Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2014
Barbara Wisch and Nerida Newbigin Acting on Faith: The Confraternity of the Gonfalone in Renaissance Rome Early Modern Catholicism and the Visual Arts Series.. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2013. 512 pp.; 269 color ills. Cloth $100.00 (9780916101749)

Acting on Faith: The Confraternity of the Gonfalone in Renaissance Rome by Barbara Wisch and Nerida Newbigin is a rich, interdisciplinary study of the visual and material culture of the Confraternity of the Gonfalone, the largest and most prestigious lay brotherhood of Renaissance Rome. Focusing on the confraternity’s lavish art and architectural patronage, Wisch and Newbigin bring the spectacular public ceremonies, liturgical devotions, and broad charitable initiatives of the community vividly to life. Their study spans a tumultuous century for both church and city (1495–1584) and illuminates the sodality’s resilience and phenomenal growth in the wake of urban renewal, papal politics, the Protestant Reformation, and the Sack of Rome in 1527. Comparing community statutes written before and after the Council of Trent and considering a wide range of contemporary sources, the authors map the Gonfalone’s philanthropic and aesthetic legacy across early modern Rome.

By the sixteenth century, the association known as the Confraternity of the Gonfalone was an amalgamation of seven sodalities from disparate parishes throughout the city. Comprised of disciplinati (flagellants) and raccomandati (lay brothers and sisters who had “commended” themselves to the care and protection of the Virgin Mary), the society claimed origins in the first sodality to use a depiction of the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy) on their painted processional banner (gonfalone). As bearers of the Marian standard, Gonfalone confratelli were subsequently entrusted with the guardianship of the city’s most potent miracle-working icons of the Virgin, housed in the venerable churches of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Wisch and Newbigin elucidate the Gonfalone’s role in the ritual care and celebration of these sacred images, particularly in their discussion of the maritaggio, the dowering of poor girls staged in a public ceremony that became increasingly political with the backing of Renaissance popes. Their study underscores just how extensively the icons were carried in processions enacted for city-wide veneration and devotion, especially during times of plague, in the years before the paintings were permanently ensconced in fixed tabernacles. Further, fleshing out the role of women (consorelle) in the brotherhood of the Gonfalone is a key objective of Wisch and Newbigin’s study. In the early chapters of the volume, they demonstrate that the sodality’s 1495 statutes specifically (and uncommonly) outlined aspects of confraternal life and work assigned to and undertaken by consorelle, and note the appearance of noble matrons in public ceremony that distinguished the Gonfalone from other charitable institutions of this period.

According to fifteenth-century statutes, Gonfalone members participated in the production of elaborate Passion plays presented during Holy Week and held at the Colosseum, where the confraternity also owned houses, storerooms, and a small church. Wisch and Newbigin document a range of dramatic scenarios utilizing the ancient ruins, elaborate apparati for flying angels, and the performance of sacred music. They trace anti-Semitic dialogue recited in the re-enactment of the Jews’ treatment of Christ during his Passion, which resulted in rioting and the suppression of public performances after a Good Friday production in 1539, and elucidate the confraternity’s role in the creation of a Monte di Pietà (charitable Christian bank) as an antidote to “usurious” practices ascribed to Roman Jews.

Several chapters of Acting on Faith are dedicated to spaces that were built, expanded, and decorated by the Confraternity of the Gonfalone. Piecing archival material together with extant devotional objects, Wisch and Newbigin reconstruct the Renaissance church of Santa Lucia Nuova which served as the headquarters of the confraternity until it was destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) in 1760. Strategically located along the Via Giulia, the church figured prominently in the expansion of Rome’s urban fabric and festive calendar under Pope Julius II. The high altar featured a simulacrum of the Marian icon at the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, copied by the Roman painter and confratello Antoniazzo Romano. Following the Sack of Rome and in accordance with Counter-Reformation spiritual ideals, the Gonfalone converted their original church alongside the Tiber (Santa Lucia Vecchia) into a splendid private oratory. They commissioned at least eighteen prominent artists and artisans of the time—including Pietro Roviale, Jacopo Bertoia, Livio Agresti, Federico Zuccari, Marco Pino, and Cesare Nebbia—to fresco all four walls of the chapel with monumental scenes of Christ’s Passion bordered by trompe l’oeil frames and fictive architecture (completed 1584).

Wisch and Newbigin extensively analyze the vivid pictorial program of the oratory as a meditation on past confraternal initiatives and in relation to the reformed ritual devotions of the sodality that promoted “active and sensual identification with Christ’s human suffering” (426) in conformance with post-Tridentine spirituality. Their examination also highlights intensified social hierarchies within the Gonfalone organization as a reflection of increasing “aristocratization” of sixteenth-century society as a whole and stresses the gendered nature of the oratory space which was designated for male brethren only.

In 1579 the Confraternity of the Gonfalone was elevated to the prestigious rank of archconfraternity through a papal bull issued by Gregory XIII. Consequently, they were conceded indulgences authorizing them to manage a fund established to redeem Christian slaves and to annually liberate two prisoners condemned to death. The bulls and indulgences solidified the papacy’s promotion of the sodality while simultaneously legitimizing their claims to spiritual authority and philanthropic distinction, as summed up in extensive reformed statutes issued by the Gonfalone in 1584.

Acting on Faith is a lush, oversized volume illustrated with an impressive number of color plates (269, including double-page foldouts), many of which are photographs by Wisch. Chapters are embellished with crisp reproductions of archival documents, coded charts, and details of contemporary views of Rome overlaid with graphics outlining relevant sites and processional routes. This book is the culmination and synthesis of venerable scholarship on confraternal art and devotion by both authors and offers a complex investigation of the visual culture of early modern Catholicism and Roman secular society filtered through the lens of the Gonfalone sodality. Accolades are due to Wisch and Newbigin for preparing this masterful work, and to Saint Joseph’s University Press for presenting it in a manner befitting the subject and authors.

Suzanne M. Scanlan
Lecturer, History of Art and Visual Culture, Rhode Island School of Design

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