Interview with Darrelyn Gunzburg
Darrelyn Gunzburg

Frances Clyne: Firstly Darrelyn, congratulations on your phd. What is the title of your dissertation?

Darrelyn Gunzburg: Giotto's Salone: An astrological investigation into the fresco paintings of the first floor Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy

FC: What do you mean by the astrological investigation into the paintings?

DG: The Palazzo della Ragione,also known as the Palace of Justice or the palace of law, is located in Padua, north Italy. It's a huge building and the first floor Salone is about the size of a football field - 81.52m x 27.16m x 27.08m - so it's extremely large and trapezium in shape. In c.1305 the Commune of Padua approached Fra Giovanni degli Eremitani (active in Padua from 1289 to 1318), engineer/architect/ town planner, builder of fortifications and roads, a widely travelled man and highly erudite in terms of construction, to build a whaleback wooden barrel vault ceiling for the Palazzo della Ragione, creating a roof shaped like an inverted keel of ship. In order to achieve this he had to raise the walls by 8 metres, which meant he was left with four bare walls. Giotto di Bondone (c.1267- 1337), one of the foremost artists of the time, had just finished a private commission for Enrico Scrovegni painting the walls of the Arena Chapel, so the Commune asked him to be the painter of the Salone walls.

DG: They also asked Pietro d'Abano who was teaching medicine, philosophy, and astrology at Padua University at the time, to advise on the astrology underlying the painted scheme. D'Abano was one of the most influential men of learning during the last years of the thirteenth and the early years of the fourteenth century, having studied and taught at the studium generale of Paris. These three minds - Fra Giovanni degli Eremitani, Pietro d'Abano and Giotto - together with the support of the Commune, devised a painted fresco scheme that was truly forward-thinking for the time. Padua was a radical city, what we would now call an early adopter of new knowledge. It was pulsing with new thoughts, new ideas, and vying with Florence, Bologna, Paris as a place of innovation. And what they placed on the walls in three registers, clearly depicted, was the medieval cosmology and the thinking of the time. The top register contains the constellations. The middle register and lower registers depict images which represent the months, the seasonal zodiac signs,and the planets that rule the zodiac signs in their day and night rulerships. The fresco scheme also depicts Christian imagery, theological imagery, as well as mundane and civic imagery, the images of Paduans going about their daily living activities which were pertinent to that time of the year,images that depict the latitude bands, and theological and liturgical themes. These images contain a mixture of astrological qualities that have as their source the astrology of Abu Ma‘shar (787-886), al-Qabi and Avraham Ibn Ezra (born 1089-1092, died after 1160). So it is a seasonal, astrological, and theological fresco scheme, but it is a lot more than that. It also contains the thinking of how the Paduans saw and thought about the world.

Scholars who have approached the fresco scheme before have done so as outsiders - extremely erudite but looking at it as an object from the outside and describing it as such and thinking that these images had to correlate with a book of images called the Astrolabium Planum, but not being able to make any sense of that. So I looked at it and thought, 'This is not making sense to all of these scholars, so let's see if we can approach it with insider knowledge. First, let us understand what the Astrolabium Planumwas trying to do and recognise that it's not doing what these scholars think it's going to do. So let's put that aside and try to make sense of it as an 'insider'who uses medieval astrological techniques together with the knowledge of poetic astronomy and naked eye astronomy in astrological consultation and research.' Although one can never fully step back into that Paduan culture that created the scheme, my astrological knowledge provided me with a good practical understanding and implications of the literature of the astrological/ cosmological thought of the day, that was an amalgamation of Aristotelian thinking, the thinking of Aquinas, and medieval astrology.

FC: You mentioned Christian saints. When we think of the power of the church at the time and how careful Aquinas had to be in his writing about astrology, that seems somehow contradictory.

DG: Yes, we are blessed by the fact that Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)had Albertus Magnus,who was deeply interested in astrology, as his teacher. It was Aquinas who adopted Aristotle's natural philosophy and reconciled it with Christianity. Recognising that a healthy body was essential to serving God and that medical astrology could maintain that health, he wrote in his Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Three: Providence Part II that whilst astrology maintained dominion over men's bodies, God retained dominion over the soul. Medicine and medical astrology were taught in the universities at that time. That is why in a lot of civic frescos we see this combination of Christian theology along with astrology.

FC: You have told me in the past that the topic of your dissertation is deeply connected to visual astrology of which yourself and Bernadette (Brady) are huge supporters. Can you talk a bit about that?

DG: Yes. That's all to do with the top register of constellation images. The iconography of the constellations is well-established from Aratus (early 3rd century BCE) onwards and in the Salone they are painted in their traditional forms along the top register of the fresco scheme. My methodology, briefly, was to find the image of each zodiac sign in the middle register, and then look at the images above each zodiac sign along the top register and then create a sky map in Starlight for when the Sun ingressed into that zodiac sign, at zero degrees of the zodiac sign, and then look to see if there was a correlation between the constellations in the sky and the constellation images of the fresco scheme. And it became really obvious that there was a rhythm as to how they were looking at the sky by the dominant visual constellations that were painted along the top the register, so that anyone observing them could accurately access the time of year. And the sky does change, as you know, from month to month. The subject of my talk at SEAC in Malta this year( is a consideration of what these ingress sky maps and their timing add to the meaning of the fresco scheme and how the sky was viewed in medieval Padua. So the visual astrology helped me to begin to make sense of the top register.

FC: What were your conclusions?

DG: (laughs)Well I know what Bernadette would say they were.

FC: She told me they were very exciting.

DG: The reason Bernadette is excited is that, as she says,here is a monumental fresco scheme that depicts astrology connected with the everyday life of the Paduan people that can't be brushed underneath the table.

Furthermore, despite the building and hence the fresco scheme suffering damage over the years, the decree was always to paint it 'as it was before'. The understanding by the Venetian Senate (Venice took over rule of Padua from 1405 until 1797) appears to have been one that recognised the value of the Salone scheme and its meaning to the society in which it was first created and which was still relevant and necessary. Unlike so many frescoes in such buildings of the medieval period which have disintegrated, been broken up, smashed apart, sold off or destroyed, the fresco scheme is still with us. Although I argue that, as scholars moved further away in time from the cosmology that shaped the images of the Salone fresco scheme, so they understood its original intention less and less, still the heartbeat of astrology remained there on the walls, maintaining its message and saying 'Eventually, eventually you'll be able to understand me again'. And I think that's really exciting.

In a recent television broadcast on the story of the Jews historian Simon Schama mentioned that the Mishnah and the Talmud were created 'for an endless future'.To my mind one could say the same about the Salone fresco scheme and, as I write in PhD, 'it was a narrative, interlaced pictorial cycle that placed astrology at the heart of its thinking, the beat that kept civic time as the church kept sacred time, a cycle that repeated endlessly but not mindlessly and reminded the first viewers and spectators of who they were, how to maintain order and justice in the community, and where they stood between heaven and earth.' So I think that's what's so joyful and exciting about the fresco scheme, that as you stand in the centre of it and look at these images on the walls, they are actually deep, rich rivers of thinking, stories and narratives underpinned with astrology.

FC: I know you passed your viva with no changes, so can we assume from that, that this has been well received, that academia is open to such a revolutionary conclusion?

DG: Scholars who work in the medieval field don't deny that astrology was part of its thinking but they look at it as outsiders and what seems to be happening is that some of these scholars are opening their arms a bit more widely and welcoming insider knowledge and there are a number of us now who are working academically inside the field. So the response from the examiners was profoundly positive on that level. My internal examiner who was a medieval art historian thanked me for making the work so accessible through the use of fold-outs and lots of supporting images. I found out later that he had confessed to my supervisor that he had been slightly concerned as to whether he would understand it. And even Charles Burnett, my external examiner, said, 'There's no jargon in there at all - that's wonderful.' So having a supervisor who didn't know any astrology at all helped me enormously in the long run because I had to keep simplifying and clarifying the astrology to make it accessible.

FC: You are now a lecturer at the University of Bristol. Is that in the history of art?

DG: Yes, together with my supervisor, we co-designed and are team-teaching seminars for a new second-year undergraduate course Early Italian Art (The Italian city states from the Golden Age to the Black Death), so it's right in the late medieval period. Paralleled with this module, the students research a Special Field project, culminating in a dissertation of 5,000 words based on areas of interest emerging from the Early Italian Art seminars. As the module is research-led, my supervisor wanted me to teach part of my PhD. So one of the lectures I taught, for example, was called 'The Medieval Cosmos'. I was teaching students that astrology was actually relevant to the thinking of that time, that it had gravitas and depth, and this was how it was seen by the artist in the Salone via the images on the walls. And it was really exciting to do that. That module will finish in June, so I don't know what will happen next year but I'm hoping something good will come of it.

FC: I'm sure it will. Do you have any other plans, both astrologically and academically?

DG: There are various lectureships that I've applied for and post-docs. People seem to be very keen - my examiners and my supervisors - that I get my PhD published. I've already published one paper on it - Gunzburg, Darrelyn. 'Giotto's Sky: The fresco paintings of the first floor Salone of the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy.' Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 7, no. 4 (2013): 407-433 - and I am now approaching publishers who incoporate many colour images because it's going to need a lot of them.

FC: Is there anything you think we haven't covered? I'm sure there is a lot more really good stuff in there that our readers would like to hear about.

DG: You asked me some time ago if I thought the journey of the PhD had changed my astrology. I was already a visual astrologer and one who incorporated medieval techniques in my consultation work, and the visual astrology definitely helped me,without a doubt - knowing the whole sky, the constellations, and their mythology. I couldn't have done it without that knoweldge. What has been wonderful is gaining a deeper understanding of the astrology of ibn Ezra and al-Qabi?i. In late April 2014 I presented a paper at the ARAM, Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies, Conference at Oxford University. The Conference was called 'Astrology in the Ancient Near East' and my paper was entitled 'The Reception of Islamic astrology in the images of the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, Italy', and it was the first paper I had given since I completed my PhD which is based on my PhD research and in a strange way it gave me a much greater understanding of Ibn Ezra's and al-Qabi?i's astrology, which I knew, but seeing it all come together in those images was extremely gratifying.

I get really emotional when I think about the process I went through with the PhD. Although it may sound odd, it has always felt as if Giotto and d'Abano and whoever else was informing this scheme - that they were there calling, calling, calling out in the darkness in the hope that someone would remember why they painted the fresco scheme this way, and when I first saw the images of the Salone they said, 'There's someone who knows something' and it's been a privilege, an absolute privilege, to have been able to shed a little more light on the scheme.

So I don't think it's going to change the astrology I do with clients because, as I said, I use medieval techniques anyway and I use visual astrology. But as someone else said to me, 'I stand taller now having gone that journey.'

FC: You were actually the perfect person to do it, weren't you? You practice medieval astrology, visual astrology and have a background in the history of art. It's a very unique combination.

DG: (laughs) Absolutely.

FC: I think they did spot you when you walked in.

DG: I think they did. 'Get over here, put your bottom on a seat and write for six years.' I tell you, I have never fallen out of love with it, never. It's always been joyful and it's just been a gift.

FC Great, well thank you Darrelyn.

DG: Thank you, Frances, for taking the time to ask about it.