Background and activities
Iconography of Italian and European art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Other areas of interest: Marian iconography, typology, the contrast between sacred and secular portraits of the Renaissance, neuroaesthetics, fascist aesthetics and caricatures / cartoon controversy.
Image and Architecture
The symmetrical structure of the architecture is a frame within which images must fit. The sculpture group on the pediments of a Greek temple is composed hierarchically, with Apollo or other divinities at the centre, and less important figures at the flanks. In archaic art, such as the temple of Artemis, the central figure, Medusa, who is facing the spectators, is flanked by two identical lions, one of which is the mirror reflection of the other.
A similar system is found in Christian medieval art and architecture. The alignment of altar, cathedra and celebrant constitutes an axis that divides the ground plan of the basilica symmetrically into two equal halves. A central axis drawn lengthwise on the Church plan through the main altar, bisecting all transversal architecture elements and furniture in the church space, will individuate the axial positions of the entrance wall through the main door, the central panel of the pontile, or the Crucifix above the entrance of the choire enclosure, the apex of the triumphal arch, the centre of the apse and apsidal vault, as well as the cathdera situated within the apse. The images found in these "axial positions", such as the Majestas domini or later the Coronation of the Virgin in the apsidal vault, a clipeus image of Christ flanked by the 24 elders of the Apocalypse or the Eutimasia on the triumphal arch, and the Last Judgement above the main entrance, are all motifs of a symbolical order.
Past and future
The typical arrangement of apsidal images, as well as of altar-pieces, is symmetrical, and the portraits of Christ, the Virgin, or saints, are almost always turned frontally towards the spectator. On the long walls of the medieval church building, we find images of a quite different kind. Here we find stories from Genesis, from the Gospels, or from the vita of saints. These scenes, which are ‘off-centre' with respect to the church's main axis, are almost never composed symmetrically. Moreover, whereas the mentioned images that are aligned with the main axis represent scenes from the Revelation and other sources that anticipate or foreshadow future events, the images on the long walls are an account of things that once happened. They represent the past. Thus, the church is a symbolical space that separates centre from periphery, past from future. Apart from being assigned specific positions in the church space, symbolical and apocalyptic images that represent the future are also connected with a specific form: the symmetric one.
The Holy face
A survey of 590 portraits by Italian, Dutch and German masters from the 15th and 16th centuries shows that only about 1.2 percent of the portraits of secular persons are shown frontally. There are not quite as many representations of Christ from the same period, but there are clear indications that the frontal (symmetric) view in this case is much more common. Perhaps as many as half of the Christ portraits from this period are shown frontally (and symmetrically).
How is it that symmetry is used so often in representations of Christ, yet almost never, in the Renaissance, in representations of secular persons? According to written sources, the beauty of Christ was supposed to be of a spiritual kind; some even said that his appearance was ugly. However, the Scriptures connect his ugliness with physical pain. It is not a description of his likeness as such, but rather how he would appear to someone witnessing his suffering during the Crucifixion. In fact, other sources, such as the so-called Epistola Lentuli,gives a totally different account of him, describing him as of "venerable aspect" and having "a face without wrinkle or spot."
There are basically two types of Renaissance Christ portraits. The first, the Man of Sorrows, corresponds to the ‘ugly type': Christ has a sad expression, he wears the crown of thorns, and blood pours from his forehead – it is the ‘suffering type'. The second, the Holy Face, is totally different. Here Christ turns toward the spectator with a calm and gentle expression. It is interesting to study the way Christ's head is turned in these two cases. In the former (‘suffering') type, we have examples of frontal (en face) view as well as three-quarter profile, but the majority are three-quarters. In contrast, the Holy Face is exclusively full frontal (and symmetric).
The difference between the two types of Christ portrait corresponds to that between ‘past' and ‘present'. As we have seen, whereas images representing the past have no precise structure, representations of the theophany (the Apocalypse and so on) are always symmetrical, and the protagonist is always the central figure, frontally (and symmetrically) turned toward the spectator.
Scientific, academic and artistic work
A selection of recent journal publications, artistic productions, books, including book and report excerpts. See all publications in the database
- (2016) Effects of facial symmetry and gaze direction on perception of social attributes: A study in experimental art history. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. vol. 10:452 (2016).
- (2016) Aeiparthenos: Metaphors and Symbols of Virginity in Italian, Dutch and Byzantine Representations of the Annunciation around 1400. Ikon - Journal of the iconographic studies.
- (2016) Su te stenderà la sua ombra. Iconografia e tipologia biblica in due Annunciazioni di Filippo Lippi. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia. vol. XXVIII (14).
- (2016) Symmetry and Utopia: The Aesthetics of Early 20th Century Architecture. Symmetry: culture and science. vol. 27 (4).
- (2014) From Centre to Periphery. The Propagation of the Virgo virga motif and the Case of the 12th Century Høylandet Tapestry. Il Capitale Culturale. Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage.
- (2014) Light Symbolism in Gentile da Fabriano’s Vatican Annunciation. Eikón Imago. vol. 3 (2).
- (2013) Omnivoyance and Omnipresence: Word and Vision According to Nicholas of Cusa and Jan van Eyck. Ikon - Journal of the iconographic studies. vol. 6.
- (2013) Skinn av nærvær. Reaksjonen mot det moderne i mussolinitidens arkitektur og estetikk. Kunst og kultur.
- (2013) Symmetry versus frontality in the Renaissance holy face. Symmetry: culture and science. vol. 24 (1-4).
- (2011) Masaccio's Skeleton and the Petrarchan Concept of Time. Ikon - Journal of the iconographic studies. vol. 4.
- (2011) Reading and Viewing Words in Fra Angelico's Typological Paintings. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia. vol. 24 (n.s. 10).
- (2009) Den skeive Jesus og hans elsker. Tidsskriftet M.
- (2009) The Turtledove: A Symbol of Chastity and Sacrifice. Ikon - Journal of the iconographic studies.
- (2008) The Bride and the Groom of the 'Canticum Novum'. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia.
- (2007) "Inter duas metas:" le immagini del martirio di S. Pietro e la topografia simbolica di Roma. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia.
- (2007) The "Double Apostolate" as an Image of the Church. A Study of Early Medieval Apse Mosaic in Rome. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia.
- (1999) Painting and Pictorial Conception: Preconditions for the Development of Renaissance Perspective. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia.
- (2012) The Virginity of the Virgin. A Study in Marian Iconography. Bardi Editore. 2012. ISBN 978-88-6687-006-7.
- (2008) Mater Christi. Bardi Editore. 2008. ISBN 978-88-88620-62-6. Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia (XXI).
- (2007) Sponsus amat sponsam. L'unione mistica delle sante vergini con Dio nell'arte del medioevo. Uno studio iconologico. Bardi Editore. 2007. ISBN 88-88620-31-1.