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Eckstein, Nicholas A., ed., The Brancacci Chapel: Form, Function and Setting: Acts of an International Conference, Florence, Villa I Tatti, June 6, 2003.

Eckstein, Nicholas A., ed., The Brancacci Chapel: Form, Function and Setting: Acts of an International Conference, Florence, Villa I Tatti, June 6, 2003 (Villa I Tatti; The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies 22), Florence, Leo S. Olschki Publishing, 2007; hardback; pp. 237; 57 b/w & 6 colour illustrations; R.R.P. US$50.00; ISBN 9788822256508.

Any new book on a work of art as celebrated as the Brancacci Chapel mural painting cycle, especially one that proposes to advance new interpretations rather than reprise old ones, will surely prompt the question whether such a project can be sustained. Even if no new archival evidence directly relating to the commission for the paintings has been unearthed, or new technical information about their materials and technique revealed through scientific studies, the answer in this case is an emphatic 'yes'. For the wealth of historical evidence brought to bear on the discussion of the social, political, and ecclesiastical contexts of the commission provides more plausible and complete answers to the questions that have long faced students of the Chapel.

The editor, Nicholas Eckstein, is Cassamarca Senior Lecturer in Italian History at The University of Sydney, and has previously written on the predominantly working-class neighbourhood surrounding the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in which the Brancacci Chapel is found, just south of the Arno River in Florence. In 2003, he brought together an international panel of Renaissance scholars for a conference on the topic of the Chapel, held at the Villa I Tatti near Florence. In his introduction, Eckstein explains that he consciously chose to balance the number of contributions by historians and art historians in order to compare the kinds of conclusions they made. Another pertinent fact about the contributors is that of the nine whose papers are published, four are of Australian origin. This reflects the now recognised specialisation, even if recent by European standards, of Australian scholars in the fields of Florentine Renaissance history and art history.

Eckstein begins the discussion by connecting the scenes in the mural paintings of Peter's miraculous healings and almsgiving, to the social context of the neighbourhood surrounding the church, and in particular to the charitable work undertaken by its leading citizens, some of whom were also supporters of the church and its related activities. Notably, the Brancacci family had long been active in the Confraternity of Sant'Agnese, one of the more prominent providers of charity in the quarter, which distributed bread to the needy at Easter and Christmas. The Confraternity met in the church, and, perhaps significantly, its altarpiece of the Virgin and Child (called the Madonna del Popolo) was installed in the Brancacci Chapel in the second half of the fifteenth century.

The idea of patrons wishing to allude to their charitable acts in artworks is, of course, not new. Rogier van der Weyden's monumental altarpiece for the Baune Hospital depicts the patron, Chancellor Rolin, in the context of the Last Judgment. This is precisely the moment when he might have hoped Christ would recognise and reward his charitable foundation of the Hospital whose chapel the painting adorns. This magisterial vision of Heaven and Hell contrasts starkly with the familiar mise en scene in the Brancacci Chapel paintings.

Eckstein's argument that the Carmelites favoured an association of the humble neighbourhood of their church with biblical and hagiographic narratives in order to promote the authority of their order locally, is taken up by Megan Holmes (discussing in part the visual arts), Nerida Newbigin (looking at sacred theatre), and Peter Howard (focusing on a Carmelite liturgical text). The Carmelites traced the history of their order to the time of Christ, and Saint Peter, in particular, was said to have been a witness to their early activities in the Holy Land, and they to his. Thus, in celebrating this Apostle, they were reminding their audience of the antiquity of their order, and so its authority. This helps to account for the dedication of the cycle to Saint Peter, as does the name of the founder of the Chapel in 1367: Piero (i.e. Peter) Brancacci, distant relative of the better known Felice Brancacci, who seems to have held the patronage rights over the Chapel during the time of its decoration in the second half of the 1420s.

Furthermore, the Carmelites championed the canonisation of a local man, and one of their own, Andrea Corsini, in ways that invoked a similar set of associations: the importance of the Madonna del Popolo to local women (it miraculously aided his conception), the church as a site of miracles (where Andrea's ghost was said to have foretold a great military victory for Florence), his miraculous cures (as a sign of his holiness), and the use of Saint Peter as a template for his hagiography. The articulation of such associations exemplifies what may be this volume's most important contribution to study Brancacci Chapel scholarship. These chains of associations were generated by the Carmelites through their liturgy, programmes of artistic decoration, and theatrical performances. Through them, they linked the humblest of the parish's local citizens with their wealthier neighbours and the confraternity they supported, together with the Carmelites and their richly embellished church and convent, including the brother they promoted for sainthood, reaching all the way back to the biblical tradition on which their order was founded. Coincidentally, further evidence of this pattern was recently to be seen in Australia. The Medieval Imagination exhibition, held at the State Library of Victoria in 2008, included a fourteenth-century illumination showing the martyrdom of Saint Peter that was originally from a laudario belonging to the Confraternity of Sant'Agnese (on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge).

Christa Gardner von Teuffel's essay in this book looks specifically at the Mariology of the Carmelites, the confraternity, and the Brancacci, through the prism of the Madonna del Popolo and its history, before and after being placed in the Brancacci Chapel. The essay of the late Rona Goffen convincingly accounts for the prominent depictions of Adam and Eve in the cycle. Carl Brandon Strehlke and Cecilia Frosinini (the latter writing in Italian) approach the subject more from the artists' perspective. Strehlke provides a stimulating account of the significance their styles might have held for patrons in the early decades of the fifteenth century in Florence, while Frosinini provides an intricately detailed study of the social and professional associations between the artists, their neighbourhood colleagues, and the church.

An interesting aspect of Masolino and Masaccio's collaboration, briefly commented on here by Frosinini, but discussed by the author in greater detail elsewhere, is that prior to working on the Brancacci Chapel they collaborated on the Carnesecchi altarpiece in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence--with Uccello also, according to a number of sixteenth-century sources. On this work, Masolino took the more prominent role of painting the altarpiece, while Masaccio had to be content with executing the predella, and Uccello is said to have painted the vault above. This provides some support to Strehlke's supposition that Masolino was initially the leading artistic contractor in the Brancacci Chapel, even if he rapidly became an equal partner to Masaccio in its execution. Moreover, the Saint Julian panel from the Carnesecchi altarpiece exhibits something of the knightly, aristocratic style that Strehlke argues the Brancacci would have employed Masolino to provide.

The diversity of approaches and historical detail in these essays make this book an important resource for anyone wishing to learn about the Chapel. If anything, it suggests the need for some further clarification. Since the cleaning of the paintings, Heinrich Brockhaus' old proposal that any portraits of the Brancacci family in the Chapel must have been defaced following their exile from Florence has been supported by Ornella Casazza, and rejected by Paul Joannides, but is passed over here without comment. Yet the absence of an obvious donor portrait in the cycle is notable, and the hypothesis is certainly relevant to the political context of the Brancacci and their patronage, a subject addressed in Dale Kent's discussion of the letters written to Cosimo de' Medici by Felice Brancacci during his exile.

It is not unusual for Italian Renaissance paintings to bear the scars of zealous worshippers who have defaced depictions of devils or other miscreants. Indeed, Filippino Lippi's portrait of Piero del Pugliesi, painted in the middle of the Raising of the Son of Theophilus and Saint Peter Enthroned scene during the latter part of the fifteenth century, itself seems to have been defaced, judging by the severe scratching that mars his face but no other adjacent area. As the most certain portrait of a contemporary figure in the Chapel--it is recognisably the same as Filippino's portrait of Piero as the donor in the Vision of Saint Bernard, housed in the Badia in Florence--it is a key to unlocking the contemporary significance of the Chapel. Why was he painted here? Was it because his family had a chapel of their own nearby in the same church? And why might anyone have been unhappy enough about his presence to deface his image?

Granted, it is difficult to argue on the basis of an absence of evidence, however, Casazza'a observation that a head of a Carmelite by Masaccio at the left of the scene was painted around by Lippi is surely correct. The intonaco (top layer of plaster) exhibits the rough surface of Masaccio and Masolino's time, rather than the finer quality intonaco of Lippi's. It seems slightly more likely that figures earlier painted by Masaccio were replaced by Lippi, than that Masaccio painted just a head in isolation, and stopped at that point. Is there an alternative explanation for why Lippi painted the group of men standing in the centre of the scene, between two other areas by Masaccio? In other words, might he have replaced figures by Masaccio there also?

Another aspect of the cycle worthy of investigation is the Classical style of the fictive, Corinthian, fluted pilasters framing the scenes. Could it be related to the promotion of the all'antica style described by Diane Finiello Zervas in her study of the Guelf Party's commissions to Brunelleschi and Donatello in the first decades of the fifteenth century, as a way of associating the Brancacci with the aristocratic taste of the Guelf Party, or, as the Guelf Party did, using the style to suggest (or invent) a venerable classical tradition for themselves? Or could it relate to the Carmelites' desire to allude to the antiquity of their order--or perhaps all of these?

Hugh Hudson

Honorary Research Fellow, Art History

School of Culture and Communication

University of Melbourne
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Author:Hudson, Hugh
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Date:Jul 1, 2008
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