The Bishop's Palace: Architecture and Authority in Medieval Italy

By Dameron, George | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Bishop's Palace: Architecture and Authority in Medieval Italy


Dameron, George, The Catholic Historical Review


Medieval

The Bishop's Palace: Architecture and Authority in Medieval Italy. By Maureen C. Miller. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2000. Pp. xvii, 307. $49.95.)

This significant book is the first history of the medieval episcopal residence in central and northern Italy. Remarkable for its geographical scope and chronological sweep, the book follows the development of this structure to "reexamine two important historiographical transformations: the birth of the communes and the reform of the medieval church" (p. 2). Inspired by recent approaches in the area of cultural studies that explore how space and material life project and convey notions of power, it describes the ways by which bishops used visual culture to affirm and assert their place within the late ancient and medieval city. It is an impressive work of comparative and interdisciplinary scholarship, and it places the episcopal residence at the center of political and cultural changes within the city before 1300.

There are three principal arguments, developed in two sections of three chapters each: Office/Space (The Architectural Expression of Episcopal Authority, 300-1300) and Culture/Power (The Character of Space and the Meaning of Actions). Opposing previous perspectives that have tended to minimize episcopal involvement in the emergence of communes, the author argues that the prelates played a positive and decisively important role in their development. Episcopal lordship within the city not only constituted a "viable political alternative" (p. 123), but the palace was the setting in which many urban officials received necessary training in governance and were exposed to important examples of "lordly practice" (p. 97). Furthermore, from the eleventh century, the palace was also a primary influence on the development of early communal public architecture. Second, the author finds in the architecture and decor of the palaces unique post-reform clerical cultural traditions that developed quite separately from secular and papal influences. Third, as bishops were losing political and economic power to the nascent communes in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the author argues, they relied increasingly on their "cultural and spiritual presence" (p. 5) to shore up their declining fortunes. As they sought to assert themselves in matters of faith, they became increasingly repressive with regards to dissent. In contrast to R. I. Moore's views, she concludes that repression was therefore connected to the loss of power, not to its acquisition.

Relying on archaeological evidence, archival research, and an extensive knowledge of secondary sources, the book follows the history of the residence through three distinct historical phases in the three chapters of Part One. In Late Antiquity (300-750), the episcopium resembled the domestic residence of the late ancient Roman elite and was usually located next to the urban cathedral.

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