Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2009
Pamela M. Jones Altarpieces and Their Viewers in the Churches of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008. 390 pp.; 16 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9780754661795)

Who wouldn’t want to be an art historian? We spend our days looking at and thinking about beautiful and interesting things, confronting the past and present through works made by individuals, groups, tribes, nations. In museums, libraries, and on the internet, we encounter images from humanity’s earliest history and works that were made yesterday. In everyday life, we are barraged with the visual evidence of human creativity, from vernacular architecture to the arts of fashion and merchandising. We want to probe the motivations of those who created each work and understand the impact each had at the time of its creation and in history. These are big goals, of course, and—as with any such endeavor—there are frustrations. Many of the objects that at first seem to speak the loudest begin to whisper when we start researching or set out to communicate our ideas through teaching and writing. We want evidence to support or challenge our response to and our understanding of each work. What constellation of factors and personalities explain the creation of a work, and how was each work received and interpreted? History can be reticent and, at times, unyielding.

Not, however, for Pamela M. Jones in her brave new book on five Roman altarpieces from the period around 1600. Her goal was to understand how these works were part of “the lived experience of early modern Catholicism” (5; emphasis in original), a promise she fulfills in a most impressive fashion. Rather than exploring the intentionality that has been the focus of most art-historical effort in the early modern period, she shifts her attention to the now-popular question of reception. Her book provides a model for how to use evidence to understand the response to public religious art in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Rome.

The period around 1600 was not an inconsequential moment in the history of art or religion. In Rome, the Counter-Reformation was revitalizing the Catholic Church, and art and architecture were about to change in the hands of a sequence of remarkable patrons and artists. How well Jones’s paradigm for what she calls the “social history of religious art” can be applied elsewhere or in different periods remains to be seen. In the cases of her five altarpieces, however, she masterfully establishes the ways in which citizens of Rome and visitors to the Eternal City responded to these works at the time of their creation and during the later Seicento.

Jones has the advantage of working in a well-documented period, when not only was the Catholic Church examining and setting down rules for virtually everything in its purview, but when the expansion in publication on many levels—from broadsides to massive tomes—and the preservation of these materials in newly established libraries provides a great deal of diverse documentation that is potentially useful for her research. Through an examination of these materials, Jones is even able to offer reconstructions of how “ordinary” viewers may have responded to these altarpieces.

What Jones set out to do and how she has chosen to present her research are elucidated in an exemplary introduction in which she explains her logic in selecting the altarpieces, sets out her “methodological challenges,” identifies available research materials, and discusses how she mined them for ideas. Jones distinguishes her approach from those of earlier authors on reception, including David Freedberg, John Shearman, and Wolfgang Kemp.

The altarpieces—Tommaso Laureti’s Martyrdom of Santa Susanna (ca. 1595–97), Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto (ca. 1605–6), Andrea Commodi’s S. Carlo Borromeo Venerating the Holy Nail (ca. 1621–22), Guercino’s Penitent Magdalene (ca. 1622), and Guido Reni’s Holy Trinity (1625–26)—offer a variety of artistic styles (from the mannered style of Laureti through the polarities of naturalism and idealism of the early Seicento) and represent iconographic themes important in the period They were located in distinctive churches (three are still in situ) and served a number of functions for a variety of audiences. Studied in chronological order in five chapters, each is subjected to a visual and iconographic exploration and an examination of sources, patronage (when known), location within the church and relationship to other imagery there, and the church’s location and function within the Catholic cityscape (in each case, a rudimentary map is provided). Having established each altarpiece’s creation and situation in Rome, Jones concludes each chapter with her study of the work’s reception.

The book is exceptionally rich in ideas and detail, and I only have space here to discuss a few of Jones’s conclusions. The most studied of the altarpieces is Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto, but her approach brings new insight to our understanding of the painting. Emphasizing the bare feet of all four figures, she points out that the largely ignored contemporary frescoed figures of Saints Mary Magdalene and William of Malavalle by Cristoforo Casolani who flank the altarpiece are also barefoot. It is also not irrelevant that the Magdalene is ostentatiously raising her ointment jar, a reference to her anointing of Christ’s feet. Bare feet can be a reference to pilgrimage, and at the time Loreto was a popular pilgrimage center. Pilgrims entering Loreto were traditionally barefoot, and they were supposed to approach the shrine itself by crossing the piazza in front on their knees; perhaps this helps explain why Caravaggio’s pilgrims are kneeling.

The patronage of Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto has been connected to Ermete Cavalletti, who bequeathed money when he died in 1602 for a burial chapel at S. Agostino. A member of the Archconfraternity of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims and Convalescents, a group founded in the Cinquecento to assist pilgrims, Enrico planned the Archconfraternity’s pilgrimage trip to Loreto in 1602. His family acquired the chapel where Caravaggio’s painting is located in 1603. The altarpiece of the previous owner was not removed until 1606, leading Jones to date Caravaggio’s work to ca. 1605–6, two years later than the commonly accepted date of ca. 1603–4.

While Ermete’s membership in the confraternity and his personal involvement with the 1602 pilgrimage to Loreto help to explain the unusual subject matter, Jones emphasizes that it is not irrelevant that the painting’s location in Sant’Agostino is on the pilgrimage route from Porta del Popolo to St. Peter’s; after leaving the church, pilgrims continued toward St. Peter’s on Via dei Coronari, which is still named for the rosaries that were sold to pilgrims there. Perhaps Ermete wanted to be buried at Sant’Agostino because of its location on the pilgrimage route. Both Mary Magdalene and William of Malavalle are connected to pilgrimage as well.

As evidence for the reception of Caravaggio’s painting, Jones cites prayers used by pilgrims at the Holy House in Loreto and devotional tracts about pilgrimage, as well as Augustinian writings. The Augustinian friars resident at Sant’Agostino were especially concerned with humility, poverty, and pilgrimage—all aspects that would help explain their acceptance of Caravaggio’s interpretation. When Caravaggio’s painting was criticized beginning in the 1640s, Jones suggests that this was a result of the changing social demographic, pointing out that with an increase in poverty and crime in Rome, “attitudes toward the poor became increasingly less benevolent and tolerant” (122).

Jones’s sources for the study of the altarpieces’ reception vary with each work, but in general she draws upon sermons, the rules and practices of the various orders, drama, “popular” literature, inexpensive pamphlets (some of which had woodcut illustrations), liturgy, prayers, scholarly exegesis, and devotional tracts. For the “ordinary” audience, for which few documents survive, Jones depends on “a range of cultural phenomena that helped shape the viewing expectations of various beholders” (66). She occasionally uses sources that are dated later than the works to which she relates them, but she clarifies that her examples express ideas commonly held at the time. She is usually rigorously scrupulous in qualifying her conclusions, using “perhaps” or “likely” when necessary to indicate her level of comfort with them. In only a few instances did I suspect that Jones was in danger of overstating her case. The only glaring error I noted was her misidentification of the figure of Plato in Raphael’s School of Athens as Socrates.

Near the end of her book, Jones states: “Public altarpieces dazzled beholders’ eyes, informed their intellects, and enflamed their hearts. Sacred art was meaningful to the Catholic faithful on a variety of levels: it enhanced their individual spiritual growth, solidified their sense of community, inspired their charitable endeavors, and helped them make sense of this world while giving them hope for salvation. Images were powerful” (327). One wonders how a Protestant or non-believer (at least a few of whom must have passed through Rome during this period) might have responded to these works, but this is not a question raised by Jones, and evidence for such an interpretation would be rare indeed.

The presentation of the book is handsome, the paper is of high quality, and there is a helpful group of color illustrations, including in situ shots by the author. I wish, however, that the captions had included location and date, information found only by flipping back to the list of illustrations.

Jones asks important and difficult questions and demonstrates how new—and in some cases unexpected—evidence can suggest or provide possible answers. She does not consider the case of any of these altarpieces to be closed, emphasizing that ongoing research may provide further support for her theses or raise additional questions. She proposes that the evidence she has amassed might be applied to other Roman altarpieces of this period with varying results. While her research sometimes seems exhaustive, she openly recognizes that there is always more to be done. In Altarpieces and Their Viewers in the Churches of Rome from Caravaggio to Guido Reni, Jones demonstrates the tremendous appeal, possibilities, and challenges of our field.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome