Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 19, 2018
Linda Safran The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 496 pp.; 20 color ills.; 149 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (9780812245547)

Italy, a relatively recently unified country, is often described as a patchwork of idiosyncratic regions. Even to this day, the food, customs, dialects, architecture, and terrain shift dramatically between neighboring villages, cities, and regions, Italians themselves proclaiming “campanilismo,” a competitive pride in their birthplace. By focusing on one particular region, Linda Safran gains a valuable insight into how one such distinctive identity emerged and developed in the Middle Ages.

Some background to the region is essential for fully appreciating Safran’s study. The area known as Salento forms part of the present-day administrative region of Apulia: essentially the heel of the boot of the Italian peninsula. Geographically proximate to Greece to the east, Naples to the west, and Calabria and Sicily to the southwest, Salento developed a unique identity based on its location, history, and demographics. In ancient times, Salento formed part of the Magna Graecia Greek settlement, later becoming a Roman province featuring notable Jewish communities. In the early Middle Ages, perhaps as a result of the Muslim invasion of Sicily, an influx of Greek Orthodox settlers arrived in Salento, radically influencing its cultural norms for centuries to come. The Norman Conquest of the eleventh century instituted the feudal system, monastic foundations, and a development in architectural style. Following Angevin conflicts in the fourteenth century, Salento fell under the control of the Brienne family, Maria d’Enghien becoming sole ruler after 1406, when Italian was adopted as an official language of the region. Safran’s research focuses on art and identity in Salento during the medieval period up to this major shift.

Safran uses diverse sources to explore various aspects of identity in medieval Salento, including ethnographical, art historical, archaeological, and folkloric data. Chapter 1 deals with names, a fundamental part of basic identity for peoples and places, Safran noting an increase in the variety of male first names and surnames between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. Chapter 2 moves onto languages, which, considering the geography and history of Salento, differed from other Italian regions at this time. While Latin and Hebrew were used for official religious purposes and inscriptions, Greek outnumbered these languages for public texts, leading to the development of the “griko” dialect, still spoken in present-day Salento. Bilingualism was common in this region, as evidenced by both the use of two languages on a single tombstone and what was known as “code-switching,” the use of different languages for different purposes. For instance, inscriptions within painted images did not always maintain linguistic consistency: tituli, devotional inscriptions, and speech acts could be in different languages. Chapter 3 focuses on aspects of visual appearance, including clothing, jewelry, and hair, with particular reference to religious justifications supporting hair removal or maintenance. Questions of social status concern chapter 4. In addition to status-defining characteristics such as gender, profession, and religion, Safran explores esoteric practices surrounding death; for example, in medieval Salento, including earrings alongside the bodily burial was a sign of influence from the Byzantine world.

The second half of the book concerns customs and rituals and utilizes more legal and folkloric sources, including proverbs in local dialects. Chapter 5 regards the life cycle from conception to burial, covering both Christian and Jewish practices. Chapter 6 shifts attention to religion, specifically liturgical rituals and places of worship. Certain Salentine peculiarities include devotion to obscure saints, the widespread use of eucharistic bread stamps, perhaps imported from the Byzantine world, the wearing of Greek vestments, and possibly other liturgical hybrids, evidenced by an image of the communion of Mary of Egypt in which both a Byzantine spoon and Latin bell are depicted. Another unique ritual was the weighing of a man outside the templon screen in Orthodox churches, perhaps to symbolize the fulfillment of his vow. In the Romaniote Jewish faith practiced in Salento, typical features include devotion to angels and other intermediaries and hymns composed by Amittai of Oria, a south Italian paytanim, which incorporated unusually negative comments about non-Jewish practices. This chapter covers a wide variety of source material, from liturgical texts in several languages down to graffiti on painted images of saints left by local worshippers. Chapter 7, on rituals in the home and community, examines practices associated with communal health, including the establishment of places of worship and charitable institutions, processions, fairs, and exorcisms. Safran also explores more personal acts of piety, which include the use of dialect and visual charms, ritual bathing, singing, and dancing. One unique practice in southern Italy, which has been revived in modern times, is known as “Tarantism” (perhaps named after the city of Taranto). It encourages those who claim to have been bitten by a tarantula (mainly women) to dance frenetically accompanied by vigorous music to expel the poison.

In her final chapter, Safran argues for the existence of a distinctive Salentine identity within Italian medieval society. Safran theorizes Salento as a peripheral “contact zone” of peoples and ideas, which experienced profound transculturation in the Middle Ages, when dominant groups and minorities were both influenced by and reacted against each other’s cultural norms. To take one example of cultural specificity: due to its geographical location, demographics, and history, in Salento the term “Greek” was not used as a derogatory expression, unlike in other regions of Italy. According to Safran, this region constantly engaged in “selectively appropriating from its neighbors and producing syncretized visual forms in a process of continuous multidirectional transculturation” (234). In general, Jews enjoyed a peaceful coexistence, and evidence shows clear intermixing of Orthodox and Latin ecclesiastical customs. The main body of the text is supplemented by an impressive and extensive database of images and texts which relate to questions of identity. Data include inscriptions in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as devotional images of saints and graffiti.

In The Medieval Salento, Linda Safran presents a rich corpus of research that sheds light on a little-known region of southern Italy. Moving away from the traditional focus within Italian history on the three urban centers of Florence, Venice, and Rome, her approach compares to studies on other multicultural societies like medieval Sicily or Spain. To this end, Safran incorporates research into Jewish and Greek Orthodox identities into the main body of her text rather than treating these cultures as a distinct “other.” Impressively, Safran’s interdisciplinary, holistic approach captures the spirit of the entire culture, not just issues within art history as the book’s subtitle might suggest. Moreover, it is interesting for the reader to learn about certain customs, which are still observed in Salento to this day.

Safran’s approach, however, while gratifyingly broad, touches only briefly on an extraordinarily wide range of topics, which can frustrate an art historian reader. We frequently learn small snippets of information about fascinating objects of medieval visual culture. The reader is left wanting to know more about the carved, multileveled cenotaph of Raimondello del Balzo Orsini (d. 1406), unique for this region and period; the two female supplicants flanking a frescoed image of Mary Magdalene, which the author briefly argues is the same woman at two stages of life; and a highly unusual image of the Christ child carrying a basket of eggs or bread while being escorted to school by his mother. Perhaps a handful of in-depth case studies would have given increased insight into the subtle, multivalent aspects of art and identity in medieval Salento. The book’s layout also causes slight irritation for the reader: all the images are at the rear of the volume, making it necessary to constantly flip back and forth to fully understand the author’s commentary on unfamiliar material.

The particular strength of this volume is the author’s commitment to incorporating multicultural aspects of society, an approach which is gaining widespread ground as scholars consider the Mediterranean region as a place of contact between cultures rather than a series of distinct national identities. A well-argued, expansive, and detailed volume, The Medieval Salento will prove to be a valuable resource for all types of historians of medieval Italy.

Joanne Allen
Senior Professorial Lecturer, Art History Program, American University