Michele Bacci will be coming to speak at the Seminar in Comparative Medieval Material Culture (China, Islam, Europe) on Wednesday, October 12, 2011, on “On the Making of Holy Places Along the Sea Routes of the Eastern Mediterranean.”


As many scholars have emphasized, the Fall of Acre in 1291 did not involve a real interruption of Holy Land pilgrimage from the Western countries. Just on the contrary, in the 14th century the settling of the Franciscan friars on Mount Zion stimulated the development of a renewed interest in the experience of pilgrimage. The Friars literally reshaped the sacred topography of Palestine and fostered a “cumulative” approach to the holy sites, which were associated with a well defined hierarchical system of more or less lucrative indulgences. This made them very attractive, as each pilgrim to the Holy Land expected to gain a very special spiritual advantage by visiting and worshipping as many sites as possible. Such an experience proved really to be worth doing, although this implied a long journey and many dangers. The journeys to the Levant were monopolized by the Venetians and proved to be very repetitive, given that in most cases they took place along the same sea-routes, from Venice to Alexandria or Jaffa with stops in Zara, Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Corfu, Modon, Candia, Rhodes, Paphos, and/or Famagusta. Along these same sea-routes was established a new, autonomous sacred topography, consisting of site-bound cultic phenomena which were in many cases conceived as mirroring or being alternative to the sacredness associated with the pilgrims’ ultimate goal. The many shrines dotting the port-towns of the Levant were conceived as either extensions of the Holy Land or as autonomous, self-referential holy sites. Given their “liminal” location at the crossroads of the Medieval Mediterranean, they presented themselves even as participating in different sacred topographies: one such was constituted by the memorial sites of Saint Paul’s apostolic journeys, and another one, thoroughly different in meaning, was represented by the many shrines being specifically connected with the devotional needs of the seafarers. The connection with the Holy Land was frequently made visible by the dissemination of both site-relics (such as stones from the holy sites) and body-parts of saints being especially worshipped by Holy Land pilgrims, such as Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara. The present paper will deal with the visual and architectural strategies by which all such new sites were established and made attractive to the pilgrims’ eyes.


Michele Bacci (Ph.D., Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, 1999), was appointed Associate Professor of Iconography and Iconology in Siena University in 2002; since September 2011 he is Chair of Medieval Art History in the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. In his research activity he has dealt with art-historical contacts of East and West in the broader context of their cultural and religious relationship (with a special emphasis on the 12th and 13th centuries), and the history of image worship in its several expressions (images meant to be publicly venerated, processional and para-liturgical objects, images meant to express the donor’s anxiety for his or her soul’s future in the afterlife). The outcome of his activity has been published in articles in exhibition catalogues, congress proceedings, miscellaneous books, Italian and international periodicals.

He has been the organizer and promoter of scientific events, such as the international congress on The Artist in Byzantium and the Eastern Christian World (Pisa, Scuola Normale Superiore, 21-22 November 2003) and the major exhibition devoted to Saint Nicholas in the art of East and West (San Nicola. Splendori d’arte d’Oriente e d’Occidente, Bari, Castello Svevo, 7 December 2006-6 May 2007). He is scientific coeditor (with Roberto Rusconi) of the international periodical “Iconographica”, founded by Fabio Bisogni and published by the Society for the study of Latin Middle Ages (Florence) with the support of the University of Siena.