Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 15, 1999
C. Jean Campbell The Game of Courting and the Art of the Commune of San Gimignano, 1290–1320 Princeton University Press, 1998. 294 pp.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0691012105)

All visitors to San Gimignano remember the vividly colored and enigmatic fresco decoration of a small tower room in the Palazzo Comunale, now a museum. A series of narratives in reds, pinks, and greens decorate the walls, notable both for the fancy dress of the characters and for their occasional lack of dress in what appear to be compromising situations: in bed, in the bath, and in various monetary transactions. Jean Campbell’s study recalls much of the wonder and pleasure that accompanies a first encounter with the frescoes. Indeed, the book is the first comprehensive consideration of these frescoes (discovered only in 1925), and their context in the literary, artistic, and political world of the early Tuscan communes. In her sophisticated presentation of the many layers of literary allusion contained in two fragmentary fresco cycles, Campbell has written what amounts to a cultural history of a type of communal imagery with implications for several other Italian cities. As historical documents, the frescoes bear witness to a complex culture with firm roots in the medieval courtly traditions of both Italy and Northern Europe. Rather than reducing early communal imagery to a visual discourse on political theory, Campbell characterizes her discussion as being about “politically engaged poetic discourse” (p. 19).

This well-written book guides the reader through an ever-widening field of sources that inform the author’s close reading of the frescoes. The structure of the book is straightforward. An introduction addressing the fortuna critica of the frescoes is followed by a history of San Gimignano and a description of its institutional structure during the period under question. A second chapter discusses the frescoes in the council chamber of the Palazzo Comunale, which Campbell classifies as public (and masculine) in order to argue in the third and final chapter that the frescoes in the tower room are more private (and feminine) or at least more intimate in nature. Just what may be construed by all of these terms, from public to communal to private, underlies the sophisticated discussions of imagery and metaphor in the works of art and literature.

Campbell is aware of the pitfalls of a historical study that fixes a work of art in time. “The case of San Gimignano’s council room demonstrates the inherent problem in isolating for study any given moment in the decoration of a communal palace. Such moments were often very brief and lacked the integrity they automatically acquire when we single them out for investigation” (p. 40). Indeed, the nature of a communal palace is such that continuous change is an integral aspect of its history as decoration is elaborated and carried forward from one generation to the next, inevitably altering the existing imagery and making a time-bound interpretation difficult to sustain. She circumvents this problem throughout the book by refusing to limit her interpretations to a single text or historical source, presenting the evidence as an intriguing series of Chinese boxes that open to reveal one possible source after another.

The dichotomy between feudal government and civic authority is fundamental to the construction of the book’s argument. Ultimately, the frescoes in the council chamber are presented as evidence of the subtle transformation of feudal ceremonial practices into instruments of civic power. The period announced in the subtitle, 1290-1320, corresponds with what is convincingly presented as a time of consolidation of institutional strength and formulation of communal self-consciousness. At the heart of the book is the hypothesis that around 1300, the Commune, or civic government of San Gimignano, sponsored “both directly and indirectly” (p. 43) celebratory imagery in the form of the poetry of Folgore da San Gimignano and the decoration of the council chamber and tower room. By linking the Commune’s visual and literary expression, Campbell establishes a common genealogy for a jumble of confusing images and a series of verses by Folgore da San Gimignano that epitomized the flowering of communal culture, weaving the communal rhetoric of deliberations and statutes together with the literary language to come up with a nuanced examination of both image and text.

It is not until almost the half-way point in the book that we are let in on the meaning of the title. This delay creates a certain amount of suspense. “The game of courting” is Campbell’s translation of the phrase ludus dominarum, which is found in records of public proclamations made in 1287 and recurs in the statutes of 1314. The context is a proscription against what is feared will become lewd or disruptive behavior following the annual communal celebrations associated with the feast of San Giovanni, which takes place on June 24. The description in`the statute is very thin: it involved “young maidens wearing crowns and going through the streets demanding money from people they encountered” (p. 81). Campbell links this custom with a large body of literary and historical sources that discuss celebrations of May Day in the Tuscan communes including Folgore and Villani.

In the beginning of the third and final chapter, we find our first extended description the frescoes in the tower room. With characteristic understatement, Campbell presents the problem: “The physical surroundings of the tower room, the realm of the Communal Palace, have, however, proven to be a major obstacle to the interpretation of its surroundings” (p. 107). Funny how context gets in the way sometimes. What she does in the course of this chapter is to weave a strong matrix of circumstantial evidence within which the imagery of the frescoes “makes sense.” Underlying this is the assumption, probably correct, that the frescoes in the tower room do fit into an overall scheme of decoration and may be understood as the rational creation of a group of people with common goals and ideals.

It is in this chapter that we find the most engaging and original passages of the book. Campbell returns to the local statutes as a source for constructing the figure of the podestà, in whom “the public realm of the commune and the private realm of the court met” (p. 110). The podestà was prohibited from playing all sorts of games, since taking sides would naturally compromise the impartiality so highly valued in communal political culture. Hunting and gaming were central to medieval concepts of chivalry, but they often illustrated the perils of taking the wrong path. The question Campbell asks here concerns the nature of the institutionalization of courtly behavior in Italian communal life and its relation to the republican values that have been traditionally assigned to the Italian city states.

Campbell’s strategy in her analysis of the tower room images is to emphasize the difficulty of assigning any single text to the images. Instead, she spins a rich web of associated stories that are clearly related to the imagery, at least in having created a visual tradition to which they belong. For the textual basis of the Seduction of Aristotle, Campbell surveys the written versions of the story that circulated in the period. (p. 126) She shows us the story carved in ivory and stitched in embroidery before parsing individual episodes and citing possible sources for these. She returns, in conclusion, to the theme of the unique balance between courtliness and republicanism. On many levels, the book suggests a correction to the prevailing notions of communal government as a more advanced form of social and cultural organization that superceded court culture. In fact, Campbell makes a very good case for the survival of courtliness in its many guises at the very heart of communal government, here quite literally in the inner sanctum. In this model, the courtly aspects of Medicean and other Renaissance “republics,” which have caused difficulties for political theorists seeking pure forms of government, no longer appear fraught with internal conflict, but follow logically from this late medieval amalgam. The interweaving of different orders of sources, from communal statutes and deliberations to poetry and chronicle, necessitates a careful scrutiny of the endnotes to keep these types distinct as one must do to appreciate the masterful juxtaposition of a vast body of material. The author has chosen to cite poetry in the original in the text, and in translation in the notes; she often does the opposite with prose, which also makes for some confusion, but the extra attention to notes on the part of the reader is rewarded since both original and translation are always available for perusal. The richness of the imagery of the frescoes in San Gimignano and of the fascinating comparative material is not well-served by the black-and-white photographs, but this is a lamentable reality of the publishing of scholarly books at the end of the 20th century and should not detract from their interest and value as illustration. At least the front cover shows the memorable bath scene in full color, a late medieval hot-tub in which a man and a woman gaze at each other with a suspicion that belies their nakedness and casual touching. Even after Campbell’s smart discussion and analysis, the frescoes remain just as charming and enigmatic as one closes the book.