Highlights of my work and anecdotes#


Main directions in my research itinerary

In the 1990s and 2000s, scholarly interest for the history and phenomenology of Medieval worship was originally instrumental to go beyond the traditional art-historical emphasis on the primacy of the aesthetic approach to visual objects and investigate those aspects of Medieval images bearing witness to alternative forms of visual experience and to their being invested with a sort of immanent agency. My research on the cultic dimension of Medieval images took originally place in this specific frame (I acknowledge my indebtedness to such scholars as Hans Belting, David Freedberg, Gerhard Wolf, and Horst Bredekamp, among others), yet in the last years my focus gradually shifted from images (which nevertheless still play an important role in my work) to other reifications of the divine dimension, such as relics (especially non-bodily ones, such as manufacts and objects deemed to be hallowed by contact with a saint’s body) and especially holy sites. A number of new publications were devoted to the conceptual distinction between “sacred spaces” and “holy sites” in Medieval tradition, with a special focus on Jerusalem and Palestine in the Crusader and post-Crusader period. Some more works were devoted to the relationship of images and relics and to the use of images as surrogates of the Holy Land or as cultic devices meant to promote or enhance the worship-worthiness of a cult-place. The history of cult-places and the creation of international networks of sites associated with Jerusalem along the Venetian sea-routes to the Holy Land was dealt with in the frame of the project Von Venedig zum Heiligen Land, financed by the Swiss National Found. In the background of such works was the problem of the materiality of cult-objects and their complex relation to the role played by Christ’s controversial corporeity in Medieval thought. I have dealt with this problem in The Many Faces of Christ (2014): this largely consisted in a comparative analysis of the multifarious ways in which different religious traditions (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism) negotiated their special relationship with the collective memory of their founders and most eminent figures by working out different kinds of material indicators of the latter’s presence on earth. The book further explores the specific visual and cultic strategies worked out in Christian Mediterranean tradition between late Antiquity and the end of the Middle Ages to attribute a specific physiognomy to Jesus of Nazareth: the visual construction of Christ’s earthly appearance is investigated against the background of ancient conceptions of beauty and the notion of direct correspondence between physical features and moral qualities. The conceptualization of the body and the practice of body-inspection as basic factor in the development of worship for both living saints and images were also the object of the international workshop The Spectacle of the Flesh I have recently organized in Rome (Istituto svizzero-Bibliotheca Hertziana, 30-31.05.2016). My second focus, concerning the dynamics of cultural and artistic interactions in the Mediterranean, is especially represented in my work by a number of case-studies devoted to the multilayered and multicultural societies of Italy, the Venetian territories in the Aegean and the Levant, and Cyprus, with a special focus on the town of Famagusta, which stands out for its large number of hitherto neglected churches and monuments originally belonging to many different groups and religious denominations living in the same, tiny space. I had the opportunity to investigate these monuments by means of an in-depth fieldwork, which partly took place in the frame of a restoration project promoted by the Nanyang Technical University of Singapore and the World Heritage Fund. A second important opportunity was my involvement as art historical consultant since 2010 in the conservation project of the Nativity church in Bethlehem. The fieldwork in this important monument, which can be successfully investigated from both the viewpoint of cultural interaction and that of cultic history, was especially significative to me and the outcomes of my research were published in my new book The Mystic Cave (2017). In Bethlehem as in Famagusta, my research contributed to the recovery and conservation of important historical documents and to advise other collaborators to the project (including architects, engineers, and restorers) as to the specific methods and goals of the restoration campaigns. The combination of fieldwork with a deeper reading of both artistic/archaelogical evidence and literary sources enabled me to work out a wider methodological frame for the investigation of the dynamics of artistic interaction, which were often focused, in scholarship, on the analysis of cultural transfert, whereas my work lays more emphasis on such factors as the role played by shared cult-sites, multiconfessional and multicultural societies, the connectivity of ports, the different dynamics of appropriation, selection, and alteration of forms associated with other people’s tradition, the symbolic authority attributed to some major centres and political institutions.

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