Turin, a major exhibition on the Byzantines at Palazzo Madama with a section dedicated to the Piedmont area

In Turin, Palazzo Madama is hosting from May 10 to August 28, 2023 the exhibition "Byzantines. Places, Symbols and Communities of a Thousand-Year Empire" with the contribution of MANN - National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

From May 10 to August 28, 2023, Palazzo Madama - Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin hosts the exhibition Byzantines. Places, Symbols and Communities of a Thousand-Year Empire, curated by Federico Marazzi with the contribution of MANN - National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Palazzo Madama and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and the collaboration in the general organization of Villaggio Globale International. Offered from December 21, 2022 to April 10, 2023 at the MANN - National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the exhibition comes to Turin as a second venue to illustrate the “Byzantine millennium” through the main exhibition corpus to which is added a section dedicated to the relationship with the Piedmont area.

More than 350 works, including sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, pottery, seals and coins, ceramic artifacts, enamels, silver objects, precious gems and goldwork, and valuable architectural elements, will be on display, giving an account of the structures, organizational systems, trade and rituals of a complex political reality, while testifying to the excellence of Byzantine manufactures, the crossroads of culture, stylistic features and symbols of the Eastern Empire through the centuries.

Hundreds of loans from major Italian museums and more than 20 Greek museums come to Turin to narrate the millennial endeavor of an empire bent on dialogue between classical and oriental cultures.

For a Byzantium, linked to the territory of Piedmont, which will see in the Principality of Achaia, from its origins projected towards the Greek and Byzantine East, the origin of the Savoy-Achaia dynasty, formed by the marriage in 1301 between Philip of Savoy and Isabella of Villehardouin, princess of Achaia, but also a very close connection with the dynasty of the Paleologians, ascended in 1261 with Michael Paleologus to the imperial throne, preserved until the final demise of Byzantium in 1453 through this western branch of it, which proved capable of reviving the splendors of the Aleramic court, remaining in power until the last descendant, Gian Giorgio, who died in 1533.

Palazzo Madama, formerly the castle of the Achaia and since 1934 the seat of the collections of the Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, precisely from Byzantine culture and influence began in the structuring of its collections of applied arts, among the most important in Europe, including precious goldsmiths, ivories, gilded and painted glass, textiles and majolica. Relations and contacts with Byzantium and the Empire were over the centuries, for the lands of Piedmont, extensive and varied in nature. The Byzantines occupied a number of strongholds in Piedmont along the Alpine limes, aware of relations of mutual acquaintance that began between the 11th and 12th centuries, first through crusades, then through marriage alliances.

William the Elder (William V) of Montferrat participated in the Second Crusade and was a guest of the imperial court in Byzantium; his four sons were all involved in the events of Outremer and all pursued the dream of ascending an eastern throne. In 1177 William Lungaspada married the sister of Baldwin IV the Leper, heir to the throne of Jerusalem; in 1180 Ranieri of Monferrato married Maria, daughter of the emperor of Constantinople, Basileus Michael Comnenus; in 1190 Conrad of Monferrat arrived in the Holy Land, defended the Kingdom of Jerusalem, married Isabella of Anjou, daughter and heir of the king of Jerusalem, but died assassinated; in 1204 Boniface, William’s fourth son, took part in the Fourth Crusade. He succeeded in obtaining the kingdom of Thessalonica, but died shortly afterward in combat. The Greek East had now firmly entered the sphere of the Monferrato interests.

The Kingdom of Thessalonica, lost as early as 1224, formally remained with the Monferratos, who continued to hold the now-empty title of King of Thessalonica. The kingdom is then given as a dowry to Iolanda of Monferrato in 1284 on the occasion of her marriage to Andronicus II Paleologus (who in return donates 6,000 Genoese liras). From this union was born Theodore, who in 1305 on the death of Marquis John I became lord of Monferrato, giving birth to the new dynasty of the Paleologues. Theodore I Paleologus, marquis of Monferrat, who is the only Oriental, is the only Greek who succeeded in the feat of founding a new dynasty in the West. To these military exploits and matrimonial alliances must be added the trade of merchants from Alexandria, Asti and generally from Monferrato in the Greek East, from Cyprus to Armenia, and also to Caffa and Pera.

The Savoys participated sporadically in enterprises in the East in the 11th-12th centuries. Only with Philip of Savoy, lord of Pinerolo, was a change felt, precisely because of his marriage to Isabelle de Villhardouin. Later, in 1326, Joan of Savoy (later Anna Paleologhina) married the basileus Andronicus III; in 1366 Amadeus VI of Savoy, the green count, participated in the defense of the Byzantine empire by fighting in the Gallipoli peninsula, from which he derived prestige and influence, with important diplomatic successes in the European context. And finally, toward the end of the century, relations with the Lusignan rulers of Cyprus were intertwined: in 1433 with the marriage between Ludovico son of Amedeo VIII and Anna of Lusignan; in 1459 with the union between Ludovico of Savoy and Carlotta of Lusignan; and finally, in 1485 Duke Charles I succeeded in obtaining from Queen Carlotta the title of King of Cyprus (to be inherited upon her death).

In the exhibition set-up designed by architect Loredana Iacopino, this narrative is carried out thanks to the exceptional numismatic heritage of the Civic Museum of Ancient Art, which possesses the entire sequence of coins minted by the emperors of the East, of which a special choice was made to go on display about 150 works.

In closing, in the perspective of a territorial itinerary, an account in images of the Byzantine art objects attested in Piedmont: from the ivory casket in Ivrea Cathedral to the ivory diptych preserved in Novara, in San Gaudenzio, reused at the end of the 11th century to inscribe the names of the bishops of Novara; from the four enamels with Christ and saints inserted in the cross of Oberto di Cocconato (13th century) in the Treasury of Asti Cathedral (a descendant of that Oberto di Cocconato who followed Boniface of Monferrato in the Fourth Crusade, also mentioned by Villehardouin) to the ceramic basin graffitied in the facade of San Giulio d’Orta, to the hypothetical sword of Constantine Paleologus (symbol of the struggle against the Turks), given by Baron Tecco to Charles Albert. Next to him was placed the very sword that Charles Albert used in the Battle of Novara: Italy and Greece united in their struggles for independence from invaders.

The exhibition traces the founding elements of the great Eastern Roman Empire and its cultural and territorial development over the centuries through eight thematic sections.

According to tradition, Byzantium was founded by Greeks in 667 B.C., in a strategic position overlooking the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. Enlarged by Constantine and chosen as a place for his residence, it changed its name to Constantinople and with the division of the Roman Empire in 395 AD became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Of this empire, which survived almost a thousand years after the Western Empire collapsed under the pressures of ’barbarian’ peoples, the exhibition tells the long story, from its origins to the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453. Heir to ancient Rome but founded on the Christian faith, the Byzantine Empire, which at its greatest extent stretched from Tunisia to the Caucasus, is narrated through the objects that testify to its organization, from the figure of the emperor (the basileus) to the army, from the court to the clergy, and its functioning, from coinage to trade, from daily life to the practices of worship.

The objects on display, which characterized the home and private life within Byzantine territories along a chronological period from the 4th to the 12th century, are works that have emerged in archaeological excavations and come largely from Greece, but also from Byzantine sites in Naples, Ravenna and Sardinia. There is tableware, in glass and ceramics, accompanied by bronze oil lamps: all pieces still made in the Roman tradition. The core of precious arts is very rich: fibulae, belt buckles, amulets, rings-often with inscriptions and monograms-bracelets, necklaces, headbands, earrings. Here, alongside the influences of Roman art, one can also read contributions from the Germanic, Slavic and Iranian worlds.

For centuries Byzantium exported throughout the Mediterranean the goods produced within its borders, especially oil, wine, sauces and ointments, transported inside amphorae, but also luxury goods such as goldsmithing and textiles. The high quality of Byzantine craftsmanship inherited the skills of the ancient age and benefited from the Empire’s contacts with the Arab, Persian and Far Eastern worlds. The widespread use of coinage, minted in three types of metal (gold, silver and copper) was also in continuity with the ancient world. Within the borders of the Byzantine Empire there were numerous monasteries: they were not only centers of spiritual life, but repositories of large landed estates and thus characterized by considerable economic and political power, as in the case of the community of Mount Athos. Architecturally, they comprised buildings inhabited by the monks and open exclusively to the religious community and an external area, dedicated to productive activities and the reception of pilgrims, with a chapel for religious services directed to them. Many monasteries were also important cultural centers, engaged in transcribing, in Greek, manuscripts intended for worship, the main texts of Greek literature of Antiquity and scientific and philosophical treatises.

The interpenetration of the Christian faith into the structure of the state and into all articulations of society has meant that much of what remains to us of the Byzantine cultural heritage is represented by ecclesiastical buildings and their furnishings. Characteristic of Byzantine churches is the difference between a very sober exterior and a lavish interior, thanks to the sculptural, pictorial, and mosaic decorations and furnishings. Until the seventh to eighth centuries, these artifacts are marked by a strong geometric rigor and feature essential decorations, including crosses and Christological monograms, only to be enriched later, often with depictions of animals with symbolic meaning. Inside a church, light, natural or artificial, was a very important element in creating an atmosphere of mystical recollection. Artificial light was produced by means of oil lamps and candelabra, usually fueled with olive oil. Among the main liturgical objects were containers for the substances (bread and wine) used in the Eucharistic celebration. Finally, near the churches were cemetery areas, from which the funerary inscriptions displayed here come, which accompanied the tombs.

The Turks since the 11th century had penetrated Anatolia, putting the Byzantine government in that region under attack. By the 15th century, Turkish and Mongol pressure had greatly reduced the empire’s territory. It was also in an anti-Turkish function that in 1438 Basileus John VIII Paleologus came to Italy to participate in the Council desired by Pope Eugene IV to reunite the churches of East and West. His coming was celebrated by scholars and artists, from Pisanello, who dedicated the first modern medal to him, to Benozzo Gozzoli, who depicted him in the frescoes of the Chapel of the Magi in the Medici-Ricciardi Palace in Florence. However, Western aid failed to halt the Ottomans’ advance. In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the army led by Muhammad II, and its fall decreed the end of the Byzantine Empire.

The history of relations between Byzantium and Piedmont is the history of the “dream to the East,” which involved some of the most important families of Italian feudalism, the Aleramici and the Savoy. These lineages identified the crusades and marriage alliances with the Greek aristocracies as an opportunity to bring their families out of the local context and project them into the political sphere of the Eastern Empire. The outcome of their ambitious projects was indeed modest and the economic results were uncertain, but the overseas enterprises refreshed chivalric ideals and procured the much-desired royal titles.

The Museo Civico d’Arte Antica in Turin has an extraordinary collection of Byzantine coins: 1290 specimens in gold, silver and bronze donated in 1933 by Pietro Antonio Gariazzo. An engineer from Biella who, after a long activity in the Belgian Congo engaged in the construction of railway works, returned to Piedmont and devoted himself to the study and collection of ancient coins. A friend of Vittorio Viale, director of the Civic Museums since 1933, after the transfer of the collections to Palazzo Madama he joined him as honorary conservator of Turin’s numismatic collections. The selection presented in the exhibition includes coins minted over ten centuries, from the fifth to the fourteenth century, which convey to us the effigies of the principal emperors of Byzantium, sometimes of their wives and children. They are not only of iconographic interest, but document an important stylistic evolution: the earliest coins, issued under Arcadius (395-408), are in fact still influenced by classical coinage, in which the emperor appears in profile and portrayed according to the canons of Greek art. In those minted during the reigns of Heraclius and Constant (7th century), on the other hand, all interest in verisimilitude has disappeared, and the portraits of the emperors are characterized by strong abstraction. Finally, gold and bronze coins of the 12th-14th centuries show a further change in perspective: of the emperor the portrait is no longer reproduced, but the whole figure, identifiable only by the insignia of imperial power (the labarum and the cruciferous globe). Also increasingly common on the reverse of coins is the presence of the image of Christ, the Virgin or particular saints, replacing the winged Victories and female allegorical figures of the city of Constantinople, which decorated the reverse of coins of late antiquity.

For info: www.palazzomadamatorino.it

Hours: Monday and Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.

Image: Mosaic panel with the Praying Virgin (late 12th century; glass and limestone). Provenance Cortona, Church of Sant’Andrea); Cortona, Museum of the Etruscan Academy and the City of Cortona.

Turin, a major exhibition on the Byzantines at Palazzo Madama with a section dedicated to the Piedmont area
Turin, a major exhibition on the Byzantines at Palazzo Madama with a section dedicated to the Piedmont area

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