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The Salerno Ivories
The Salerno Ivories are ivory plaques carved with scenes from the Old and New Testaments; they are from the Salerno Cathedral, but most of them are now on display in the St. Matthew Diocese Museum in Salerno. Because of its completeness and excellent condition, the collection is considered the finest of its kind in the world. The series is relatively intact: originally there were 70 engraved plaques, but three have gone missing and are unaccounted for. Of the remaining 67, some are on display elsewhere and don't count as "missing" (even if they are on permanent loan and never coming back!). The rest are in Salerno and may be seen. There are still a number of questions about their precise origin and use, and some of these questions may never be answered; however, enough is known to offer at least a few plausible explanations.
The plaques go back to the 1080s. That was a time in Europe when people who thought about art commonly thought of Byzantium with its strong ties to the classical past. There then occurred a great and marvelous renewal of Italian art—and, specifically, in the case at hand, southern Italian art. This "pre-Renaissance" had much to do with the cultural aspirations of the Abbot Desiderius at the Montecassino Abbey; he served there from 1058-87 (and then went on to become Pope Victor III). We know that Desiderius commissioned the copying of manuscripts, numerous paintings and works by craftsmen and artisans. It is hard to review the details of much of that activity today since most of the portable works of art from Montecassino (such as paintings, wrought metal, manuscripts, and ivory sculptures) have either been destroyed or lost over the many violent centuries that the Abbey has endured.
We also know that: (1) At Montecassino, Desiderius imported ivory carvers from Constantinope to train his monks in that craft; (2) art, in general, produced in Montecassino under Desiderius was an amalgam of Byzantine and Carolingian (Italian) styles; (3) there was already a well-established ivory carving workshop in Amalfi, a city/state with excellent relations with the Arab world. Thus, given the strong Arab influence in Amalfi ivory carving, in general, and noting that Byzantine, Italian and Arab influence are all present in the Salerno Ivories, it is plausible to view the ivory plaques as a southern extension of the artistic revival centered on Montecassino. (*1) The plaques are an important record of the great diversity of stylistic and iconographic sources used by southern Italian artists of the day, and they help us to reconstruct and appreciate a time when Salerno and Amalfi were important cultural centers both as independent duchies and then as part of the vast Norman kingdom in the south.
Having said all that, it is not clear exactly who commissioned the Salerno ivories or why. There are, however, enough specific local references in the scenes to make plausible the idea that the work was, indeed, done by local artisans (probably from Amalfi) exclusively for the Salerno cathedral. The work displays three, and possibly four, different decorative styles—two for the Old Testament (OT) plaques and two (possibly three) for the New Testament (NT). As noted, they are stylistically diverse; they are also reminiscent of, and have been compared to, other similar works, such as a series of plaques in northern Italy, the Grado ivories.(*2) The Salerno Ivories have also been compared to an extant Montecassino ivory panel from that period, now in a Berlin museum.(*3)
*1. Bergman, Robert P. (1974). "A School of Romanesque Ivory Carving in Amalfi" in Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 9, pp. 163-186. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ^up
*2. The Grado ivories are what is left of a similar series of plaques in the Basilica of Sant'Eufemia in Grado in northern Italy. They seem to be the work of Middle-Eastern artisans and were probably commissioned by the Eastern Roman emperor, Heraklons II and given to the diocese of Alexandria in Egypt. From there, they found their way to Grado and remained there intact until the middle of the 1400s. They have been dated to between the 6th and 7th centuries AD. There is an Old Testament section and a section dedicated to Mark the Evangelist. They are typically Byzantine in style, with Arabic influence; they display some Roman temples, but also minarets and mosques. Greek writing shows they were meant to be installed in a Greek Christian context. The stylistic similarities to the later Salerno ivories and some other works indicate that the Grado ivories were the prototype for the others. The collection started to break up in the Renaissance and now most of them are dispersed in various European museums and private collections. ^up
*3. "An Eleventh Century Ivory Plaque from South Italy and the Cassinese Revival" by Herbert L. Kessler in Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 8. Bd., (1966), pp. 67-95 Published by: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The plaque is 27x12 cm. and carved on both sides, with one side depicting the Crucifixion as a vertical composition placed above a series of angels. ^up
Willard, Henry M. (1973) Abbot Desiderius and the ties between Montecassino and Amalfi in the eleventh century. Badia di Montecassino (Montecassino).
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