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  • Art and Patronage in the Medieval Mediterranean: Merchant Culture in the Region of Amalfi
  • John Osborne (bio)
Jill Caskey . Art and Patronage in the Medieval Mediterranean: Merchant Culture in the Region of AmalfiCambridge University Press. xiv, 328. US $85.00

The subject of this very useful book is medieval Amalfi, broadly understood to include both the city proper and its adjacent hinterland, including settlements such as Ravello and Scala. This region's history is surveyed through the mediating lens of the patronage of its prominent merchant-citizens, who developed a culture of production and display in keeping with their burgeoning capitalist enterprises. In the Decameron (1353), Giovanni Boccaccio used the term mercatantia to describe this commerce and its associated cultural contexts, and the same word is employed by Jill Caskey as the weft which weaves together the four individual chapters.

Amalfi gained its political independence from Naples in 839, and the subsequent half-millennium witnessed the glory days of mercatantia as its merchants plied the Mediterranean, engaging in hugely lucrative trade with both Byzantium and the Muslim world. Although it would lose its political independence to, in turn, the Normans (1073), the Hohenstaufens (1194), and the Angevins (1266), it was only with the last that the fortunes of the city succumbed to a precipitous decline. In part this was due to the suffocating proximity of the royal court at Naples, but changing social and religious circumstances also played an important role, in addition to the overweening pride of the Rufolo family itself.

Caskey begins by establishing the larger historical and cultural background for both Amalfi and its prominent families, of which the Rufolo [End Page 236] emerge in the mid-thirteenth century as the most potent and ambitious. Having served as court administrators to Emperor Frederick II, by 1268 they were prominent bankers to the new ruler of south Italy, Charles of Anjou. In 1283 the future Charles II engineered their collapse on dubious charges of corruption and fraud. This move is seen as part of an orchestrated Angevin 'stabilization strategy' in the aftermath of the Sicilian Vespers, and its effects were certainly dramatic.

Chapter 2 addresses the theme of domestic architecture, with a particular focus on the Rufolo casa at Ravello, the largest and best preserved example of the type. This topic has been unjustly ignored by architectural historians, and arguably constitutes Caskey's most significant contribution. In both form and decoration, the merchant compounds which sprawled across the steep hillsides above the port owed much to their neighbours in Byzantium and Muslim Ifrikiya (North Africa). Common elements included the incorporation of spolia; the use of terracotta, tufa, and other materials to decorate interior and exterior surfaces; and an architectural vocabulary which encompassed courtyards, arcades, domed pavilions, and private bath complexes. These elements demonstrate Amalfi's participation in a broader Mediterranean culture that transcended religion or politics, based on a common climate and geography, as well as ideas propagated through trade contacts. How much of this was residual, and how much active appropriation, remains an intriguing and open question. There are also numerous resonances with medieval Venice, and this parallel might have been explored to greater advantage.

The focus next shifts to religious space, both small family or neighbourhood churches such as San Giovanni del Toro (Ravello) and Sant'Eustachio (Pontone), and the larger and more public cathedrals. Building on both written and visual evidence, Caskey demonstrates how the various commissions responded to social needs, both practical and spiritual. The resulting 'culture of display' peaked in the 1270s with the new pulpit and ciborium in Ravello cathedral. Abandoning traditional norms for ecclesiastical geography, these assert bold public claims for Rufolo hegemony, augmented by lengthy inscriptions stressing genealogy and the introduction of heraldry, a concept previously unfamiliar in southern Italy.

The final chapter extends this survey of mercatantia through to the mid-fourteenth century. These years witness a substantial break with earlier practices in favour of a closer emulation of the fashions emanating from the royal court, including a noticeable focus on 'Angevin' saints such as Mary Magdalene and Catherine, and Passion scenes which reflect the growing influence of Franciscan piety. The use of stucco for a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 236-238
Launched on MUSE
2006-02-10
Open Access
No
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