The Medieval Review 17.10.03


Dell'Acqua, Francesca, Anthony Cutler, Herbert L. Kessler, Avinoam Shalem, and Gerhard Wolf, eds. The Salerno Ivories: Objects, Histories, Contexts. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2016. pp. 368. ISBN: 978-3-7861-2730-7 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Shirin Fozi
University of Pittsburgh
sfozi@pitt.edu

Few monuments of Romanesque art are as mysterious, or as glamorous, as the so-called Salerno ivories. Most of the sixty-plus carved plaques known today are preserved in the treasury of the cathedral of Salerno; they have been subject to scholarly scrutiny since at least the eighteenth century, and prized since the Middle Ages for their rich carvings that depict narratives from the Old and New Testaments with almost unparalleled verve. Despite the voluminous bibliography on these precious objects, virtually every question they raise remains open to debate. It is not clear when they were carved (a date somewhere in the range of 1060 to 1160 seems most likely), or where (production in Salerno itself is highly plausible, but the portability of ivory makes clear localizations problematic), or how they were originally installed. The ensemble could have been applied to any number of liturgical furnishings, such as a chair, an altar, or a set of doors; various reconstructions have been proposed but none accepted universally. Scholarship on the ivories has also been reinvigorated in recent years as medieval studies has turned with increasing urgency to the cross-fertilization of Islamic, Byzantine, and western European cultures. This has raised the stakes of understanding medieval Salerno: no longer relegated to the distant southern edge of a Eurocentric worldview, Salerno and its ivories now occupy a central position in the study of the medieval Mediterranean. Thus the publication of this handsome new volume and its sixteen essays on the Salerno ivories, their closest comparanda (including the Farfa casket and the Grado ivories), and the cultural milieu of Romanesque Italy could not have come at a better time.

It is heartening that the list of contributors includes both junior and senior scholars, drawn from European and North American institutions, engaging with both historical and technical methods. This mix of perspectives has resulted in a remarkably engaging book, in which examinations of materials and carving techniques are balanced with essays on theological and social contexts. As underscored by Gerhard Wolf in the foreword and explained by the editors in the preface, this lively atmosphere is the result of a research project of the Kunsthistorisches Intitut in Florenz--Max-Planck-Institut, and was cultivated through a series of conferences in Florence, Amalfi, and Washington DC that clearly sparked fruitful discussions. The exhibition L'enigma degli avori medievali da Amalfi a Salerno (Salerno, Museo Diocesano, 2007-2008) also seems to have been a source of inspiration for many authors. The close engagement of the contributors with their subject matter is also reflected in the impressive color plates (246-355) that showcase the results of a collaborative photographic campaign from January 2015. Most of these 'plates' are actually two-page openings offering multiple photographs of each plaque, including pictures of front and back, oblique views from sharp angles, and enlarged details. Such efforts to reproduce the effect of seeing the ivories in person are invaluable, allowing readers to observe the subtle gradations of thickness and varying surface textures that create striking visual effects. For specialists, these new photographs will prove an indispensable set of research tools; for those who are new to this field, they offer nothing short of a revelation. The grain of the ivory, its cracks and curves, and the subtle marks of craftsmen's tools are made visible along with inventory numbers, drill holes, inlaid eyes, and other important traces of the changes in appearance and function that the ivories witnessed over time.

Like the plates, the essays invite readers to look closely and see the Salerno ivories from fresh perspectives. This appropriately begins with a contribution from Anthony Cutler that deftly brings careful observations of carving techniques--where the material has been incised and where it has been left uncut, how volume has been manipulated to achieve spatial effects, and where the handling of specific motifs betrays familiarity with other, closely related ivories--to bear on a broader discussion of meaning and context. Cutler is eminently sensitive to the strategies employed by medieval carvers to maximize the sculptural potential of ivory, which was always limited in supply and always exceedingly precious. His attention to the scarcity of ivory is beautifully matched by Sarah Guérin's essay, which makes the important and entirely original assertion that the Salerno group could have been carved from a single massive tusk. Starting from a careful assessment of the volume of materials required for the program, Guérin situates the proposed tusk in relation to medieval trade routes. This is linked to patterns of tribute and the patronage of Robert Guiscard, who conquered Salerno in 1076 and maintained close ties with its cathedral, and has long been acknowledged as a likely patron of the ivories. While such conclusions must remain provisional due to a lack of textual sources, Guérin's thesis is deeply compelling for its suggestive vision of the tusk as a unit of measurement in a sense, building a strong link between the circulation of raw ivory and the extraordinary scale of the Salerno group.

Additional insights into the physical properties of the material are found in essays drawn from examinations in conservation laboratories. Pietro Baraldi, Paolo Bensi, Andrea Rossi, and Paolo Zannini take up the fraught issue of polychromy. It remains uncertain if medieval ivories were painted with any regularity, as traces of color are not uncommon but notoriously difficult to date, and it is conversely unclear how much has been lost through overly enthusiastic cleaning efforts. This essay grounds the issue in the historical record with a helpful selection of primary sources before presenting results of scientific analyses of ivories from the tenth through twelfth centuries. Examples from collections in Bologna, Florence, Modena, Nonantola, and Salerno were studied with techniques including FTIR spectroscopy, showing traces of yellow (gold), red (vermilion), and blue (ultramarine) pigments as well as cleaning or whitening agents. Relatively little pigment is preserved in the Salerno group, in which only vermilion was found consistently. It is clear, however, that these ivories were cleaned in the eighteenth century, making it likely that much evidence concerning color has been lost. This focus on paint is balanced by Giovanni Guardia's report on the carving and construction of the Farfa casket, accompanied by powerful photographs that reveal much about the condition of this extraordinary object. Thanks to the inscription that identifies "Maurus" as its donor, the casket has long been associated with a certain merchant of Amalfi who was a noted patron of Montecassino in the 1060s. This allows the Farfa casket to be dated and localized with relative certainty as a key point of reference for artistic production in southern Italy in the late eleventh century. The secure date of the Farfa casket also plays a role in Fabrizio Crivello's essay, which situates the Salerno plaques in relation to a broader group of eleventh- and early-twelfth century plaques from Amalfi and elsewhere, including useful comparisons with Carolingian and Ottonian ivories. Many of the arguments here about the relationships between different groups and the difficult questions related to models, copies, and workshops fit very well with the essay by Gabriella Bernardi and Giovanni Gasbarri on four ivories in the Museo Civico Medievale, Bologna. Both of these essays offer much insight into the problem of the Salerno 'circle', which is to say ivories that seem related to the main group, and were apparently formed within the same artistic milieu but not necessarily in the same workshop. The welcome attention to provenance and discussion of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publications provided by Bernardi and Gasbarri is also a feature of Francesca Tasso's discussion of early documentation for the Grado chair, yet another key point of comparison for Salerno. Though the chair itself was apparently dismantled long ago, the surviving plaques and their background help contextualize the Salerno group by offering hints about ambitious ivory ensembles in the early Middle Ages. The historiographic notes in these essays is nicely extended in Antonio Milone's discussion of Angelo Maria Bandini (1726-1803), the eighteenth-century canon who was in charge of the Marucelliana and Laurenziana libraries from 1752 and 1765, respectively. Milone situates Bandini's early studies of the Grado and Salerno ivories within the rising antiquarian interest of the eighteenth century, offering a compelling glimpse of scholarship in a formative period for the study of medieval art.

Ruggero Longo and Elisabetta Scirocco explore the fragmented evidence concerning the medieval liturgical furnishings of Salerno's cathedral in a well-reasoned essay that clarifies the likelihood of various theories concerning the original placement of the ivories. Perhaps most striking is the reconstruction of the choir screen, which suggests an ivory door (as proposed by Robert Bergman in 1980) could not have fit into the opening between the sanctuary and the choir but may have been set into the doorway between the lay nave and the choir instead. The theory that the ivories may have been set in relation to an altar is complicated by the observation that a dossal would present an illogical obstruction for viewers of the mass. An antependium is more plausible, though this too is problematic because similar items in silver and gold (but not ivory) are documented as key donations from notable twelfth-century patrons. Of all the options open for discussion a cathedra or episcopal chair seems to gain the most traction, especially in light of liturgical sources that reflect the presence of a second precious chair in addition to the marble papal throne that also survives at Salerno. This point is beautifully complemented by Francesca Dell'Acqua's essay, which also reviews the proposed reconstructions from older scholarship and adds an important discussion of thrones, both physical and metaphorical, in medieval texts. The analysis also makes good use of the rarely seen versos of the ivories, and usefully relates the ensemble to the culture and politics of twelfth-century Salerno.

Multiple essays pursue iconographic arguments. Maria Evangelatou examines the forms and semiotic potential of botanical details, and includes an extended comparison with plant motifs on the bronze doors of Hildesheim (commissioned in 1015) which bear some of the most ambitious biblical narratives to survive in northern Europe. As the author acknowledges, the Hildesheim doors are quite far from Salerno, not only in geography but also in materials, style, and scale. Nevertheless, even if the invocation of "widely circulating Christian beliefs and applications" (163) to explain certain parallels is less than wholly satisfying, this essay offers many insights into the use of abstracted natural forms to enrich iconographic content. Natalia B. Teteriatnikov has carefully situated a single motif from the ivories--the unusually elaborate and beautifully articulated Holy Sepulchre--within the surviving evidence concerning the original structure in Jerusalem, its many architectural copies, its representation in manuscript illuminations and liturgical texts, and above all its depiction in ivories and wall paintings. The essay ultimately underscores the closeness of Salerno to a larger Benedictine context through association with Montecassino. Maria Cristina Carile and Patricia Blessing turn to the use of architectural motifs more broadly, considering the appearance of structural elements in the narrative scenes and also their relationship to the built environment of the medieval Mediterranean. Their analyses of arches, columns, canopies, and cityscapes, as well as the representations of Noah's Ark and the Holy Sepulchre, offer an extraordinarily cosmopolitan view of medieval Salerno.

A different approach to iconography is taken by Herbert Kessler, whose essay explores tensions between the Old and New Testament cycles with a focus on 'realia', or the reality effect that is given far greater attention in the latter group. Thoughtfully revisiting an idea from a previous generation, the assertion by Otto Demus that the Old Testament images are simply "to be taken at their face value" (126), Kessler points out that style and iconography are used to highlight the visibility of Christ in the New Testament narratives, underscoring his incarnation as God's word made flesh. Iconography is also a cornerstone of Jill Caskey's essay, which skillfully weaves the emphasis on healing in the ivories of the Ministry of Christ into a broader social history. Healing communities in medieval Salerno drew upon practices resembling modern medicine, such as the use of expensive pharmaceutical remedies, but also looked to the miracles associated with the newly-rediscovered relics of Saint Matthew to treat those afflicted with illnesses. These threads come together powerfully in the figure of Alphanus, an eleventh-century medicus who healed the future Pope Victor III before becoming Archbishop of Salerno in 1058. Alphanus was also credited with finding Matthew's relics during the reconstruction of the cathedral in 1080. By bringing this context to bear on a sensitive reading of the images of sick and disabled bodies, Caskey makes a compelling case for seeing the ivories in relation not only to the relics in the crypt of the cathedral, but also to the medieval people who hoped to find redemption there.

Sensitivity to the lived realities of medieval Salerno is also evident in Antony Eastmond's essay, which calls for an inclusive, heterogeneous approach to the pluralistic visual culture of the Mediterranean and a renewed focus on consumers rather than producers of medieval art. Engaging productively with recent publications by Cutler, Guérin, Eva Hoffman and others, Eastmond offers an important reminder that traditional constructs of centers and peripheries, in which artworks attributed to cities such as Constantinople and Rome are privileged over the 'hybrid' styles associated with the provinces, are increasingly outdated. The tremendous range of products available in southern Italy in the years around 1100 suggests a thriving, cosmopolitan marketplace where artists could experiment productively with different styles. This is quite far from the somewhat stodgy notions of fixed workshops that dominated the study of medieval luxury arts for much of the last century, making this essay a welcome intervention that nudges future scholarship to approach the Mediterranean as a mosaic rather than a melting pot, where the "picture of cultural harmony should be replaced by one of harmonious dissonance" (109).

Eastmond's arguments reflect the spirit of the volume as a whole, in which most (if not all) of the authors willingly embrace a slippery, open-ended vision of the Salerno ivories. The debate about dating is left wide open; arguments by Caskey and Guérin that link the ivories to specific eleventh-century figures are matched by discussions like Dell'Acqua's, which points out that the relative peace of the mid-twelfth century might be a more opportune moment for the production of a lavish new ensemble. While individual readers may be more persuaded by some arguments than others, the preservation of so many different points of view in a single volume is in itself a remarkable achievement. As eloquently argued in the epilogue by Avinoam Shalem, the book offers an important invitation to "rethink and redefine our aesthetic understanding of what art historians identify as Romanesque art" (241); it enriches the enigma of the Salerno ivories but does not claim to resolve the puzzle entirely. Rather than foreclosing future debates, this book opens up its topic in important new ways, and equips readers with invaluable images and ideas that promise to spark discussion for many years to come.



Copyright (c) 2017 Shirin Fozi



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