15.08.22, Zchomelidse, Art, Ritual, and Civic Identity in Medieval Southern Italy

Main Article Content

Katherine L. Jansen

The Medieval Review 15.08.22

Zchomelidse, Nino. Art, Ritual, and Civic Identity in Medieval Southern Italy. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2014. pp. xviii, 288. ISBN: 978-0-271-05973-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine L. Jansen
The Catholic University of America

Many years ago as a graduate student recently arrived in Italy I visited the cathedral of Ravello, perched high atop the Amalfi coast. Struck by the austere beauty of its interior, I was at the same time left perplexed by its unusual collection of church furnishings: an ambo, pulpit, and monumental candlestick. All these years later, I have at last been enlightened about their creation, function, and meaning by Nino Zchomelidse's gorgeously illustrated book that explains their relationship not only to the performance of the Beneventan liturgy but also to civic identity in Southern Italy. To do so, she compares them to manuscript evidence and other similar examples of ecclesiastical furnishings in the mezzogiorno, evidence ranging from the mid-tenth to the fourteenth century; that is, from the Lombard period through the reign of the French Angevin dynasty as rulers of the Kingdom of Naples.

The first chapter carefully establishes how early Christian theologians developed a liturgy of the word for the celebration of the mass meant to rival pagan theater. By transforming church interiors into sacred spaces, bishops, monks, and clerics created stages upon which the drama of salvation could be ritually reenacted in the performance of the liturgy. The ambo, a raised platform from which the Gospel was read aloud, turned out to be a multifunctional setting for such performances in that it could be pressed into service to serve allegorically as anything from the sepulchrum Christi to the upper room in Jerusalem, where the resurrected Christ appeared to his disciples. Lombard clerics drew on these theatrical traditions and created their own for the Beneventan liturgy diffused throughout the peninsular south. The prime example is the Exultet liturgy for Easter which models how the Resurrection of Christ was reenacted using church furnishings as stage-sets.

In what is one of the strongest chapters of the book, chapter 2, "Unfurling the Logos," examines the illuminated scrolls commonly called the "Exultet Rolls," manuscripts that contain the Exultet hymn that glorifies the resurrection of Christ. First commissioned by Landulf, Archbishop of Benevento, in the latter half of the tenth century, the scrolls are story-boards of sorts that demonstrate how the Easter liturgy might have been staged in the churches that followed the Beneventan rite. Through a close reading and comparative analysis of the multiple extant scrolls, Zchomelidse shows how image, word, and gesture converged in an architectural setting to activate the sacred Easter liturgy. The grand finale occurred when the bishop, enveloped in the darkness of the church, lighted the Easter candle, bringing the light of Christ into the world. Taking this as his cue, the deacon then ascended the ambo singing the Exultet hymn and unfurled the illuminated scroll, a potent gesture that signified the materialization of the Logos. Church furnishings were integral to the choreography of this allegorical spectacle performed throughout Campania and Apulia, regions where the Beneventan rite held sway.

The liturgy was not immune to change, however, and chapter 3 attends to it by looking at the suite of furnishings and decoration for the cathedral of Salerno which bear the imprint of the Gregorian Reform whose influence was creeping ever southward via the abbey of Montecassino. Among other things, Zchomelidse shows how the decoration and size of the Guarna pulpit (and others in the area) conformed to the Roman style and liturgical needs of the reformers, which gave pride of place in the liturgy to antiphonal music. Now larger pulpits were introduced to accommodate choirs whose musical performances slowly began to eclipse local liturgies.

Chapter 4 turns to the monumental candlestick to chart its development and local variation. Its basic function was to hold the lighted candle blessed by the bishop during the Easter Vigil. Like imperial Roman triumphal columns, they were carved with imagery, pregnant with meaning--in this case scenes from the life of Christ--that marched ever upwards in a spiral toward victory. An inscription on the candlestick at San Paolo fuori le mura in Rome instructs the viewer to see it as a light-bearing tree, the light (and victory) of course being Christ's Resurrection. Focusing on a Capuan example, Zchomelidse shows, however, that its imagery was out of step with the new Roman reform movement taking root in the area, which she suggests was a conscious if anachronistic statement about the persistence of local liturgical identity.

Chapter 5 moves into the later medieval period when the Regno was ruled successively by the Hohenstaufen and Angevin dynasties, and church furnishings began to bear the signatures of their patrons in the form of donor images, inscriptions and heraldic devices. Here we circle back to Ravello to examine the pulpit, donated to the cathedral in 1272 by Nicola Rufolo and his wife Sigelgaita, prominent citizens of the town. Now, following the model of Salerno, the cathedral could boast both an ambo and a pulpit. A dedicatory inscription slab notes that the work was commissioned out of love for the Virgin and "for the honor of the city." Significantly, it also lists by name each of the children and grandchildren of the couple who were hoping to benefit from the eternal rewards which surely would accrue to the family on account of their generous gift to the ecclesia Ravellensis. Even if its primary function continued to be liturgical, the dedicatory inscription and classicizing donor portraits affixed to the new pulpit served as visual reminders to the congregation that it was also a symbol of the Rufolo family's piety, generosity, and civic standing in the community.

We travel to mid-thirteenth century Naples in chapter 6 to examine two marble panels from Santa Restituta, once probably screens of a now dismembered pulpit, carved with scenes from the life of San Gennaro, the city's patron saint and the life of Joseph, the patriarch of the Hebrew bible. Typologically linked, they were meant to demonstrate the sacred pedigree of the Neapolitan bishop which reached back to San Gennaro, the city's martyred bishop-saint. The book concludes with a journey to mid fourteenth-century Gaeta, where, Zchomelidse argues, the last of the church furnishings made in the Beneventan tradition and style came to end. Through an analysis of a candlestick made for the cathedral, she suggests that its iconographical program had now become detached from its specific Easter function; instead its peculiar pairing of scenes from the life of Christ with those of the city's patron saint (Erasmus) suggests that the donor, most likely a bishop, was making a bold statement about local civic identity in the face of Angevin domination of the Regno.

In its girothrough the territories of the Regno, the book traces a trajectory of changing meanings for an ensemble of church furnishings first developed in the central Middle Ages to serve the Beneventan Easter liturgy. From stages and props whose primary function was to aid in the performance of the mass, recreating the drama of Resurrection of Christ, now pulpits and candlesticks also bore witness to the largesse of their donors and the ambitions of their cities, echoing trends already well documented in the communes of central and northern Italy. Southern cities had just as much civic pride and self-awareness of their storied histories as did their northern counterparts; it was, however, expressed in a different and until now unacknowledged mode. In the event, Zchomelidse's meticulously researched and well written study is a welcome addition to a growing body of Anglophone literature on the visual culture of southern Italy. But to say that is not to do full justice to the book. As if making sense of such a diverse repertoire of objects were not enough, Zchomelidse's multi-disciplinary approach to the visual evidence of the mezzogiorno is a model for future studies in that it relies first upon time-honored art historical method, but combines it innovatively with insights from historical, liturgical and performance studies to make a compelling argument about how material culture was inscribed with changing markers of identity in Southern Italy. The Pennsylvania State University Press also deserves kudos for producing such a handsome volume.

Article Details