New Publication: Monumental Sounds: Art and Listening Before Dante by Matthew G. Shoaf

Hearing is a far-reaching concern, to judge by printed and online efforts to improve it in business, law, medicine, higher education, and other areas. American democracy itself has been jeopardized by failures to listen, some have recently argued. Centuries ago, when anxieties ran high about people not hearing what they were ‘supposed’ to hear, remedies took unexpected forms.

Monumental Sounds looks at how artists used painting and sculpture to engineer auditory experience in churches of late medieval Italy, where sacred speech could have less impact than intended despite vast powers claimed for it. The issue was not only whether and what worshipers and clergy heard but also how they listened. In order to be spiritually altered by God’s word—speech which religious officials uttered with deliberate vocal restraint—audiences had to listen with attitudes of eager concentration, willful submission, abstinence, affection, and belief. This meant overcoming spiritually deafening factors such as reason, wandering thoughts, sensory distractions, sexual habits, and social grievances. Narrative pictures by Giotto and leading thirteenth-century artists intervened on ears’ behalf. Indeed, they may have had to, as pictorial art’s own demands on worshipers’ attention surged conspicuously in those years.

Introduction: An Unheard Art
Chapter 1: Listening Up
Chapter 2: The Ear, Estranged
Chapter 3: A Feast for the Ears
Chapter 4: Sound Restoration
Chapter 5: Higher Fidelity
Conclusion: Humbling Sight

This book has received the Weiss-Brown Publication Subvention Award from the Newberry Library. The award supports the publication of outstanding works of scholarship that cover European civilization before 1700 in the areas of music, theater, French or Italian literature, or cultural studies. It is made to commemorate the career of Howard Mayer Brown.

Hardback and E-book versions are available from Brill. For more information, visit Brill’s website.


Published by ameliahyde

Amelia Roché Hyde holds an MA from The Courtauld Institute of Art, where she studied cross-cultural artistic traditions of medieval Spain, taking an in-depth look at the context and role of Spanish ivories within sacred spaces. Her favorite medieval art objects are ones that are meant to be handled and touched, and she has researched ivories, textiles, and illuminated manuscripts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The British Museum. Amelia is the Research Assistant at The Met Cloisters.

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