote the city's regional ascendancy.

The second part of the book is a "structural catalogue." After setting out the chronology of masonry technique in the city (based on an analysis of the various extensions of the urban walls), Radke gives a precise and detailed archeological description of the palace. This, in itself, constitutes a major scholarly contribution and is made even more valuable by numerous photographs and a finely drawn series of reconstructions and plans. Scholars in history, art and architectural history, and archeology will be mining this volume for years to come.