Highlights of my work and anecdotes#

Main directions in my research itinerary

1) Religious materiality in its multifarious manifestations

Since my first monographic publications (Il pennello dell’Evangelista, 1998; Pro remedio animae, 2000; Investimenti per l’aldilà, 2003; San Nicola. Il Grande Taumaturgo, 2009) I have been committed to investigating the complex interactions between Medieval arts and the religious sphere. Whereas my original focus was basically on images, their setting in space, their functions, and reception forms, I have been gradually expanding my field of interest, in the aim to overcome the conceptual limitations of visual studies (in particular, the controversial agency notion), and integrate non-figurative and non-manufactured objects into a wider analysis of the relationship between the different manifestations of religious experience (including cult-phenomena, devotional practices, and liturgical rituals) and distinctive forms of materiality (living bodies, relics, vestments and objects hallowed by contact, memorial sites, elements of landscape, imprints, acheiropoieta, two- and three-dimensional images).

2) Locative vs Ritual Manifestations of the Holy

The issue of spatialization of religious experience has been approached in my research since the publication of my monograph Lo spazio dell’anima (2005), but in the last years a major focus has been the issue of holy sites in their functional, site-bound distinctiveness vis-à-vis standard church spaces meant for the performance of rituals. Relying on the scholarship of anthropologists and religious historians such as Jonathan Z. Smith and Alphonse Dupront, and on the conceptualizations of Palestinian loca sancta provided by Medieval literature, I have laid emphasis on the need to go beyond the indistinct concept of “sacred space” employed in a number of recent art-historical studies inspired by Alexei Lidov’s notion of “hierotopy” and address the question as to the spatial, visual, performative, staging, and mythopoetic strategies whereby a specific portion of ground came to be regarded as invested not only with memorial qualities, but also with a distinctive status as sites of intersection between the human and supernatural spheres.

3) Topographic networks

My research on how holy sites are visually and spatially constructed has been combined with a strong interest for the investigation of the dynamics by which these same sites come to be associated and integrated into transnational, and often even transcultural topographic networks. In this respect, the project Von Venedig zum Heiligen Land. Ausstattung und Wahrnehmung von Pilgerorten an der Mittelmeerküste (1300-1550), financed by the Swiss National Research Foundation and achieved in 2018, has tackled this issue with a focus on the liminal, maritime space shaped by the sea-routes between Venice and Palestine. The latter has been investigated as a dynamic context where new cult-phenomena, anticipating the experience of the Jerusalem loca sancta, were established and interconnected in the aim to suit the devotional needs and expectations of Holy Land pilgrims. A similar methodology has been adopted in the investigation of the shaping of topographic networks created by pilgrims’ movements in Constantinople, Medieval Catalonia, Sinai, and Palestine.

4) Christ's Image in the Making.

In my 2014 book The Many Faces of Christ, I approached the much debated question of the origins of Christ's image from the specific viewpoint of its shifting, and often elusive, physiognomic identity. The focus was on the symbolism of hair and skin, and the multiple meanings the main features of Christ's face were invested with in the course of time. The book was also an occasion to working out a new framework as to our understanding of religious portraits from a comparative perspective, by laying emphasis on the dynamics by which the human appearance of the key-figures of other religious traditions has been constructed in visual terms.

5) Iconicity of Living Bodies

Already in The Many Faces of Christ, I had been interested in investigating the visual strategies whereby the staging and public display of a charismatic person’s body could contribute to promoting and enhancing his or her religious or political authority. The international conference The Spectacle of the Flesh. Iconic Living Bodies in Late Antiquity and Beyond, held at the Istituto Svizzero in Rome in May 2016 with the support of the SNSF and the Bibliotheca Hertziana-Max-Planck-Gesellschaft provided a major opportunity to work out new interpretive frames about this particular issue from a comparative perspective. The outcomes were published in a special issue of the online RIHA journal (From Living to Visual Images. Paradigms of Corporeal Iconicity in Late Antiquity, eds. Michele Bacci and Vladimir Ivanovici, https://www.riha-journal.org/articles/2019/0222-0229-special-issue-paradigms-of-corporeal-iconicity/0222-bacci-and-ivanovici). The methodologically relevant approaches worked out in this book are now being developed and verified in the frame of the ongoing research project Royal Epiphanies. The King’s Body as Image and Its Mise-en-scène in the Medieval Mediterranean (12th-14th Centuries), financed by the SNSF, within a different chronological and thematic context. Here the aim is to understand whether and to what extent Medieval rulers – in the selected case-studies of Armenian Cilicia, Norman to Angevin South Italy, and the Kingdom of Aragon – worked out specifically visual and performative strategies by which their public image was constructed, displayed, communicated, and disseminated. A first milestone in this research was the international conference Meanings and functions of the Royal Portrait in the Mediterranean World (11th-15th Centuries), held at Fribourg University on March 11th-13th, 2019.

6) Transcultural Artistic Interactions in the Mediterranean and Beyond

Another important axis in my research activity is, since many years, the investigation of the dynamics of exchange, appropriation, and rejection emerging out of interactions between the different cultures and traditions of the Mediterranean. In this respect, my work has focused on geographic contexts enabling comparative perspectives on different grounds: if Cyprus, and more specifically Famagusta, offered the possibility to examine the ways and the grounds on which forms and object-types could be selectively transmitted from one to another of the many groups living side-by-side in the same space, interactions between Byzantine, Western European, Arab Christian, Armenian, and Islamic or Islamicate arts could be analysed more evidently in the context of Crusader and Mamluk Palestine. Furthermore, another important activity has been the reconstruction of a large group of icons of ‘mixed’, Byzantine-Italian character produced between Venice and Crete in the second half of the 14th century. On the whole, this still ongoing research has shown that forms associated with other people’s traditions were mostly appropriated in an intentional and selective way, in the aim to suit specifically devotional-religious, political, or aesthetic purposes. The outcomes of this research have been published in a number of recent articles and in the book Veneto-Byzantine Interactions in Icon Painting (1280-1450) (in Greek with an extensive English summary), published in 2021 by the Academy of Athens.

7) The Nativity Church in Bethlehem

Since 2010 I have been involved in the international consortium entrusted by the Palestinian National Authority with the scientific investigation and restoration of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, but my collaboration has become more intensive in the phase of cleaning of mosaics and wall paintings between 2014 and 2019. This research work, originally meant to assist restorers in their activity, culminated with the publication of the book The Mystic Cave (2017) and a number of related articles, where the methodologies described in the above fields 1-4 are also complemented by an archaeological approach.

8) Artistic Interactions in the Subcaucasian Realm

In these last years, I started applying the methodologies described above to the Subcaucasian context, by exploring the topics of site-bound sanctity, topographic networks, and intercultural interactions in connection with Georgian art history already in a 2016 article (‘Echoes of Golgotha. On the Iconization of Monumental Crosses in Medieval Svanet’i’, in I. Foletti and E. Thunø, eds., The Medieval South Caucasus, Brno: Masaryk University, 2016, pp. 206-225). I and my research group engaged in promoting knowledge of Georgian arts by organizing the international conference Cultural Interactions in Medieval Georgia (2017), which was followed by a multi-authored book with the same title, edited by M. Bacci, Th. Kaffenberger, and M. Studer (2018). In September 2019 I have been among the promoters of the itinerant summer school History and Heritage of Movable and Immovable Monuments in the region of Tao-Klarjeti (North-Eastern Turkey), in collaboration with the Giorgi Chubinashvili Research Centre for Georgian Art History and Heritage Preservation, Tbilisi, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut-Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in Florence. Several new initiatives for the promotion of South Caucasian arts and their interactions with other Medieval cultures are planned for the upcoming years.

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