Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2017
Giancarla Periti In the Courts of Religious Ladies: Art, Vision, and Pleasure in Italian Renaissance Convents New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. 304 pp.; 100 color ills.; 110 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300214239)

This book about aristocratic nuns and convent patronage offers an interesting characterization of a resulting corpus of “seductive images” of “profane subjects and sensuous forms” in the context of what Giancarla Periti calls “courtly conventual culture” (1). The idea of the courtly convent interior is a clever one, and it certainly provides a touchstone for investigations into patrician nuns, their motivations, their artists, and the visual and perhaps didactic functions of such imagery in Renaissance convents. The trouble is that examples of such courtly conventual culture are not terribly widespread in Renaissance Italy. Periti is therefore compelled to devote most of the book to examining the best surviving example of this phenomenon, the monastery of San Paolo in Parma, famously frescoed first by Antonio Araldi at the turn of the century and then between 1518 and 1519 by Parma’s precocious native son Correggio (Antonio Allegri) for the abbess Giovanna da Piacenza. The book is, essentially, about San Paolo and is primarily focussed on the decoration of Giovanna’s private apartment in the convent. With six chapters total, the book starts by establishing the model of courtly conventual spaces in the Renaissance and is followed by two chapters on how nuns interacted with the art in those spaces: “Gaze, Touch and Provocation” (chapter 2) and “Art, Contemplation and Splendor” (chapter 3). The final three chapters provide detailed analyses of Giovanna’s private apartment at San Paolo in Parma (chapter 4), proceeding from Araldi’s room (chapter 5) to the famous Correggio room (chapter 6).

The Araldi and Correggio rooms at San Paolo have long been considered beautiful but baffling. Giovanna’s wealth and humanistic savvy seemed to compel the production of fascinatingly erudite subjects. Araldi’s room, full of juxtaposed Christian and profane symbolism, is widely thought to allude to the struggle between virtue and vice, certainly an apt subject for a woman. (The famous studiolo of Giovanna’s contemporary, Isabella d’Este of Mantua, featured a series of paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino, Dosso Dossi, and, later, Correggio, centered on the struggle between virtue and vice.) The message, delivered by Araldi in the form of griffins and unicorns, among other late Gothic preoccupations, was particularly suitable to a female monastic struggling against the rampant sexism that was (is?) the legacy of Eve. Correggio’s works in the adjacent Camera di San Paolo have proved even more bewildering to generations of art historians eager to identify literary sources for the oddly mature, gamboling putti of his ceiling pergola and the evocative series of mythological figures, painted in grisaille, that adorn the trompe l’oeil lunettes along the frieze. The whole glorious apparatus is supported by fictive cornices perched on the heads of bemused-looking rams. The fireplace is adorned with a beautiful figure of Diana, poised on her chariot above an inscription that reads “Ignem gladio ne fodias”—“do not poke the fire with a sword.” The message seems consistent with the struggle to temper the flesh by tending to the spirit, and it is particularly witty to have inscribed it on a fireplace in a nun’s bedroom.

Periti sees the enterprise as inherently more complex, which, of course, it could well be. She begins by defining convents as liminal spaces in which the struggle against strict enclosure, imposed by the Counter Reformation, manifested in a greater desire to make contact with the outside world and thus became a motivation for bringing the outside inside through the creation of decorated surfaces and luxury objects. She then establishes the basis for nuns’ relationships with art, from gaze to touch to provocation (chapter 2), and from contemplation to splendor (chapter 3). The material on the gaze is fascinating, extending to Periti’s investigation of historiated floor tiles, used to pave some interior convent spaces, as catalysts that, by being on the floor and thus subject to the averted, deflected, downward, and “proper” gaze of women, “expanded the phenomenology of the gaze” (29–30). In fact, Periti’s analysis of floors—from tin-glazed to majolica tiles, historiated scenes to inscriptions, animal motifs to images of belle donne—is excellent, as is the analysis of visibilities produced by walking across them. Here, Periti links kinesthetic experience to Michel de Certeau’s analysis of walking as a means of enhancing anamnesis, the provocation of memory and encouragement of contemplation. She points out that the antiquarianism of the Renaissance was born from this same, deliberate activation of the gaze in contemplation of an object (51–52).

Having established the interactive introspection prompted by the imagery within convent spaces—activated by movement through those spaces—in chapter 4, Periti proceeds to San Paolo and examines the gendered nature of the decoration of Giovanna’s private apartment there. Chapter 5, “Monstrosities, Female Exemplarity and the Ideal of Regeneration,” is devoted to Araldi’s decorated room, and chapter 6 focuses on Correggio’s “enigmatic” frescoes. While Periti’s analysis of these works is learned, detailed, and deeply steeped in the context of contemporary literary sources, she does not really suggest how either artist might have participated intellectually in the elaborate game of ciphers and decipherment prompted by the content of the frescoes themselves, although she posits a fascinating array of visual antecedents, particularly for Araldi’s work, which she memorably characterizes as “citational” and “a bricolage of references” (147). Correggio’s art rises above such pedestrian citation to create true poetry, an art of “sensation and impulses” (174). Periti proposes that such abstruse art “provided the nuns with learning and levity that they could not have obtained by other means” (189). This entertainment and edification came through prolonged looking, which was stimulated by the elusive and allusive nature of the subjects. The indecipherability of the frescoes lies at the heart of their meaning, or lack of meaning, but it is also what makes them worth looking at. Periti concludes that “the silent but active beholder who experiences Correggio’s painted chamber engages in a chain of concealment-irony-abstruseness” that “prolongs the pleasure of the beholder across time” (203). To quote Georges Didi-Huberman, “The image is not a closed field of knowledge, it is a whirling, centrifugal field” (quoted in Philippe Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, New York: Zone Books, 2007, 13).

Beautifully written and illustrated, Periti’s book is a deeply thought-provoking analysis of the spaces where meaning lives between objects and their beholders. The question is how nuns might have learned to activate such spaces. Patrician women who became nuns and commissioned paintings were not born or raised in an atmosphere devoid of secular influence or sensual pleasure, so the employment of the lingua franca of mythology in their monastic spaces is perhaps not surprising. Nor were they expected to completely disavow the spectacular or the mundane when they entered convent life. In fact, the emphasis on reform values in the post-Tridentine era sometimes leads us to assume that female monastics of the early sixteenth century were committed to sensual deprivation. Certainly Kate Lowe’s work on the practice of serbanza (nuns providing temporary guardianship for young women in the convent) and the many recent works on Renaissance widows whose final years were spent in convents make it clear that nuns from patrician families were first and foremost patricians, often in transition from the secular to the sacred and sometimes back again; they thus retained their taste and their expectation for erudite, decorated interiors that spoke to their minds and eyes. Aristocratic abbesses like Giovanna da Piacenza do not seem to have indulged in the self-abnegation that we tend to associate with piety, and austerity was not necessarily expected of nuns from wealthy families. What the organization and decoration of many monasteries reveals is that they were subject to the same class hierarchies and tensions between rich and poor as most other institutions of the time. Finally, did pagan interiors, like Correggio’s in Parma, incite or promote spiritual transgression? Probably not, as they were inscribed within the monastery and shown only to intentional viewers. In fact, there is an argument to be made that these images, particularly those drawn from mythological sources, trained their beholders in modes of narrative analysis and ways of visualizing transcendence, certainly an apt exercise for the rigorous meditative contemplation of religious art.

Sally Hickson
Associate Professor, School of Fine Art and Music, University of Guelph, Canada