Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 17, 2014
Anne Leader The Badia of Florence: Art and Observance in a Renaissance Monastery Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. 340 pp.; 205 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780253355676)

Any review of Anne Leader’s The Badia of Florence: Art and Observance in a Renaissance Monastery should begin with the fact that it is physically impressive at more than three hundred pages with over two hundred high-quality color photographs. In this beautiful setting Leader sets out to explain the early quattrocento changes that occurred in the oldest Florentine monastic foundation, the Benedictine abbey known for centuries simply as the Badia. She does this by considering three different aspects of the Badia’s history between roughly 1420 and 1440: the arrival of the Portuguese Abbot Gomezio di Giovanni and the impact of Benedictine Observant reform on the monastery, the subsequent decision to refurbish and expand the physical space in which the newly reformed monks lived, and the decoration of their cloister with an extended fresco cycle depicting the life of Saint Benedict. Leader succeeds in joining spiritual reform, architectural restoration, and narrative fresco cycle production into a single, overarching thesis about the effects of Observant patronage at the Benedictine monastery.

The Badia of Florence is in three parts. The first deals with the monastic community, its history, and the changes it underwent during the first half of the fifteenth century. Leader outlines the Badia’s complex history in relation to that of medieval Florence in a discussion that, while highly informative, is repetitive at times. Some aspects of that history are well known, for example, the legendary foundation of the monastery by Count Hugo of Tuscany and its actual foundation by his mother, Willa, but Leader expands this consideration to the physical reality of the Badia and its ties to surrounding institutions. She correctly emphasizes the Badia’s exceptional land wealth both within and outside the city walls, which influenced all choices made about the building and subsequent rebuilding of the monastic complex.

Much of what was known about the Badia before the church was extensively restructured in the seventeenth century is confused at best. Leader makes considerable progress clarifying the physical situation of the church and monastery. The second church on the site replaced an earlier, tenth-century structure; consecrated in 1310, the new building was assigned by Giorgio Vasari to Arnolfo di Cambio. In this case and throughout her study, Leader questions traditional attributions to “major” names with the exception of one artist, Fra Angelico. She rejects the role of Arnolfo in the trecento and that of Bernardo Rossellino in the quattrocento. Neither point is essential for the broader significance of the site, but a further consideration of both architects would have enriched her discussion. Leader is less concerned with connoisseurship than with the link between the monastic community and the surrounding city. This portion of the book makes fascinating reading, reminding us once again of the tight interweaving of Florentine architecture, politics, and religion.

Leader goes on to introduce the main characters in the story, both villains and heroes. The villains are the trecento abbots who held the monastery in commendam, residing elsewhere and overseeing the monastic community from a distance, even while profiting from its income. In 1419, the hero of Leader’s narrative, Abbot Gomezio di Giovanni of Lisbon, arrived to take over the post, marking the beginning of a new age. Gomezio was inspired by his mentor in Padua, Abbot Ludovico Barbo, founder of the Benedictine Observant congregation of Santa Giustina. Although Gomezio eventually withdrew from the Observant Congregation, Leader makes a strong case for the impact of his connection with Barbo on the Florentine monks’ spiritual reform and their monastery’s architectural revitalization. Through her emphasis on the ties between Gomezio and Barbo, Leader addresses the wider theme of spiritual reform in quattrocento Italy.

The middle section of the book considers the physical space of the monastery, specifically the cloister and the areas inhabited by the monks. Leader sees these as related both to traditions developed centuries earlier and to the new goals of the reforming abbot. This is a highly sophisticated reading of architecture and space. The careful description of the cloister represents an effective rethinking of the architecture, revealing how the slightly off-kilter space should be understood as a classically inspired and, therefore, Renaissance structure. Leader makes a good case for withdrawing the traditional attribution to Rossellino, but even if the reader accepts her proposal of Antonio di Domenco della Parte and Giovanni d’Antonio da Maiano, the precise nature of their roles still remains uncertain. The suggestion that the abbot should be considered as designer is a good one, and it makes sense of the emphasis throughout the book on the link between reform and “reformed” spaces. Nevertheless, the notion of patron as architect would have profited from further examples and comparisons. The associations drawn between Gomezio and Ambrogio Traversari and, therefore, between the Badia and Santa Maria degli Angeli are valuable. Treating Cosimo de’ Medici as a link to the Dominicans and San Marco is also highly suggestive of the competitive, self-publicizing goals of lay and religious patrons alike, and it successfully underscores the complex relationship between the Badia and political life in Florence.

Two final chapters are devoted to the partially preserved fresco cycle that lines the cloister walls, consisting of thirteen scenes drawn from the life of Saint Benedict. First is an analysis of their content, including the fascinating portraits and texts included on the dado level. Leader makes a strong case for assuming that the abrupt end of the cycle was not intended, and she convincingly links many of the exemplary details and the related inscriptions to the abbot’s spiritual goals. She notes an emphasis on the Benedictine Rule in terms of narrative choices and the repetitive appearances of the written rule itself as a large red-covered book held by Benedict. Central to Leader’s argument about the selection of scenes, presumably the prerogative of Gomezio, but implicitly by Fra Angelico, are changes, some subtle, others more pronounced, between this cycle and its Florentine predecessor, the frescoes by Spinello Aretino in the sacristy of San Miniato al Monte. More about that cycle would have enhanced an appreciation of differences between the two programs. Although not commented on by Leader, there is a striking emphasis on painted architecture in the Badia cycle: the architecture is not simply backdrop; it is often being built, sat in, passed through, even collapsing. Surely for monks who had been living through major construction, the careful attention to architectural realities would have forcefully reminded them of their own experiences.

The cycle has presented a conundrum for modern scholars ever since the sinopie were discovered in the 1950s. The significant differences between these and the frescoes as executed allow Leader to formulate a clear distinction between the artist who made the underdrawings and the painter or painters who did the frescoes. Leader carefully compares the visual information, arguing cogently for the greater sophistication of the sinopie over the frescoes in which extensive misunderstandings of the original designs are visible. She attributes the designs (as recorded in the sinopie) to Fra Angelico. She compares two overdoors, one at San Marco, the other at the Badia, with similar sinopie, but she makes no broader attempt to review the issue of drawings and workshop intervention at San Marco. Leader dismisses the Portuguese painter Giovanni di Consalvo as merely an assistant because he is recorded as an errand runner of little account and because she assumes that nationality is of little interest. Yet campanilismo is not a modern invention, and Gomezio’s continued ties with his native land suggest the possibility, at least, of his willingness to hire a co-national (Portuguese) painter. In the last chapter Leader presents the less capable Zanobi Strozzi as the painter of the frescoes. Oddly, despite Leader’s argument that Angelico was engaged in the project, one has the sense that Abbot Gomezio avoided hiring the most famous artists and architects, choosing instead to work with masters in all media whose chief qualification was their willingness to follow his orders.

Publishers (and readers, I presume) seem increasingly uninterested in citations. For a text of almost three hundred pages, there are twelve pages of very short endnotes. Many of the relevant documents are in Leader’s dissertation, “The Florentine Badia: Monastic Reform in Mural and Cloister,” completed in 2000 for the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. They might profitably have been included in the published version. Another aspect of the book that could reflect decisions made by the publisher is the arrangement and order of the lavish illustrations. The reader must work to make sense of their placement within the text and in relation to each other. Nevertheless, a sign of a book worth reading is that it generates as many new questions as it answers. Leader’s work does that while adding immeasurably to our store of knowledge on the Badia in the quattrocento.

Shelley E. Zuraw
Associate Professor, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia