Italo-Byzantine Painting

My Digital Art History project is inspired by the thirteenth-century Italo-Byzantine painting shown below:

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Madonna and Child, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama. Attributed to Circle of Cimabue, 1285-95. Part of Kress Collection.

Currently in the Kress collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, AL, this painting is said to  be by a Tuscan master in the late thirteenth century, around 1285-95, possibly a contemporary of Cimabue. It is a small tempera on panel painting measuring 6 7/8 x 4 3/4 inches. It was added to the Birmingham Samuel H. Kress collection in 1961.

I had the pleasure of researching this painting when I attended a week-long seminar on Late Medieval and early Renaissance Workshop practices sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges . That seminar met in July of 2010 and I have not forgotten this little wonder of a painting. I had always planned to get back to work on it - asking art historical questions about creation, iconographic motifs, and artistic attribution. I finally had a chance to return my attention to this work in the spring of 2014 when I was on sabbatical. I was drawn to this painting's medley of Italian and Byzantine elements. The mixture of these distinct characteristics creates a unique visual experience for the viewer.

Around the same time I re-started research on this painting, I was also beginning to learn about the Digital Humanities. As I conducted background research on this period of painting in Italy and Byzantium (thirteenth century), I began to wonder if a project that took images like these from Italy could be "mapped" in some way in order to demonstrate the extent of the Italian variants and innovations that were added to the Byzantine originals that acted as models. While my research certainly indicates that in this period there was "two-way" influence, I would like to focus on Tuscany in the thirteenth-century, noting Byzantine models in the form of icons that "traveled" to the continent from Byzantium during the Latin Occupation of Constantinople. This will require amassing many images from this period and region, which I have begun to do with initial reading and research. Finding images that can be used for this is an issue, as well as finding enough examples from this period to actually make some determining factors; as I have learned, so much has been lost.

Trained as I am as a Byzantinist, I was not terribly surprised to find that the scholarship on the early duecento is very different from the way Byzantine scholars talk about the eastern art from the same period. While both sets of scholarship reside under the umbrella of "art history" as a discipline, the sub-discussions and methodologies of the studies of early thirteen-century Italian painting on the one hand, and their contemporary Byzantine icons on the other, are starkly different. This website from the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a nice overview of the complexities of this time period, when the Latin occupiers forced many Greeks to flee Italy. Relics, icons, and people moved from Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, to the West and Italy was a convenient stop for both the treasures and those individuals who were carrying them. The key will be finding ways to trace the influence(s) and movement(s) of artists and iconographic elements during this period between Byzantium and Italy.

Since my work on the digital humanities, I have been involved in teaching online. As part of my course, Ways of Seeing Byzantium, which was offered at McDaniel as part of the Council of Independent College's Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction, I have begun to think more about this project as a platform that can sustain undergraduate student-faculty research in the humanities. I have a student working on a painting by Berlinghiero that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I will oversee their research, but I hope to work on the technical issues (websites, blogs, discussions) in order to feature their work as scholars in training in the field.

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