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The Medieval Salento

Art and Identity in Southern Italy

By Linda Safran

Publication Year: 2014

Located in the heel of the Italian boot, the Salento region was home to a diverse population between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. Inhabitants spoke Latin, Greek, and various vernaculars, and their houses of worship served sizable congregations of Jews as well as Roman-rite and Orthodox Christians. Yet the Salentines of this period laid claim to a definable local identity that transcended linguistic and religious boundaries. The evidence of their collective culture is embedded in the traces they left behind: wall paintings and inscriptions, graffiti, carved ­­tombstone decorations, belt fittings from graves, and other artifacts reveal a wide range of religious, civic, and domestic practices that helped inhabitants construct and maintain personal, group, and regional identities.

The Medieval Salento allows the reader to explore the visual and material culture of a people using a database of over three hundred texts and images, indexed by site. Linda Safran draws from art history, archaeology, anthropology, and ethnohistory to reconstruct medieval Salentine customs of naming, language, appearance, and status. She pays particular attention to Jewish and nonelite residents, whose lives in southern Italy have historically received little scholarly attention. This extraordinarily detailed visual analysis reveals how ethnic and religious identities can remain distinct even as they mingle to become a regional culture.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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Title Page, About the Series, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

Numbers in boldface brackets indicate images and texts in the Database. Greek in the Database reproduces the accentuation and orthography of the original text, whereas in the rest of the book the Greek is corrected. Conventions for inscriptions in the text are the same as in the...

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pp. 1-16

In this book I explore the visual and material culture of people who lived and died in a particular region of Italy in the Middle Ages. I investigate their names, the languages they used in public, how they were represented (and how they actually may have looked), and what components of status seem to have been important to them. I then reconstruct some of the rituals that accompanied local residents...

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Chapter 1. Names

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pp. 17-37

Ever since Adam named the animals in Genesis 2:20, humans have given things—and people—names. Names, and the kinship relationships expressed through them, are among the most essential and universal components of identity. Personal names and surnames connect people with ancestors, places of origin, social and religious communities, and larger cultural groups, and thus contribute to the formation...

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Chapter 2. Languages

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pp. 38-57

One of the most important lessons to be learned from examining linguistic choices is that language, like names, is not a secure indicator of cultural or ethnic background. Speaking, reading, writing, and commissioning texts are learned behaviors whose use is socially determined. As numerous sociolinguistic studies have shown, different languages might be appropriate in different situations, and a person...

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Chapter 3. Appearance

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pp. 58-90

It is often said that “clothes make the man,” and appearance is indeed the most obvious signal of identity.1 Before names are exchanged and languages employed in spoken discourse, impressions have already been formed on the basis of appearance.2 Instinctively, and not always correctly, we interpret such cues as physiognomy, dress, and jewelry in order to categorize and judge others according to...

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Chapter 4. Status

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pp. 91-117

“Status” refers to an individual’s position in relation to others, especially his or her social standing within and between groups, and relative status is a major factor in interpersonal behavior. Like other aspects of identity, one’s status is imputed by others and interpreted according to subjective cultural categories. It generates expectations that can range from respect and admiration to contempt. A higher...

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Chapter 5. The Life Cycle

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pp. 118-139

In the preceding chapters I have hewed close to the Database to assess how individual and communal identity was communicated visually, textually, and/or spatially through names, languages, appearance, and status. In the second half of the book I continue to explore the question of Salentine identity by reconstructing what the “painted people” actually did and, through their actions, some of their beliefs. Obviously, a...

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Chapter 6. Rituals and Other Practices in Places of Worship

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pp. 140-175

In the Middle Ages, houses of worship were social spaces par excellence, sites of human interaction as well as places to effect or maintain positive relationships between humans and God. I begin with church and synagogue liturgies and their settings, focusing on the evidence for specifically Salentine variants in both the weekly prayers and those for holidays and special events. I turn next to the considerable...

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Chapter 7. Rituals and Practices at Home and in the Community

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pp. 176-208

Beyond the rituals associated with the life cycle and places of worship, people in the medieval Salento regularly performed other activities in their communities and homes. Taking as a point of entry words, images, and artifacts included or alluded to in the Database of texts and images, I consider in this chapter rituals and practices that were specific to the Salento. I begin with those repeated public...

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Chapter 8. Theorizing Salentine Identity

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pp. 209-238

Ask an Italian where he is from and the response will be the name of a province—“sono Pugliese,” “Toscana”—except in the case of the largest cities (“Milanese,” “sono Romana”). As a highly mobile North American, I am perpetually astonished by my Italian acquaintances’ enduring connection to the land. Many who have worked outside of Apulia and even outside Italy tell me that they longed to establish...

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Database: Sites in the Salento with Texts and Images Informative About Identity

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pp. 239-336

The Introduction (pages 15–16) discusses the criteria for inclusion in the Database. Sites are arranged and numbered alphabetically, with the name of each city, town, or village followed by its modern Italian province in parentheses and by the name of the specific structure or kind of work within each site. If the work can be dated, this appears in boldface type. This is followed by measurements or other specific...

Image Plates

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pp. 337-396

Works Cited

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pp. 397-456


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pp. 457-466

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pp. 467-469

Isaiah of Trani the Elder (the RID), a Jewish sage who lived north of the Salento whose name appears often in this book, referred to his contemporary thirteenth-century Talmudists as “standing on the shoulders of giants” who had interpreted the text before them. This is the first time that this metaphor, attributed to Bernard of Chartres, was used in Hebrew literature. I, too, have benefited from the broad...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208917
E-ISBN-10: 0812208919
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245547

Page Count: 496
Illustrations: 20 color 149 b/w illus.
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 876349230
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Medieval Salento

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Subject Headings

  • Material culture -- Italy -- Salentina Peninsula -- History -- To 1500.
  • Arts and society -- Italy -- Salentina Peninsula -- History -- To 1500.
  • Salentina Peninsula (Italy) -- Social life and customs.
  • Visual communication in art.
  • Ethnicity in art.
  • Visual communication -- Italy -- Salentina Peninsula -- History -- To 1500.
  • Ethnicity -- Italy -- Salentina Peninsula -- History -- To 1500.
  • Group identity in art.
  • Material culture in art.
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