Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 28, 2015
Minou Schraven Festive Funerals in Early Modern Italy: The Art and Culture of Conspicuous Commemoration Visual Culture in Early Modernity.. Burlington: Ashgate, 2014. 338 pp.; 51 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754665243)

Scholarship across the disciplines on death and commemoration in the early modern era is rich. A significant new contribution is Minou Schraven’s Festive Funerals in Early Modern Italy: The Art and Culture of Conspicuous Commemoration. The volume focuses on the development of funeral apparati—ephemeral decorations for the celebration of requiem masses on behalf of ecclesiastical princes and heads of state—in sixteenth-century Rome, which evolved into increasingly spectacular displays. These formal changes paralleled new attitudes regarding commemoration and devotion as well as shifts in ideological and institutional claims of the papacy.

Funeral apparati encompassed a wide range of temporary decorations for the interior and, later, exterior of churches. Nave walls or arcades were draped with dark mourning cloth on which were hung countless painted and gilded coats of arms of the deceased. Schraven evocatively describes how the liturgy as well as the great quantities of “burning torches, incense and fuming candles” contributed to the drama of the requiem mass. The visual and liturgical focal point of the display was the baldachin constructed above the bier. Built of wood and stucco, painted to imitate precious materials, and supported by columns, its roof was ablaze with hundreds of candles. How, where, and when this structure evolved and why its iconography expanded to praise the exemplary virtues and achievements of the deceased are among the subjects of this important book. Schraven’s premises are clearly set forth in the introduction, explored in seven chapters, and summed up in the conclusion.

Schraven mines comparative illustrative material—illuminations in books of hours, engravings, drawings, and frescoes from other courts and cities—as well as a wide range of textual and archival evidence, mostly unpublished, to reconstruct the appearance of apparati. Her sources also include ceremonial and funerary treatises and diaries of papal masters of ceremonies, who were offended when the lavish funerals of cardinals or royalty outdid papal magnificence. So, too, financial accounts reveal the enormous cost of wax, mourning cloth, and vestments, along with the names of artists and craftsmen. Diplomatic correspondence, which fretted about invitation lists, precedence, and suitable dates for the events, together with avvisi (news dispatches sent biweekly from Rome across Europe), provide critical new information. By the end of the cinquecento, illustrated funeral books with elaborate descriptions of the “sumptuous funeral pomp,” as their titles announced, immortalized—and idealized—these ephemeral memorials.

Each well-researched chapter of Festive Funerals sheds new light on early modern practices. Chapter 1 focuses on papal funerary ritual in the early sixteenth century, including procedures for the preparation and vestment of the pontiff’s body and the development of the castrum doloris (“castle of grief,” as the temporary structure surrounding the bier was known in Rome), originally the exclusive privilege of popes and cardinals in the Eternal City. Following the private and public lying in state, the pope’s body was buried in St. Peter’s, where it remained for at least one year before permission might be granted for reburial in a family chapel. During the nine days following the pope’s burial, daily requiem masses were celebrated in the basilica and the castrum remained at center stage. These traditional ritual practices are set against the tumultuous period of the Vacant See, when the papal apartments were often sacked as was the funeral apparato itself. Schraven’s vivid descriptions emphasize the large dimensions of the castra. Those of Julius II (d. 1513) and Leo X (d. 1521) were each supported by twelve columns, measured 11 by 8.8 meters and 8.8 meters high, and crowned by 1,300 burning candles. Contemporaries drew analogies to Roman imperial funeral pyres and the nine days of mourning observed for members of the ancient imperial family. Although popes tried to restrict the splendor of wealthy cardinals’ funerals, papal pomp had been fundamentally challenged by Rome’s Spanish community, which staged lavish obsequies in 1497 for Don Juan, Prince of Asturias, and in 1505 for his mother, Queen Isabella of Spain, in the Spanish national church on Piazza Navona. These apparati, Schraven persuasively argues, paved the way for other foreign rulers’ funerals in sixteenth-century Rome and the dramatic architectural and iconographic elaboration that ensued.

The second chapter concentrates on the obsequies of Emperor Charles V (d. 1558), which introduced to Rome in 1559 a new kind of monumental apparato. Designed with four tiers towering above the bier, it was sumptuously decorated with emblems, trophies, inscriptions, paintings, and sculpture. In addition, such a multitude of candles was ablaze throughout the church that the mourners, it was reported, almost suffocated. Schraven carefully distinguishes this “more sophisticated” structure from its predecessors by applying the term catafalco (catafalque), which came into use only in the second half of the sixteenth century. The innovative obsequies for Charles in Rome were among many solemnly celebrated across Spain, Brussels, Milan, Naples, Bologna, and Mexico City. These are all analyzed, and a table (like the twelve others in the book) provides a clear overview of the pertinent information.

Chapter 3 evaluates the astonishing impact of the emperor’s funeral apparati in Florence, Rome, Mantua, and Milan. The first of these, in Florence, was created for Michelangelo in 1564, commissioned by the Accademia del Disegno. Because it was staged in the Medici family’s burial church of San Lorenzo, magnificent four-tiered catafalques became de rigueur for Medici obsequies, and later for other artists, such as Agostino Carracci (d. 1602) and Elisabetta Sirani (d. 1665) in Bologna. Schraven notes that over-life-size skeletons, new to Florentine funerary iconography, were displayed along the nave of San Lorenzo for Grand Duke Cosimo (d. 1574). With proverbial Florentine thriftiness, the same ones were reused for Cosimo’s son, Francesco (d. 1587), and were again recycled by Grand Duke Ferdinando for the obsequies of the Medici pope, Leo XI (d. 1605). Schraven makes the important point that Italian cities not subject to Spanish rule, such as Ferrara, were disinclined to adopt the catafalque. Only in 1609, with the obsequies of a “foreigner,” those of Grand Duke Ferdinando arranged by the Florentine community, was the catafalque with its rich iconography celebrating the virtues of the deceased introduced in Venice. Intriguing new insights such as these appear throughout the book.

The fourth chapter contextualizes the developments of funeral apparati within innovations of post-Tridentine religious culture, including heightened devotion to the Holy Sepulcher at Easter; the impact of the Holy Year of 1575; and the translatio processions of relics and saintly bodies, especially the exemplary ceremonies inaugurated by Carlo Borromeo in Milan and emulated by Gabriele Paleotti in Bologna, Gregory XIII in Rome, and Alessandro de’ Medici in Florence (see the review of Sally J. Cornelison, Art and the Relic Cult of St. Antoninus in Renaissance Florence [Burlington: Ashgate, 2012] by Laura Fenelli) (click here for review). Chapter 5 examines the funerals of cardinals in later sixteenth-century Rome, correcting the traditional view that most were extremely lavish. Rather, great income inequality determined that the majority were simple one-day affairs. In contrast, wealthy, ambitious families of cardinals often enlisted academicians to organize grandiose commemorations to underscore the family’s continued prominence in Roman society. Confraternities, too, sponsored apparati for their cardinal-protectors in their own devotional spaces, a subject worth further exploration.

Chapters 6 and 7 consider papal reburials, culminating, respectively, with the impressive apparato (1591) for Sixtus V (d. 1590) in Santa Maria Maggiore and the gigantic catafalque (1622) for Paul V (d. 1621) in that same church. Sixtus’s sumptuous, hexagonal tempietto-catafalque rose twenty-five meters, almost reaching the gilded ceiling of the Marian basilica, and was the first for a pope in Rome. Even the elaborate funeral book itself set the standard for later publications. Schraven examines the exceptional iconography of the apparato that celebrated Sixtus’s pontificate, demonstrating how the pope “had carefully premeditated the ceremonial outline of his own festive reburial” (183) and created a model for later papal families. The final chapter looks at extravagant Roman funeral apparati for military commanders and cardinals at the end of the cinquecento. When comparing these to the traditional castrum doloris in St. Peter’s for papal obsequies, the masters of ceremonies grumbled about the indecorous lack of splendor, majesty, and pomp for the Supreme Pontiff. Papal reburials, however, recouped such losses and provided cardinal-nephews with perfect opportunities to demonstrate their affluence and ongoing influence.

Festive Funerals in Early Modern Italy assimilates a wealth of new material from manuscript sources and festival books. The black-and-white illustrations, mostly from printed sources, are crisply reproduced. Unfortunately, the book is marred by too many typographical and syntactical errors (e.g., the confusion between mourning “cloth” and “clothes”; “cube”/“cubit”/“cubicle” are used interchangeably). The publisher was remiss in not more fully correcting idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms by the Dutch author to assure a clean text that the salient content deserves. Schraven herself, though, is responsible for a handful of mistakes in authors’ names and book titles in the bibliography. One might also correct certain historical facts. The famous print of The Seven Churches of Rome, published by Antoine Lafréry in 1575, was not engraved by Ambrogio Brambilla (fig. 4.2); rather, this etching with engraving is usually attributed to Étienne Dupérac. Nor was the pilgrimage of the Seven Churches “of recent invention” (148n48). One cannot refer to the confratelli of the Gonfalone as “Oratorians” (172). The “hospitale di mendicanti” depicted on Sixtus’s catafalque was the hospital of the beggars near Ponte Sisto, not that “of mendicant orders” (206). Despite these criticisms, Schraven’s significant study brings to life early modern funeral apparati, provides the first comprehensive overview of that development, and deserves substantial praise.

Barbara Wisch
Professor Emerita of Art History, Art and Art History Department, SUNY Cortland, New York

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