Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2022
Anne Derbes Ritual, Gender, and Narrative in Late Medieval Italy: Fina Buzzacarini and the Baptistery of Padua Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2020. 384 pp.; 188 color ills. Cloth €150.00 (9782503579689)

The publication of Anne Derbes’s lavishly illustrated book on the baptistery of Padua is a welcome and timely contribution, both for this building and the city. Recently inserted in the UNESCO World Heritage List (Padova Urbs Picta) because of its late fourteenth-century frescoes by Giusto de’Menabuoi (1320–1391), the baptistery is now free of scaffolding following the two-year restoration of its wall paintings and altarpiece. Fina Buzzacarini’s tomb canopy has also been restored, allowing us to distinguish between carved elements that were subsequently painted and painting that mimicks carving. Indeed an observer from the ground can see that only God the Father in the central gable above the cornice is carved; all the angels flanking that figure are painted on stone, although Derbes believes the angels were “carved in low relief” (47). A new lighting system and general decluttering enable viewers to discover areas previously plunged into darkness or inaccessible, including the lateral chapel referred to as the sacristy.

A particular appeal of the Paduan baptistery is its additional function as the burial site of a woman, Fina Buzzacarini (1328–1378), the consort of the Paduan ruler Francesco il Vecchio da Carrara (1325–1393). The space occupied by Buzzacarini, whose kneeling portrait is preserved in the tomb lunette above the western door, is remarkable and central to the author’s thesis. The lunette forms part of a well-preserved, extraordinary fresco cycle that fills the walls and ceiling, depicting paradise presided over by Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and a large court of angels and saints on the dome; thirty-seven chapters of Genesis on the drum; the lives of Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist on the walls; the Apocalypse in the apsidal chapel; and the Man of Sorrows and saints in the “sacristy.” 

One can understand why the publisher might wish to give prominence in a book title to ritual and gender in late medieval Italy, but the subtitle also usefully alerts the reader to the author’s thesis that Fina Buzzacarini was uniquely involved in the conception of the baptistery’s fresco program and the selection of the subject matter. This thesis is articulated in a substantial introduction followed by six chapters and a fairly long conclusion. I shall return to this issue later. The book’s particular strengths are the contextualization of the baptistery’s fresco program alongside its triple function (sacramental, civic, and funerary), and the multiple readings of its narratives examined through the lens of medieval baptismal rites and theology (chapters 3–5). No one until Derbes had succeeded in overcoming the challenge posed by the sheer number of scenes and their complexity. It is the result of years of painstaking research and sifting through the writings of theologians and liturgists from early Christianity to the fourteenth century, as well as local liturgical books themselves (including local ordinals and processionals). This book should be recommended as essential reading for any art historian researching medieval cycles of Genesis, the New Testament, and the Apocalypse. Derbes also deserves praise for her compelling reconstruction of baptismal chants and rites enacted in the baptistery of Padua. The author makes judicious use of the ordinal preserved in the cathedral chapter’s archives, the Liber Ordinarius, to link some of the liturgical dramas performed in the baptistery annually with “distinctive aspects” of some of the frescoes, for instance, the Visit of the Three Marys to the Tomb. Moreover, she has been able to identify two fragmentary individual episodes. The first of these is the mysterious group of “soldiers, horse, and [a] bound man” to the left of Christ on the Way to Calvary, which she convincingly identifies as the continuation of the narrative of the Passion (213). The other scene, adjacent to Pilate Washing His Hands, is a more challenging depiction of a seated woman and a man with crossed arms. This can only be, as Derbes suggests, Pilate’s wife (accompanied by a servant), who had warned her husband not to proceed with Jesus’s trial. As for Pilate himself, the interpretation of the centrality of the washing of his hands in terms of the cleansing procured by baptism, as explained by medieval theologians, is persuasive. Whether the laity understood this and other exegetical parallels as they followed the clergy into the baptistery is not addressed by Derbes, however. 

The thrust of the book is to “restore” Buzzacarini’s “mute voice” and demonstrate that “the last word about the space and its program was almost certainly hers” (328–29). There has been no consensus regarding the date of Giusto’s frescoes, the patron(s), or the adviser(s). Indeed, some scholars argue that the commission postdates Buzzacarini’s testament or death (September 22 and October 4, 1378, respectively), and was overseen by Francesco il Vecchio, her executor. Since Derbes has uncovered no new documentary evidence for Fina’s role in the baptistery, her task is to strengthen what Catherine King, in her 1995 essay on “Women as Patrons: Nuns, Widows and Rulers,” described as “a circumstantial case.” She does this in three chapters (namely, chapters 1, 2, and 6) by introducing Buzzacarini as a wealthy, independent, generous patron of other religious foundations who was also a long-suffering wife, “likely . . . troubled” by the fourteen-year wait to produce a male heir and who left nothing to her husband in her will, perhaps to punish him for his infidelities. Based on chroniclers, this interpretation neglects to take into account those writers’ own ex post facto agendas. Derbes suggests that five years before Buzzacarini dictated her will, she collaborated with her husband by financing the renovation of the baptistery at a time of real need. In 1373 Padua had suffered a humiliating defeat against Venice, had paid huge war reparations, and was on the brink of financial collapse. This early date for the frescoes was long ago shown to be unlikely by Benjamin Kohl in Padua under the Carrara, 13181405 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), but using it allows Derbes to suggest that Petrarch (1304–1374) served as an adviser, in addition to Fina’s sister Anna, Benedictine abbess of San Benedetto. Notwithstanding this collaboration, Derbes argues that “the ultimate decisions were largely hers” (28). 

To match her reading of Buzzacarini’s personality and “interests” (328), Derbes deploys visual evidence in support of Fina’s control: portraits of herself and her entourage, “gender symmetries” (the depiction of more women than the norm), “unusual” activity for women (for instance, in the Genesis cycle), instances of pregnancy, “miraculous maternity,” childbirth, “anguished . . . virtuous . . . and decorous” mothers (who protect their endangered sons), and the celebration of “sons born to rule.” Whether readers agree with this novel approach, it is certainly thought provoking. To me it would have been more convincing had the argument been tested both by more extensive comparison with other cycles and by analysis of other predominant visual themes in the baptistery, such as the representation of warlike and knightly masculinity in many of the scenes or the evident interest in naturalism.

The last three pages of the conclusion deal with the altarpiece, which was also painted by Giusto. This large work, in good condition despite the loss of its frame, is a thorny problem for Derbes because of the perceived absence of Buzzacarini and the “predominance of men in the hierarchy of sanctity” (330). She resolves the issue by arguing that Buzzacarini had little if anything to do with the altarpiece, perhaps because it was made after her illness or death. This claim neglects the depiction of the Buzzacarini family arms on the altarpiece (mentioned much earlier in the book). Moreover, while Derbes discusses two of the narratives of John the Baptist’s life on the altarpiece, she omits a relatively rare scene in which a barren, virtuous woman and mother is highly prominent: Elizabeth carrying her young son into the wilderness to escape the Massacre of the Innocents. Had this episode appeared in fresco on the baptistery wall, it could have been raised as further visual evidence for Buzzacarini’s control of the cycle. Such oversights underscore the problems that may arise when concentrating on a selection of scenes to prove an argument. Derbes’s book is an important contribution to understanding the narratives of Padua’s remarkable baptistery. It has not, however, solved all the intricacies of patronage, planning, and conceptualization. 

Louise Bourdua
History of Art, University of Warwick