Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 8, 2004
Anabel Thomas Art and Piety in the Female Religious Communities of Renaissance Italy: Iconography, Space, and Religious Woman’s Perspective New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 430 pp.; 12 color ills.; 93 b/w ills. Cloth $132.00 (0521811880)

With Art and Piety in the Female Religious Communities of Renaissance Italy: Iconography, Space, and the Religious Woman’s Perspective, Anabel Thomas sets out to correct what she considers to be general misconceptions about art in female religious communities in Renaissance Tuscany and Umbria. Among the most significant of these suppositions is the view that female religious communities not only housed few works of art, but that those works were limited to the public areas of the conventual complex and were intended solely for a lay audience. Equally important is the assumption that no substantive difference exists between art produced for the male gaze and that directed to the female religious audience. Thomas reports that she first became aware of these mistaken viewpoints at a conference in 1997 (xiii), and since then, a steady stream of publications has debunked such myths, even while most of the scholarship has focused either on specific houses, particular orders, or individual artists.1

The volume under consideration here constitutes an important contribution to the field for two reasons. First, it brings together for the first time a wealth of secondary reference material that charts the social, cultural, economic, and art histories of communities of various orders from diverse cities within Tuscany and Umbria. Second, it offers new case studies, focused on little-known artworks and based upon previously unpublished archival evidence, that serve to both expand and refine our understanding of how and why art and architecture were made to serve a multiplicity of constituencies, the most important and arguably least familiar of these being women dedicated to some form of devotional life. Upon this foundation, Thomas builds an analysis of the relationship between works of art and the spaces they occupied that is sensitive to the activities that unfolded in those spaces and to the audiences that interacted with both.

The sources from which the history of Italian Renaissance religious communities is derived present formidable challenges. Convents’ records are fragmentary and scattered among a variety of libraries and archives, and their artworks have been dispersed among private collections, religious institutions, and museums all over the world. Few of their architectural fabrics have been maintained: most have been transformed beyond recognition, and many have been destroyed altogether. Despite these limitations, Thomas presents analytical premises that will provide the basis for future studies of convent art and architecture. For example, she introduces the categories of “inner” and “outer” spaces to distinguish between areas occupied by women religious and laypersons. This distinction comes from convent documents themselves, which refer regularly to la chiesa dentro (inner church) or la chiesa fuori (outer church), for instance. These categories are not as anachronistic as modern conceptions of public and private space, which were less clearly delineated in architectural terms in Renaissance Italy. Indeed, this conceptual framework might have been developed further, especially because Thomas occasionally slips into discussion of a public-private dichotomy without explaining how it relates to or differs from her schema of inner and outer spaces. With regard to the forms and functions of convent art and architecture, the author acknowledges that the Council of Trent’s reforms continued the Church’s tradition of attempting to control communities of religious women. Nevertheless, she generally considers tridentine efforts as faits accomplis, direct causes of artistic and architectural effects, rather than as prescriptive guidelines that were often circumvented, if not selectively disregarded, as later reforms demonstrate.

Another intriguing approach to visual analysis is found in Thomas’s assertion that images meant for inner spaces typically depicted female subjects in intimate settings, favorites being the Madonna with Child a collo, in which the infant Jesus embraces the Virgin Mary with his arms encircling her neck, accompanied by titular saints and surrounded by women religious in habits reflecting their order and status. The scale of the image can further determine whether the work was meant for personal or community contemplation, thereby suggesting the nature of the space that originally housed a painting. Thomas also argues that images intended for outer spaces, especially the conventual church, emphasized male subjects and formal, ceremonial narratives, such as sacre conversazioni or the Coronation of the Virgin. The validity of this last thesis can only be confirmed in tandem with a more nuanced consideration of how the conventual church functioned, for Thomas’s suggestion that the male gaze was privileged in this space remains to be proved. Nevertheless, these theses provide a useful deductive apparatus for initiating an understanding of religious paintings.

The book is divided into five thematic parts that demonstrate the range of issues brought to bear on Thomas’s examination of art in female religious communities: “The Social Function of the Institution,” “The Spatial Dimension,” “Art and Space,” “Art and Ritual,” and “Perspectives on Conventual Patronage.” While these divisions are meant to provide structure for the vast array of topics considered, there is much overlap between sections, and rightly so: it has long been recognized that female religious institutions and their art and architecture reflected and responded to social, economic, political, and religious aims. Although none of these should be considered in isolation, they must be addressed systematically to create a logical argument, and it is in its structure that the book falls short. The chapters organized under the rubrics noted above do not fit logically within the five-section framework. For example, a six-page chapter entitled “Inventories and Conventual Chronicles – Art Recorded in Space” (chapter 6) explains that convent documents are instrumental in scholars’ efforts to locate works within conventual complexes, yet it appears in part 2, “The Spatial Dimension,” whose chapters deal with architectural developments and their functions. Such material might have been better situated under the rubric “Art and Space” (part 3), which considers how readings of particular images were conditioned by the functions of spaces they occupied, or in the book’s first chapter, a survey of “Partial and Impartial Evidence.” Such untimely introduction of what, situated elsewhere, would be extremely useful and engaging information disorients the reader and hinders the author’s efforts to build her thesis.

A similar tangle of themes and examples encumbers the individual chapters themselves. Thomas’s arguments are often buried beneath a mountain of evidence that might have been mined more selectively in the service of a clear argument. In her examination of Francesco Botticini’s altarpiece of Saint Monica and Nuns of the Augustinian Order (ca. 1485, Florence, Santo Spirito), for example, Thomas offers a detailed account of various scholars’ hypotheses on the painting’s subject, patronage, original location, and audience. She considers relationships between the Capponi family and the female Augustinian convent of Santa Monaca, as well as patterns of patronage among various branches of the Capponi family at the male Augustinian church of Santo Spirito. The author also cross-references other chapters in her book where she addresses the functions of conventual spaces and the role of nuns in commissioning decorations for their houses. As a result of her analysis of this complicated network of interests and associations, Thomas suggests that Botticini’s image was produced for the conventual church of Santa Monaca to commemorate the election to the position of abbess of Sister Veronica, daughter of Francesco di Alberto Castellani and niece of Caterina di Agostino di Gino Capponi. Thomas proposes that the altarpiece’s depiction of Saint Monica handing a scroll to a mantellate (third-order servite) nun kneeling at her right both confirms the Augustinian rule and invests authority in the newly elected abbess. But the reader must work very hard to locate this primary narrative; the author’s voice remains tentative amid the conflicting and competing accounts offered by other scholars.

The most lucid and persuasive arguments in the book can be found in the two chapters (9 and 10 in part 3) that focus on the Third-Order Franciscan houses of Sant’Anna in Foligno and Sant’Onofrio in Florence. Here, Thomas authoritatively situates her analysis of religious paintings within the specific contexts of convent spaces whose functions can be reconstructed fairly completely. The examples in these two very successful chapters stand out in comparison to the majority considered in the volume, for which evidence is much less cohesive and which are treated in a fragmented fashion, episodically, and in multiple chapters.

If art produced for female religious communities has attracted increasing scholarly interest recently, the architecture produced for these women has been practically ignored. Thomas’s efforts to integrate a discussion of physical settings with an examination of art will doubtless inspire future studies of the architecture of communities of religious women that will consider these complexes as attention-worthy subjects in their own right. There are a number of fundamental ways that the architectural analysis presented in this volume might have been strengthened or elaborated upon. The author presents reconstructions of plans for Santa Brigida detto Il Paradiso, San Jacopo di Ripoli, Sant’Onofrio in Florence, and Sant’Anna in Foligno, a task that is no mean feat given the obstacles presented by the limited evidence. Yet these plans would yield much more information if they all recorded such critical architectural features as doors, windows, grates, and hallways, the locations of which could be determined from the eighteenth-century plans that form the basis of the author’s new drawings, prepared for this volume. These components reveal a great deal about the accessibility of spaces to individuals of different status and, thus, bear directly on our understanding of the paintings in question. Scale and relationships to streets and adjacent properties should also have been indicated to situate the complexes within their urban context.

For example, an eighteenth-century plan (118, fig. 16) of the Benedictine convent of Sant’Apollonia in Florence reflects the complexity of these religious houses and proves how daunting the task of reconstructing plans can be: Thomas’s flawed analysis of this plan in chapter 8 leads to misunderstandings of the convent’s church and a work that is assumed to be its main altarpiece. The complex’s walls are represented with two lines, one of which is darkened to emphasize mass, with a light watercolor or ink wash poché between them to show the depth of the walls. The convent church is identifiable as a large rectangular space with three altars. One altar is located on each side of the nave, while the main altar is located on a dais a couple of steps above the nave level, in the rear of the church, opposite the entry from the street. The main altar is situated in a chancel space defined by walls on both sides. Of this space, Thomas writes: “… this part of the conventual church was in fact screened off and at a higher level than the rest of the space. In effect, it was quite a private area. Any details included here must surely have been for the benefit of the officiating clergy, or the women themselves, rather than for public consumption” (119). In her analysis, Thomas either misinterprets the steps that lead to the dais as a wall that physically divides the outer and inner spaces, or she does not understand the nuns’ location in relation to the main altar. In fact, the main altar would have been perfectly visible to the lay congregation gathered in the nave; it might even have been visible (if from a distance) to the nuns themselves. The Sant’Apollonia plan shows that part of the nave closest to the street was divided into three aisles by two rows of three piers—the telltale sign of a second-floor nuns’ choir that typically provided a view to the altar through a grill of some sort. It is unlikely that the congregation would have gathered under this choir but would have assembled just beyond it, closer to the main altar itself. This typology of the elevated nuns’ choir was so common in Renaissance Florence that in 1601 Archbishop Alessandro de’ Medici commented upon the custom in his “Trattato sopra il governo dei monasteri,” (Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, Codice Panciatichi 119, tomo II); an example of such a choir can still be seen today in the Florentine church of San Felice in Piazza.

Art and Piety in the Female Religious Communities of Renaissance Italy represents a significant contribution to the study of art and architecture produced for female religious communities in Renaissance Italy that will be especially useful to historians of painting and architecture. Those interested in the role of sculpture in the lives of religious women will be disappointed to find that this subject receives little attention. The volume will also find an audience among scholars of female religious communities in Renaissance Italy, although it should be noted here that Naples, Venice, Rome, and other cities that have been the focus of recent publications have not been included in Thomas’s study. In addition to the many case studies offered in the body of the text, the volume includes an extensive bibliography and a detailed index, both of which will serve as useful reference tools for scholars who will certainly be compelled to build upon the foundation provided by this important book.

Saundra Weddle
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Hammons School of Architecture, Drury University

1 See, for example, Geraldine A. Johnson and Sara F. Matthews Grieco, eds., Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Jonathan Nelson, ed., Suor Plautilla Nelli (1523–1588): The First Woman Painter of Florence; Proceedings of the Symposium, Florence-Fiesole, May 27, 1998 (Fiesole: Cadmo, 2000). An important contribution to this scholarship that predates the symposium cited by Thomas is Jeryldene Wood, Women, Art, and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

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