Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 28, 2016
Julia I. Miller and Laurie Taylor-Mitchell From Giotto to Botticelli: The Artistic Patronage of the Humiliati in Florence University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015. 264 pp.; 34 color ills.; 47 b/w ills. Cloth $74.95 (9780271065038)

Julia I. Miller and Laurie Taylor-Mitchell’s From Giotto to Botticelli: The Artistic Patronage of the Humiliati in Florence, a long-awaited study on art related to the Humiliati (“humbled ones”), provides a fresh approach to examining the patronage of religious orders. Originating in the eleventh century near Milan, the Humiliati were officially recognized by Pope Innocent III in 1201 and the male branch suppressed in 1571, following the failed assassination of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in 1569 that was attempted by its members. Rather than focusing upon a particular moment in the order’s history, the book traces the entire span of Humiliati art at a single location, the church of Ognissanti, Florence. It undertakes this task chronologically by interweaving the group’s institutional and local history with works of art created for the site—with an occasional glance beyond Florence—from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century.

Chapter 1 reviews the order’s origins, the circumstances that led to its arrival in Florence (1239), and the early church of Ognissanti (begun 1250). Chapter 2 treats initial images from the site: three paintings by or attributed to Giotto di Bondone (the Ognissanti Madonna [ca. 1310], the recently restored monumental Crucifix [ca. 1310], and the horizontal gabled Dormition of the Virgin [ca. 1310–15]); a panel by Bernardo Daddi (1328); and less-known frescoes from the campanile chapel (ca. 1310) and the sacristy (1350s). It concludes with two panels (ca. 1310) from the now-destroyed church of Santa Maddalena, Pistoia, among the earliest known works from a Humiliati site. Chapter 3 is devoted primarily to Giovanni da Milano’s polyptych (1360–63), executed for the high altar of Ognissanti. This is followed by an analysis of the 1369 Annunciation fresco from the counter-facade (one of several local “copies” created after the miraculous fresco in Santissima Annunziata) and the Gucci Chapel (dated 1375), the only space within the interior to survive, more or less intact, subsequent modifications to the site. Discussion then turns to the later fourteenth-century frescoes at San Pietro, Viboldone, near Milan, the earliest documented Humiliati foundation (1176) and briefly considers works from San Tommaso, Siena, and San Michele, Paganico, concluding with remarks on the order’s relationship to miraculous images.

The subsequent chapters are devoted exclusively to works from Ognissanti: Donatello’s bronze Reliquary Bust of San Rossore (1422–25) (in chapter 4); the frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli (in chapter 5); the glazed terra-cotta lunette over the main portal (ca. 1510–20), attributed to Benedetto Buglioni; works by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (ca. 1530); and a panel by Rosso Fiorentino (1518) that never made it to the site (in chapter 6). This last chapter concludes with a discussion of the final removal of the brothers from Ognissanti by Pope Pius IV in 1561, with the support of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. The epilogue explores the transformation of Humiliati spaces, proposing their former churches served as sites of remembrance through the display of objects related to St. Carlo Borromeo. This final section strengthens the structure of the book and validates its approach by providing a strong case for the power and ability of images, as well as relics, to make simultaneous, subtle links to the past and statements about the present.

The Humiliati were not a mendicant order, and their fundamentally different relationship to commercial activity (cloth production) and money initially generated a certain amount of independence. The brothers at Ognissanti did not, Miller and Taylor-Mitchell argue, rely upon lay patrons for the decoration of their church before the mid-fourteenth century. In contrast, lay patrons were active from an earlier date in Franciscan and Dominican churches, as discussed, for example, by Joanna Cannon in Religious Poverty, Visual Riches: Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). Further, the Humiliati lacked a founder and a saint they could call their own (the “probably apocryphal” Giovanni da Meda [d. 1149?] was promoted only from the fifteenth century), elements that play out in their dedications and the selection of saints used in their images. Part of the book’s contribution is thus to offer an alternative narrative to the more widely understood mendicant story and to present a Humiliati “ideology” apparent in the images commissioned for their churches.

From Giotto to Botticelli provides compelling evidence for just how this ideology was visualized. The earliest fourteenth-century works reflect two “contradictory motives”: the “promotion of humility and charity and the celebration of wealth and power” (23). The principles remained important. For example, the founding ideals are expressed in the subtle details of Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna (the tightening of the cloth around the Virgin’s breasts as a sign of maternal nourishment and charity; the placement of angels below saints, an inversion of the hierarchy and a reflection of humility; the gray-white cloak of the Virgin as a reference to the group’s own habit and to simplicity) and, around two centuries later, in Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Coronation of the Virgin (ca. 1530), where similar virtues are espoused through the color of the Virgin’s dress and in the gesture of her crossed arms. However, there was also a shift of emphasis to clerical concerns, as the Humiliati’s “art became more didactic and dogmatic” (2), exemplified by the complex theological program of Giovanni da Milano’s Coronation of the Virgin or by Botticelli’s Saint Augustine (ca. 1480). One of the innovative and exciting aspects of this study is its invitation to imagine works from different periods together and in dialogue, as a late fifteenth-century observer might have viewed them, and thus to read them in tandem and across time as part of a shared visual vocabulary that resonated at the site.

Miller and Taylor-Mitchell convincingly relate details found in works from Ognissanti and their repetition over time with Humiliati concerns. Yet some conclusions, such as the location of Giotto’s Ognissanti Madonna on the high altar and its intended audience, will surely continue to be discussed among specialists. The authors also pay heed to the many interests involved and show how the reliance on Dominican models intensified from the mid-fourteenth century, seen in the impressive case made for the formal and symbolic relationship between the Gucci Chapel and the Strozzi Chapel (probably 1340s) in Santa Maria Novella (70–73) or, stepping outside Florence, between the frescoes depicting the Doctors of the Church in San Pietro, Viboldone (ca. 1360), and those showing Dominicans at study in the Dominican church of San Nicolò, Treviso (ca. 1351) (76–78).

It is crucial to emphasize that by “patronage” Miller and Taylor-Mitchell do not always refer to the patron of a work of art. Embedded within this term are a variety of actors. Definitions of patronage have become increasingly flexible, as scholars recognize a variety of different voices or concerns within an individual work, including even that of the audience. Such a broad understanding is surely implicit in From Giotto to Botticelli, but this could have been more directly addressed. One might ask, for example, the degree to which Giotto’s Crucifix (ca. 1310) on the tramezzo, the 1369 Annunciation on the counter-facade (with its pro remedio animae inscription and depiction of a lay donor), and Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Trinity (ca. 1530) in the former Rustici Chapel can all reflect the same Humiliati agenda, given the fundamentally different contexts for their commissions. The question might be raised here just how much agency can or should be attributed to the artists themselves.

Also, a more comprehensive investigation of patronage by the Florentine brothers beyond Ognissanti would enrich the book’s perspective. Miller and Taylor-Mitchell discuss the sites under their jurisdiction and management, such as, from 1335/36, San Michele, Cigoli, with its miracle-working polychrome wood relief of the Madonna and Child that inspired two artistic commissions by the brothers: a marble tabernacle (1381) and the mid-fifteenth-century frescoes surrounding the Madonna (82–85). The fact that the Florentine house was called to manage this Madonna in view of the disputes then taking place between the priest and a confraternity raises many of the complications entailed by “patronage,” which could have been explored in more detail. Moreover, readers are told about a “copy” made after this image (the so-called Madonna dei Vetturini, ca. 1360s) for Santa Maria della Spina, Pisa. This created what Megan Holmes would call a “satellite cult site” (Megan Holmes, The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, 177) (click here for review). Consideration of this case might offer additional evidence for the brothers’ patronage and “influence.” Finally, there is Santa Lucia sul Prato, the brothers’ second house in Florence (from 1250; just around the corner from Ognissanti), which they retained until 1547. It is worth noting that this site possessed one of the so-called Bianchi crucifixes (this fourteenth-century painted wood crucifix—mentioned by Holmes as lost [48–49]—was discovered in 2010, subsequently restored, and has been on display at the site since 2014). More significant to the case at hand is the fourteenth-century Annunciation fresco still in situ. While Miller and Taylor-Mitchell state that there are two “copies” of the Santissima Annunziata fresco in Humiliati churches (68), the version in Santa Lucia and its relationship to the brothers deserve more careful scrutiny within the framework of the book’s theme.

From Giotto to Botticelli is an important contribution to the study of an often neglected religious order. It will undoubtedly serve as model for future studies on the visual culture of the Humiliati and hopefully, as the book’s appendix surely intends, spur future work on less-studied sites, including those of the female houses, such as Santa Marta in Montughi (Florence). The book also provides another model for breaking down period boundaries and envisaging images and objects as communicating through the centuries.

Jessica N. Richardson
Wissenschaftliche Assistentin, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz–Max-Planck-Institut