Prof Caskey blogs from Bari: Notes from the Field

Friday, February 14, 2014 - 3:19pm
Prof Jill Caskey

I’ve been teaching for many years, and students frequently ask me questions along these lines:  What is it like to be an art historian?  How do you go about conducting fieldwork for a scholarly publication, like an article or book?  Many students who ask these kinds of questions are gathering information to determine if the path of advanced research is right for them.  Other students are just curious, wanting to understand more fully what professors are up to when they are not pontificating in the lecture hall or leading a seminar discussion.

Over Reading Week, I am going to Bari, Italy, to work on my current research project, “Pilgrimage, the Cult of Saints, and Patronage in Southern Italy, ca. 1300.”  I’m writing this Bari Blog to illuminate what art historians do in the field and what the research process looks like, at least from my perspective.  Assuming all goes well, I’ll be filing brief reports from February 18-22.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014 - 6:15pm
Prof Jill Caskey

 Sunshine and palm trees greeted us as the plane touched down in Bari in the late afternoon, as did an enthusiastic colleague who phoned before we had a chance to unpack and offered to take us to the Castello Svevo, a massive fortification built in the early 13th century.  She was eager to show us an exhibition she curated that is still being installed and won't be opened to the public until after we return to Canada. The exhibition is showcasing the  tombstones of Jews from this region (Apulia), works that date from the 7th through the 9th centuries, most likely.  These materials have been languishing in storage and haven't been assembled in one place before.  They are fascinating small slabs with Jewish symbols carved in relief, like the menorah and shofar, along with inscriptions.  The main inscriptions are in Hebrew, but many of them are bilingual; some have Hebrew and Greek inscriptions, others Hebrew and Latin.  The works provided a perfect introduction to the ways in which many communities and cultures intermingled here during the Middle Ages.

 We left the Castello around 7 pm, had dinner, and called it a day, about 24 hours after leaving Toronto.


Tues Feb 18

My princile reason for coming to Bari was to examine a series of objects donated to the church of San Nicola (St. Nicholas), which became a major destination for Christian pilgrims after Nicola's relics were brought or stolen-- the technical term is translated --  from his burial place in Myra, Turkey, in 1087.  In 1296, Charles II, the king of Sicily, made a series of donations to the church in order to reform it and enhance its prestige.  It has been my contention that this "reform" entailed extending royal power into part of the kingdom that had been hostile to his rule, and that the objects donated to the church altered the sacred space and performance of the religious celebrations at this prestigious pilgrimage site.

 In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had corresponded with Padre G, a Dominican friar who is the director of the Centro di Studi Nicolaiani, about seeing the works up close.  We had agreed that I should come to his office to discuss when that would be possible; I expected that it would take some time to work out the scheduling details.  I was delighted when the objects were there and ready to examine right away.  I spent the morning examining up close two candelabras.  They are among the few surviving works named in the original donation of 1296, where they are called opus veneciarum --- Venetian works.  They are, then, key pieces of evidence in the emergence of a particular technique of metalwork involving very fine "threads" of gold arranged in beaded, swirling patterns, known as filigree.  Venetian metalworkers were so good at this specialized technique that such objects were highly prized and came to be called opus veneciarum.

 I was accompanied by a friend and colleague, Linda, a specialist in wall paintings who has worked extensively on the art of this region.  We spent the morning trying to understand how the pieces were put together, based on the evidence we had before us, and what repairs and changes the works had undergone over time.  We noted identical patterns of filagree on the candelabra and another piece, a vessel with a lid, and came to see how the filigree accompanied and complemented other artistic techniques.  The vessel, for instance, has some colourful roundels at the top, which from far away (and according to some early inscriptions) look like glass enamels.  But they are actually paintings on parchment, from a manuscript or scraps from a manuscript scriptorium, placed under glass.  Some of the paintings were of eagles, but most were foliate patterns that resembled in their designs the swirls of the accompanying filigree.  The vessel in particular indicated that these works of opus veneciarum did not showcase merely the delicate metal filagree, but also parchment, beads, gems, glass, rock crystal, and textiles.

 After lunch, we returned to work on the objects a bit more, and then went to the Museo Nicolaiano to see a slightly later work, a reliquary known as the "church reliquary" due to its form.  Indeed it really does look like a mini church, as the accompanying picture suggests.  From the tiny gargoyles, a few of which even have spouts coming out of their mouths, to the arcades with saints, every inch of this container is covered with architectural motifs associated with the Gothic style.  The translucent enamels add the reflective splashes of rich color, like stained glass.  A magnifying glass helped us see the fine incisions that created the underlying designs and scoring that helped the glass adhere to the metal.  The photo detail shows this fairly well.

The Museo had to close, yet I didn't feel like I was done with the reliquary.  The Museo was to be closed the next day.  What to do?  The caretaker said he'd meet us the next morning to let us in for a few hours. 

 Meanwhile, we returned to the Padre's office to check in and spent an hour or two looking at another work, a large reliquary cross that was commissioned by Charles II soon after 1296 and made in Naples.  It was the object that most inspired this current research project, so I was really excited to see it.  When Padre G brought it out of the closet, I gasped.  Seeing this work literally took my breath away.  And examining it up close answered many questions I had had about it.  For example, could something of this scale and weight, I had wondered, be used in processions?  Or was it too heavy to carry and thus required to remain in one place, like on an altar?  We realized that the silver part of the cross comes out of the heavy base, like a sword comes out of a sheath.  It was a lot easier for the Padre to return the cross to the closet -- in two trips -- than it was for him to get it out.

I gave Padre G a copy of my book and a few articles as a token of appreciation.


Note: Photos forthcoming

  ....to accompany  the day's  Report.
 
Meanwhile, here are few views of the church of San Nicola.   Notice the sea, just past the left side of the building.
 
view of the church of San Nicola image

Day 3

Posted by Jill Caskey at Friday, February 21, 2014 7:01:34 PM EST

Another amazing day in Bari.  The group expanded today to include Dana, a doctoral student of mine who is doing fieldwork in Palermo and came to join us for a few days.  She showed me some of her recent work, including a digital reconstruction of a royal pavilion on an artificial lake. We set out for the Duomo to see the twelfth-century church and to visit the excavations of two earlier churches below.  We looked at layers of floor mosaics, wall paintings, and tombs dating from the Roman, Early Christian, and Byzantine periods.   The highlight of the day was a return trip to San Nicola.  The custodian took us on a special tour of the upper, inaccessible parts of the structure:  the upper galleries, the walls behind the eastern apses, and the areas located between the ceilings of the nave and transept and the pitched roof.  These attic-like spaces were spanned with row after row of huge wooden beams; some medieval accounts of construction mention the difficulty of  finding and transporting trees of sufficient size, and indeed we could really appreciate the logistical challenges medieval builders faced.  We also were able to enter the area behind the altar, another space usually closed to the public.  I was able to look at one of my favorite pieces of medieval sculpture, a throne supported by three exhausted-looking men, and the mosaics that swirl around it.  We could see details in the works that aren't clear in photographs, such as the teeth of the straining men and the pseudo-kufic (Arabic) inscription running along the edge of the apse. Other highlights:  a pilgrim kissing the door jambs of the church before she came in; examining painted icons at the Pinacoteca.


Guest Blogger: Dana

Posted by Jill Caskey at Sunday, February 23, 2014 2:48:49 AM EST

I was invited by Prof Caskey to guest blog this post during reading week. I am particularly delighted to join the research trip in Bari since I study southern Italian architecture of the same period in which San Nicola was built. After the visit to the Centro di Studi Nicolaiani and with Padre G’s recommendation, we were able to visit parts of the church with the sacristan D that are not accessible to most visitors. On our first day, we were given access to the sanctuary area. Of particular interest was the cathedra of the archbishop Elias, the inlaid floor, and the ciborium over the altar. We were given the opportunity to examine closely and photograph these works. The next day, we met again the sacristan who accompanied us on a visit to the upper levels of San Nicola. In addition to walking on the exterior as well as the interior galleries of the church (an architectural feature that can be seen elsewhere in Bari and in surrounding towns), we also had a chance to go up to the roof of the aisle and the transept and see the wooden beams of the ceiling, some dating to the 12th century. A highlight of the visit for me was that we passed *behind* the wall of the apse on the gallery level of the church. An additional space was created between the apse and the external eastern wall so that the curvature of the apse was essentially hidden from the outside. As an architectural historian, my time in Bari is a reminder of how much there is to learn from site visits. In this particular case, our visits to San Nicola have illuminated one of the choices made by its builders that affected the building’s external form. Photos forthcoming!

s. nicola sanctuary image
S. Nicola sanctuary
s. nicola transept image
S.Nicola transept
san nicola space between apse and exterior wall image
San Nicola space between apse and exterior wall

Days 4 & 5

Posted by Jill Caskey at Monday, February 24, 2014 10:08:07 AM EST

Since internet access was unreliable in Bari and the days so full, I'm condensing my remarks from Days 4 &5. 

On Day 4, Linda and I took the early train to Lecce, where we were met at the station by Sergio, an expert on late medieval wall painting in this part of Italy.  We drove to Galatina, a town southwest of Lecce, to see the church of Santa Caterina.  This is a remarkable church for a number of art historical and historical reasons.  For one, it was founded in the late fourteenth century to help bring Greek Christians  into the Latin (Roman) church, and thus indicates the long-standing nature of religious and cultural heterogeneity in that part of southern Italy.  It is covered with wall paintings, including cycles of St. Catherine and the Apocalypse (Revelation), and is often considered the southern equivalent of San Francesco of Assisi for the quantity and quality of its wall painting.  It also has a considerable collection of liturgical instruments, reliquaries, and icons.  We were disappointed to be informed that the treasury museum was closed for restoration and that we could not get in.  With a bit more proding, though, we were allowed in briefly to see the collection.  Looking at the works there helped me make more accurate assessments of the links between the works in Bari and Galatina.  The materials, relative sizes, extent of repairs, and general levels of workmanship don't readily come through in photos and published descriptions.

Next we drove to Otranto, a town down the coast most famous (perhaps) for the Turkish siege of 1480.  The cannon balls from that battle are displayed all over town.  We first visited the small Byzantine church of San Pietro, which contains remarkable wall paintings from the Byzantine period.  The paintings had just undergone a small "adjustment" to repair some water damange.  The scaffolding that goes up for such work is the Holy Grail for art historians!  We ascended the scaffolding to examine the paintings of the eastern end, where the layers of painting were clearly visible.  Linda, who has written extensively on the church, joyously scampered up the highest scaffolding under the crossing dome, while Sergio and I stood below as she noted and explained new details and asked new questions.
The cathedral of Otranto was closed when we were done at San Pietro, but one of the restorers from San Pietro managed to reach the priest and he met us there so that we could see the huge church and pavement, which features figural mosaics of scenes from the bible, astrology, mythology, and secular legends (King Arthur), and other unusual imagery.
Sergio drove us back to Lecce, and our train reached Bari around 8 pm.

On Day 5 we took an early train to Trani, a beautiful sea-side town north of Bari.  I wanted to look at the crypt of the cathedral there, which is important for my pilgrimage and patronage project, and to see a few other "new" things there, including a museum of Jewish art and culture that opened a few years ago in one of Trani's four medieval synagogues.  The crypt of the cathedral is unusually complex and immense, as it features three distinct levels or spaces. The main crypt space in the east end of the church is very deep and high, and many windows pierce its thick walls and fill it with light.  This arrangement is fairly unusual, for most crypts provide the foundations for the upper church; hence, they don't extend very much above ground level, and if they do, the load they are bearing from the weight above doesn't allow for much fenestration (windows).  Here and elsewhere, the columns were recycled from earlier Roman and Byzantine buildings.  We call them spolia, from spoils.  Other spolia of note were large porphyry columns that once supported a canopy over the main altar.  The porphyry columns, along with other bits of sculpture from the site, were in the Diocesan Museum.
We also had an appointment to see a Byzantine sculpted icon in Santa Maria di Dionisio, a small church that is usually closed.  We had a hard time finding the church because the small street it is on is not labeled on the map, and no one seemed to know where the street and chuch were located.  We finally found it, about ten minutes after our appointment, and were concerned that the person we were to meet had left.  But eventually we located each other.  It turns out that the church is now known by another name, Santi Medici, not its original one, Santa Maria, which is why no one knew what we were looking for. 

After visiting the Synagogue museum, we went looking for fragments of Hebrew inscriptions that are embedded in the walls of various palaces around the town. 

We took the train back in the late afternoon, and met up with Dana for a celebratory pizza.  Tomorrow (Sunday), back to the snow and ice of Toronto.


Photos from Days 4 & 5

Posted by Jill Caskey at Monday, February 24, 2014 10:53:37 AM EST
Last Edited:Monday, February 24, 2014 10:57:01 AM EST

1. Adam, Eve, and the scaffolding: view of wall painting from San Pietro, Otranto 2. Seated apostles, detail of wall painting from San Pietro, Otranto. Note that the blue of the background is lapis lazuli, an expensive pigment that indicates the wealth and status of the patron of the paintings. 3. Cathedral of Otranto: detail of floor mosaic showing animals and inscriptions, including pseudo-Kufic 4. Cathedral of Otranto: detail of floor mosaic showing Adam and Even being expelled from Eden by an angel 5. Stones with Hebrew inscriptions reused for the door lintel and jamb, palace courtyard, Trani 6. Crypt of the Cathedral of Trani, est end, showing array of columns reused from earlier sites (spolia) and bright light. 7. Photo of Trani cathedral, showing entry to crypt (dark arch at ground level), stairs up to porch for entry to main church, and bell tower. This has to be the most photogenic church in Italy!

  view of wall painting from San Pietro, Otranto

Adam, Eve, and the scaffolding:  view of wall painting from San Pietro, Otranto

Image description.  Seated apostles, detail of wall painting from San Pietro, Otranto.  Note that the blue of the background is lapis lazuli, an expensive pigment that indicates the wealth and status of the patron of the paintings.
Seated apostles, detail of wall painting from San Pietro, Otranto.  Note that the blue of the background is lapis lazuli, an expensive pigment that indicates the wealth and status of the patron of the paintings.
  detail of floor mosaic showing animals and inscriptions, including pseudo-Kufic
Cathedral of Otranto:  detail of floor mosaic showing animals and inscriptions, including pseudo-Kufic
  detail of floor mosaic showing Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden by an angel
Cathedral of Otranto:  detail of floor mosaic showing Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden by an angel
Image description. Stones with Hebrew inscriptions reused for the door lintel and jamb, palace courtyard, Trani
Stones with Hebrew inscriptions reused for the door lintel and jamb, palace courtyard, Trani
Image description. Crypt of the Cathedral of Trani, est end, showing array of columns reused from earlier sites (spolia) and bright light.
Crypt of the Cathedral of Trani, est end, showing array of columns reused from earlier sites (spolia) and bright light.
Image description. Photo of Trani cathedral, showing entry to crypt (dark arch at ground level), stairs up to porch for entry to main church, and bell tower.  This has to be the most photogenic church in Italy!
Photo of Trani cathedral, showing entry to crypt (dark arch at ground level), stairs up to porch for entry to main church, and bell tower.  This has to be the most photogenic church in Italy!

Photos from Days 2 & 3

Posted by Jill Caskey at Monday, February 24, 2014 11:09:26 AM EST

Now that I'm back in the world of reliable internet, here are a few pictures from Days 2 & 3. Sorry for the delay! 1. View of vessel (Vasa), Treasury of San Nicola 2. Detail of the base of the Vasa, including the pieces of painted parchment under glass, Treasury of San Nicola 3. Detail of candlestick, showing two pieces of transparent rock crystal, a gold band with filigree, granulation, and gems, and the gold and red cord.

View of vessel (Vasa), Treasury of San Nicola
View of vessel (Vasa), Treasury of San Nicola
 
Detail of the base of the Vasa, including the pieces of painted parchment under glass, Treasury of San Nicola
Detail of the base of the Vasa, including the pieces of painted parchment under glass, Treasury of San Nicola
Detail of candlestick, showing two pieces of transparent rock crystal, a gold band with filigree, granulation, and gems, and the gold and red cord
Detail of candlestick, showing two pieces of transparent rock crystal, a gold band with filigree, granulation, and gems, and the gold and red cord