Medieval Art Studies in the Republic of Letters: Mabillon and Montfaucon's Italian Connections between Travel and Learned Collaborations1

By Russo, Francesco | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Medieval Art Studies in the Republic of Letters: Mabillon and Montfaucon's Italian Connections between Travel and Learned Collaborations1


Russo, Francesco, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction

Between 1685 and 1701 the Italian establishment was shaken by visits to the Peninsula of two leading figures in medieval studies: Jean Mabillon and Bernard de Montfaucon. Although Italian scholars were not new to the principles of historical research established by their French colleagues, the voyages littéraires made by the two famous Benedictines of the Congregation of St. Maur2 set in motion a process of actions and reactions that effected a substantial improvement in the study of pre- Renaissance art and antiquities in Italy.3 (figs 1&2) This process took place in the context of the more advanced exploration of the Middle Ages which, with its methodological rigour, marked the transition of historiography between seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.4

Making reference to studies of the post-classical heritage, this article illustrates the Maurists' Italian experience by focussing on Mabillon's journey, which has so far attracted less art-historical attention than that of Montfaucon.5 Rather than considering the full scope of his art-historical observations on medieval art, for which we refer to other studies, we focus mainly on his collaborations with local scholars who were actively involved in inspecting and gathering information about monuments from the Middle Ages. Secondly, our purpose is to place Mabillon and Montfaucon's antiquarian investigations in Italy in the context of contemporary publications, correspondence and learned friendships, noting traces of mutual influences between the French and Italian traditions of scholarship.

Mabillon in Italy: collective inspections and tours

Mabillon's Italian journey (1684-1685) had a significant impact on both the Republic of Letters and his own life. With a continued sense of discovery he entered new realms of charters and manuscripts, finding and publishing crucial patristic, Benedictine and liturgical writings according to the new philological criteria that Mabillon had recently established in his De re diplomática (Paris, 1681).6 From Piedmont to Campania he established an itinerary based on libraries and archives that would become a model for future scholar-travellers.7 At the same time he was constantly interacting with prominent figures of local erudition, and this proved the real turning-point in his career and the driving force for his increasing interest in art history.

Mabillon's voyage in Italy was more penetrating and enduring than Montfaucon's following stay (1698-1701). The latter, in terms of its importance, followed a geographical and scholarly trail already traced by his predecessor and, in terms of interaction with scholars, was clearly less open to collaboration, although sparkling with meetings and collective surveys. Montfaucon focused mostly on his own ambitions; by contrast, Mabillon frequently relied on his learned friends' guide and cooperation. Mabillon's austere temperament, earnestly devoted to the principles of the early-modern Benedictine Reform that inspired the birth and doings of the St. Maur congregation, did not stop him from opening out his historical/philological research to the help of other scholars, if this would benefit his erudite aims.8 The eldest Maurist was preoccupied by a thirst for historical and religious truth, which he constantly pursued through work in libraries and archives, and secondarily through the visits to monuments.

In comparison with the rest of his travels, Mabillon's Italian experience was undoubtedly the longest and the most demanding and variegated. Prior to 1684 his research activity had mainly been carried out in the seclusion of monastic libraries, albeit in Flanders, France, Switzerland and Germany, where he had copied charters for historico-philological purposes. We have little evidence that he had any real interest in the works of art and monuments he encountered along the way. The accounts of his journeys in Bourgogne (1682) and Germany (1683) contain only passing references to copying gravestones and seals. …

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