By Elettra Stamboulis, Published in “Imperiituro Renovatio imperii,
Ravenna in Ottonian Europe, 2015
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4 October 2014 January 2015, Tamo Museum and Classense Library
What remains of the Ottonians
According to Malraux, there is no progress or even ‘history’ between the creation of the ibexes or deer of Lascaux or Altamira and Picasso’s engraved bull: thus began Clair in an interview in the form of a dialogue on modern art [Clair 2011]. If we take this paradox, which undermines any historicist assumption that sees evolution as a progressive attainment of new goals, we could say that there is no evolution or solution of continuity between much of medieval figurative art and modern-day comics. Of all periods instrumental in building the present, the Middle Ages (and the early medieval period in particular) was one in which the imperative of verbal language was less dominant. Art was not only a ‘cure against the concept’ and ‘reappropriation of the presence of being’, but it was also the only compass for orienting oneself in the vast ocean of narrative experience. Images and words often coexisted and it was natural to try to get one’s bearings through a sequential flow of images which succinctly narrated the salient phases of a story.
It is thus not difficult to admit an analogy between the ninth art and medieval representation, above all Byzantine. Yet the same distance that divides Picasso’s choice of simplification in etchings can be found in the silences and figurative choices of contemporary cartoonists.
It is perhaps thus more interesting to highlight how much diversity it reveals, rather than relying on hackneyed references to the evident analogies between a medium of popular origin, such as comics (like medieval art strongly connoted by didactic and succinct intentions), and what remains of early medieval figurative art. It is certain that the Middle Ages is deeply rooted in comics both as a narrative theme, and as a use of representative techniques: as was illustrated in a rather comprehensive manner by the 2010 exhibits in the Tour Jean sans Peur, Le Moyen еge en Bande Dessinée and more succinctly in the educational exhibition Nuvole di Medioevo at the Istituto Alcide Cervi; the French exhibit focused on exploring, with excellent didactic supports, how comics have reused visual and linguistic modules already present in the Middle Ages, while the exhibit in Reggio Emilia focused more on how comics have represented the medieval era.
Eco also wrote about this subject in the 1980s: or rather, Eco systematically addressed the subject of how we dream of the Middle Ages. Being pure representation, heart and origin of our ills, we do not admire them, says the Bolognese professor, we live in them. “The Middle Ages invented all the things we are still reckoning with, banks and bank drafts, administrative structures and community politics, class struggles and pauperism, the diatribe between state and church, the university, mystic terrorism, trial based on circumstantial evidence, the hospital and the episcopate, even tourist organizations […]. And in fact we are not obsessed with the problem of slavery or ostracism, or why one must, and necessarily, kill one’s mother (classic problems par excellence), but rather with how to confront heresy, and the companions who make mistakes, and those who repent, how one should respect one’s wife while languishing for one’s lover, because the Middle Ages also invented the concept of love in the West” [Eco 1986]. That is where the armoury, the trunk we draw from is to be found, and comics draw from it abundantly, though at times unconsciously. The medieval dream was also represented in the Middle Ages in the form of comics ante litteram: for example, in Les Grandes Chroniques de France, the dream of the queen who is sleeping on the left is represented on the right in a series of frames that follow the order of appearance of the animals dreamt of. The visual reconstruction of the rêverie thus leaves us incredulous: a method of breaking down and representing a dream experience, which became a represented fantasy, one that would disappear in the centuries of the late modern period and reappear only in the 1800s. It would then become a cognitive tool in Bachelard.
Going back to this obscure era, as many have done, from Tasso to the Romantics, from Carducci to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, fantasy literature and monastic thrillers, serves to position us in the world, to reconstruct our fabric of values, to see our status in the present again based on our mapping of this imaginary past. This mapping becomes line and sign, a sequential and logical, geographical construction of the imagination expressed in a comic story. The spider’s web that invades dreams becomes an incarnate vision, which, for reasons of permanence dictated by the visual, delimiting necessity of the line and the sequential construction of images, reconstructs stylistic elements and modes of representation enjoying particular success precisely in the Middle Ages. It is thus a reconstruction of the imaginary that uses the same chisel and the same alphabet as in medieval times, with a different code and function. This shift in meaning (from analysis to the re-creation of sense) becomes particularly evident if one seeks – as in the case of the exhibit at the Classense in Ravenna – to recount or evoke the Ottonians: Adelaide, Theophano and Gerbert, or Pope Sylvester II. Three names that certainly cannot compete in popular narration, in our dream of the Middle Ages, precisely, with other more evocative ones by now stored in our saturated memory. And yet, their eventful lives, the fact of them being itinerant in a Europe always conceived of as being immobile, with little inclination for travel, makes them phosphorescent ghosts and more understandable to us. The lives of Adelaide and Theophano, for example, clash with the stereotyped figures of medieval women. They are women who negotiate pacts from a position of power, who exert power and spread it. Pope Sylvester II has a strong symbolic appeal: his being the pope who reigned during the dangerous year 1000, with an equally evocative name that links him to the memory of Constantine – by now considered the Christianizer in the Vulgate – constitutes an element that is likewise discordant with the list of mysterious popes. And he surprises us, because he was also and above all a mathematician and scholar. But what is missing in all this information is a visual glue, a legacy, a place for gathering dispersed historical indiscretions. These risk remaining erudition, if not supported by a bridge that will also be a dream of the Middle Ages; yet facts without narration and without objective correlatives, places and objects that physically evoke them, risk ending up becoming noise. It is true that our ‘perceptive historiography’ is concentrated on what makes history close to us, enables us to empathize. On the voice in first person, the sign of cartoonist authors, who do not hide their artistic and hence interpretive attitude. History becomes their own, and is conveyed to us in a welcoming format, a shell that tells us about ourselves. The exoticism of this place in time, remote in gestures and thought, becomes an element of cultural continuity. But then, comics have their roots precisely in medieval representations and narrations, when the Other intersects with fables and with an unknown that perhaps becomes ‘historical orientalism’ in order to be understood: borrowing this category in the interpretative sense of Edward Said, we can say that the reinforcement of stereotypes deriving from the electronic and postmodern world have also had an effect on how the Middle Ages are represented. To succeed in discarding, consciously or unconsciously, the founding elements of a firmly rooted vision of an era we are still living in, occupying streets and spaces, but from which we feel profoundly and exotically remote, is not a simple process. This is all the more true in a context in which an element of geopolitical identity is reconstructed by revisiting a period and a dynasty: continuity and repeated stays, Ravenna and the Ottonians, here and then, in a dialogue in which hic et nunc acquire depth and meaning. Nothing can be added to what has already been. This is a saga of a relatively short-lived line of powerful rulers, who lived in the continuous flashes of the universal, a category that had to weld together, in a world undergoing an entropic breakdown, a dynasty that found charismatic figures in women from the East and West. This last true relationship with the old East would shortly thereafter close, for several centuries, its ties with an assertive Europe oriented toward new centres. Here, certainly, is a place of stories that will easily stir our sensitivity as listeners. Even today, in a political and geographical Europe that continues not to be aligned, there is a continuous attempt to evoke, not always successfully, universal categories that unite. The fact that these evocations do not transmute into real bridges is not a subject addressed here: it is true that the building of Europe is a factor that has always involved the imagination to a greater degree than physical factors.
There is thus no didactic intent, as is often erroneously attributed when one simply names the comics medium. The objective is rigorously hermeneutical, openly and declaredly subjective, an attempt to attribute new meaning.
In the short, dazzling stories by Gianluca Costantini, Giuseppe Palumbo and Rocco Lombardi, different signs and different pictorial sensitivities fish out small amulets from the shipwreck of history, amulets which tell us above all who we are, what remains of the day. A sort of historical rêverie, which, as Bachelard teaches us, cannot be recounted, but must be put on a page.
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Drawing the Middle Ages
(Ravenna, 1971) He is a cartoonist and visual artist who has been investigating reality for over 15 years. He has published short stories and graphic novels in Italy and abroad. He is an Internet activist known internationally for the projects politicalcomics.info and Channel Draw. He teaches Cartoon Art at the Bologna Fine Arts Academy.
(Formia, 1973) He acquired his training in the Italian punk/hardcore and writing underground, worked as a decorator and self-produced his first comics under the label ‘Lamette Comics’. He works as an illustrator and runs comics labs open to all with the project ‘Nomadisegni’.
(Matera, 1964) has been writing and drawing comics since 1986, when he debuted with the historical Italian comics magazine «Frigidaire». Since then he has produced dozens of comic books and thousands of panels and won awards, his work ranging from experimental to mainstream comics, from ‘Martin Mystère’ to ‘Diabolik’, of which he is by now a cartoonist of reference.