The Mediterranean cities of Nicosia, Granada, Cordoba, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki have very different histories but they share the fact that their medieval character continues to resonate in the present. Drawing on the long continuity, socioeconomic complexity and cultural diversity of these and related cities, Mediterranean Palimpsests addresses them as hubs of artistic production, connection and exchange, and looks at how that role has changed over time. We focus specifically on Mediterranean cities whose urban formation during the medieval and early modern periods significantly shaped their subsequent growth and in turn spatially framed the production and experience of art and architecture in the following centuries. Our goal is not to trace the specific history of each city in itself, since this knowledge already exists, and since such tightly focused approaches too often can lead to a scholarly “silo effect.” Instead, we will consider the Mediterranean as a spatial field in which medieval cities share the experience of survival, appropriation and reconstruction for modern use. A series of structured workshops held in cities across the Mediterranean will provide the organizational framework for convening a group of art historians to consider collaboratively the ways the histories of certain Mediterranean cities are deeply connected.
Mediterranean Palimpsests begins by examining how art history frames its historical, and more specifically, its spatial categories of analysis. Art history traditionally defines the historical frame of a period by key events (e.g. the Second Council of Nicaea or the Conquest of Constantinople) or by the dynasty (e.g. Umayyad art or Carolingian art), an approach which is useful, because events, families and sovereign rulers often shaped the production of art through patronage or through the promotion of policy and ideology. But spatially, the frame of analysis is problematic because we tend to project modern perceptions of meaning and experience of space onto the past. In doing so, we largely neglect to use cities as a key analytical tool. Instead, we employ a modern perspective as we conceptually assign state boundaries to regions of the past that had no such borders. Consequently, we then identify these state formations as the socioeconomic and cultural contexts for artistic production. To classify a region historically as “Islamic Spain” requires that we imagine the boundaries of its Islamic territory (known as al-Andalus) matching those of the modern Spanish nation; but there was never any such region in the medieval period. Al-Andalus included the land that is now Portugal; its north was not a border so much as a highly contested region; and at times al-Andalus was under the rule of a Maghrebi dynasty, thus exceeding the bounds of the Iberian Peninsula altogether. We believe that cities can provide a more productive analytical frame.
Therefore, our project will dispense with nation-based models that tend to emphasize unique and therefore disconnected histories, and will instead challenge scholars to consider the medieval Mediterranean as a matrix of cities that, united by the connections forged through trade, royal courts, migrations, pilgrimages, and conquests, produced the art, architecture, and culture that we encounter today. Because questions about spatial context, scale and complexity are not particular to any one city in the Mediterranean, they provide common ground for research collaboration and scholarly exchange. This conceptualization of the Mediterranean as a shared realm is especially important today, given that scholars from Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Morocco, Spain, and Cyprus do not always see their scholarship as part of a larger field of inquiry. Indeed, as evidenced by the lively debate that ensued during our “Mediterranean Cities” sessions at the recent meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians and at the International Conference of Byzantine and Medieval Studies in Cyprus, nationalism permeates scholarly perspectives on Mediterranean art history.
Given these asymmetries in defining the territorial dimension of art historical analysis, our project instead focuses on the city as a key dynamic and diachronic nucleus for the production of art and architecture, and as an entity that is in turn a production of those same artistic and architectural currents. We do not claim that the identification of cities as key players in the history of art and architecture is something new. Especially in Classical Greece and Renaissance Italy, where economic, political and geographical conditions dictated the formation of city-states, cities have been studied as hubs of artistic life. Furthermore, with respect to kingdoms and religions, the central role of capital cities like Constantinople, Rome or Jerusalem has been recognized. However, the study of cities in art historical discourse remains predominately focused on them as centers of art and architecture in their own time. Rarely do studies ask how the city—an important historical artifact in its own right—has been received in the present. We therefore focus our attention not only on the city as it flourished at the time of its most significant formation in the past (which for many cities was the medieval and early modern period) but also at how that formation continues to have agency in the present. Modern Nicosia does not replace the walled 16th-century city: it contends with it, responds to it, and represents it.
In this framework and in order to understand how architecture and its constituent arts (mosaic, stone carving, molded stucco ornament, murals) were made and experienced, and how the practices and ideas about such art traveled around the Mediterranean and were preserved over time, we must look to cities whose historically layered complexity framed the cultural value of art. Along this line of inquiry, the formation of cities during the medieval and early modern period in the broader Mediterranean region offers an array of instructive examples. Some of these we plan to study through direct observation (Nicosia, Granada, Cordoba, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki) while others we will study from a distance (Cairo, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Palermo, Napoli etc.).