12.02.05, Bruzelius Medieval Naples

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Thomas Granier

The Medieval Review 12.02.05

Bruzelius, Caroline and William Tronzo. Medieval Naples: An Architectural and Urban History 400-1400. A Documentary History of Naples. New York: Italica Press, Inc, 2011. Pp. 143. ISBN: 978-1-59910-202-3.

Reviewed by:
Thomas Granier
Universit Montpellier - III

This small and short book (only 112 pages of text) addresses a vast scope, that of the history of the urban landscape of Naples between Late Antiquity and the end of Angevin rule. It includes seventy-nine black and white pictures in the text, a few of them full-page. Chapter 1, "Naples in the Early Middle Ages" (forty-six pages), is written by William Tronzo and Chapter 2, "Naples in the High and Late Middle Ages" (sixty-four pages), written by Caroline Bruzelius, reuses much of the material already published in her larger book, The Stones of Naples: Church Building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343 (New Haven and London, 2004).

In a clear and easily readable overview, the authors point out some distinctive features of the city:

- First, the strong and extremely long survival of the Greek street- grid, still perfectly visible today in the city centre. Three main East-West plateiai or decumani divide the city in four wide stripes, each one of which is in turn divided by twenty North- South stenopoi or cardines, the medieval (and today typically Neapolitan) vici. This very restrictive grid explains why the main city-centre churches are set along a North-South axis, as opposed to those built extra muros (near the harbour in particular), where the grid is looser, less restrictive, and building sites cheaper, and to the great thirteenth-century rebuildings of San Lorenzo and the cathedral, both set along a more traditional East-West axis.

- The almost complete loss of the Early Medieval material. Late Antiquity (5th-6th centuries) and the Angevin Period (1266-1442) are admittedly times of exceptional building activity, but we know of dozens of early medieval monasteries, of which nothing remains.

- Because of the number of surviving monuments, the book focuses mainly on the renewal in urban design under Angevin rule. The 13th- and 14th-century churches display a mixing of regional and foreign styles, because of a combination of influences: a series of foreign (Norman, Staufen and Angevine) rulers, numerous and affluent merchants, and the Mendicant Orders. These various architectural and artistic traditions and influences meet the strong classical culture of Campanian lites, a culture not limited to Frederick II and his court. From the 1270s onwards, Naples takes over from Palermo as the political and economic core of the Angevin kingdom (Sicily being lost from 1282 anyway). The two main buildings soon follow: the Castel Nuovo, from 1279, the building of which shifts the city's centre of gravity towards the sea, and, to mark the restoration of the monarchy's legitimacy and prestige after king Charles II's return from captivity in Aragon, the new cathedral (1294-1313). C. Bruzelius points out the specific style of the Neapolitan Mendicant churches from the 1280s: a single, column-less nave, flanked by two rows of side chapels, some of them funeral chapels of main donor families; an architectural choice partly due to specific Mendicant economics, in which donations are the main source of wealth. This architectural model is, then, used for both San Lorenzo Maggiore and the cathedral. The authors lessen the previously oft-mentioned French influence on these late 13th- and 14th-century churches: some of the choices are due to Tuscan artists, or to the Late Antique models dear to Mendicant commissioners; reference to Late Antique Roman models is especially clear in the cathedral, which evokes Christian origins in order to convey a message of authority and legitimacy; on this latter topic, C. Bruzelius agrees with what Vinni Lucherini points out in her 2009 book about the cathedral (on which more below). All in all, the Angevin rulers' commissions result in a very conservative art, the key clue of which lies in legitimacy and continuity, in the face of Aragonese and Hungarian threats; only after the Aragonese accession does Renaissance art really flourish in Naples.

As a matter of fact, however, this book does fall short of its explicit scope. Most probably because of the limited volume, the authors do not really outline a global urban history across a millennium. After a general overview of the Greek street grid and its exceptionally long continuity, the study really focuses on some monuments, the main number of which being Angevin, as shown above. Two Late Antique/Early Medieval monuments are really addressed at length here: first, the catacombs of San Gennaro 12-23), the originalities of which are however clearly pointed out: "is our modern designation, "catacomb", sufficient or even correct? (...) Perhaps it would be better to think about the catacomb of San Gennaro, therefore, more along the lines of (...) a virtual laboratory of ecclesiastical experiment, that was exploited in different ways at different times throughout the Middle Ages by the Neapolitan church" (21). Pages 32-41 are then dedicated to a very interesting intepretation of the iconographic cycle of the 4th-century baptistery San Giovanni in Fonte next to the cathedral. The authors make absolutely no use of the hundreds of known charters from the ducal period (10th to 12th centuries) which mention houses, courts, gardens, churches, squares by the dozen. An outline of the city landscape could at least have been attempted. It is all the more suprising, since the authors quote Bartolommeo Capasso's Topografia della città di Napoli nell'XI secolo (Naples, 1895) and its 2005 reprint in bibliography: Capasso's lengthy description could have been mentioned and discussed, e.g., using the archaeological data gathered and interpreted in Paul Arthur's Naples: From Roman Town to City-State. An Archaeological Perspective (London, 2002). In a similar way, the pages about the cathedral avoid the issue of the so-called Early Medieval "double cathedral," an 18th-century fiction convincingly dispelled by Vinni Lucherini's La cattedrale di Napoli: Storia, architettura e storiografia di un monumento medievale (Rome, 2009), quoted in the bibliography but not explicitly used: Vinni Lucherini's position should have been either clearly accepted, or discussed.

These shortcomings are all the more surprising since this book is part of a large-scale multimedia project about Naples, titled A Documentary History of Naples, which can be accessed at http://www.italicapress.com/index132.html. This project aims at providing textual and picture material about the city in the Middle Ages and later. Three companion volumes to the one reviewed here (Medieval Naples: A Documentary History, 400-1400: Historical Texts, edited by Ronald G. Musto; Baroque Naples: A Documentary History, 1600-1800, edited by Jeanne Chenault Porter and Modern Naples: A Documentary History, 1799-1999 by John Santore) are currently available, the former only as an e-book for the Kindle platform. On the website is also available an interactive map which enables one to locate the main historical buildings of the city, to access individual descriptions and parallels to the 1465-1478 painting, now at Museo San Martino in Naples, known as the Tavola Strozzi, a very precise panoramic view of the city from the sea. A gallery of a few hundred photographs can also be accessed through the website, filed by monument.

All in all, this book is part of a genuinely interesting and useful multimedia project, combining book and online resources, which will provide strong and precise historical information about one of the main cities of the Medieval Mediterranean, its city-scape, architecture and art, to students in History and Art History in particular, even though it will not teach anything new to the specialist. But a genuine story of the city as a whole is not really undertaken here; for the time being, the content of this book could be supplemented by Amedeo Feniello's Napoli: Società ed economia (932- 1137) (Rome, 2011), and probably the authors will be able to enlarge the material available online over the course of time.

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Author Biography

Thomas Granier

Universit Montpellier - III