Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Religion and Public Life in Late Medieval Italy

A conference held at the University of St Andrews (GB), 14-16 June 2007

Review by
Emily Graham

From June 14th to 16th, 2007 the Department of Medieval History at the
University of St Andrews (Scotland) hosted a conference on Religion and Public Life
in Late Medieval Italy, sponsored by the British Academy. The conference was
organised by Dr FRANCES ANDREWS, Reader in Medieval History at the University of
St Andrews and Director of the University’s new Institute for Medieval Studies, as
part of a new research project on religious figures in public office in north-central
Italy. The speakers and conference attendees were an international and
interdisciplinary gathering, made up of American, British and Italian scholars of
history and art history, as well as members of staff and postgraduates of the
University of St Andrews. This diversity was reflected in the programme, with papers
given in English and Italian examining the interaction of religious figures and civic
roles, space and authority, in northern and central Italy from the twelfth to the
fifteenth centuries.
The programme began with brief introductory remarks by Dr. Andrews, who
discussed her reasons for proposing the topic, outlining the surprising ubiquity of
religious figures in communal government and civic life, and the limited nature of our
understanding of their role and its implications for issues of “secularity”. She drew
attention to the need for further exploration of the questions raised by participation
of religious figures, particularly regulars, in the public sphere and in paid public
office, and the effects and repercussions of such roles on perceptions of their identity,
and relations between their communities and city governments.
MAUREEN MILLER (University of California, Berkeley) gave the first paper of the
conference, speaking on Reform and Art in the Public Sphere: Clerical and Lay
Discourse in Eleventh-Century Rome. Miller examined several painting cycles from
the eleventh and twelfth centuries in Roman churches, and commented especially on
the number of such cycles still extant in the city that were commissioned by lay
patrons in the period. Her paper focused on the fresco cycle of the lower basilica of
San Clemente in particular, using its imagery and context to discuss the concept of a
surge in lay patrons in that period connected to the role of lay parties in the
Investiture Contest. She also suggested that previous scholars may have overstated
the impact of debates about reform in the eleventh century when compared to
earlier periods.
EDWARD COLEMAN (University College Dublin) then spoke on The bishops of
Cremona and the commune: the politics of co-habitation. He began by discussing
Giovanni Tabacco’s 1979 identification of Cremona (in Egemonie sociali e strutture
del potere nel Medioevo italiano, Torino) as a case of note in the analysis of the
problem of communal origins, to wit, the changing relationship between the bishop
and the commune. The paper, starting from Tabacco’s idea of “institutional
synthesis”, argued that in the case of Cremona, rather than marginalising the bishop
and usurping episcopal authority, the commune actually strengthened the bishop's
position and influence in civic life. Coleman went on to discuss ways in which bishops
and the commune collaborated during the twelfth century, pointing out the use of
shared public space and the familial links between the cathedral clergy and
communal elites. Finally, he discussed the convergence of communal and episcopal
interest with regard to Cremona's relations with other towns and cities on the Po
plain, notably Crema and Milan.
GIOVANNA CASAGRANDE (University of Perugia) spoke next on Religiosità
penitenziale e città al tempo dei comuni: il caso di Perugia, focusing on the city’s
statutes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the Massari archival series
listing officials’ names, to explore what they reveal about the communal-related
activities of religious and penitents in the city, and diversity of religious figures who
took on such responsibilities. Her paper argued that the earlier statutes show few
cases of religious’ taking on civic positions, but by the mid-fourteenth century there
was a considerable rise. Their roles included ambassadorial and diplomatic functions,
public works, financial positions, almoners’ duties mediating and peacemaking,
duties which were in many ways similar to those “traditionally” practiced by religious.
Some friars were highly respected and appear in towns other than that of their home
institution and/or birth, which raises the question of how they were transferred and
at whose behest. Though in many cases the information given does not allow
identification of the religious’ Order, there is data to suggest that religious from a
wide variety of groups took on communal duties: Cistercians, Humiliati, Servites,
Silvestrines, penitents and others. Casagrande’s discussion of evidence to be gleaned
from these sources suggests that other such documents may also provide valuable
information on the roles which communes conceived of religious participating in, or
conversely how religious and their capabilities fit into civic responsibilities.
The next speaker was LOUISE BOURDUA (University of Warwick), who gave a
paper entitled Craftsmen and professional religious: the contribution of religious to
public art. Bourdua raised the problem of identifying the precise roles of religious in
executing artworks when they were, as was not uncommon, collaborators with a
secular artist or part of a team. Further, were their skills learned before or after their
entrance into an order? How realistic were their representations of other religious?
Bourdua cited examples of religious working in the capacity of architects, bell
makers, clockmakers and engineers in addition to artists. She, like Casagrande, raised
the question of how they came to work in such positions, whether as volunteers or in
an exchange of goods and services with the Order in question: and in light of such an
arrangement, how then we should view communal payments to individual friars.
The following day, ELEONORA RAVA (University of Pisa) spoke on La
dimensione pubblica di un'esperienza religiosa individuale: la città di Pisa e le sue
cellane nei secc. XIII-XIV, examining the location of recluses in public spaces
through testaments, particularly those during the period 1280-1320. She noted that
while earlier anchoresses’ cells clustered around a suburban economic axis, later they
appear to gather around monasteries, urban parishes and civic buildings, retreating
only when numbers dwindled post-1334 into suburban neighborhoods and the
northern city centre. Rava also pointed to the function of anchoresses’ cells in public
spaces and the conception of them as a separate space not only functionally but
conceptually, a geographic expression of Heaven on earth. Her paper directly
addressed a different way of conceiving of roles that religious played in the physical
space of communal life, one of several papers which expanded this reviewer’s notions
of what we can mean by “participation” or “presence” in civic life.
KATHERINE L. JANSEN (Catholic University of Washington DC) presented her
paper next, entitled Preaching and Public Life in Medieval Italy. Jansen began by
discussing the shift in preaching space into the public sphere in the 12th century, the
problems involved in differentiating between public and private preaching and hence
restrictions on who could preach, and issues to face in determining the delineation of
preaching arenas, such as the time of day and size of the audience. She moved on to
note the complex arrangements that could result from organized preaching tours,
such as the retinues of translators who might accompany Observant friars in their
travels in Eastern Europe on papal preaching campaigns. And, in further describing
the scene, Jansen noted sources that through criticism provide information on the
dramatic and performance-oriented details of preachers.
The next speaker was EDWARD ENGLISH (University of California Santa
Barbara) on the topic Civic Ethics and Religion in Siena in the Fourteenth Century:
Integrating an Elite. His paper examined the boundaries between powerful families’
and communes’ interests, and the boundaries of private and public in the lives of
magnates. The paper in particular explored the relationship of these families to the
bishopric, which English demonstrated was often held by a member of the Malavolti
family in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. He examined their testaments,
burials, patronage and ties to the Dominican Order.
SAMUEL K. COHN (University of Glasgow) in a paper entitled The clergy and
popular protest in late medieval Europe explored the causes of Italian popular revolt
in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, summarizing material in his recent book
(Lust for liberty: the politics of social revolt in medieval Europe, 1200-1425: Italy,
France and Flanders, 2005). He argued, as in the fifth chapter of his book, against
what has been a common portrayal of civil revolts as led or inspired by charismatic
religious, discussing the lack of evidence for clerical participation in, much less
leadership of, the revolts. Cohn also noted the rarity of the incorporation of religious
ideology into the material supporting the revolts. He argued instead that the revolts
were based primarily on economic factors.
CAROL LANSING (University of California Santa Barbara) spoke next on
Spiritual and civic authority: dissenting views. Lansing’s paper examined
interactions between heretics, the Inquisition and the commune. She addressed the
intersection of Inquisitorial and communal jurisdiction in the sources, and examined
the range of communal reactions to Inquisitorial operations, from a complete lack of
support to reluctant cooperation. She noted that lack of interest on the part of the
civic authorities was expressed through lack of persecution of accused heretics. Those
serving in governmental roles were often allowed to continue in office. These
included high-ranking Cathar sympathizers in Orvieto in the early- to mid-thirteenth
century, as well as examples from the Florentines’ well-documented struggle with the
ROBERT GIBBS (University of Glasgow) presented next on God in the City: 13th
and 14th Century Illuminated Statutes of Bologna in Context. Gibbs’ paper noted a
dichotomy between illuminations of civic or guild statutes and those of other texts
produced in Bologna, and posited that the illuminations of statutes were heavily
influenced by the Roman legal tradition, via the Pisan school of illumination of legal
texts. He examined the appearance of religious images in illuminated Bolognese legal
texts, as well as other expressions of Bolognese-style legal illuminations. These
included manuscripts of Gratian’s Decretals in which papal and imperial iconography
appeared together in what Gibbs identifies as a dynamic relationship that expresses
distribution of powers. Gibbs also noted the appearance of religious images in
statutes, in conjunction with their associated guild, in the fourteenth century. In
particular, Gibbs held up the statutes of the Ospedale Santo Spirito of Rome as an
exceptional example of the Bolognese mode.
DENNIS ROMANO’s (University of Syracuse) paper Venetian Exceptionalism?
Lay and Religious in Venetian Republican Governance examined the close
relationship that existed between the government of the Venetian Republic and its
secular clergy, theorizing that it may have resulted from the dual role of chaplains as
notaries in many levels of secular government. In particular it examined the sacral
role of the Doge, the connection of that position and San Marco in procession,
participation in religious ceremonies and his patronage of its canons. The paper also
illustrated the implications of the changing roles of the canons in the thirteenth
century as S. Marco itself grew into the commune’s state church. The integration of
priest-notaries into Venetian public and private life, it hypothesized, may spring from
several key differences between Venice and other communes: the status of Venetian
secular clergy, the fact that the Venetian commune emerged in opposition to the Doge
rather than an episcopal figure, and the absence of a notarial guild.
ISABELLA LAZZARINI (University of Molise) gave the final paper of the
conference, Between the prince, the town and Rome: dynastic cardinals and the
urban clergy in late medieval Italy (Mantua and Milan, XVth century), in which she
explored the complexities of the intersection of cardinal-princes’ authority at the
papal court, in local political organizations and ecclesiastical institutions, via the
Gonzaga and Sforza cardinals of the second half of the fifteenth century. In doing so,
Lazzarini touched on the “politicization” of the cardinalate and the use of its power to
benefit the family rather than the curia. In the second half of the 15th century there
was a dramatic increase in cardinal-princes, either Roman baronial or Neapolitan
feudal dynasties, or republican elites. She argued that these positions exerted some
control over local ecclesiastical benefices but their autonomy made them unreliable.
At the end of the conference, JOHN ARNOLD (Birbeck College, University of
London) acted as respondent. He spoke first on the potential usefulness of
comparative history as against grand narratives in exploring the issue of religious in
public life, the importance of identifying potential points of comparison and
recurring issues throughout the medieval period and later, and the points of
comparisons’ value as a frame for discussion. Arnold also drew from the papers
presented an emphasis on the gap between abstract claims of power and practical
enforcement and local reality, as well as the issue of civic entities’ investment in
“telling themselves about themselves” via civic narratives and self-representations.
Secondly, he spoke on the role of “religion” in the discussion, or that of a
variety of issues identified as “religious”: the differing roles of ecclesiastics (religious
in “normal” roles, the anchoress as civic touchstone for “heaven on earth”, the
extraordinary intervention of the charismatic preacher, and varying perspectives that
had been considered on the relevant interactions between these roles and papal,
communal and local entities. Arnold distinguished in this between the normal or
routine events and extraordinary or distinct roles carried out. He found, in the
papers, a sense of the “routinized extraordinary” between those two, and questioned
whether that was indeed part of public life or set apart.
Thirdly, he discussed the role of the “public” and the assumption that it is
quasi-synonymous with the “civic”. He proposed that the notion of “res publica” as
the common good may be problematic, that it need not imply equal common good,
but something beneficial for elites and their dynastic concerns in a hierarchical
system. He also noted that several papers raised the issue of the “public” not as a
blank canvas but as “symbolic affective spaces” constituted through religion, civic
discourses, audience and claims on space. The act of visitation, for example, is a
“creation of publicness” and requests that the community create or reveal its own
Arnold saw two overall larger questions raised by the conference: What kind of
religiousness was evoked in public engagements? And, what publicness created in
civic interactions? The floor was then opened for discussion. Participants first
discussed the potential for modern history debates about religious and secular
interaction to provide questions that could usefully be applied to the medieval
evidence for the use of religion and the sacred in civic events. Can we use modern
parallels to generate questions and themes for the narrative? Some participants
encouraged temporally and geographically expanded ways of thinking about
secularity and the Church: there was a general agreement that inclusion of cases from
Southern Italy in the pre-Norman period could potentially benefit understanding of
the political-institutional narrative, and so enhance understanding of the interplay
between religious and commune in a way relevant to this conference. The idea of
working comparatively with areas outside of Italy was also raised. The discussion on
the relationship of religion and secularism also moved to an earlier period, with the
observation that the grand question on the birth of secularism begins with the
Gregorian Reform where the Church limits its own sphere, opening areas such as
medicine to the secular.
Additional potential sources for examining religious in civic roles were
proposed. It was pointed out that one might seek out documentary categories shared
across the sacred-secular boundaries, such as registers and estate management
records. The Laudationes of various communes could also be used fruitfully to
explore civic self-consciousness, as they group the sacred and secular for promotion
of the city and act as a sort of ‘inventory’ of the city. One might also examine court
culture as a useful source for an alternative narrative to religious-communal
Toward the end of the discussion, a more general question was raised: is Italy
lacking a sense of Christendom or larger religious identity? Why have there not been
more studies on the Crusades in Italy, on their recruitment and organisation? Some
sources were proposed that could be used in addressing these questions, focusing on
the utility of the ubiquitous Marian cult in assessing such a sense of Christendom: in
particular, Guelf-Ghibelline propaganda’s use of the Marian cult was mentioned. In
this context, participants brought up the utility of Diana Norman’s project to examine
whether Marian cults were localized or exported throughout Italy. One participant
also pointed out the fundamental importance of the cult of Christ and the Passion in
Italian Christendom, in particular the vogue for identification with Christ through
the Passion as a response to the Cathar threat.
The conference closed with this general discussion, at the end of which it was
noted that this conference was intended to open up issues related to the theme of the
conference, and with the hope that several of the issues raised would be debated and
perhaps even resolved at a second conference in 2009.
Many of the papers at the conference expanded, in several ways, this reviewer’s
idea of what we mean when we discuss “religious in civic life”. Certainly, there was an
interdisciplinary aspect to the conference: but more than that, in bringing together
the very fruitful research they have done in their areas of expertise, the speakers
revealed how very important and valuable it can be to apply the questions connected
with the conference’s theme - about religious roles performed in a “secular” arena, or
religious individuals performing a secular role outside our idea of their “usual” sphere
- to a wonderful variety of sources and groups across a broad period stretching from
the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, and how these questions may be utilized as a
starting point by social, economic, religious and art historians in different and
rewarding ways. Among the bishops, preachers and regular artists, presenters
brought to light the ways in which these questions can be used to think in new ways
about recluses, lay patrons, penitents, notaries and heretics who, along with secular
clergy and regulars, transcended our notions of their “usual” roles, or even our
imperfect understanding of their “secular” activities. And among the papers there was
a wonderful variety of sources that yielded, with the application of these questions,
new ways of considering their data that were very exciting.

Reti Medievali Calendario © 2007

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