12.09.27, Leader, The Badia of Florence

Main Article Content

George R. Bent

The Medieval Review 12.09.27

Leader, Anne. The Badia of Florence: Art and Observance in a Renaissance Monastery. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012. Pp. 340. ISBN: 978-0-253-35567-6.

Reviewed by:
George R. Bent

Anne Leader, Professor of Art History at the Savannah College of Art and Design, has produced an elegant and important book on the Benedictine Abbey in Florence known as the Badia. The only monograph devoted to this monastic complex written in English, The Badia of Florence examines the origins of this venerable monastic institution, traces its decline and revival during the Republican period, and ends with a discussion of the famously problematic fresco cycle in the Orange Cloister. Leader is not the first specialist to focus her scholarly energies on a single Florentine monastery, as the communities at Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, San Marco, and Santa Maria degli Angeli have been the subject of similar scrutiny. With Leader's study, we can now add the Badia to this core group of cultural landmarks.

The Badia of Florence contains six chapters. "The Development of an Urban Monastery" reviews archival and published records that detail the tenth-century origins of the abbey under the direction of the Countess Willa and her son Ugo, Margrave of Tuscany. Leader locates the monastery in the city and notes its proximity to the political heart of Florence, only a few meters from the Palazzo del Podestà (now known as the Bargello) and, later, the Palazzo della Signoria (now known as the Palazzo Vecchio). However, the paucity of information about the Badia's formative years forces Leader to move quickly into the thirteenth century, when the links between the monastery and city leaders were cemented during times of factional strife. The major players in Florentine politics appear as benefactors of the facility--the Cerchi, Donati, Galigai, del Bello, etc.--and those unfamiliar with the microhistory of the city's contentious medieval past might find this list difficult to manage. Still, it is important for her to note the identities of these supportive families, as their participation in a government that periodically appropriated slivers of monastic property during that era connects real people to the policies that altered the Badia's shape and form.

Although Leader herself notes that claims of monastic decay are usually overblown, her second chapter--"Benedictine Decadence and the Path to Reform"--describes the very real problems faced by the Badia during the late fourteenth century. In what can only be described as a remarkable downward spiral, many of the monastery's property holdings were essentially confiscated by the commune; its community was reduced to fewer than a half dozen adherents; the structures in the complex fell into disrepair, and a few of the monks in the cloister actually lit their own monastery on fire in protest. Although supported by a patrimony that rivaled those of the city's other major religious institutions, the Badia was in danger of dissolution as the second decade of the fifteenth century drew to a close.

This sad state of affairs made the arrival of the Portuguese monk Gomezio di Giovanni an important addition to the cloister in 1418. Leader emphasizes Gomezio's allegiance to the new observant movement of the Congregation of Santa Giustina, and makes clear that his motivations for joining the troubled community revolved primarily around his desire to reform the Benedictines there. The next year, the Badia joined the Congregation of Santa Giustina, and Gomezio's vision for a new and vibrant community was pursued in full and with immediate rewards. By 1427, most of the Badia's stolen property had been returned to it by the commune; the monastery's population had grown to two dozen (on its way to roughly eighty monks), and its financial holdings made it the wealthiest religious institution in Florence. Due to this sudden injection of interest and support, sections of the Badia were refurbished and others rebuilt entirely, with the now- famous Orange Cloister being the signature architectural achievement of the generation.

The self-explanatory chapter "Badia Patronage and the Paradox of Autonomy" focuses closely on the relationships between the cloister and its most important patrons, many of whom came from Florence's elite core of politically potent families. Like other local monastic institutions, the Badia found favor among those with strong ties to the communal government, as members of the Benini, dell'Antella, da Filicaia, and Albizzi families lent its monks their financial support in return for burial plots located inside the monastic compound. The description of Cosimo de' Medici's failed attempt to place his stamp of authority inside the monastery affirms Leader's contention that the Badia was a desirable place with which to be affiliated. But Leader's efforts are blunted by a significant gap in archival information (which is otherwise plentiful and properly employed by the author): no register of monks survives from this period, meaning that we have no way of knowing whether these acts of patronage were sparked by personal connections with the cloister or by political concerns. Indeed, whether or how these families were related to each other is never discussed, which begs the question: was their support of the Badia merely coincidental, was it motivated by filial concerns, or did these families engage in an intentional and coherent strategy to make the new observant house part of their sphere of influence? Due to obstacles created by flawed documentation, readers are left wondering how religious institutions came to be adopted by Florentine factions and wishing to learn more about the sacrifices that were made by those institutions in return for the support they received.

Among the more interesting and innovative sections in The Badia of Florence is the chapter entitled "Architectural Design as Monastic Reform." Leader begins by describing the dilapidated state of the monastery when Abbot Gomezio arrived there in 1418, and then thoughtfully applies both archival evidence and recent scholarship on monastic architectural design in her evaluation of the radical overhaul of the Badia's complex. The formal qualities of the Orange Cloister, attributed by Leader to two otherwise shadowy masons named Giovanni d'Antonio and Antonio di Domenico, receive careful attention here; what makes this discussion so interesting and so useful, however, is Leader's argument that these renovations not only served to update an otherwise decayed facility, but also reflected the new functions of these spaces once the Badia joined the Observant movement of Santa Giustina. Leader argues that the layout of the monastery's corridors, cells, and courtyard accommodated the growing number of monks in the ever-expanding community and provided spaces for work and worship as mandated by the Rule of Saint Benedict, all while adhering to the cramped confines dictated by their urban location. The architectural layout of the new, triple-tiered cloister thus appears as both a refreshingly innovative artistic achievement and as a design that addressed the needs and uses of the community who resided there. Leader blends issues of form and function well.

The final two chapters, "Icon, Symbol, and Narrative at the Florentine Badia" and "The Badia Painters," focus on the form, subject matter, and authorship of the fresco cycle dedicated to the life of Saint Benedict that was painted in the Orange Cloister during the last years of the 1430s. Leader begins by describing the appearance and narrative elements of the cycle's main scenes, and does a good job of educating readers about the life of a monastic trailblazer whose hagiography isn't nearly as well known as that of other monastic founders (e.g., Francis of Assisi). Leader identifies as a prototype the cycle of Benedict painted in the chapterhouse of San Miniato al Monte by Spinello Aretino in the late 1380s, and she concludes that the compositions in that Olivetan space were largely replicated in the Badia cycle. This will come as no surprise to specialists, for Spinello's narrative is generally acknowledged to be the most important Benedictine cycle in Florence, but Leader's discussion is nonetheless important as it forms a necessary bridge to what is clearly of greater interest to the author: the identity of the painter(s) of the Orange Cloister frescoes.

Noting payments for work completed from 1436 to 1439, Leader argues persuasively for two separate phases of production and identifies Zanobi Strozzi--normally credited with miniatures painted in antiphonaries for various local religious communities--as the project's lead artist. Working with Battista di Biagio Sanguini and Filippo di Matteo Torelli, Strozzi is shown to have borrowed heavily from the contemporary works of Fra Angelico, with designs and details echoing the products of that more famous Dominican master. Leader's identification of Strozzi as lead artist contrasts with the view held by some that Giovanni di Consalvo, a Portuguese painter in Florence, was responsible for the Orange Cloister frescoes, but her argument resonates well: Strozzi's approach to figures and scenes in his miniatures both corresponds to those employed by Angelico in the 1430s and conforms to what we see in the Orange Cloister. Granted, this kind of comparison is clouded by the problems caused by cross-media analysis, as diminutive manuscript paintings often conceal stylistic proclivities that are magnified in monumental pictures: readers must be advised to remember that the formal features of a miniature do not always compare easily or completely with those of a fresco. Moreover, as is always the case with arguments of attribution, the subjective nature of connoisseurial judgments such as those proposed by Leader must always be taken with a grain of salt. That said, Leader's identification of Zanobi Strozzi as the lead artist of the Orange Cloister cycle is well argued and she supports her points with strong visual evidence.

The Badia of Florence has many good and important qualities about it. Anne Leader knows how to use the state archives well, and she has pulled together relevant documents that help her piece together the history of the place and its people. On occasion, she alights on information that comes as a surprise even to Florentine specialists (I, for one, did not know that the monks in the Badia had set fire to their own compound in 1357 in an act of political protest), and that is always a welcome addition to any scholarly study. Her interest in socio-political connections between the monks and Florentine elites serves her well through the first half of her study--despite the paucity of information about the individuals who joined the community and the connections with lay elites that they may reveal--and she does a good job reminding readers that the Badia was as much a center of political intrigue as it was the home of a monastic community.

But this book is not perfect, and three main problems emerge from the text. First, although Leader acknowledges the existence of an extremely powerful social network that drove economic policy and political alliances, the relationships that connected the Badia's lay patrons in the secular sphere are never considered despite the ample amount of information available which makes these kind of linkages possible. Understanding the monastery's benefactors as a group of individuals with common interests that tied them together both in and out of the Badia would have made for an extremely interesting case study, yet this question is never addressed.

More troubling is Leader's rather straightforward approach to the visual materials in the last section of the book. She reads images well, and she does a good job articulating similarities between the frescoes in San Miniato al Monte, the predella panels of Lorenzo Monaco's Coronation of the Virgin for Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the Badia in Florence. But one wishes that more had been done in this section: as the Olivetans and Camaldolesi were members of venerable observant communities, and because the Badia had only recently unified with the Congregation of Santa Giustina, the choice of subject matter in the Orange Cloister and the intentional mimicry of forms and figures originally produced in San Miniato and Santa Maria cry out for commentary. Why did Fra Gomezio and his brethren choose this particular cycle for their cloister? Were there any connections between the community in the Badia and that in San Miniato that encouraged this artistic aping? Was there anything overtly "reformed" about the subjects selected made by the Orange Cloister painters? Where these scenes valued strictly for their narrative content, or were there more conceptual or abstract themes embedded in them that might have spoken to a monastic audience deeply steeped in liturgical rituals? None of these issues are addressed, which makes Leader's comparison between the frescoes in San Miniato and those in the Badia a purely formal one. As the architectural design of the Orange Cloister is argued to have reflected the needs of a reconstituted reform order, the same kind of argument could have (and probably should have) been made about the paintings that were placed there.

Third, while the artistic climate in the Badia is touched upon in Leader's discussion of the fresco cycle, it is never completely fleshed out in this study. She makes no attempt to reconstruct other visual and textual materials that rounded out the monks' sensorial experience in the Badia. While we learn about the tombs that adorn surfaces of the church and its dependencies, there is no discussion of the altarpieces, manuscripts, frescoes, or pier panels that may have stood inside the Badia during the decade of the 1430s when the frescoes of Saint Benedict were painted in the Orange Cloister. Despite the lack of any monastic chronicle, a number of works--most notably the fragment of a fresco attributed to Giotto and a singularly impressive triptych of the Mystical Vision of Saint Bernard-- are thought to have been on site in the Badia at some point, and perhaps as early as 1434. Some kind of commentary about these (and other) works would have helped readers understand the visual vocabulary of the community there, as well as provided a basis for placing the selection of scenes and figures in the Orange Cloister project. A singular study of the Benedict cycle certainly can and should stand alone as a legitimate scholarly work, but when it is combined with a more thorough examination of the origins, construction, and patronage of the site--as Leader provides in the first half of the book--the reader expects the same kind of treatment for other works of art that were inside it.

Still, books of this kind ought to be evaluated based on what they do, rather than what they don't--and The Badia of Florence does quite a lot. Along with the communities at Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, San Marco, and Santa Maria degli Angeli, we now have a solid understanding of the origins and development of one of Florence's most important religious institutions, and its political affiliations with the power-brokers who worked in the nearby Bargello and Palazzo della Signoria add a layer of intrigue that enhances both the prestige of the Badia and the drama of Leader's narrative. Although there is work left to be done on this site and this subject, Anne Leader's book will serve scholars who seek to understand the workings of this religious institution during the early years of the Italian Renaissance.

Article Details

Author Biography

George R. Bent