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Report on the 2018 Andrew Ladis Memorial Trecento Conference

In early November the Edith O’Donnell Institute for Art History helped to support a biannual conference of specialists in 14th-century Italian art. The Andrew Ladis Memorial Trecento Conference is not only very specialized, it is also a very special conference! Unlike most art history conferences, this one is small: 24 papers are presented over 2 1/2 days in a series of single sessions so that all participants listen and respond to each paper. 

The conference is also distinctive in its emphasis on new works in progress and extended dialogue on fourteenth-century art and culture. The selection committee accepts papers on all materials, regions, and approaches to trecento art history, although it also looks for new perspectives on trecento visual culture. With this in mind, it also accepts papers on trecento topics written by non-trecentists. 

Our goals also include reaching out to international colleagues and to researchers at varying stages in their careers. Part of the tradition of the conference is to provide meals and several breaks during which the intellectual conversations sparked by the papers can continue, and both new and established collegial friendships develop. According to the comments and emails of numerous participants this second conference was spectacularly successful and exceeded even the expectations that arose from the first one, hosted in 2016 at Tulane University. 

The character of these conferences was inspired by special, workshop-like gatherings once held by Andrew Ladis at the University of Georgia. Ladis was a major scholar of fourteenth-century art, and a mentor and inspiration to many younger art historians; the title of the conference honors his legacy. Shortly after Prof. Ladis’s premature demise in 2007, a small group of trecento art historians began an email list that has grown to number about 150 members in 10 countries. 

The group constitutes a private listserv that functions not only to advance scholarly discourse, but also to organize conferences in honor of Andrew’s spirit and goal of promoting a long and rigorous life for trecento art history.

The 2018 Andrew Ladis Memorial Trecento Conference, co-hosted by the University of Houston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was only the second one held by the group. About 60 people attended, including 12 graduate students, 5 of whom presented papers. We also received a small amount of designated funding to help bring our Italian colleagues, who often don’t have the means to attend conferences in the U.S. Support from EODIAH made possible a special dinner at the end of the first full day of the conference, which otherwise would not have been possible. The dinner helped create a special bonding among the presenters and other participants as well as bring the day to a festive conclusion. 

The participation of EODIAH also included the presentation of a fascinating paper by Associate Director, Sarah Kozlowski (selected independently by the planning committee). Dr. Kozlowski’s paper brought up new questions and proposed interesting conclusions about the significance of painted fictive porphyry (a type of colored marble) on the backs of small diptychs and triptychs commissioned by the Angevin rulers of 14th century Naples.

In addition to the paper by Sarah Kozlowski, presented in a session entitled “Art as Politics”, papers included another paper on the Neopolitan Angevin ruler, Robert of Anjou’s, political aims and the iconography of works he commissioned to support them. It was exciting to hear about a vibrant region of the trecento mediterranean that has only recently begun to receive the scholarly attention it deserves and in ways that often bring new approaches to the larger field of trecento art history. 

True to the group’s goals, a wide range of other types of subjects were also presented. Several of them are noted here: the meaning and function of the image type known as the “Triumph” of a Saint (here specifically  those of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) based on diagramming those images; differences in the cut of Franciscan habits in life and in art and their significance; the social functions of painted saints’ tombs in the Veneto; sources and significance of simulated textiles in trecento painting; and the relationship between Persian and Italian trecento religious architecture. 

Topics also included a new iconographic and historical analysis of an altarpiece painted for the Dominicans of San Gimignano by the Sienese painter, Bartolommeo Bulgarini, based on new excavations in the archives; a reading of the unusual and previously inscrutable narrative strucutures of frescoes in San Francesco, Prato as based on the  structure of sermons; the reconstruction of images destroyed in WWII; images of a changing social order through the astrological program in Padua’s town hall; visual representation of women’s legal duties in trecento Siena, and many more. One of the most intriguing and novel papers analyzed concepts of time in trecento thought, the development of mechanical clocks, and their impact on the design of Giovanni Pisano’s much-studied Pisa Pulpit. We were also treated to a special talk by the Curator of Italian art in the National Gallery of the UK, in London, that highlighted the various ways past and present curators have engaged audiences with art of this period, that audiences often find difficult to relate to, and a presentation of an in-progress digitization project focused on Medieval and Renaissance Florence.

The proceedings of this conference will be published by Brepols Press, as were those of the 2016 conference. The essays will be short and similar to the presentations, so if you are interested you can look at them in more depth than I could possibly give here.

The next bi-annual conference will take place in Nashville, where it will be hosted by trecentist and curator of the Frist Art Center, Trinita Kennedy. It will be held to coincide with an exhibition she will be curating on trecento art in Bologna, a center that is often neglected in in this period.  Undoubtedly several papers will pick up the them of the trecento in Bologna and the proceedings will again be published and available to the public.

Judith Steinhoff

Associate rofessor of Art History

University of Houston

Organizer of the 2018 Ladis Memorial Trecento Conference