Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2016
Nicholas A. Eckstein Painted Glories: The Brancacci Chapel in Renaissance Florence New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. 284 pp.; 50 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300187663)

Nicholas Eckstein’s Painted Glories: The Brancacci Chapel in Renaissance Florence extricates this intensely studied monument from preoccupations characteristic of traditional art history: patronage, connoisseurship, style, conservation history, technique, and materials. This is notable because all these topics have prompted an extensive scholarship. Giorgio Vasari oriented the chapel to the future and drew a line from the Brancacci frescoes to those by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, marking a new tradition of excellence and modernity in Florentine art. Eckstein’s orientation is to the past, and his goal is to understand the chapel as an expression of the multifaceted identity of the Carmelite order in Florence well before the painting of the mesmerizing frescoes in the 1420s and 1480s. His chapters seek to reconstruct not only the (much-altered) church of Santa Maria del Carmine as it stood in the fifteenth century but also the neighborhood around it.

Felice Brancacci, patron of the decorative program, appears as an early focal point, but the book progressively widens its lens to consider the chapel as the possession of many communities. Eckstein does not attempt to penetrate the walls of the chapel and explore a new spatial clarity and psychological intensity in narrative painting. Rather, his analysis encompasses a wide range of ways that contemporaries approached, regarded, and used the chapel. The Brancacci chapel is for him a means to gain insight into the spiritual life of San Frediano, a gritty, working-class neighborhood, and the frescoes are the product of monks and artisans, patrician families, and widows of modest means. In fact the book’s title does not reference the frescoes at all, but is rather a metaphor Felice Brancacci used to describe the Sultan’s court in Cairo.

The first chapter traces the origins and history of the Carmelite order in Florence and highlights the status of Peter as the apostle to whom contemporaries looked as an exemplar of bedrock faith but also fear and self-doubt. Eckstein reconstructs the interior of the Carmine chapel by chapel as a network of devotional micro-zones, with a fine-grained attention to family patronage. The modern tourist makes a beeline for the Masaccio frescoes through a separate entrance. Eckstein is at pains to demonstrate how deeply imbricated the Brancacci chapel was within the interior of the Carmine, where many sacred spaces interpenetrated and overlapped. While the Carmelites could not ask for a clearer symbolic expression of their deep identification with the Roman papacy, the Brancacci frescoes also operated within an elitist ideology of leading citizens asserting their authority and control. Eckstein argues, not altogether persuasively, that the compelling scenes of Peter healing the sick and ministering to the socially marginal would have been for the Brancacci a reassuring alternative to the threat of social chaos and revolt.

Virtues of the book—its widely dispersed attention and refusal to grant a privileged voice to the artists, order, or the patron in generating meaning—also hamper the advancement of a propulsive and coherent argument. Major claims about how the Brancacci frescoes must have functioned within the cultural imaginary of Florence in the turbulent 1420s startlingly appear at the end of the first chapter but seem disembodied and poorly founded in the shadowy figure of Felice Brancacci, as if they have wandered in from another kind of book. The abrupt swerve into a hard-edged, socially oppositional interpretive mode of setting the frescoes against their orthodox Christian iconography departs as suddenly as it arrives, and the book resumes its stately pace and broad-based texture.

The shifting stylistic language of the Brancacci chapel frescoes was planned and unplanned, the product of design and also sudden reversals and suspensions. Chapter 2 considers the community of artists active at the Carmine in the 1420s and the networks of the Tuscan art market, highly competitive but also tightly interwoven. Vasari lauded the austere, stripped-down power of Masaccio’s style as a singular achievement. Eckstein makes the case for an equal partnership with Masolino at the chapel, conceived together from the beginning at a church more hospitable to conservatism than innovation in artistic language. Given the thin documentary evidence and widely conflicting opinions on the chronology, Eckstein proposes a quite exact start date for the painting: just before September 1425. August, with its heat and humidity, would be an odd choice for an elaborately planned fresco cycle since this painting technique is better suited to the cooler, drier months of the year. However, within six months Masaccio is juggling another major commission, the Pisa altarpiece, and will shortly collaborate again with Masolino in Rome before dying, perhaps as young as twenty-six.

Felice Brancacci was well-connected enough to secure the services of these in-demand Tuscan painters to launch his family chapel toward completion, but adverse political fortune struck close to home. Brancacci’s father-in-law, Palla Strozzi, led the opposition to the Medici, and Felice himself participated in a plot against the resurgent Cosimo. Eckstein is unfriendly to the theory that the Medici exerted their influence at the chapel as the hidden hand accounting for the otherwise perplexing absence of Brancacci family portraits in the frescoes populated with a wide range of contemporaries. Damnatio memoriae was not Medici style; if anything, the Medici tended to co-opt the accomplishments of former adversaries. With Brancacci gone from Florence, along with his considerable resources, the chapel remained half-painted for half a century.

The book’s centerpiece is a lengthy analysis of the Brancacci frescoes as thematic ensembles in a narrative arrangement choreographed with exquisite care. Chapter 3’s subheading, “A Lay Reading,” is a statement of intent with twofold meaning. On the surface level, this is a reception history geared to how the laity would have responded to these scenes drawn from Acts, Genesis, the Gospels, and the Golden Legend. On another level, Eckstein positions himself as a layperson to academic art history, holding the dense thicket of conflicting iconographic interpretations at arm’s length. His notion of ordinary Florentines endows them with remarkable intellectual gifts: an intricate command of relevant Scriptural passages and other devotional literature, a warehouse of comparable remembered images, and an active dialogic relationship to their Christian faith. This paradigm of the spiritual life of the laity as graduate seminar is high-minded and idealizing. The frescoes arise shorn of their startling earthiness and carnality. Eckstein’s interpretation discerns a didactic intent in the frescoes, rooted in Scriptural authority, and considers how Florentines sought spiritual insight by making mental associations within and between the narrative images.

The paintings make visually present a Peter of bifurcated personality: sovereign in his power to recognize Jesus as the Messiah yet also subject to humiliating doubt and cowardice. Eckstein is stymied by the dearth of fifteenth-century testimony responding to the chapel, but he adduces analogues in period sources (ricordi, letters, sacred drama) for clues to the contemporary lay psyche, in which visuality and the contemplation of images play a large role. This chapter swoops in on minute details—the importance of an index finger, the placement of a wooden post, Peter’s yellow toga—and also zooms out to detect a linked progression in the fresco cycle. From Original Sin and the denial of Christ to redemption through faith, the paintings preach the familiar Christian paradox of virtuous courage through obedience and humility, even in the face of great suffering.

The Brancacci chapel has long posed confrontational questions about the coexistence of the very rich and very poor by setting Peter’s miracles of healing and charity in narrow streets and fictional architecture distinctly evocative of Florence. The book’s relentlessly upbeat and communitarian reading of the chapel as a visual sermon modeling a Christian ethos of perfected social relations struggles to contain or even acknowledge the raw power of Masaccio’s half-naked poor and disabled. Eckstein is brave about proposing new facts, particularly concerning insufficiently documented questions of chronology, but leery of new interpretations. The frescoes as articulations of class-consciousness—in a city famous for its factionalism, bitter rivalries, and social turbulence—is another interpretive practice held at arm’s length. Michael Ann Holly argued that the forms of a work of art can have a predictive relationship to the kinds of scholarship they attract (Michael Ann Holly, Past Looking: Historical Imagination and the Rhetoric of the Image, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996, esp., 149–69). There is a likewise parallel to draw between Eckstein’s antiseptic reading of the Brancacci fresco cycle as a call for steadfast humility and obedience staged on immaculate city streets and his carefully filtering procedures as a historian.

The final chapters braid together two wildly divergent conceptions of the sacred image as the wellspring of personal devotion and the force that can turn the tide in battle. Chapter 4 pivots to the Madonna del Popolo, a late thirteenth-century altarpiece transferred to the Brancacci Chapel. This large altarpiece provides a reentry point into the chapel after a thirty-year lapse and a means to explore the contributions of pious women at the Carmine, a church founded from the bequest of a widow. Marginalized in other spheres of civic life, Florentine women from the neighborhood formed a micro-community of tertiaries bringing a fresh wave of patronage in the mid-1450s. A wealth of primary sources articulates an almost familial identification with the Virgin Mary as a model of a specifically female code of honor and devotion. The challenging archival work of textual analysis, particularly of ricordanze and testaments, finds Eckstein at his greatest ease—extracting a precise end-date for the transfer of the altarpiece (1454), highlighting the autonomy of widows, chiding writers who display the misogyny pervasive in the period, and commending all who actively engage with the chapel as a vibrant sacred environment. Absorbed in this fascinating material, he tends to meander from topic to topic no matter where a chapter begins. Eckstein is himself a distinctive writer, with striking diction and word choices (“skerrick,” “juttering”), but the pleasure in sentences can dissipate across dense but loosely organized chapters.

The placement of the Madonna del Popolo on the altar of the Brancacci chapel was a crucial link in the chain of events that would eventually drive the completion of the long-delayed fresco cycle in the 1480s. The catalyst was the rout of Milanese forces at the Battle of Anghiari, prophetically foretold by the resurrected Carmelite bishop of Fiesole, Andrea Corsini, from his tomb at the Carmine. Since a vision of the Virgin spurred the conversion of Corsini and the intervention of St. Peter essential to the victory at Anghiari, which occurred on his feast day, the Brancacci chapel was perfectly positioned to reap tangible rewards. The scenes left unfinished in the lower tier of the chapel display the miracle-working, virile Peter unwavering in his devotion and exercising his moral power and physical strength: enthroned, walking free from prison, unbowed before Nero, unflinching in Crucifixion.

While little direct evidence proves a causal relationship extending from the battlefield to the completed frescoes, chapter 5 makes a vivid contextual case rooted in the innermost psychology of spiritual experience and public civic ritual. Once again, sacred drama provides decisive testimony. For Eckstein, the lived social experience of sacred drama or civic ritual and the static painted walls of the Brancacci chapel are versions of the same thing, mutually reinforcing. Both are carefully staged and deeply motivated. The annual celebrations of the victory at Anghiari on the feast day of SS. Peter and Paul featured the Carmelites in their white habits marching at the head of the procession before crowds of elite and ordinary Florentines. The epilogue finds Eckstein swatting down another theory: that Lorenzo de’ Medici effectively kept Filippino Lippi in Florence to complete the Brancacci fresco cycle. The book concludes where it began, with the frescoes as the possession of no single family, but a painted sermon beaming out to all of Florence from its humble neighborhood.

Laura Camille Agoston
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Trinity University, San Antonio