09.07.18, Derbes and Sandona, The Usurer's Heart

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Laura Jacobus

The Medieval Review 09.07.18

Derbes, Anne and Mark Sandona. The Usurer's Heart: Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2008. Pp. 304. ISBN: 9780271032566 .

Reviewed by:
Laura Jacobus
Birkbeck College, University of London

This book advances a number of related iconographic interpretations of Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel (or Cappella degli Scrovegni ) in Padua. Following an introduction which sets out the authors' purpose and method, the book consists of four chapters (two of which expand upon published articles), plus a conclusion. [1] It is generously illustrated with figures in the text and there are also a number of beautifully reproduced colour plates and fold-out photomontages, plus a diagram illustrating the layout of the frescoes. The only thing missing in this respect is a complete set of illustrations of all the frescoes in the chapel.

The authors' central thesis is that the chapel and its decoration were created in response to a religious conversion which its patron, Enrico Scrovegni underwent in 1300. Enrico, they suggest, renounced the practice of usury at this time, and in building the chapel he may also have been restituting the proceeds of his own and/or his father's usury. Enrico's penitence, renunciation of usury, and hopes of salvation were effectively translated into a pictorial programme by Altegrado de' Cattanei, a high-ranking churchman who they believe to have been his confessor, and this was ably interpreted by Giotto. None of these statements is unproblematic, and since the validity of many (though not all) of the authors' iconographic interpretations depends on them, it is necessary to examine the evidence presented in their support.

The authors' belief that the year 1300 was a defining moment in Enrico's spiritual journey is hard to substantiate. They describe it as "the year in which he bought the land for the chapel," implying a causal connection between his supposed conversion and the purchase. Yet a more obvious view would be that he bought the Arena in order to build his new palace; the chapel was an adjunct to this. As evidence that Enrico had renounced usury at this time they point to Hyde's observation that large-scale lending by the Scrovegni dried up between 1297-1300. [2] However, lending was a family enterprise involving Enrico, his brother, nephew(s) and sisters, so any decline in lending must have been a collective business matter, rather than the result of a personal crisis of conscience. Also, as they acknowledge, all known loans by family members (including Enrico's father, Rainaldo) were made at legal levels of interest, and Enrico is known to have had such loans outstanding at his death--both facts giving pause to the notion that he was a penitent usurer. [3] The authors suggest that the Jubilee of 1300, which promised absolution for penitents visiting Rome, may have been a decisive inducement, but as they again acknowledge, sources only suggest that he visited Rome in connection with the chapel in 1303. In an earlier article the authors assert that 1300 was the year of Rainaldo's death, (actually he was dead by 1289). [4] It is of some concern that--although they do not repeat this statement--they do not retract it.

It is also hard to reconcile the idea that the chapel may have been a restitutive or penitential foundation with the fact that it was built in part to serve the patron's own needs. The authors refer to it as a palatine chapel and also as a personal mausoleum. For a foundation to be effective as restitution, it had to be a disinterested offering, and this was not the case. The chapel was indeed a household chapel; whether it was intended as a mausoleum is more debatable. The authors barely consider the implications of the fact that Enrico's tomb is in an apse that was added well after Giotto's frescoes were painted, stating that it is "inconceivable" that the patron would not have intended to be buried in the chancel. [5] One could almost argue the opposite view; lay burials in the church were rare in Italy c. 1300, and lay burials next to the high altar may have had no precedent. As a substantial section of the book discusses the Annunciation and other frescoes in relation to Enrico's burial, this issue deserves fuller exploration.

Whilst there is no reason to doubt that Enrico Scrovegni was a man of at least average piety, the insistence on his "conversion" and penitence becomes increasingly strained. An otherwise illuminating analysis of a lost inscription, which draws attention to its use of the rhetorical device of oppositio , is marred by attempts to make it fit into this narrative. The authors treat it as Enrico's tomb epitaph (it was recorded in connection with his tomb in 1560) but do not mention research suggesting otherwise. [6] Inaccurate translation of the phrase "ut aeterna possit mercede beari" as "so that he would be blessed with eternal mercy" makes it seem that he built the chapel in a penitential spirit, hoping for mercy. However "merces" connotes reward, not mercy, and the phrase expresses the patron's confident expectation of due heavenly favour. [7] Enrico's painted portrait, which daringly shows him in privileged communion with the Virgin Mary, is construed by the authors as showing him posed and dressed as a penitent, despite its lack of any customary signs of abjection. Enrico's head and body are unbowed, his hands are not held in prayer, he kneels on only one knee, and is sumptuously clothed in vair-lined garments. The suggestion that he is wearing penitential purple or violet (the terms are used here interchangeably) must be treated with considerable caution; colour terminology was highly nuanced and not easily translated into modern terms but there is in any case no justification for assuming that the symbolic codes governing liturgical colours (violet being the colour of Lenten vestments) were applied to secular dress. Moreover, the original pigmentation of Enrico's garments has degraded.

Further concerns arise from the assertion that the cleric portrayed alongside Enrico Scrovegni is Altegrado de' Cattanei, and that he was the devisor of the pictorial programme. This identification was first proposed by Claudio Bellinati, but is expanded by Derbes and Sandona, who also designate Altegrado "Enrico's confessor," thereby reinforcing their penitential theme. Altegrado taught at the universities of Bologna and Padua, became archpriest of the cathedral chapter of Padua, and ultimately bishop of Vicenza. The authors establish that Enrico is likely to have been acquainted with him, but given the Scrovegnis' long-standing and close associations with the cathedral chapter this is unsurprising. Many others would have an equal claim for the role of confessor and devisor of the pictorial programme (assuming that Enrico had either), provided only that they wore the habit of an Augustinian canon, as shown in Giotto's fresco. The unknown prevost of the Arena Chapel, who was a member of this order, is a more obvious candidate. By the time the portrait was painted, c. 1304-5, Altegrado was entitled to wear bishop's regalia.

In forming their view of Enrico Scrovegni's motivation in building the chapel (and hence their view of the iconography of its frescoes) the authors rely on an account published in 1560 by the local Paduan antiquarian, Bernardino Scardeone. [8] This introduces the themes of penitence and restitution, albeit attributing the former to Enrico's father Rainaldo, but is muddled and inaccurate in most respects, as the authors come close to acknowledging. However, they point to an earlier chronicle as corroborating evidence. This too is muddled, so much so that Hyde, the preeminent historian of this period in the English language, declined to make use of it at all. Recent research by Silvana Collodo suggests that it was compiled by two authors in the period 1335-50, enabling Derbes and Sandona to isolate those parts which they believe date from Enrico's lifetime (he died in 1336) and so support those elements of Scardeone's account which support their own construction of events. [9] The dangers in this method are evident, but when one considers that Scardeone's account is itself derived from the earlier chronicle, it is clear that a fundamental error of historical method is entailed. One source cannot corroborate another unless they are independent of one another. The only unequivocally contemporary--and substantially verifiable--account which survives is by Giovanni da Nono, and this makes no reference to either penitence, usury or restitution in describing Enrico Scrovegni's foundation of the chapel. Da Nono ascribes the foundation to the combination of a dishonestly-acquired windfall and an advantageous marriage, though this passage is not considered by the authors at all.

Thus the historical underpinning of the book's main iconographical arguments is not as substantial as one would hope. This does not necessarily negate what the authors have to say about the frescoes, for it is possible to produce insights based on the visual evidence alone. Derbes and Sandona are acutely aware that visual language has its own syntax, and that the relationships between images can generate meanings which would not be present if they were viewed in isolation. The book is liberally illustrated with telling juxtapositions of such images. The authors refer to Giotto as the "able interpreter" of Altegrado's programme, and it is presumably in this subtle visuality that they find much of his contribution. They have also been extremely diligent in finding new literary sources to illuminate the frescoes' iconographic content. The sermons of St. Anthony of Padua are a particularly promising source which future scholars of the chapel are likely to mine to good effect, and their explorations of the way scholastic writers "parsed" texts for meaning are often fascinating. Indeed, one of their principal methods is to similarly "parse" images, moving from details in the images to word-play in written texts.

There are, however, dangers in this and other iconographic methods, and these are not always avoided. On occasions, the authors appear to press an iconographic interpretation into uncomfortable conformity with a text, or with their interpretation of the historical circumstances of the commission, sometimes disregarding and at other times over-regarding elements of the images. For instance, they regard the chancel arch frescoes as key to a number of intersecting programmatic themes, yet they ignore the scene of Heaven which dominates the arch--and hence the chapel--beyond noting that it is apparently unprecedented in Italian art. They also have little to say on the similarly unprecedented fictive niches lower down this wall, merely noting Schlegel's unconvincing thesis that they represent tomb chambers. [10] As they rightly note, iconographic interpretation is most properly applied to elements of the frescoes which seem conspicuously unusual, yet they fail to do so in these cases.

Much of the analysis of the chancel arch concentrates on the Pact of Judas and the Visitation , and the authors are doubtless right to suggest that the scenes are brought into meaningful juxtaposition here. This is an occasion where they supplement the well-established understanding of parallelism in the frescoes' organisation with their own understanding of the role that the rhetorical principle of oppositio can play. The suggestion that the scenes offer a heightened contrast between Judas's avarice and Mary's charity is a helpful one. However, they prefer to dwell on what they consider to be a deeper oppositio , and one which tallies with their understanding of Enrico Scrovegni's motivation, namely that the scenes contrast the "sterility" of Judas's usury with the "fertility" of the Virgin's charity. They convincingly demonstrate that parallels between usury and unnatural procreation were an established trope of scholastic thought, and they attempt to apply this idea to the paired frescoes on the chancel arch and elsewhere in the chapel.

However, these multiplying interpretations are premised on an idea that is insufficiently established at the outset, namely that Judas was widely understood to exemplify the sin of usury. He is more usually associated with avarice in general, or simony in particular, and also with despair. [11] Drawing on the kinds of sources associated with the intellectual milieu of Altegrado de' Cattanei and his circle, the authors are only able to cite a number of scholastic sermons and texts which compare Judas to a usurer (and thus, with the usual scholastic nicety, distinguish him from one). The one scholastic source which explicitly states that Judas signifies usury is found in a twelfth-century manuscript by Herrad of Hohenburg which did not leave the German convent in which it was made until the nineteenth century. Recourse to popular vernacular tracts or plays from England and France is of similarly tenuous relevance, and in one case relies without explanation on the translation of "renovier" as "usurer," rather than "traitor" or "one who reneges on an oath." [12] The authors do find support closer to home, but it takes the form of a heavily-edited and somewhat favourably-translated quotation from a vernacular Voyage of St. Brendan ; "I am Judas Iscariot...I lent money at usury." In the context of the full text, Judas is not a money-lender but a dishonest shop-keeper, and the reference, though the dialect is obscure, seems to concern extending credit on harsh terms for essential goods. Moreover, the claim is penultimate in a long list of Judas's sins, significantly reducing its impact. [13]

Given the huge weight of iconographic analysis which rests on the assumption that Judas represents usury, a firmer equation between Judas and usury is desirable. The assumption underpins claims that the Last Judgement is structured around a condemnation of usury; the authors see in the scenes of Hell emphases on the figure of Judas and on the depiction of sexual deviance, which they consider to echo the sterility/fertility oppositio on the chancel arch. They produce a characteristically erudite and interesting digression on the scholastic word-play which gave rise to the iconography of Judas hanging with his entrails spilling out, but pursue their theme through the linkage of so many and various texts that one is left wondering whether Altegrado or anyone else could have intended such a chain of associations. Comparing the Judas of the Arena Chapel Last Judgement with that in the Florentine Baptistery, they argue that the figure has been given greater prominence in Padua in accordance with its enhanced significance as representative of usury. However, the point is hard to sustain when the Florentine Judas is labelled "Guida," is compositionally isolated from other sinners, and is actively hung by a demon, whereas no such factors draw attention to the Paduan Judas. They rightly note an interest in sins of the flesh in the Arena Chapel Last Judgement , but most seem to be sins of carnal excess rather than perversity, and so are amenable to straightforward iconographic explanation as condemnations of lust rather than usury.

As a corollary of the usury/sterility/charity/fertility theme, Derbes and Sandona find many references to fertility and children in the chapel. They are right to point out that such concerns are understandable in a family chapel, although one wonders whether all of the examples cited are really concerned with fecundity. Several young women who adopt wholly conventional poses with their arms held across their bodies are thought by the authors to recall pregnancy. Parallels between the miraculous late fertility of Joachim and Anna, and that of Abraham and Sarah are cited by the authors, and they establish a case for such a typology in the scholastic literature. However it is a particularly tortuous chain of associations that leads them to find this typological reference in the scene of Joachim among the Shepherds (in which two oak trees are said to recall the great trees or terebinths standing at Mamre, the place of Abraham and Sarah's encounter with the angels, which one variant of the Greek translates as "oaks").

The authors are on firmer ground in their association of the Virgin with the virtue of charity, for as they note, the chapel is dedicated to the Virgin of Charity. Their considerable literary knowledge allows them to draw on a vast number of references which expand upon this association. Their analysis of the seamless garment in the Giotto's Crucifixion is one of several exemplary pieces of iconographic analysis in this respect. Even so, there are occasions where one feels that the visual evidence has been somewhat forcibly matched to texts in order to support the authors' theme. A passage from Bonaventura on avarice and the cooling of charity leads them to see an area of Hell as a block of ice, when it is preferably understood as a smoking pit. Figures are pushed down into it, fading as they free-fall.

Elsewhere, the authors apply the principle of oppositio to advance a further set of interpretations which, on the whole, are less contentious than those which revolve around the theme of usury. They examine references to various historical periods in the chapel in the light of the heightened historical consciousness which, they convincingly argue, pertained in Paduan intellectual circles. They broadly concur with research by a number of scholars who suggest that the recent past of Ezzelino da Romano's despotic rule, and its subsequent overthrow, is referenced in the opposition of the fresco of Injustice and Justice , and that references to Jewish and Roman historical periods are unfavourably contrasted with references to the Christian era that superseded them. [14] With respect to the Roman period, these themes are nicely related back to the lost inscription, with its references to Vices being replaced by Virtues, and pagan sites being converted to Christian use. It is only when the authors attempt to steer these interpretations back to the book's grand narrative that the discussion grows strained, as multiple themes of historical change are compressed into a single grand metaphor of conversion, paralleling Enrico Scrovegni's own "conversion" through penitence. Thus, they isolate a number of figures of Romans and Jews, arguing that these are represented as potential penitents who anticipate Enrico's conversion because they wear penitential purple. Leaving aside the doubts expressed above about the original colour of Enrico's garments and the significance of purple outside the liturgical context, these potential sinners are an unconvincing bunch. A variety of different pigments are used in their costumes, some of which may be understood to represent grey, lilac or brown textiles. Some figures which are indisputably clad in purple (such as a priest in the Pact of Judas ) are not considered as potential penitents whilst others in the same pigments (such as a sallow-faced merchant with close-set eyes) are considered to look sympathetic and likely to convert. In the Crucifixion , the colour of a soldier's leggings are enough single him out as a potential convert, while the barefoot ruffian who taunts Christ with a vinegar-soaked sponge is wrongly identified as St. Longinus, on the grounds that he wears the same lilac colour as the penitent Mary Magdalene. [15]

Regrettably, this review has tended to concentrate on such areas of weakness, and ultimately that is because of the densely-interwoven nature of the book's arguments. In relating everything back to the themes of usury and penitence, without establishing beyond doubt that these themes are the most pertinent, the structure of the book inadvertently magnifies any flaws in the argument that are present. The fact that this is a controversial book should not obscure the fact that it is also an exceptionally erudite one.



1. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, "Barren Metal and the Fruitful Womb: The Program of Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua," Art Bulletin 80 (1998), 274-91; "'Ave charitate plena': Variations on the Theme of Charity in the Arena Chapel," Speculum 76 (2001), 599-637; "Reading the Arena Chapel," in Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Giotto, Cambridge: Cambridge University (2004).

2. J. K. Hyde, Padua in the Age of Dante, Manchester and New York: Manchester University and Barnes & Noble (1966), 188. Hyde accompanies his finding with the observation that "it is extremely hazardous to argue from negative evidence." While of the view that Enrico was not renowned as a money-lender, Hyde was unaware of Enrico's later loans in 1336.

3. Enrico's later loans were published by Sante Bortolami, "Giotto e Padova: le occasione per un incontro," in Vittorio Sgarbi (ed.), Giotto e il suo Tempo , Milan: Motta (2000), 22-35. Benjamin G. Kohl, points to the respectability of all known money-lending by the Scrovegni in "Giotto and his Lay Patrons," in Derbes and Sandona (eds.), Cambridge Companion..., 176-196.

4. Andrea Gloria, Monumenti della Università di Padova, 1222-1318, Bologna: Forni (1884), Sect.343, and Codex Zabarella , in L.A. Muratori (ed.), Rerum Italicarum Scriptores: Raccolta degli Storici Italiani dal cinquecento al millecinquecento , rev. ed. Giosue Carducci and Vittorino Fiorini, Città di Castello: Lapi (1903-7) Vol.8, Pt.1, 217-255 (p.230).

5. Their statement that nineteenth century watercolour shows a burial chamber under the choir requires a note of caution, as the drawing is indefinite on the point. Published in Davide Banzato et al. (eds.), La Cappella degli Scrovegni a Padova , 2 vols., Modena: Panini (2005), I, fig.30.

6. Laura Jacobus, "A Knight in the Arena: the 'true image' of Enrico Scrovegni in the sacristy of the Arena Chapel in Padua," in Mary Rogers (ed.), Fashioning Identities in Renaissance Art , Aldershot: Ashgate (2000), pp. 17-31, esp. 21.

7. J.F. Niermeyer, Mediae Latinitatus Lexicon Minus, Leiden: Brill (2001).

8. Bernardino Scardeone, Historiae de urbis Patavii, rev. ed. [n.d.], facsimile ed. Historiae Urbium et Regionum Italiae Rariores , 146, n.s. 62, Bologna: Forni (1979), cc. 377-378.

9. Silvana Collodo, "Geneologia e politica in una anonima cronachetta del primo Trecento," in Una società in trasformazione: Padova tra XI e XV secolo , Padua: Antenore (1990).

10. Ursula Schlegel, "On the Picture Program of the Arena Chapel," in James H. Stubblebine (ed.), Giotto: The Arena Chapel Frescoes, New York and London: Norton (1969), 182-202, first published as "Zum Bildprogramm der Arena Kapelle," Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 20 (1957), 125-146.

11. Janet Robson, "Speculum Imperfectionis: The Image of Judas in Late-Medieval Italy," Ph.D Thesis, Courtauld Institute, University of London, 2001, 116-164.

12. "Renouvier" and related words in F. Godefroy, Lexique de l'ancien français , Paris: Champion (1964). "Usury" is not offered as a translation in this standard work, but several variations of blasphemy, betrayal and oath-breaking are.

13. http://www.classicitaliani.it/index132.htm. The list runs through patricide, incest, fathering bastards, dishonest sale of goods, short-changing customers, extending credit on staples at exhorbitant rates, theft. The Venetian dialect gives "dava a usura dinari, drapo e biave," (I extended usurious credit on cloth and food?). The near-identical Tuscan version gives "fu' usuraio e tutto vizioso" (I practised usury and everything vicious), summing up the catch-all intention of the passage as a whole.

14. Principally Selma Pfeiffenberger, "The Iconology of Giotto's Virtues and Vices at Padua," Ph. D diss., Bryn Mawr, 1966; Jonathan B. Reiss, "Justice and the Common Good in Giotto's Arena Chapel Frescoes," Arte Cristiana 72, (1984), 69-80; Laurine Mack Bongiorno, "The Theme of the Old Law and the New Law in the Arena Chapel," The Art Bulletin 50, (1968), 11-20 (both reprinted in Andrew Ladis (ed.), The Arena Chapel and the Genius of Giotto , New York and London: Garland, [1998]); Jonathan B. Riess "The Jew and Judaism in Giotto's Arena Chapel Frescoes," in Lynn Catterson and Mark Zucker (eds.), Watching Art: Writings in Honour of James Beck , Todi: Ediart, (2006).

15. The sponge is painted a secco and has partially peeled away. The thin pole on which it held is not a lance but a cane, accurately marked with horizontal bands.

Article Details

Author Biography

Laura Jacobus

Birkbeck College, University of London