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Vittore Branca centre

Image of Cini Foundation building

In April 2017, I was granted a three-week studentship from the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and TORCH to stay at the Vittore Branca Centre. There, I intended to research what would later become a chapter of my thesis: two medieval astronomical calendars that relate to my main primary sources, the cosmological drawings of Opicinus de Canistris (1296- c. 1352, see digitised images here). Yet what followed was a revelation of the abundance of medieval sources showing the colourful visual culture of time reckoning in Veneto, from elaborate cosmological clocks in town squares, to the frescos of clock faces on church walls, to the astrological-astronomical programmes of figures representing the cycle of the year. The studentship also allowed me access to the Nuova Manica Lunga, a library specialising in the history of Venetian culture.

Before continuing, a word on the atmosphere of San Giorgio (the island on which the foundation is located) is necessary. Its rich history can be gauged from their website. At its heart is a fifteenth-century Benedictine monastery that has been the subject of restoration from the mid-twentieth century, following 150 years of military occupation. Yet what one cannot be comprehended before a residential experience is its motivational surrounding, somehow calm but stimulating. It would be difficult not to engage with the island's heritage, whether by passing the wall-sized facsimile of Paolo Veronese's 'Wedding at Cana' that peeks through the open doorways of the cloisters, taking a pack lunch to the eerily calm Teatro Verde, a brutalist amphitheatre built in the gardens during the 1950s that has since become overgrown with vegetation, or simply sitting with a book on the steps of San Giorgio Maggiore, facing the frantic bustling of San Marco’s square from the quiet safety of the island. Such moments in which the island felt deserted were interspersed with an active events programme (I was lucky enough to catch a packed concert by one of the current leaders of khyal music, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay) and activities with the other residents. This ranged from weekly spritz sessions organised by the master of Campus, sometimes held on the terrace overlooking the Borges labyrinth, to hearing the neighbouring opera singers humming arias on their way to the practice room.

Entering the library on my first day, I was welcomed by Marta Zoppetti, who introduced me to two specialists who would come to show me two separate collections of rare books. Ilenia Maschietto suggested I look at the printed calendars of Regiomontanus, following which I spent the rest of the day looking at the paper scientific instruments that are attached within. The next day, Alessandro Martoni showed me the Vittore Branca's fragments of northern Italian Books of Hours, which are abundant with colourful illumination. Although both can be accurately described as books of time, they are most often treated separately by historians of science and art historians respectively.  This variation complimented the multidisciplinary of my project, which considers objects of the history of science (in this case, calendars) through an art-historical lens.

By the third day, I was ready to consult the first of the two main comparative sources, an early-fourteenth century astronomical calendar that accompanies an atlas of Pietro Vesconte. Now in the Museo Correr in San Marco's Square, the journey was just one stop on the vaporetto from the island. A consultation of Pietro’s golden illuminated calendar in the flesh allowed me to interpret the process of its making, as well as read the astronomical data illegible in its reproductions. Special thanks goes to Valeria Cafà, who showed the atlas to me and posed the question as to its original form.

I next ventured out of Venice to Verona to look at the contexts in which the second calendar, a huge wooden and vellum volvelle that I call the 'San Zeno wheel', was made. Whilst currently hanging in the La Jolla Map Museum in San Diego, the Wheel was constructed for the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, just an hour on the train from Venice. In the Basilica, I scrutinised the spot in which an eighteenth-century text states the Wheel hung and searched for other horological devices that could inform me to its intended use. As the last of my pictures below show, the latter turned out to be more fruitful than I had previously imagined.

A second trip took me to Padua to present my findings on the San Zeno Wheel at Scientiae, the sixth international conference on disciplines of knowing in the early modern world. In addition to the benefits of a good conference (specialist feedback, a plethora of papers and good coffee), the trip to Padua exposed me to yet more medieval time-related visual culture, including another astronomical clock almost identical to that in Venice and the astrological frescos of the Ermentani Church and the great hall of the Palazzo della Ragione. The hall is entirely filled with figural representations of units of cyclical time (to name a few: the months, seasons, zodiac signs, the planets and their attributes, the majority of which were painted 1425-50), which together make an annual calendar. I returned to the Manica Lunga with more than I could possibly incorporate into a single chapter, but with the help of the specialist collections for their interpretation.

Venice's abundance of art-historical sources is no secret. Library breaks can be easily filled with (to list a few favourites) the Guggenheim, the Byzantine church of Torcello, the Academia, and gelato, but what I did not expect was the significant visual culture specific to time keeping that still exists there. Venice’s legacy as the epicentre of cartographic progress in the Middle Ages renders it the perfect location to understand the development of maps at this time, especially for my study of Pietro Vesconte, who was primarily active in Venice. This short studentship showed me that Veneto was not only significant to the representation of space in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but also to the representation of time, a new project upon which I will now embark.

Images [author's own]

1: View from San Giorgio

2: Cini residence from the Bell Tower, the Borges Labyrinth

3: Calendar of Pietro Vesconte, Museo Correr, Port. 28

4: Time keeping in Veneto