Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960) and the History of Byzantine Illumination: A New Field of Research in Italy under the Aegis of Adolfo Venturi

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960) and the History of Byzantine Illumination: A New Field of Research in Italy under the Aegis of Adolfo Venturi

Article excerpt

In 1953 a pioneering exhibition on the history of Italian book illumination (Mostra Storica Nazionale della Miniatura)1 opened in Rome, at the Palazzo di Venezia. On that occasion, the curator Mario Salmi (1889-1980)2 invited his older colleague Antonio Muñoz (1884-1960, fig. 1)3 to participate in a series of inaugural conferences with a paper specifically dedicated to Byzantine book illumination.4

In those years, Muñoz's career had already begun its decline, and this decline was much more evident when one considers how intense and successful his activity had been before. As with most art historians of his generation, in the 1950s Muñoz could boast of several different professional experiences, both in academia and in public administration: he had been a professor, a prolific writer, the founder and first director of the Museo di Roma (1930) and the founder of a popular local journal (L'Urbe, 1936). Above all, however, for more than three decades - since being appointed official (1909) and then inspector (1921) at the Soprintendenza ai Monumenti di Roma - he had been unanimously acknowledged as a central figure in the administration and conservation of Rome's monumental heritage. In fact, after his promotion to director of the Ripartizione Antichità e Belle Arti del Governatorato (1929/1930-1944), Muñoz played a key role in coordinating several major urban interventions patronized by Benito Mussolini, which would redesign some of the most symbolic monumental areas in Rome: the Capitolium, Via dei Fori Imperiali, Augustus' Mausoleum etc. It therefore seems that in 1953 Muñoz would not have been the most obvious choice of scholar for a conference on Byzantine book illumination. At the peak of his career in the 1930s, in fact, he had supported the imperialistic propaganda carried on by Fascism with great enthusiasm, by emphasising the most 'classical' features of the history of Rome. This kind of propaganda was naturally inclined to convey a distorted vision of Byzantine civilization, by depicting it as a pale, tardive and corrupted reflection of the glory of the ancient Roman Empire.5 However, Mario Salmi was well aware that, fifty years before, Muñoz's opinions had been radically different.

In fact, soon after his graduation in 1906, Muñoz had had his scholarly debut as a specialist in Byzantine art, devoting his early activity primarily to Byzantine book illumination.6 It was a very unusual field of research for an Italian scholar at the time. At the turn of the twentieth century, indeed, not all Italians recognised the impact that Byzantium had on the development of visual culture in the Middle Ages, nor were they disposed to appreciate its influence on the artistic production in Italy.7 It seems that Muñoz himself had been not particularly firm in his interest for Byzantine art. Year after year, he had gradually begun to focus on other areas of expertise, in line with his new institutional responsibilities, as well as with their political and ideological implications. Nevertheless, at least at the beginning of his career, Muñoz was acknowledged by his colleagues - both in Italy and in Europe - as the most promising Italian specialist in Byzantine art and illumination.

Muñoz's debut as a Byzantinist was largely influenced by the teaching of Adolfo Venturi (1856-1941, fig. 2), the founding father of modern art historical studies in Italy, who in 1898 had been appointed the first Italian chair of Art History at the University of Rome.8 After entering the Faculty of Humanities (Lettere) in 1902 at the age of eighteen, Muñoz began to study under the tutelage of Venturi, from whom he acquired a great deal of information on the most recent methodologies and trends in the history of early-Christian, Byzantine and Medieval art.9

At the turn of the twentieth century the city of Rome provided a surprisingly favourable environment for those students who were interested in the artistic production of the Middle Ages - and, in particular, on eastern Mediterranean visual culture. …

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