Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2009
Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona The Usurer's Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. 304 pp.; 41 color ills.; 146 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780271032566)

Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona open their fascinating book on the Arena Chapel by citing both Dante’s famous description in the Inferno of the notorious usurer Reginaldo Scrovegni, and the epitaph from the tomb of his son Enrico (d. 1336), who was buried in the Arena Chapel—the chapel in which Giotto, commissioned by Enrico just after 1302, painted in fresco events from the lives of Anna, Joachim, the Virgin Mary, and Christ, along with a monumental Last Judgment. Derbes and Sandona highlight the radically different opinions offered by these two sources about the fate of usurers in the Scrovegni family. In the Divine Comedy, Reginaldo’s usury is punished with eternal damnation. The epitaph, by contrast, expresses the notion that Enrico’s patronage of the chapel would bring him “eternal mercy” through the intercession of Mary, thus saving him from the fate that befell his father and others guilty of a sin considered (by Dante, theologians, canonists, and preachers) to be a direct, violent attack on the word of God. A painted chapel, Enrico believed, could save his soul.

In The Usurer’s Heart, Derbes and Sandona ground their analyses in the idea that the Arena frescoes cannot be properly interpreted unless viewed in light of Enrico’s wish to gain forgiveness for his usurious past. The authors have presented aspects of this general argument elsewhere (e.g., “Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb: The Program of Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua,” The Art Bulletin 80 (1998): 274–91), but in this book they expand dramatically their investigation of the link between the paintings and Enrico’s career as a usurer. After a discussion in the introduction of the history of the chapel, the organization of the frescoes, and the book’s general approach, the first chapter (“A Family Chapel: Usury, Piety, and the Scrovegni in Late Medieval Padua”) provides a brief account of the political, religious, and intellectual climate of Padua in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (with particular attention to the intellectual interests of humanists and academics, and the influence of penitential groups); of the history of the Scrovegni; and of the practice of usury by members of the family. Contemporary evidence shows that Enrico’s sinful past was publicly acknowledged, and that he himself felt considerable anxiety over the effect his usurious activities might have on his soul. Chroniclers mentioned his practice of usury and connected the chapel to his hope for forgiveness, and Enrico temporarily ceased his usurious practices around 1300, the year in which, the authors point out, he purchased the land for the chapel (13). He also included in his will a provision that required the restitution of all ill-gotten gains (earned or inherited) after his death.

In the next three chapters Derbes and Sandona demonstrate how the scenes in the chapel represent the themes of usury, charity, piety, and repentance. The analyses are largely built around the identification and interpretation of “antitheses”—pairs of images, often juxtaposed, comprised of a scene or figure that refers to a vice (like usury or greed) and a scene or figure that exemplifies some opposing virtue (piety or charity)—that “accrue meaning from their proximity” (151). Giotto included in the cycle many antithetical figures and scenes, which, the authors suggest, refer metaphorically to Enrico’s transformation from sinner to saved, thus calling attention to his “repentance and the new life of charity and piety that he claim[ed] to have embraced” (13). The authors discuss one of the most remarkable of these antitheses in chapter 2 (“Judas and Mary: The Chancel Arch Antithesis”), focusing on two scenes located on opposite sides of the chapel’s chancel arch: the Pact of Judas and the Visitation. They seem unrelated, and thus a strange pairing, but through an analysis of various sources Derbes and Sandona demonstrate that the two stories were understood as oppositions in numerous senses. Judas’s betrayal of Christ for money—his avarice—was likened to usury, while the Visitation was said to exemplify Mary’s charity; the growth of interest on a usurious loan was seen as an example of “unnatural generation,” while the Incarnation was a pure, sinless “supernatural generation” (61). (In this chapter, and throughout the book, an impressively wide range of sources is cited, including popular plays, sermons, exegetical texts, and theological treatises, thus ensuring at least basic knowledge of the ideas presented by most viewers.) The authors state early on that they do not intend to emphasize the role of “Vasari’s Giotto, the surpassing Florentine genius who revolutionized Italian painting and heralded the Renaissance” (14). But even though the program served Enrico’s needs (and was, the authors tentatively propose, planned by the contemporary churchman Altegrado Cattaneo di Lendinara), it should be stressed that Giotto played an indispensable role in its implementation, since the visual similarities between the Pact and the Visitation stimulate the viewer to compare the scenes. Without Giotto’s skill in composition the thematic link between the two, and thus the intentions of Enrico and the planners, might have been lost.

The third chapter (“Past and Present: History as Metaphor”) focuses on how historical changes in religion, including the shifts from paganism to Christianity and Judaism to Christianity, are used in the chapel’s images to highlight the theme of transformation. Architecture plays a prominent role in these representations, as depictions of Christian churches and chapels eventually usurp the prominent position occupied in earlier scenes by the Temple of Jerusalem, a structure that, Derbes and Sandona argue, itself refers metaphorically to the process of conversion in the fresco cycle (107–115). In this chapter Derbes and Sandona point out not only examples of antitheses but also depictions of figures in the process of converting or realizing some truth, actions that mirrored in obvious ways Enrico’s decision, in 1300, to cease practicing usury and his transformation from sinner to saved. The fourth chapter (“‘This is My Cleansing’: Figures of Penitence”) treats the many depictions of penitence in the chapel. Here again examinations of juxtapositions form the core of the analysis. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple and the Betrayal of Christ represent opposing actions: giving and taking; purification of sin (during the Presentation the Virgin was purified) and the expression of pure evil; justice and injustice. In this chapter Derbes and Sandona also examine the depictions of Joachim, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, and Zacchaeus, whose penitential actions are presented throughout the chapel. They serve as “holy exemplar[s]” for Enrico (140).

The authors’ mode of reading images, in which scenes are not interpreted individually but through comparison—sometimes the figures or scenes to be compared are not spatially juxtaposed and are even located on opposite ends of the chapel—assumes that Giotto and the chapel’s planners believed that viewers would read the images of this fresco cycle together and not only in isolation. The analyses support this possibility strongly, since the widespread theological beliefs the authors find represented in the frescoes can only be perceived if viewers employ a mode of reading that requires the careful, sequential examination of pairs of figures or scenes. The production of meaning thus depended on the active participation of sophisticated viewers accustomed to looking for visual and thematic connections through comparisons. A great achievement of this book is the proposal of this mode of comparative reading as normative, and indeed expected.

While the authors find in the frescoes resonances with Enrico’s usurious past, toward the end of the book they ask a question of immense importance to readers interested in the power and efficacy of images: precisely how did the chapel commission “save” Enrico? The tomb inscription, along with the portrait of Enrico at the base of the Last Judgment in which he offers a small model of the Arena Chapel to the Virgin Mary and two saints, make clear the chapel’s status as one half of an exchange—a gift to be reciprocated, as Enrico expected, with favor and mercy. Yet the authors demonstrate that the chapel’s efficacy does not derive solely from Enrico’s offer of it as a gift to the Virgin. They propose that specific scenes, or groups of scenes, participated in Enrico’s salvation project and made possible his transformation. Penitence, according to theologians like Gregory the Great, required that the sinner admit her or his sin publicly and apologize for it (142–43). Thus the paintings are the equivalent of a public confession—an unreserved admission of guilt. It must have been humiliating for Enrico to look at the walls of the chapel and see his sins represented so blatantly—and those who did not see the antitheses, and understand their role in stressing the theme of conversion, surely would have been astonished by the inclusion of so many reprehensible sins—but this acknowledgement of his sinfulness formed the key to his salvation.

These complex arguments are presented in a book whose format is most elegant, and the authors and the publisher are to be commended for organizing the text and images with the needs of the reader in mind. While one can always refer to the splendid color reproductions of the chapel’s individual scenes at the end of the book, the images discussed are also frequently reproduced in black-and-white in the body of the text, thus giving the reader the option of consulting these nearby reproductions rather than flipping back and forth between the text and the color images. This makes for a wonderfully smooth reading experience and enhances the reader’s comprehension of the authors’ complex and persuasive analyses.

Amy R. Bloch
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University at Albany, State University of New York

Please send comments about this review to