Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 16, 2016
Stefanie Solum Women, Patronage, and Salvation in Renaissance Florence: Lucrezia Tornabuoni and the Chapel of the Medici Palace Visual Culture in Early Modernity. Burlington: Ashgate, 2015. 288 pp.; 4 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $119.95 (9781409462033)

Stefanie Solum opens this stimulating book by discussing a question fundamental for those interested in artistic patronage in Renaissance Florence: whether or not laywomen commissioned significant paintings, sculptures, or buildings in the city during the fifteenth century. Archival sources, the lifeblood of patronage studies, suggest that they did not; essentially nothing in the existing documentary record ties any woman, as patron, to any major fifteenth-century project (6). Arguing that archival silence should not stymie investigation of this issue, Solum contends that one can address the topic by employing a methodology that considers the work of art as, essentially, a document—a store of evidence that reveals the interests, and perhaps even the identity, of the work’s patron. Her focus is the altarpiece (today in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie) Fra Filippo Lippi created around 1457 for the Medici Palace’s private chapel, an image representing the Virgin adoring Christ, the young John the Baptist, God the Father, and, Solum argues, St. Romuald, all within a dark and foreboding landscape. She identifies as the motivating force behind the painting Lucrezia Tornabuoni, known today as an author (of poems, letters, and religious narratives); a philanthropist and benefactor; a patron of illuminated manuscripts (Solum has attributed to her patronage an illuminated Vita of the Baptist painted ca. 1455 by Francesco d’Antonio del Chierico, a convincing argument here repeated); the wife of Piero de’ Medici, whom she married in 1444; and the mother of four, including, most famously, Lorenzo, who assumed control of the Medici regime and bank after his father’s death and to whom she was a trusted advisor.

The commission for Lippi’s painting is today most often assigned to Piero or Lorenzo, even though Heinrich Brockhaus, Frederick Hartt, and Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, as Solum reminds her readers (11), linked Lucrezia to the painting and posited her as a major influence on its imagery, if not indeed as its patron. Solum’s in-depth analysis of the altarpiece pursues this possibility over six chapters, each exploring connections to Lucrezia’s ideas about devotion and salvation as reflected in her writings (religious hymns and narratives of biblical figures) and other religious texts known in Florence at the time, many of which she read. Solum presents Lucrezia as, first and foremost, a spiritual woman—her contemporaries described her in this way—characterized by piety, devotion, and even asceticism (the latter according to a recent definition in which asceticism implies the embrace of “a different way of life”; 70).

The altarpiece’s image of the child Baptist, the focus of two chapters, is central to the book’s interpretations. Extracted from his customary place in narrative cycles and highlighted in the altarpiece, the young Baptist, according to Solum, communicates a constellation of ideas tied to civic ritual and devotional practice. He is a reminder of the baptismal rite and thus of sin, purification, and renewal (93); his practice of “penitential spirituality" (95), in conjunction with liturgical theology (communion, contemporary texts claim, stimulated confession and contrition; 96), encouraged those who participated in the Mass to seek penance in order to receive “spiritual restoration and protection” (97–98); and, finally, his presence evokes the importance of removing oneself from the world during the devotional process—of contemplating the significance of the Mass apart from earthly concerns (a possibility, says Solum, for Lucrezia but probably not for her husband and Medici in-laws, whose immersion in business and politics stunted their devotional capabilities; 101). Many of these ideas appear, in one form or another, in an anonymous fourteenth-century Vita of the saint popular in the quattrocento, in prayer manuals, and in spiritual guidebooks written by, among others, the Florentine archbishop Antoninus, one of which (the Opera a ben vivere) he tailored specially for Lucrezia at her request.

The role of the Baptist in encouraging contemplation is, in Solum’s analysis, his most crucial function in Lippi’s composition. It is perhaps a surprising suggestion, given the Baptist’s reputation as a public preacher. Drawing from contemporary devotional texts, such as the aforementioned trecento Vita of the Baptist and the Meditations on the Life of Christ, also from the fourteenth century, Solum underscores how the writers of such sources ask readers not only to follow the narrative, but also, through their imaginations, to picture in their minds the stories and scenes described. Lucrezia herself made inner thought central to a biography of the Baptist she wrote; in it she invents and outlines the saint’s private ideas and concerns. Lippi’s painted Baptist (and images of him from the manuscript illuminated by Francesco d’Antonio del Chierico), Solum suggests, encouraged a similar type of contemplation. Pointing toward the scene of the Nativity but gazing forward, he asks viewers to ponder the images of Mary, Christ, Romuald, and the mystical landscape around and behind them and to use these elements as stimuli for contemplation. For Solum the presence of the Baptist results in a painting whose meaning is constantly in flux: just as authors of popular religious texts ask readers to forge new connections and ideas, in the panel John the Baptist encourages viewers to form their own thoughts about the figures and divine mysteries represented.

In the penultimate chapter Solum turns to the altarpiece’s striking landscape—its vertiginous walkways, craggy cliffs, shadowy recesses, trees (many of which have their branches cut), and flower-dotted patches of green grass, such as the one that serves as a bed for the infant Christ. Once again she suggests that devotional books, many examples of which were read or written by women, provide the key to unlocking the significance of this setting. Gardening—more specifically, the act of pruning a garden in order to encourage growth in healthy stems and branches—is used as a metaphor for confession, penance, and contemplation; one must eliminate superfluous thoughts to reach an ideal state during the devotional process (175). The axe in the foreground, a detail recalling biblical passages (Matthew 3:10 and Luke 3:9) in which the Baptist threatens to “cut down and cast into the fire” trees not producing good fruit and sometimes understood by scholars as a threat to anyone who might contest Medici authority, here evokes instead behaviors that help one remain a good Christian.

The landscape also functioned, Solum states, as a reminder, indeed a close visual approximation (185), of an actual locale: the area around Camaldoli in the Casentino, a mountainous region of the Arno valley east of Florence that was home to a hermitage used by the Camaldolese order, founded by the Romuald whose mysterious visage appears in Lippi’s altarpiece. The Camaldolese hermits who lived in the Casentino were the recipients, from at least 1460, of patronage and support from the Medici, and Lucrezia was particularly devoted to Romuald. The painted landscape could, potentially, transport the pious Lucrezia, and perhaps even her in-laws, from their urban palace to a “high and holy terrain” (186) as they stood or knelt before the painting. Solum goes on to connect the iconography of the ascent to ideas about devotional practice. In a number of vernacular texts, climbing a mountain or stairway is “a metaphor for renunciation and spiritual transcendence,” and at the end of the journey one is typically rewarded with a “divine encounter” often compared to a lush garden (186–90). Although one finds the flowerbed beneath Christ in the foreground of Lippi’s painting, making it, in the composition, a gateway permitting access to the ascending, rocky paths rather than their culmination, it is for Solum the “outcome of the climb” (192). Solum’s suggestion recalls what Megan Holmes, in her monograph on Lippi (Fra Filippo Lippi: The Carmelite Painter, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, 182), similarly emphasizes, though in more general terms: that the altarpiece stimulated “contemplative pilgrimage” and “meditation” apart from the urban, secular world.

In stressing the devotional function of Lippi’s painting Solum implicitly backs away from some analyses that read the axe as threatening. This is not to say that she ignores Lucrezia’s political stature or the political significance of the altarpiece. Rather, she reconfigures traditional discussions of the painting’s connection to Medici power. For Solum, the work does not speak to those who might have challenged the Medici, which seems appropriate given the painting’s status as a private work. Rather, the sacred figures who guide viewers into Lippi’s rugged landscape offered the Medici, many of whom appear in the retinues of the earthly kings frescoed on the chapel’s walls by Benozzo Gozzoli around the same time, a stern lesson about the importance of penitence, devotion, and contemplation. It showed them (203) how they could expiate the sinfulness of their usurious practices and of the nefarious acts that allowed them to maintain their regime. Lucrezia, as patron of the work, is thus cast as the family’s savior—its “spiritual beacon” (195).

Even as she hypothesizes that the Medici men would have tried to walk the painting’s devotional path (195 and 245), in places Solum also hints that, for them, the road to salvation was rocky and impossible to climb (e.g., 98 and 100–101). Because numerous elements in the painting are keyed to ideas about female spirituality (213), it is, according to Solum, Lucrezia (“an extraordinarily pious woman”; 249) who would have used the altarpiece’s images to achieve the “renunciatory mind-set that ensured sacramental grace” (100). One wonders, however, if Lucrezia—pious perhaps but also, as her letters reveal, deeply involved in Medici politics—could have freed herself from the concerns of her highly charged political environment. And if the Medici men faced obstacles in practicing penitence and meditative devotion, similarly one wonders how the altarpiece could have led to their salvation. (In places Solum seems to suggest that the men might have focused on the images of the Virgin and Christ [203 and 245] as figures that betoken salvation in and of themselves.) However that may be, Lucrezia certainly pursued a religious ideal embodied by the saints, exemplified in religious texts, and outlined in devotional literature. Solum’s ingenious utilization of such evidence yields a fascinating hypothesis concerning Lucrezia’s role in influencing the creation of a major fifteenth-century painting, as well as a reconstruction of her inner life of prayer and rich religious imagination.

Amy R. Bloch
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University at Albany, State University of New York