Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 9, 2012
Cathleen A. Fleck The Clement Bible at the Medieval Courts of Naples and Avignon: A Story of Papal Power, Royal Prestige, and Patronage Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010. 370 pp.; 4 color ills.; 71 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754669807)

At the close of The Clement Bible at the Medieval Courts of Naples and Avignon: A Study of Papal Power, Royal Prestige, and Patronage, Cathleen Fleck observes that the history of the Clement Bible can be understood in part through the pleasure and privilege of leafing through it, an experience that those who have sat turning its folios in the British Library, including the present reviewer, have shared with its earlier owners. Tracking the production and use of the codex through a series of inventories that reveal how highly valued ownership of the manuscript was, Fleck also makes a convincing case for its production at Naples around 1330–34. Furthermore, by focusing on the “biography” of what she calls a “singular object” (1), she adds to the history of the Avignon papacy, as she traces this Bible’s travels across fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Europe.

Fleck’s subject is the brilliant one-volume Bible, now British Library Additional MS 47672, which she names the Clement Bible, for Clement VII, Pope at Avignon between 1378 and 1394, who inserted his coat of arms into the manuscript decades after it was made. Measuring 14.7 by 9.65 inches, with 507 folios, including over 250 scenes, most set in small rectangular panels, this extravagantly illustrated Bible is one of eight known luxury Bibles, now generally accepted as the production of illuminators working close to the Angevin court at Naples, most prominently Cristoforo Orimina. Fleck confirms its connection to the rest of the group and its production at Naples, and through persistent archival research follows it from Naples to Monte Cassino, Avignon, Peñiscola, and after a disappearance of three centuries to its eventual reappearance in France and England. In the process she offers new insight into the social and political roles of illuminated manuscripts in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. Her discussion of the practice of “right of spoil,” and the efforts of papal agents to retrieve this manuscript from the estate of the bishop-abbot of Monte Cassino, Raymond de Gramat, who was most likely its second owner, is riveting. Reconstructing its existence at Naples and Avignon, she characterizes this manuscript as, “a valuable artifact living at both of these courts as a sign of the leaders’ extensive power, rich patronage, and desire for prestige” (1). Fleck’s observations on the political life of the Clement Bible at Avignon and Spain suggest new approaches to the function of other, similarly sited manuscripts, for example the thirteenth-century Bassetti Bible whose colophons record its presence at the Council of Trent.

Fleck’s study is the culmination of extensive research and follows on her dissertation and a series of important articles published over more than a decade. It comes at a time of immense production of scholarship dealing with manuscript illumination at Naples and a general directing of attention to the art and architecture of Naples. Research on Italian art and visual culture has long focused on a few centers, particularly Florence, Siena, Rome, and Venice, and somewhat less often on Sicily, especially its mosaics. Despite earlier studies including those of Mario Rotili, Pierluigi Leone de Castris, and Alessandra Perriccioli Saggese, it is only in the last two decades with the work of scholars such as Fleck, Caroline Bruzelius, Janis Elliott, and Samantha Kelly that international attention has focused on late medieval Naples. Indeed the publication of Fleck’s book is timely. New work has appeared on the papacy at Avignon along with two major publications on the Bibles produced at Naples: Andreas Bräm’s 2007 two-volume Neapolitanische Bilderbibeln des Trecento: Anjou-Buchmalerei von Robert dem Weisen bis zu Johanna I (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag), and the comprehensive 2010 volume edited by Lieve Watteeuw and Jan Van der Stock on the so-called Anjou Bible now at Leuven (Lieve Watteeuw and Jan Van der Stock, eds., The Anjou Bible: A Royal Manuscript Revealed. Naples 1340, Leuven, Belgium: Peeters). Particularly useful in understanding the Clement Bible is its essay by Saggese which puts the Bibles into the context of wider manuscript production, especially the luxury Statutes of the Order of the Knots. Sitting with these publications at one’s elbow enhances a reading of Fleck’s study and in particular makes the format of the extensive narrative decoration of the Clement Bible more comprehensible.

Fleck’s study is a model for other scholars of manuscript illumination in its combination of recent theory with traditional analysis, as it reaches beyond problems of attribution and motif source that easily consume scholars working on thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian art. She couples her archival research and careful iconographic and stylistic analysis with recent historical and anthropological methodology. Naples allows her to consider the concept of “center and periphery” and the economic, political, and social questions swirling around the idea of the court artist. Addressing gift theory articulated by Marcel Mauss and issues formulated by Arjun Appadurai in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986) and by Stephen J. Campbell and Stephen J. Milner in their discussion of “cultural translation” (Artistic Exchange and Cultural Translation in the Italian Renaissance City, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), she reframes the meaning of the Clement Bible as it shifted over time. As she writes, this individual object was a “commodity with a dynamic, fluid, and social existence” (2). As she describes the iconographic and stylistic characteristics of this manuscript, Fleck convincingly argues for the political nature of style and stylistic choices. Reflecting an important essay by Joan Holladay on the “iconography of style” (“A Consicousness of Style in Gothic Art,” in Opus Tessellatum. Modi und Grenzgänge der Kunstwissenschaft. Festschrift für Peter Cornelius Claussen, Katharina Corsepius, Daniela Mondini, Darko Senekovic, Lino Sibillano, and Samuel Vitali, eds., Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2004, 303–14), she stresses the role of meaning in decisions about style. Particularly convincing is Fleck’s discussion of the choice of a cavalliniano painter for the narrative panels found throughout the manuscript. And she identifies a complex message conveyed through extensive cycles of Daniel and Revelation imagery, rooted in the issues of the Avignon papacy.

If there are omissions here it is simply because, as Fleck notes, it is not possible or even appropriate to cover everything. As the biography of a single work, this study cuts vertically through time, rather than horizontally across a single period. As a result, readers see and hear less about the work of the illuminator and the commissioner in the context of their contemporaries. The decision of the manuscript’s first owner to commission a work with such extensive narrative panels might be more understandable in a lateral analysis, i.e., following consideration of other manuscripts produced in the same circles, especially secular works such as the Statutes. Similarly, the narrative focus of Fleck’s study restricts consideration of the significance of the non-figurative ornamentation of the manuscript. Indeed, it is my hope that Fleck or perhaps Bräm will come back to this question. The Naples manuscripts were produced at the cusp of a shift in the focus of manuscript production and of painting in general. As Fleck and others, for example Hans Belting, have noted, there were changes in Italian narrative painting at the start of the Trecento (Hans Belting, “The New Role of Narrative in Public Painting of the Trecento: Historia and Allegory,” in Pictorial Narrative in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Herbert L. Kessler and Marianna Shreve Simpson, eds., Studies in the History of Art 16 (1985): 151–68). Cavallini, Giotto, and other practitioners of this imagery worked at Naples, and Fleck links the extensive narration in the Clement Bible to the complex political and theological messages of the manuscript. But it appears that with the dominance of these narrative panels the foliate and geometric ornament became less varied, perhaps more standardized. This leads to a number of questions. For example, is the standardization of ornament the result of the organization of the labor needed to produce such an extravagantly decorated manuscript? In other words, are there separate executions of these two aspects of decoration? Secondly, although later inventories identify the manuscript as historiated, they seem to praise its beauty, rather than its message. However crucial stylistic decisions were to the narrative effectiveness of the original message of the manuscript, did a point in its history arrive when the images’ primary value lay in their quantity and brilliance? Were the narrative panels eventually valued as decoration and a sign of wealth and status, rather than for their theological or political message? By virtue of its extensive narrative decoration, this manuscript invites overlooking the question of non-figurative ornament and its meaning. As Fleck and others have noted, this distinctly Italian ornament combines elements taken from the thirteenth-century South-Italian Manfred group and Bolognese illumination. If the Clement Bible was valued as Italian and recognized as such by its Cavalliniesque figure style, would not its Italianate ornament have carried the same message? Interestingly, this manuscript, which like the other Naples Bibles places more stress on figured imagery than earlier one-volume Bibles, highlights the general lack of modern scholarship on the meaning of ornament. In general, scholars have used ornament as a tool for localization and attribution. But the question of meaning needs attention. Indeed, what do the efforts of Naples illuminators who were so focused on narrative panels resembling wall painting, such as the frescoes at S. Maria Donna Regina, that they overshadowed their ornament tell us about the desires of their clients?

Fleck’s The Clement Bible at the Medieval Courts of Naples and Avignon provides an important model for future studies of individual manuscripts. She brings to manuscript studies methodologies that provide fascinating insights into the appearance of objects, their lives, and the social and political contexts in which they have functioned. But she skillfully joins them to her extensive art-historical and codicological experience and knowledge. While this combination is essential to contemporary manuscript studies, it remains rare.

Rebecca W. Corrie
Phillips Professor and Chair of the Department of Art and Visual Culture, Bates College