Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2023
Antonia Fondaras Augustinian Art and Meditation in Renaissance Florence: The Choir Altarpieces of Santo Spirito 1480–1510 Series: Brill's Studies on Art, Art History, and Intellectual History, Volume: 308/42. Brill, 2020. 370 pp.; 60 color ills. Hardback € 143.00 (9789004401143)

Presiding majestically over a large and often lively piazza in Florence’s Oltrarno neighborhood, the Basilica di Santo Spirito is one of the most harmonious of all the city’s churches. The early Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi designed it for a community of Augustinian Hermits and, even though the church remained unfinished at his death in 1446 and was completed not entirely to his specifications thereafter, it bears his strong imprint. Recalling early Christian basilicas, the Latin-cross church has a flat-roofed nave supported by Corinthian columns that spring from rounded arches. The creamy white intonaco walls are minimally articulated with pietra serena. Geometric forms divide the building into clear spatial units. The umbrella-domed crossing and three arms of the transept are equally sized squares. Smaller squares, each crowned with a sail vault, define the outer bays. Most distinctively, thirty-eight chapels ring the building on three sides. Semicircular niches, they are elevated two steps above the rest of the church. Based on where Brunelleschi is said to have wanted to place the altars within them—centered rather than set against the wall so that a priest could celebrate the mass versus populum in the tradition of the early church, the architect most likely envisioned the chapels without altarpieces.   

In recent years art historians studying Santo Spirito, such as Richard Goldthwaite, Jill Burke, and Jonathan Nelson, have concentrated on the patronage of this mendicant church and how it relates to the power dynamics of the surrounding neighborhood and city. Surviving documents record the city’s contribution of seed money for the church’s construction and the additional funds that individuals and families donated in exchange for patronage rights of the chapels. Voting with black or white beans, the church’s lay building committee, or opera, decided how to assign the chapels, reserving for themselves the most coveted ones near the choir. After construction concluded in the 1480s, patrons began outfitting their chapels. Contrary to Brunelleschi’s wishes, they commissioned altarpieces. The architecture allows one altarpiece to be easily compared to another, and patrons and artists, including Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi, were motivated to put their best foot forward. A significant number of the altarpieces survive, either in situ or in museums, and often still have their original frames. Many of them have been the subject of individual studies.   

In this new book on Santo Spirito, Antonia Fondaras departs from the usual focus on its patrons and artists. She turns attention instead to the resident Augustinian friars by recognizing their agency in shaping their place of worship for their own institutional and spiritual needs. One of the Augustinian order’s largest houses, Santo Spirito housed a renowned studium generale (school of theology) and a major library where friars engaged in scholarly pursuits. Fondaras argues that these sophisticated friars played a pervasive role in the altarpieces created for their church. With its emphasis on Augustinian philosophy and its relation to images, the book fits well within Brill’s interdisciplinary series Studies in Art, Art History, and Intellectual History.   

A model of organization, this book is divided into two major parts. Part one, “The Influence of the Friars,” gives an overview of the Augustinians, their theological beliefs, and the church of Santo Spirito and its decoration in the fifteenth century. Part two, “Art and Meditation in the Santo Spirito Choir,” offers chapter-length case studies of four of the church’s altarpieces dating between 1480 and 1510: Botticelli’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist (Bardi altarpiece) of 1484; Piero di Cosimo’s Visitation with Saints Nicholas of Bari and Anthony Abbot (Capponi altarpiece) of about 1490; Filippino Lippi’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Martin of Tours, Catherine of Alexandria, and John the Baptist (Nerli altarpiece) of about 1494; and Agnolo del Mezziere’s Holy Trinity with Saints Magdalen and Catherine of Alexandria (Corbinelli altarpiece) of 1495–1502. The book is based on the author’s 2011 dissertation advised by Meredith Gill, whose own studies of Augustinian art in the Renaissance are fundamental, and Fondaras demonstrates excellent command of the literature on the religious order, Santo Spirito, and Renaissance Florence.  

Santo Spirito’s altarpieces benefit from being studied together. Doing so immediately reveals common features, including a prevalence of panel paintings in the tavola quadrata format. Most measure around seventy-five inches square. The shape and size allowed the altarpieces to fit neatly in a chapel between the altar and a tall and slender window. While Brunelleschi may have wanted the altars to be bare, he had previously prescribed this type of altarpiece for San Lorenzo. Employing it likely represents a compromise between the architect’s ideal for Santo Spirito and the needs of the patrons and friars for imagery. The uniform format helped maintain the homogeneity among the chapels that documents show the friars and opera desired.

In Santo Spirito’s works of art Fondaras identifies the saints whose lives were especially meaningful to the Augustinians, such as the hermit Anthony Abbott and the erudite Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Christological and Marian subjects are represented in ways consistent with the teachings of Saint Augustine, the order’s putative founder. In recognition of this particular church’s dedication, the dove of the Holy Spirit also recurs in its decoration.

Santo Spirito’s high altar and wooden choir stalls occupied the crossing, and a choir screen, or tramezzo, further defined the sacred space. Twenty-four of the thirty-eight chapels were beyond the barrier. Fondaras contends that the resident friars exerted their influence most strongly on the altarpieces in this zone, where their presence and devotional activities were most concentrated. The patrons of these chapels, such as the Corbellini, Frescobaldi, and Nardi families, had longstanding relationships with Santo Spirito that went back to the medieval church that preceded Brunelleschi’s. Fondaras envisions the iconography of the choir altarpieces being determined during three-way conversations between the friars, patrons, and artists. 

No fewer than eight of the fifteenth-century choir altarpieces are sacra conversazioni with two saints on either side of the central subject, usually the Madonna and Child. The theme emphasizes the Virgin’s role as intercessor. Favorite saints of the friars and their patrons stand, sit, or kneel nearby, acting as intermediaries and modeling appropriate behavior, such as adoration, reading, and writing. These symmetrical compositions adhere to principals established in Brunelleschi’s architecture. Fondaras eloquently describes how the clustering of these sacra conversazioni around the choir establishes it as a Marian space and surrounds it with the Court of Heaven.     

Fondaras also identifies fascinating ways that the Santo Spirito altarpieces often blur the line between painting and reality by incorporating aspects of the church’s architecture in their compositions. Pietro del Donzello’s Annunciation, for example, is set in an interior that mirrors the choir. The vegetal niches in the background of Filippino Lippi’s Nerli altarpiece mimic the chapels. Piero di Cosimo’s Visitation is one of several altarpieces with a rose-hued ground resembling the terracotta floor. For the resident Augustinian Hermits and other viewers, these altarpieces created a sense of shared space with sacred subjects and invited a deeper form of contemplation.   

In the second half of the book, Fondaras offers close readings of four choir altarpieces that she identifies as being visually rich, iconographically discursive, and rhetorically demanding. Through her multilayered and nuanced analyses, she helps readers understand how Santo Spiritos’s Augustinian masters of theology and their students would have seen and used these images. Vast background landscapes, secondary narrative scenes, and inscriptions in these paintings served to encourage engaged viewing and prolonged meditation. While the central subject of the altarpieces could be seen from a distance, these other elements would have usually been visible only to the Augustinian Hermits in the choir.

Part two of the book is abundantly illustrated with comparative illustrations for the Santo Spirito altarpieces, but there are far fewer images in part one. There are no images of the church exterior, which would help give a sense of place, and only two photographs of its interior. More views of the many altarpieces that remain in situ would have been helpful, as would photomontages placing those altarpieces now in museums in their original locations. All this would have supported the author’s discussion of the experiences Augustinian Hermits had in the church while encountering these altarpieces. The book’s small size is in keeping with the Brill series to which it belongs, but a larger format would have allowed bigger images for readers to see more of the details to which Fondaras points in the architecture and altarpieces.

This deeply researched book is a major contribution to the literature on Santo Spirito, one of Florence’s most important Renaissance churches and a center of humanist thought. It is replete with new insights about how Augustinian friars pursued their spiritual and intellectual goals through altarpieces set within Brunelleschi’s elegant and austere architecture. This book also contributes to our understanding of the prominent role mendicant friars could play in the decoration of their churches, including in the private chapels where art historians have often assumed they had less control.

Trinita Kennedy
Senior curator, Frist Art Museum