Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 15, 2015
Fredrika Jacobs Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 248 pp.; 8 color ills.; 66 b/w ills. Cloth $99.00 (9781107023048)
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Fredrika Jacobs’s appealing Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy joins a wave of recent studies on the art of religious devotion in early modern Italy, offering yet another approach to this rich and rapidly developing field. (Full disclosure: my own contribution, Printed Icon: Forlì’s Madonna of the Fire in Early Modern Italy, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.) Unlike, for instance, Marcia Hall’s The Sacred Image in the Age of Art: Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, Caravaggio (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) (click here for review), Jacobs’s book is not bound to the work of particular artists and indeed presents many images whose makers are unknown. Nor does Jacobs analyze the various activities of a single confraternity, as Barbara Wisch and Nerida Newbigin do in their magisterial Acting on Faith: The Confraternity of the Gonfalone in Renaissance Rome (Philadelphia: Saint Joseph’s University Press, 2013) (click here for review). Rather, Jacobs focuses on a specific material format: the tavolette votive or small panel paintings left at religious shrines by devotees in acknowledgement of divine grace sought and received. The book’s objective is twofold—“to bring into focus a corpus of works that by and large has been overlooked and . . . to reconstruct the ways tavolette votive were understood to function by those who used them as well as those who tried to regulate their usage” (17)—and Jacobs succeeds at both.

Given this first objective, it is no surprise that early chapters are concerned with defining tavolette votive, the Italian term Jacobs regularly uses in her text. The numerous illustrations of previously unpublished material (many photographed individually and in situ by the author herself) help to acquaint the reader with this type of picture, which is defined both negatively and positively. Tavolette are not miraculous images, nor altarpieces, nor domestic devotional pictures; they do not serve as hopeful, supplicatory, propitious offerings. Instead, tavolette votive were given after the fact of divine intercession, as indicated by the letters “P.G.R.” (per gratia ricevuta, or “for grace received”) often inscribed on them. Moreover, unlike the lumps of wax, locks of hair, discarded crutches, or simple terra-cotta figurines also left at shrines in thanks, tavolette “always depict dialogues of devotion” (15) between the pious person in need and the divine entity, often but not always the Virgin Mary, who had interceded on her or his behalf. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, people from all strata of Christian society placed these tavolette at shrines, though at certain times and places (such as Florence’s Santissima Annunziata in 1401) donors had to hold a certain civic or guild status (39). Among the most elite of donors was Cardinal Tommaso Inghirami, who around 1508 sat for a portrait by Raphael and also commissioned a finely painted tavoletta with a Latin inscription after almost being crushed in the street by a runaway grain cart. Many hundreds of less exalted individuals gave tavolette that collectively provide litanies of the calamities of early modern life: life-threatening illness; difficult childbirth; shipwreck; assault by bandits; accidents with guns, yarn winders, or scissors; and so on. Yet these vivid anecdotal details are clearly supplementary: the most abstracted—and to my mind, the most profound—tavolette Jacobs discusses show only a kneeling supplicant and the divine figure to whom she or he prays, justifying Jacobs’s emphasis on the devotional dialogue captured by these small pictures often painted directly on unprimed panel.

One major contribution of Jacobs’s analysis is her reframing of the tavoletta votiva beyond that first dialogue between devotee and divinity, to consider as well the later responses a shrine’s visitors and keepers have to these small paintings taken individually and in aggregate, which would have made a spectacle as transforming as those Genovese images described in Jane Garnett and Gervase Rosser’s Spectacular Miracles: Transforming Images in Italy from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Reaktion Books, 2013). Modern scholars have tended to describe ex-votos as gifts, but drawing on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts written by Flavio Biondo, Giuseppe Alamanni, Paolo Morigia, and others, Jacobs argues instead that thinking about tavolette votive and other votive offerings primarily in terms of documentation of miraculous events accords better with period conceptions, as the phrase in testimonio della ricevuta gratia (“in testimony of grace received”) repeated in various miracle accounts makes clear. Jacobs further suggests that the rise in the tavoletta votiva’s popularity coincides with the increasing emphasis on legalistic evidence in canonization trials, especially in the wake of the Council of Trent, in effect making possible “a popular appropriation of an adjudicative process that ecclesiastical authorities had long sought to control, for clearly these images, which were material manifestations of the public voice, stood as verifications of the miraculous” (113).

That attractive claim would be bolstered by a stronger assessment of the chronological and geographic parameters of the corpus of tavolette votive being assembled. Do the numbers and distribution of surviving panels in fact parallel the growing insistence on written evidence in canonization trials indicated by Simon Ditchfield and other scholars cited by Jacobs? Many of the tavolette discussed bear inscriptions giving the year of the event depicted, and from that information and stylistic analysis Jacobs is able date the earliest ones she studies to roughly 1470, a few decades after such painted tablet offerings had reappeared “following at least a millennium of near total absence” (18). The terminus ad quem of circa 1610 for the corpus was chosen on the basis of what could be gleaned from the tavolette being analyzed, as well as consideration of texts including Fra Arcangelo Domenici’s 1608 compendium of miracles attributed to the Madonna dell’Arco; Cesare Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici published between 1588 and 1607; and the proceedings of the Council of Malines, published in 1607. In a genre of painting that did not prioritize stylistic innovation and within a devotional practice that remains familiar in our own time (Jacobs’s afterword touches on related paraliturgical practices in twentieth-century Brooklyn, New York, and twenty-first-century Chimayo, New Mexico), the type of systematic survey that, for instance, Megan Holmes recently provided for miraculous images in Renaissance Florence (The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) may not be possible for Jacobs’s material. Nonetheless, it would be useful to have some sort of accounting to support, for example, a statement that “the number of extant examples in Northern Europe that predate circa 1600 is, in comparison to the quantity preserved throughout Italy, quite small” (7).

The final chapter most fully achieves Jacobs’s second objective of understanding ecclesiastical regulation as well as the production of tavolette votive, through a focus on the “contested ritual” (181) of exorcism. Tavolette related to successful exorcisms “are found in most Italian collections” (170), and in the late sixteenth century often depict the ritual itself. Jacobs surveys altarpiece predellas, prints offered at shrines, and textual descriptions in addition to tavolette images to devise three categories: an exorcism performed by a saint during her or his lifetime, a posthumous miracle performed at a saint’s tomb, and a miracle that occurred before a thaumaturgic image. The cult of saints and the efficacy of religious images were hot-button Counter Reformation issues, and Jacobs presents the views of Gabriele Paleotti, Erasmus, and others as well as the 1608 Thesaurus exorcismorum before turning to notable votive panels in Tolentino and Loreto. Both painted in the late sixteenth century, these two tavolette commemorate exorcisms effected by St. Nicholas of Tolentino and the Madonna of Loreto, respectively. As Jacobs points out, these representations—or better, testimonies—of efficacy were placed near the enshrined saint or sacred image, part of an accruing popular affirmation of their power. Jacobs does not argue that any individual tavolette were removed as a result of official disapproval of their content, but in an earlier chapter she had mentioned less doctrinally motivated episodes of their removal: before 1573, monks at San Nicola in Tolentino would swap tavolette “for wine, oil, wood, and flour”; and in the seventeenth century, Loreto authorities would discard them as “superfluous testimonies to the holiness of the place” (37). Thus Jacobs’s highly readable introduction to tavolette votive in early modern Italy opens up this fascinating genre of pictures to further investigation.

Lisa Pon
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.