Department of History

Roman vs. Barbarian? Visual Cultures in Early Medieval Italy (7th- 8th  Ct.)

The project focuses on the impact migration, displacement and the circulation of people, materials and ideas had on artistic production in Early Medieval Italy. During these centuries, the Peninsula was split between territories administered by Byzantium and territories conquered by the Lombards, following their arrival in the last quarter of the 6th century.
An overview of the artistic production of this period is lacking, because Rome, and Byzantine Italy more generally, has been dissociated from evidence found in the Lombard territories, and analyzed as the result of an intensification of oriental models. On the other hand, there is a tendency to emphasize the slow transition, in the Lombard territories, from a visual culture rooted in Germanic goldsmithing to a "Romanization" leading to monumental artistic production only after a long interval, on the eve of the Carolingian takeover of 774. 
In order to understand the impact and significance of the transformations that led to the development of visual culture in Carolingian Europe, however, it is necessary to look at the issue from a cross-over perspective. This point of view was first put forward by Hans Belting (1967) in his "Italienische Frage", devoted mainly to pictorial production at the turn of the ninth century. But the question deserves to be approached from an earlier starting point, focusing on the 7th and the first part of the 8th century. This moment constitutes a real pivotal point for the problem discussed.
Taking into account the circulation of people, objects and know-how, a cross-examination of artistic production between Lombard and Byzantine territories in the 7th and early 8th century leads to a substantial shift in the historiographic framework proposed so far. New foundations arise for a better understanding of the mechanisms that would lead to the formation of the visual culture of Carolingian Europe.
Rome and Pavia were more closely linked than we tend to believe, and not only at the time of Queen Theodelinda (591-625). Moreover, it was not only the Rome of the Greek pontiffs that was open to oriental influences at that time: there is also evidence of exchanges with the East in the Lombard territories, with an undeniable impact on artistic production. This is evidenced, for example, by the existence of a bishop of oriental origin, Damian (last quarter of the 7th century), in Pavia. Damian commissioned mosaics and paintings with apocalyptic subjects in the church of San Michele: evidence that forces us to rethink the supposed void of the 7th century. Moreover, in the decades mentioned, there is evidence of icons with Greek inscriptions in Pavia, though the city was closely linked to Rome at that time regarding the cult of saints. Around 680, in fact, the outbreak of the plague led to a huge spread of the cult of St Sebastian. The mosaic panel on an altar in the Roman church of San Pietro in Vincoli seems to have been made in close dialogue with a model from Pavia, which demonstrates the need to investigate artistic developments in Lombard territories during the 7th century, as well as the relationship between the two areas the peninsula was divided into. 
Exchanges and circulation seem to have facilitated artistic production on a monumental scale in those years, even in the Lombard territories, following in the previous tradition of the Mediterranean area. During this stage, foundations were laid for the developments that would later see the Lombard sovereigns compete with the Roman papacy in terms of types of patronage and artistic expression in the middle of the 8th century, as demonstrated by the significant example of San Salvatore in Brescia.
Although the topic in question has benefited from important developments in the historical and archaeological spheres in recent decades, the issue remains less explored from the point of view of visual culture. In order to make progress in this direction, traditional methods of art history and archaeology will need to be complemented by the study of materials. It is not only the circulation of ideas and people that create the conditions for artistic exchange. An important role is also played by the very procedures involved in the procurement of materials and workers The issue of materials and production systems deserves to be included in the reflection, in order to consider more intrinsic factors within the circulation of ideas and models.