Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 20, 2013
Sally J. Cornelison Art and the Relic Cult of St. Antoninus in Renaissance Florence Visual Culture in Early Modernity.. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012. 386 pp.; 13 color ills.; 88 b/w ills. Cloth $119.95 (9780754667148)
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Born in 1389, Antoninus Pierozzi entered into the Dominican Order in 1405 at the new house of the Order in Fiesole, near Florence. Soon, in spite of his youth, he was called to administer various convents in Cortona, Rome, Naples, as well as Florence, and he actively worked to make them part of the Dominican Congregation of Tuscany, which had been recently established by Giovanni Dominici in order to promote a stricter form of life among the Friars Preachers. Consecrated Archbishop of Florence on March 13, 1446, he died on May 2, 1459, and was lauded among Florentines for his indefatigable energy and commitment to fighting poverty. Sally Cornelison’s Art and the Relic Cult of St. Antoninus in Renaissance Florence is devoted to the artistic production and cultic phenomena that prospered around the body of the Florentine archbishop Antoninus.

Although he spent the last years of his life as the spiritual leader of the entire city, Antoninus’s life (and the posthumous veneration of his relics and body) was strictly intertwined with the life of the Dominican house of San Marco, of which Antoninus was prior between 1439 and 1446. Interestingly, it was in precisely those years that Beato Angelico was active at the convent and that the library was enlarged thanks to the generous donation of Niccolò Niccoli.

Cornelison’s book centers on the history of the convent of San Marco and the ways that Antoninus marked its physiology, both spiritually and architecturally, during his lifetime and after his death. Such means are explored in relation to two different projects connected to his burial place and the devotion around his relics.

Apart from the first chapter, which briefly and sagaciously draws on the earliest hagiography to recount the life of Antoninus, Cornelison’s study covers a period spanning from 1459, the year of the archbishop’s death, until 1589, when his relics were translated with great pomp to a new chapel in the church of San Marco that had been built by Giambologna at the behest of the Salviati family. Analyzing this period of one hundred and thirty years, the book embraces different fields of study: the history of art, since the figurative representations of Antoninus and the complex decorative apparatus of the Salviati chapel constitute the largest part of the study, but also history, mainly in the analysis of the relationship between the Medici family and the promotion of the cult for Antoninus. The art-historical analysis of the saint’s image and its consistent multiplication throughout the convent considers various methodological issues topical among scholars today: for each artwork presented, Cornelison discusses not only its aspect (with a critical eye to attribution) and iconography, but also its performativity, giving particular attention to the conditions of visibility and the objects’ impact on the viewer.

Moreover, the book touches on—if perhaps not as deeply as the first two aspects—the anthropological and devotional issues of the relics’ cult and their thaumaturgical use. By appealing to the hagiographical sources that recount the posthumous miracles conducted by Antoninus’s body, the study also contributes to the field of gender studies: the cult of the archbishop was, in fact, particularly popular and widespread among Florentine women, especially with regard to difficult pregnancies and their alleviation. The reasons why are, unfortunately, not entirely clear and, consequently, not fully addressed by Cornelison. Nevertheless, her book successfully rehabilitates the significance of the cult for Antoninus, putting into context the expensive commission of a chapel where his relics were translated and reestablishing the role that the Archbishop Alessandro de’ Medici played in the conception of this space and in the complexity of its figurative display.

For the most part, Cornelison relies on two typologies of sources: the visual material, which functions both as the object of inquiry and as a precious witness to the various aspects of the saint’s first burial place; and the written material, published and unpublished. Cornelison employs not only the hagiographical production connected to the life of the archbishop, but also significant archival documentation, including records for San Marco’s sacristy, chronicles, inventories, burial registers, and libri di ricordi. The most remarkable among them is the study and transcription of the Quaderno della fabbrica, here partially published for the first time, which records the expenses connected to the construction and decoration of St. Antoninus’s chapel.

The archival research, conducted at the Florentine State Archives, the Laurentian library, and the San Marco archive, is ample, with a great mass of documentation in Latin and Italian vernacular, transcribed here for the first time. However, much of this documentation is presented in the form of footnotes. It would have been more helpful for this reader and for future researchers if the book had contained this archival material in an appendix. That said, Cornelison’s transcriptions are prudently executed.

Art and the Relic Cult of St. Antoninus in Renaissance Florence has a clear chronological structure: in the first chapter, after a necessary introduction to Antonius’s life and the first biographies devoted to his cult persona, Cornelison devotes space to two core moments in the development of the cult for the archbishop. The first is the performance of his obsequies, which were celebrated in the presence of Pope Pius II. Cornelison considers this to be the first stage in the complex mission of the Dominican promotion of Antoninus’s sanctity and his candidacy for canonization, a process that came to a successful conclusion sixty years later with the help of the Medici.

As the second chapter explains, this promotion, begun by the Dominicans at San Marco, made consistent amplification of Antonine imagery, which contrasts with the humility of his first sepulchre, a simple tomb slab. The initial manifestations of devotion to Antoninus are read in parallel with the turbulent history of the convent at the end of the fifteenth century: the house was a theater of Savonarola’s preaching and was deeply influenced by his vision of holiness and prescriptions for salvation (chapter 3). With the return of the Medici from exile in 1512, another phase began, one characterized by the family’s active commitment to the saint, or what Cornelison describes as his “appropriation,” exercised with the hope of garnering Antoninus official entry into the community of saints.

The second part of the book investigates how the chapel built in San Marco served to preserve, or, better yet, to expose the relic of the new saint. In 1579, Averardo and Antonio Salviati signed an agreement with the friars of San Marco to build a chapel close to the church’s left transept. Chapter 4 is devoted to a discussion of the patrons, their family, and the nature of “collaborative enterprises” in Florence at the end of the sixteenth century. As she conscientiously notes in the rich bibliography, Cornelison’s study is not the only one devoted to the chapel complex, but it is the first attempt to analyze together the architecture (chapter 5) and the figurative decorations, consisting of paintings (chapter 5 and 7), sculptures, reliefs (chapter 6), and textiles (chapter 5), all of which created the late Renaissance space of the chapel and its vestibule. It is her discussion of the synergy among the different mediums to promote Antonius’s sanctity in the sacred space that is most innovative about this study.

The final chapter reconstructs the 1589 translation of Antoninus’s relics, which became part of the nuptial celebration of the princess Christine of Lorraine and the former cardinal and heir to the Grand Duchy of Florence and Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’ Medici. Cornelison argues that the translatio of St. Antoninus, together with the long marital procession that preceded it, paralleled an analogous celebration devoted to St. Gregory of Nazianzus in Rome. Such a combination of events, she argues, is indicative of a “Counter-Reformation display of piety that required conspicuous manifestation of public devotion” (254) and the potential of such displays to adopt religious symbols in the service of political ends—in this case, the transformation of the archbishop from a symbol of Florence’s Republican past into a supporter of Medici rule.

The life of the chapel did not end with the pompous installation of the relics; instead, the frescoes that decorate the chapel’s vestibule work as a perpetual mise-en-scène of two separate events: the exposition of Antoninus’s body and a portion of the translation procession (chapter 7). Cornelison is convincing in her attempt (made here for the first time) to identify the various personalities who attended both events and, in doing so, to recreate the complex environment surrounding the 1589 translation.

Instead of recapitulating the long history traced in the book, the epilogue describes the subsequent history of devotional practices associated with the relic chapel and its cult, listing the production of secondary relics, the execution of the twenty-two lunette frescoes in the Chiostro di Sant’Antonino, and the miracles connected to the thaumaturgical cult, an aspect—this last one—that would have profited from a more sustained and in-depth analysis.

Cornelison’s study admirably achieves its proposed objective of placing the commission of the Salviati chapel in the larger context of Renaissance devotion to Antoninus. In doing so, Art and the Relic Cult of St. Antoninus in Renaissance Florence brings new light to a deeply underestimated artistic complex and its interlaced figurative program.

Laura Fenelli
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department History, Culture, Civilizations, University of Bologna

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