Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 8, 2023
Joanne Allen Transforming the Church Interior in Renaissance Florence: Screens and Choir Spaces, from the Middle Ages to Tridentine Reform Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 367 pp.; 180 color ills. Cloth $100.00 (9781108985659)

Most people tempted by the title of this book probably know something about choir screens, especially those in Florence. We, as the author acknowledges, all owe a profound debt to Marica Hall’s work on Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, initially presented in Renovation and Counter-Reformation: Vasari and Duke Cosimo in Sta Maria Novella and Sta Croce (Oxford University Press, 1979). Her explanations for the dismantling of the screens in those two Florentine mendicant churches has shaped our collective understanding of Florentine tramezzi. Joanne Allen’s new book expands exponentially on that topic. She outlines the history, function, and meaning of several lesser-known choir screens in Florence that no longer exist. The book is dedicated, therefore, to the reconstructions of objects seldom preserved in the visual record and with problematic, to say the least, textual documentation. The author is to be commended for her courage and perseverance in working her way through this complex material. Her findings will be of great service to scholars interested in different aspects of church ritual and furniture. Indeed, the perspectives addressed in this book make a complete list of such fields impossible—but for art historians, it opens a path whereby we might begin to see the action in and for a church space in a much more holistic manner—not merely the work of artist and patron, but a reflection of the workings of a much broader group of actors.

The book addresses several important issues related to church furnishing in the Renaissance period. Allen’s dissertation from Warwick University, completed in 2009, focused on the choir stalls of north Italy. This is relevant because, although the book analyzes Florentine screens, the author is clearly well-versed in the wider history of screens in Italy. Inevitably, the more than a decade between the completion of the dissertation and this book has led to a lag in timing. I note, for example, that Geraldine Johnson’s “Embodying Devotion: Multisensory Encounters with Donatello’s Crucifix in S. Croce” on the wooden crucifix’s original home in a rood screen chapel does not appear in the bibliography. 

The approach taken by the author varies from chapter to chapter. The book begins using very broad strokes and slowly progresses to careful readings of more than 200 years of activity associated with exemplary parish churches in Florence. In each instance the available information is different in type, value, completeness and, thus, is treated in a different manner each time. Because of this diversity, it is worth considering some of the chapters’ contributions separately. But it should be underscored that the chief goal of the book—to articulate the divergent voices involved in the creation and, perhaps more clearly, dismantling of these objects and spaces—is maintained throughout.

The introduction sets the stage for understanding tramezzi and associated spaces. Throughout, the book considers the history of tramezzi together with the parallel shifts from nave choir to retrochoirs. This first chapter both outlines the Florentine history of these screens and choirs while noting when these developments are parallels to those taken elsewhere in Italy and abroad. At the conclusion of the chapter, the author articulates a key theme of her text—the shared role of powerful leaders both civic and religious (as it turns out), religious communities, and lay patrons (13). Chapter 1 covers even more ground—in it, Allen basically outlines what we know about screens from their ancient origins to the Renaissance. The evidence for all of this comes from extant screens, from contemporary texts, including literary evidence, from paintings and prints, and from documents published by modern scholars. It is not limited to Florence, not even to Italy and, therefore, some of the material is unfamiliar to the Italian-centric reader. Key ideas are first presented here—the link to pulpits, the role of the laity, the variability of effective visual and physical division—all of which reappear as essential aspects of tramezzi and retrochoir alterations later. A tremendous amount of research and material is marshalled in these forty or so pages. One aspect of the book that becomes noticeable early on is the foregrounding of the voices of previous scholars. Rather than make the argument and cite the sources that agree or disagree, this process is played out in the text itself (i.e. 44, 280). This is a useful guide to the variety of the author’s sources, it allows one to follow the complexity of the academic arguments and to understand the author’s developing position, but in conjunction with the equally extensive visual comparison, the reader is often left trying to balance widely disparate opinions.

Chapters 2 and 3 tell the story of the Florentine environment through important churches and examples, some of which might be familiar to the reader. First Allen focuses on the position, movement, and replacement of the choir space in the quattrocento, actions that were, surprisingly, frequently the work of lay patrons. Then she turns to the more consistent refashioning of liturgical space with the almost wholesale removal of tramezzi in the sixteenth century. Again, the wealth of research reveals that this process was not solely the work of Vasari and Cosimo I; their famous changes were part of a complex web of events, ideas, and patrons who, seen now from the distance of centuries, were all moving in a similar direction.

Chapters 4 through 7 address five relatively small Florentine churches by tracing their history as outlined earlier for more well-known churches—medieval situation, quattrocento adjustments, and late sixteenth-century refashioning. The churches considered make an interesting group—all famous but not for these issues: Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Trinità, San Pancrazio, San Pier Maggiore, Orsanmichele. In each case, the author displays her erudition and the complexity of the question by the diversity of source material—on tramezzi and choirs, but also on lay chapels, pictorial decoration, pulpits and ciboria, as well as the development of order-specific plans, the role of the laity and local secular government, the impact of private patronage, and the immense changes wrought by ducal authority and the Counter Reformation at the end of the sixteenth century. Each example yields surprising information, reshaping the readers’ knowledge of the church, its furniture, even its role in the local and civic community. One might imagine future scholars coming to each one of these chapters individually. Because the author addresses each church’s history in its entirety, the issue of the tramezzo and choir serves in each chapter to highlight that ritual space’s unique development. Its role within the larger sweep of Florentine history, the larger subject of the book, comes at the end of each chapter.

The ideas presented in the conclusion to each chapter—the roles of local families, civic institutions, outside events (such as the flood of 1557 which is mentioned several times but not indexed), shifting aesthetic taste and ritual expectations—form the foundation of the final chapter in which the author compares these histories with the role of the more famous “players”—Vasari, the Medici, and the Counter Reformation itself. Especially powerful was the argument linking Cosimo I and Pius IV. The material presented here—on individual churches and on the stages of Florentine removal of screens and shift to retrochoirs—will serve generations of scholars interested in the history of churches and church objects. The author asserts and justifies the aesthetic, functional, and symbolic role played by these lost or overlooked objects.

Because the audience for this material is likely to be varied, one issue might be considered for later print or digital editions. Since the physical examples are frequently no longer extant, the author uses a great deal of comparative material. This is helpful and in the long run expands the context and significance of what Allen is arguing. But it would be an extraordinary service to the reader to include geographical lists. It would have been useful to have charts that list country, city, church, choir, location, material, date of erection/date of dismantling, and pages where discussed (and illustrated) to which the reader could refer at will. The author frequently refers back to and sometimes ahead to when a screen had been or will be discussed, but a list would have avoided the necessity of these interruptions.

The numerous plans are critical and of great assistance to readers as they work their way through the stages of building, decoration, and dismantling. Overall, the book is lavishly illustrated, especially when one recalls that the subjects of the text, for the most part, are no longer available to be photographed. In some cases, the choice of illustrations seems perplexing. Why, for example, illustrate the ciborium owned by the National Gallery of Art (237)? Although once associated with San Pier Maggiore (chapter 6), this is no longer possible and, therefore, its presence here ambiguous unless the author wants to argue for its quattrocento authenticity which she does not (239). In any case the press and the author should be commended for including so many important and varying images.

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