The Medieval Review 16.06.08

Miller, Julia I., and Laurie Taylor-Mitchell. From Giotto to Botticelli: The Artistic Patronage of the Humiliati in Florence. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015. pp. 264. $74.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-271-06503-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Frances Andrews
University of St Andrews

One of the better-known stories about the Italian Order of the Humiliati is the attempted assassination by one of their number of the reforming Cardinal, Carlo Borromeo, in October 1569. This disastrous endeavour sealed the fate of their male branch, suppressed by Pope Pius V in February 1571. That the bullet struck, but left Borromeo unharmed, also supplied ideal material for his canonization process. The lavishly illustrated volume under review here understandably opens with this famous moment of drama. But its focus is a very different moment in the history and reputation of the Humiliati: the art produced for the church of Ognissanti, built and inhabited by the order in Florence between the 1250s and the mid-sixteenth century.

Ognissanti is not on most tourist itineraries, perhaps because many of its abundant treasures are now in the Uffizi, have been dispersed further afield, or have long since vanished. There is still a great deal in situ nonetheless and the present volume makes it clear that it is well worth walking the 500 metres to this church on the river Arno from its much larger and more famous neighbour, the basilica built by the Dominicans at Sta Maria Novella. Miller and Taylor-Mitchell offer a systematic explanation of the art produced for Ognissanti, often in the context of works produced for such neighbours, as well as by reference to the history of the Humiliati. Their study thus doubles as the first English-language account to follow the order to the 1500s, even briefly tracing the fate of the women into the eighteenth century. They also draw comparisons with art made for a long list of Humiliati churches elsewhere, from San Pietro Viboldone near Milan, La Madonna dell'Orto in Venice, San Torpè in Pisa, Sta Maria Maddalena in Pistoia, San Tommaso in Siena and San Michele di Paganico, to much less well-known projects, such as Sta Maria di Cigoli, along the Arno valley towards Pisa. So this volume is also the first extended discussion of what might be termed "Humiliati" art. As such it is very welcome indeed.

The volume opens with a chapter outlining the early history of the Humiliati and locates Ognissanti, its predecessor, and daughter houses in the Florentine and Tuscan landscape. The setting and significance of the house as a substantial landowner at the centre of what became Borgo Ognissanti is thus made clear. [1] Each new chronological chapter is then preceded by a brief update on the situation in the order and the changing condition of the community at Ognissanti, often highlighting criticisms to which the order was subject. The art historical analysis necessarily begins with the early fourteenth century, when the first commissions appear. The lack of earlier evidence is, as Miller and Taylor-Mitchell suggest, probably in part the result of huge losses following suppression, but they also hypothesise that in the thirteenth century the brothers and sisters may not have sought art for their churches, unlike the mendicants. The Humiliati were "successful, expanding, but still close to their initial 'humble' roots" (26). From the early 1300s, on the other hand, they began engaging the very best artists, starting at Ognissanti with Giotto (who was also employed by the Dominicans at Sta Maria Novella and the Franciscans at Sta Croce). The change was driven by the need to "vie with other orders, particularly the mendicants, for lay support and for their own membership. Works of art may have become more important in representing Humiliati ideals" (26).

The archives of Ognissanti fell victim to the floods of 1966, as did some of its art, and only a handful of the surviving works can now be linked to extant documentation. But Miller and Taylor-Mitchell suggest that the Humiliati themselves were the main patrons until the late fourteenth century, a beautiful example being Bernardo Daddi's triptych of 1328 which identifies the patron as "Frater Nicholaus de Mazinghis de Canpi." In the 1400s, this pattern changed, with an increasing number of family chapels adding to the density of artistic campaigns. Whilst never on the scale of the great Mendicant churches, Ognissanti's new chapels included that of the neighbouring Vespucci family, who commissioned a Lamentation and Madonna of Mercy from Domenico Ghirlandaio (c. 1475) and whose most renowned member, Amerigo Vespucci, was to give his name to the New World continents. The Humiliati themselves also continued to sponsor major projects, including a magnificent fresco of the Last Supper for their refectory, painted by Ghirlandaio c. 1480, one of four he executed for Florentine monastic houses. By this date, the iconographic choices at Ognissanti had become ever more erudite, reaching a peak in the same year with frescoes for the rood screen (tramezzo) again by Ghirlandaio and by Sandro Botticelli, showing Saints Jerome and Augustine in their studies. Such scholarly sophistication had begun with Giovanni da Milano's magnificent polyptych for the high altar in the 1360s and reflected the wider order's move away from wool-working and manual labour towards Mendicant-style engagement with learning.

In the thirteenth century Dominican friars were engaged in the visitation of Humiliati houses and in adapting their organisational structures along similar lines to their own. So it is perhaps unsurprising that in their art, the Humiliati sometimes imitated their Dominican neighbours. Whether or not they suffered a "crisis of identity" as posited here (15-17), the lack of a charismatic founder around whom to build their identity restricted the scope for distinct iconographies, as Miller and Taylor-Mitchell make clear. They nonetheless posit a specific "visual 'ideology'" (4), subtly articulating humility and charity, the two virtues most obviously associated with early Humiliati ideals. Building on arguments made in previous joint publications, they concentrate in particular on humility, identified in the colour of clothing and in the postures and relative positions adopted by different figures in the numerous images produced for Ognissanti, as for other houses of the order. Looking for resonances which might have been important to the brothers, they observe that in several paintings the garments of those portrayed adopt the grey-white worn by the Humiliati themselves (and also, as they mention, by the Cistercians). [2] The garments worn by Giotto's angels in the Ognissanti Madonna (c. 1310), St Benedict in Giovanni da Milano's Polyptych, or the Virgin in Domenico Ghirlandaio's Madonna of Mercy, are cases in point. This use of colour mimics the visual practices adopted by other orders, such as the portrayal of St Augustine in black, with a belt, in works produced for the black-belted Augustinian Hermit Friars. [3] The accumulated visual argument made here appears, however, more precarious. They suggest, for example (32) that the garments of Giotto's angels (fig. 9) are "nearly identical to those worn by members of the order in the illustrations of Giovanni da Brera's chronicle" (a reference to the illuminated history of the order, showing Humiliati brothers in work clothes, copied in 1419). Giotto's angels' fine albs, with embroidered collars and shoulder bands, are indeed gathered at the waist like the rough habits of the Humiliati at work (frontispiece), but they appear closer to those worn by the angels in Duccio's Rucellai Madonna, 1285 (fig. 16): although more colourful, Duccio's angels have the same patterning at neck and shoulder. Giotto and workshop had, moreover, earlier used the same grey-white patterned albs for angels, God the Father, and donors in the Arena Chapel in Padua, as for the angels in the lower basilica of San Francesco at Assisi. [4]

The search for representations of humility specific to an order whose name stemmed from the same root, is of course entirely reasonable, but the conclusions here sometimes seem to be drawn at the expense of other, at least equally likely explanations for the choices made. Thus, for example, in the discussion of Giotto's Dormition (fig. 11, now in Berlin but long assumed to belong to Ognissanti), Miller and Taylor-Mitchell rightly point to Byzantine sources. They suggest, however, that "whereas angels in the Byzantine scenes tend to float above the event, Giotto inserts them within the throng of human protagonists [...] angels bend downward to grasp the cloth beneath Mary's body, a physical effort that may refer to their humility" (39). If so, how should we interpret a similar gesture on the portals of the Virgin at Notre-Dame in Paris, or Chartres? Is it not likely that the gesture of the angels in Giotto's Dormition shows them readying themselves to raise the Virgin's body, as for example in a Senlis portal which has angels holding the Virgin and shroud already in the 1170s? The authors also emphasise Giotto's famed portrayal of corporeality as having a "specific meaning" (34), suggesting for example, that "the attention given to Mary's corporeality at the time of her death [underlined in the Dormition by her wrapped feet and breasts and by an apostle firmly embracing her] seems related to humility and to the Humiliati" (39). Yet a contemporary, perhaps more powerful representation of the Virgin's corporeality could be found nearby, in the Dormition originally for a lunette on the facade of the cathedral of Florence, c. 1300-1305, fragments of which, now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, show an apostle bending over and grasping the Virgin's legs and shroud. Is the implicit suggestion that in iconographic terms sculpture works differently to paint?

A further hypothesis threaded through the analysis at several points is that depiction of the Virgin, an angel, a saint, or a devotee with folded arms was a humble gesture which "embodied the eponymous virtue of the Humiliati" (65, cf. also 41, 69, 74, 75). The authors offer various supports for the basic interpretation, including a fifteenth-century sermon by the Franciscan Roberto Caracciolo (d. 1495), associating humility with crossed arms (41). Yet claiming this as a motif which would have resonated in particular with the Humiliati raises questions about how to read the same crossed arm motif in, for example, Nicolò di Pietro Gerini's Resurrection at Sta Croce, the model, as they point out, for the Resurrection at Ognissanti, attributed to Pietro Nelli (75-76 and fig. 38-39). Potentially a significant finding, it is perhaps the repetition in different works in Ognissanti that encourages the authors to link this motif to a specifically Humiliati iconography, but it would be interesting to know whether crossed arms are more common in images for their churches than for others.

On occasion Miller and Taylor-Mitchell seem almost to be looking too hard. The discussion of Lippo di Benivieni's riotously colourful Lamentation for the Humiliati in Pistoia (48, fig. 22) concentrates on the figures bending over Christ's body, once more proposing that their posture expresses humility (47). Yet they do not mention that the Virgin holding Christ's body is seated on the ground, the pose of a Madonna of Humility. Further on they develop a case for a Eucharistic message by suggesting that a large, plain, oval wooden box on a shelf behind Ghirlandaio's Jerome might be a (surely rather unlikely) pyx (114). They also propose that setting the mitre of Augustine next to the saint, as Botticelli does in his tramezzo fresco, rather than on his head, is another symbol of humility (111), leaving the viewer wondering why it needs to be more than his identifying attribute (as is Jerome's Cardinal's hat, sitting on the shelf behind him). [5] In such cases, simpler readings seem powerful, as when thinking about the Gucci chapel in the left transept which was undoubtedly modelled on the Strozzi chapel in Sta Maria Novella. Both chapels, as they confirm, following Julian Gardner, refer to the Calvary Chapel at the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Yet in each case a lack of space also required the architects to build up over the cloister: were they not also making a virtue of necessity?

Ognissanti housed a remarkable series of art works by leading artists of the day, including a monumental crucifix attributed to Giotto and workshop and a reliquary commissioned from Donatello for the head of San Rossore, brought by the Humiliati to Ognissanti from their Pisan outpost in the 1420s, after Pisa had succumbed to Florentine hegemony. Not all of the art was at this level (or cost), but it is comprehensible that the authors repeatedly underscore just how wealthy the Humiliati became. In 1427-1438, despite having long since withdrawn from wool manufacturing, Ognissanti was valued at over 13,000 gold florins "making it the second wealthiest institution within the city walls, behind only the Badia [di Firenze]" (88). The Certosa di Galluzzo, outside the walls, was the richest of all (20,670). In Siena too the Humiliati were among the richest 2% in the city (186 n. 165). It is perhaps this knowledge that leads Miller and Taylor-Mitchell to find "contradictions inherent in the history of the order, as the Humiliati continually attempted to have things both ways," including, most pertinently here, art with "references to their initial humility and charity embedded in richness" (67). There is, of course, limited space for comparison in a longitudinal study such as this, but this reading might be adjusted by consideration of the way other orders portrayed their ideals, starting with the opulent Allegory of Poverty in the vault severy of the lower basilica at Assisi. Just as their derivative iconographic choices made them "more followers than innovators" (3), did the Humiliati's lavishness not also match what others were doing? [6]

The authors offer much food for thought and further investigation. They suggest, for example that various elements of "Humiliati" imagery, including that of Mary in the Ognissanti Madonna may have drawn on the words of Bernard of Clairvaux (or pseudo-Bernard, e.g. 35 and 167 n. 70). If so, it would make Giotto's painting early evidence for interest in Bernard in Humiliati circles, a link which was only later to develop into a claim of the saint as their "founder." They also remind us (159 n. 77) that the Humiliati did not have double houses in Tuscany, a distinction from practice north of the Apennines which deserves further research. Elsewhere readers may want to pursue the discussion by reference to other recent publications. On the much debated form of the tramezzo, which in Ognissanti's case was removed in the 1560s on the orders of Cosimo de' Medici (and has been variously reconstructed by previous writers), discussion might usefully be extended by reference to work on the Veneto and on other Florentine churches. [7] It would in particular be interesting to ponder the implication of evidence that these barriers were not as impermeable as previously believed. [8]

Miller and Taylor-Mitchell's research raises other new questions we can hope they may yet pursue. They point to the devotional importance of the Annunciation fresco on the counter façade, modelled on a miraculous image in SS. Annunziata nearby, and to veneration for Donatello's reliquary of San Rossore. How did preaching or other pastoral activity function in relation to these cults? Was the piazza in front only there to "simplify access to the river" (20), or also to allow for preaching? There is some small evidence for preaching in the church itself: in the early 1300s the Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa preached there on the feast of All Saints. [9] Surely others did too. It would be equally interesting to know whether the fourteenth-century manuscript breviary now in the Archiepiscopal Library in Milan contains the same wording of the litany supplied from the later printed versions (57, 125). One also wonders how far Giovanni da Milano's predella image of Santa Reparata (fig. 23) who was, as they point out, a figurehead of the Florentine Popolo, might be seen as articulating the political allegiance of the Humiliati. Later, a loss of political support certainly seems to have contributed to the relative misfortune of the community under the Medici (e.g. 131).

Both authors and the Press are to be warmly congratulated on the quality of the images, in both colour and black and white. So it may seem ill-mannered to point out an exception. Yet it is frustrating that the parallel proposed between a figure of humility in the Annunciation fresco (fig. 31) and Andrea Pisano's Humility from the Florence baptistery doors (fig. 34) is completely invisible: an enlarged detail from the fresco would be needed to allow the comparison to be understood. As we might expect of any such extended, almost encyclopaedic project, errors and omissions have also slipped in, though very few. [10]

Miller and Taylor-Mitchell set themselves a difficult task, detailing the iconography and wider context for successive, often widely studied, works of art produced over some 250 years and doing so against the backdrop of a relatively little-known religious order, using as its paradigm a church almost without archives. As the first English-language account of Humiliati art from its beginnings to suppression, their conclusions will inevitably attract further testing. It is to be hoped that more comparison with other orders who were, after all, often criticised at least as much as the Humiliati (without culminating in suppression), will allow them to pursue an ever more refined account. In the meantime, they are to be thanked for piecing together contexts and analyses of a series of extraordinary works of art.



1. An important study of the urban context of this part of Florence and Borgo Ognissanti in particular is P. Spilner, "'Ut Civitas Amplietur': Studies in Florentine urban development, 1282-1400," PhD diss., Columbia University, 1987 (available via Proquest dissertations and theses online)

2. Figure 5, p. 15, is a Siena Biccherna cover of "Frate Grigoro delumiliati" in a white habit in 1324. An earlier example is Siena, Archivio di Stato 9, a cover portraying "Frate Magino deli Umiliati" in 1307. See Le Biccherne di Siena. Arte e Finanza all'alba dell'economia moderna, ed. A. Tomei (Bergamo: Bolis, 2002), 130-131.

3. See Art and the Augustinian Order in Early Renaissance Italy, eds. L. Bourdua and A. Dunlop (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate: 2007), 21, 22, 183.

4. For illustrations of liturgical albs and explanation of their gathering at the waist, see M. C. Miller, Clothing the Clergy. Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 159 fig. 45, and p. 247.

5. Augustine is usually shown with his mitre, but Benozzo Gozzoli omits the mitre entirely in his portrayal of Augustine giving the rule to his brothers at Sant'Agostino in San Gimignano (1465).

6. See for example, J. Cannon, Religious Poverty, Visual Riches. Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

7. See for example: M. M. Ghedini, "Il tramezzo nella chiesa dei santi Giovanni e Paolo a Venezia," in De lapidibus sententiae: scritti di storia dell'arte per Giovanni Lorenzoni, edd. T. Franco and G. Valenzano (Padua: Il Poligrafo, 2002), 257-262; M. Bandini, "Vestigia dell'antico tramezzo nella chiesa di San Remigio a Firenze," Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz 54 (2010/12), 211-230; T. Franco, "'Item in piscibus pro magistris qui aptaverunt pontem': note sul tramezzo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo a Venezia," in Sotto la superficie visibile: scritti in onore di Franco Bernabei, eds. M. Nezzo and G. Tomasella (Treviso: Canova, 2013), 163-170 and the essays by Franco, Valenzano, and De Marchi in Arredi liturgici e architettura, ed. A. C. Quintavalle (Milan: Electa, 2007).

8. See M. Israëls, "Painting for a Preacher: Sassetta and Bernardino da Siena," in Sassetta: the Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece, 2 vols., ed. M. Israëls (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), vol. I, pp. 121-139, esp. 128-130 and D. Cooper, "Access All Areas? Spatial Divides in the Mendicant Churches of Late Medieval Tuscany," Ritual and Space in the Middle Ages. Proceedings of the 2009 Harlaxton Symposium, ed. F. Andrews (Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2011), 80-207.

9. Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Conventi Soppressi, Manoscritti, II, IV, f. 145.

10. A few slips: some of the Poor of Lyons or "Waldensians," were in fact reconciled under Durand of Huesca and Bernard Prim, in 1207 and 1210 (cf. 10); on p. 41 the Giotto Crucifix is dated "perhaps around 1315-1320," but in the caption p. 28, fig. 10, it is dated to c. 1310; p. 191, n. 26 for "partier" read "pariter"; p. 166 n. 54, for "fraters" read "fratres"; p. 231 the title of Razzòli's 1898 volume is La chiesa d'Ognissanti in Firenze: studi storico-critici. The floating reference to "Bourdua" (151), for San Francesco Verona being ceded to the Humiliati in the otherwise very useful list of Humiliati houses where a titular saint can be identified, appears to be to L. Bourdua, "Aspects of Franciscan Patronage of the Arts in the Veneto during the Later Middle Ages," PhD diss., University of London, 1991, p. 95 (superseded by her monograph, 2004). The original source is G.B. Biancolini, Notizie storiche delle chiese di Verona, 7 vols. (Verona: Per Alessandro Scolari, 1749-1766), II, p. 647.

Copyright (c) 2016 Frances Andrews

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