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  • The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy by Linda Safran
  • William Tronzo
The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy. By Linda Safran. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2014. Pp. viii, 469. $95.00. ISBN 978-0-8122-4554-7.)

The “Art” of the title is essentially that of the works catalogued in the database published on pp. 238–336, which covers 162 sites in the Salento, the southern section of the present-day province of Puglia in the southeast extremity of Italy. The works include mostly incised or painted funerary or dedicatory inscriptions and painted decorations from chapels and churches, in addition to a few other miscellaneous items such as a well-head or capital, a sundial, and an ivory amulet. The works date from the ninth to the fifteenth century, and they are transcribed, described, and illustrated with some small, occasionally difficult to read black-and-white photographs. A set of twenty color plates also accompanies the text.

The concept of “Identity” is more difficult to get a handle on. At certain points, the author adduces modern experience (“Beginning in the 1970’s, local folk music…” [p. 11]; the “fate of the soccer squad in Lecce” [p. 209]), including that of herself (“I am, at various and overlapping times…” [p. 4]), which dovetails with her professed interest in the lives of ordinary citizens. Yet one wonders to what degree the arts of the medieval cemetery and the church could speak about them. The ecclesiastical context was one of the most regimented visual environments in the Middle Ages, laden with traditions and conventions, which framed, controlled, and even occasionally obliterated the present in the service of agendas set by the elite. Inserting oneself into this structure as an “ordinary” member of society probably meant relinquishing more than expressing.

In attempting to grapple with “Identity,” the author considers a number of topics and themes—names, languages, appearance (dress), status, the life cycle, and ritual. But the protean nature of these categories rears its head at almost every turn. For example, although names are professed to be powerful—“among the most essential and universal components of identity” (p. 17)—they are also declared to be “poor indicators of ethnicity” (p. 221). Nor is language “a secure indicator of cultural or ethnic background” (p. 38), which in any case is a sliding scale, “situational and not primordial” (p. 219). The author calls the Salento a contact zone, which befits a territory in close proximity to the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa. Greek, Latin, and Hebrew are discussed, but Arabic is simply dismissed—“the comprehensibility of these texts was probably nil” (p. 41), and its decorative version of pseudo-Kufic possessed only a “nonverbal” significance. The author disagrees with Marina Falla Castelfranchi’s interpretation of a group of figures in a scene of the Betrayal of Christ as Mongols because the feature on which she based her identification—the [End Page 910] mustache—was never associated with them in the written sources. Yet another physical trait in a scene of St. Catherine disputing with philosophers—namely, the “embarrassingly articulated buttocks” of the philosophers—does not seem to have had a textual warrant either, even though there is no doubt in the author’s mind that it constitutes “the only case of physical exaggeration indicative of Jewish alterity” (p. 218). Even though art is considered by the author as an “index of social status” (p. 91), its currency can be problematic. The timeline for important items of dress to enter the visual record, for instance, could be extremely long: although Jews were required to wear badges in 1215, the feature does not make its appearance in local images until 200 years later. On the other hand, imported objects such as icons are argued to have nothing to contribute to the issue of identity and are excluded from consideration. But why is not what one collects and owns just as expressive of one’s identity as what one has made for oneself?

At the beginning of her analysis the author actually uses the term bundle to characterize identity (p. 3), which, in the end...


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