16.01.12, Bokody, Images-within-Images in Italian Painting (1250-1350)

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Beth Mulvaney

The Medieval Review 16.01.12

Bokody, Péter. Images-within-Images in Italian Painting (1250-1350): Reality and Reflexivity. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. pp. 229. ISBN: 978-1-4724-2705-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Beth Mulvaney
Meredith College

Péter Bokody has written a thoughtful and careful study of images created between 1250 and 1350, a period in Italian art that witnessed a revolution that sought to imitate the physicality of the visible world in painting. Some of these artists inserted reflexive secondary images, or images-within-images, which he maintains, "...did not take the relation between reality and its representation for granted and questioned the division between the 'real' and the 'represented'" (2). While discussing expected artists and decorative programs--Giotto, the Lorenzetti brothers, and the murals of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi--Bokody also examines lesser known artists and works. I am particularly grateful for his inclusion of works housed in Hungarian collections. He shares that his fascination with images-within-images is one that he has pursued through undergraduate and graduate studies. Indeed, it is clear that the density of the book's contents is born out of the number of years he has spent thinking about these types of images. Browsing the introduction, one might initially believe Bokody has simply revised a dissertation because of the nature of the introduction and structure of the book. While it does suffer from some of the types of explanations of methodology, historiography, and compartmentalizing of the images typical of dissertations, the contents of the book benefit from the author's sustained academic encounter with these types of images and the multiple ways that he has considered them. He has a comprehensive grasp of the primary and secondary literature, which he uses to set up his consideration of these images, revealing details many will not have seen or fully appreciated before. Arranged into seven chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion, the book contains high-quality reproductions, plus an excellent bibliography. The publication of the book was supported by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the International Center of Medieval Art.

Bokody uses the introduction to patiently explain the scope of his study, set out his theoretical framework, and lay the foundation for the chapters that follow. In a brief historiography, he introduces the reader to scholarly works on the topic of images-within-images, noting the absence of attention to works of the premodern period. Bokody confines his study to Italian panel and mural paintings between 1250 and 1350 that contain representations which are embedded in other representations, such as "...combinations like a statue represented in a mosaic, a relief displayed in a panel painting, or a fresco depicted in fresco" (3). While he explains how the scope of his investigation differs from his predecessors, the reader would benefit from a succinct definition of the embedded image at the outset, but that definition and its complexity does unfold through the chapters of the book, clarified by the examples he selects and discusses.

Chapter one, "Essential Images-within-Images," begins the work of refining and explaining the topic. He usefully situates the idea of a principle or essential image that contains a secondary or accessory image within Derrida's discussion of "Parergon" in The Truth in Painting. Bokody pairs Derrida with Pliny the Elder's discussion in his Natural History of Protogenes' inclusion of drawings of battleships as parerga or secondary elements to the main scene, which self-consciously referred to Protogenes' beginnings as a ship painter. This opening to the chapter provides the foundation for examining the insertion of these marginal or secondary images into the essential image within the broader landscape of the emergence of three-dimensional illusionistic art circa 1300. He declares that this new realism affected "established image-iconographies," noting that these images-within-images are frequently found in "representations of image creation and image worship." Once Bokody turns to works of art to help define his argument, he achieves great clarity, at least for this reader, with well-chosen examples and clear photographs and details. The well-known Stefaneschi polyptych by Giotto explicitly uses the marginal image within the essential image as a type of reflexive commentary on the making of the altarpiece, creating a mise en abyme. "It is perhaps even more significant that Giotto uses the pictorial repertory not only to repeat the altarpiece, but meticulously represents the kneeling cardinal as well. Because of this, the donor is represented on the altarpiece holding a model of the very same altarpiece, on which he is depicted again holding yet another replica of the work...Giotto understood the implicit infinite regression inscribed in the logic of donation scenes, and with the help of the realistic pictorial repertory, he in fact hinted at this never-ending repetition by depicting yet again the cardinal with the altarpiece in his hand" (15).

Chapter two, "Illusionism," is dedicated to examining frescoes using fictive architecture, sculptures, or panel paintings within a liturgical setting. The Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco is a readily recognized example of fictive architecture, as are Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes, which use fictive sculpture in the dado program of virtues and vices. Less convincing are the examples of fictive altarpieces within frescoes, but perhaps more fleshing out of the argument would help, particularly with Cimabue's Crucifixions in the choir of the Upper Church at Assisi. Chapter three, "Reality Effect," looks at the use of these marginal or accessory images within mural painting as a way to give heightened effects of reality to the background, usually the architectural setting. As mentioned in passing, many of these details would not have been seen easily by the beholder; see, for example, Cimabue's Ytalia fresco in the vault of the crossing in the Upper Church at Assisi (fig. 3.4). Attempting to understand why painters would include details not visible to those "on the ground" could provide more evidence of the painters' reflexivity in this period.

Chapters four and five, "Meta-Images" and "Meanings," are major strengths of the book. If the reader has had difficulty understanding the importance of images-within-images in previous chapters, the arguments contained here are forceful, lucid, and exciting. Bokody takes the reader to familiar works, such as Giotto's Justice and Injustice from the Arena Chapel and pushes to understand the choices Giotto made with the framing of the secondary images. His analysis of Giotto's Allegory of Obedience from the crossing vault in the Lower Church at Assisi is masterful. The "marginal" detail of the Crucifixion sketch that appears behind the seated figure of Obedience (plate 12) permits Bokody to relate the unfinished quality of the sketch to the preparatory phases of fresco painting (supplied by Cennino Cennini), and to draw a firm connection to the practice of self-reflexivity by painters in the Trecento. Bokody's analysis of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Presentation in the Temple for Siena Cathedral also makes a strong case for an artist's commentary on the fashioning of images. Chapter five returns to Giotto's Allegory of Obedience to understand further the meanings generated by the artist's choices of images-within-images. Here is where a reader might question the organization of the book. The chapters build on each other, but this does split discussions of single works between chapters. One might wish for a case-study approach that would allow for a full analysis of a work of art within one coherent discussion. Regardless, these two chapters provide plenty of material for specialists and nonspecialists to engage with and cogitate over these types of images.

The final two chapters of the book, "Embedded Narrative" and "Image and Devotion," continue to direct attention to secondary or marginal aspects of images that may have been overlooked while focusing on the essential theme. Particularly worth examining is the discussion of Pietro Lorenzetti's "more elaborate images-within-images," in the Passion cycle of the Lower Church at Assisi. Pietro increased the size and visibility of his parerga, perhaps out of recognition that previous artists' uses of small-scale marginal images were too difficult to see or identify. Chapter seven moves away from architectural details within narrative paintings to examine how these new pictorial innovations affected cult images. It provides a contrasting coda to the preceding chapters, educating the reader on the importance of these marginal flourishes.

In the conclusion, Bokody returns to Giotto to consider whether this artist's revival of mimetic representation is responsible for the developments that occur c. 1300: "[i]t would certainly be bold to suggest that images-within-images and monochrome painting were entirely dependent on Giotto's achievements. It is also hard to deny, however, that the potential that he unlocked in realistic visual expression contributed significantly to these accomplishments" (190). I do strongly recommend this book, particularly chapters four and five, to specialists and nonspecialists in the Italian Trecento. Bokody's careful reading of images provides a clear model for others. He provocatively suggests that he will continue with the "second half of the fourteenth century covering developments in Italy and the full dissemination of the phenomenon beyond the Alps" (189-190) in another monograph. I will be among those anticipating his next book.

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