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The arts of the other friars: cultural production of the smaller mendicant orders in the early modern period.

In the last three decades, the study of artistic patronage in Renaissance Italy has been redirected from private, individual to collective commissions for art works. Apart from confraternities and their artistic commissions in the early modern period (Wisch and Ahl), attention has also been paid to religious orders, as their strategy towards the visual arts had a widespread effect on the popularity of certain themes and even forms in the rest of Europe and beyond. In this context, mendicant orders are of particular interest since they followed the rule of absolute poverty that prohibited possessions in general and thus, strictly speaking, the commissioning of art works. However, from the beginning, private individuals from the urban elite stepped in and adorned mendicant churches with works of art on their own account. This generosity resulted in a long-standing, complicated relationship between mendicant orders and art. Following the Council of Trent, which ordered religious orders to return to strict observance of their original rules, once again absolute poverty became the norm for mendicants (Jedin 360-74). But at the same time, visual culture came to play an important role in strengthening Catholic devotion, and new orders, such as the Jesuits, adorned their churches with opulent displays of painting and sculpture (Wittkower; Levy 72-108). Mendicant orders could not ignore this development and, therefore, often continued to employ art in liturgical and devotional contexts.

From the start, research on mendicant orders and the arts in the early modern period was dominated by the study of Dominicans and Franciscans. Vasari already emphasized the role of these two orders in the promotion of new artistic styles in his vita of Ugolina (139). In the late nineteenth century, Henri Thode reconfirmed this interpretation in his study of the impact of Franciscan spirituality on the nascent naturalistic style of the early Renaissance. Religious identity and artistic patronage were thus seen as closely linked. The stress on Dominicans and Franciscans in art historical research might also be due to the fact that both had been founded by charismatic leaders (Bourdua and Dunlop 9). These saints imbued their orders with aesthetic values and distinctive character and themselves became the object of artistic expression. Establishing a decorative style about a recognizable, universally-known founder is far easier than to create an image for an order centered on an unfamiliar or historical personage from a very distant past. Hansen discussed the latter case in her study of the iconography of the Augustinian Order. The lack of a real founder who had started the regular community, and the fact that the order was a combination of three existing religious movements under the new heading of the Augustinian Rule, led to the adoption of the Church Father from Hippo as founding father, but he could only with difficulty be claimed as an exclusive image for the order (Hansen).

Moreover, research on mendicant patronage was also heavily influenced by a historiographic peculiarity. Traditionally, regulars and friars wrote the history of their own orders, and this practice led to a stress on their individual traits (Cuthbert; Smet). However, liturgy, methods of prayer, meditation, and contemplation often did not vary much between the different orders. Indeed, it is more fruitful to talk about the general trends in religious life during the early modern period, to which each order contributed its own particular variant. However, studies on the patronage of religious orders have been strongly affected by the internalist perspective; a case in point is the way the Jesuits have been studied. The emphasis on a particular Jesuit spirituality, based on the Ignatian Exercises, has led to studies in which this uniqueness functions as an explanation for the assumed singularity of Jesuit art. This idea was first proposed by Walter Weibel in his book, Jesuitismus und Barockskulptur in Rom (1909) and is still perpetuated today as seen in a recent collection of essays under the title The Jesuits and the Arts, 1540-1773 (2005) (O'Malley and Bailey). The same issue of supposed exclusivity goes for the study of mendicant orders. This perspective was applied to the Franciscans, whose particular piety, according to Rona Goffen's interpretation, informed the iconography of altarpieces by Bellini and Titian and, more generally, Marian adoration in Venice. The search for the effect of Capuchin devotion on the visual arts followed a similar trajectory (Goffen; Lingo). In these studies, the impact of Vasari, Thode, and others can still be felt, even though their suppositions are no longer strictly followed. But the effect is that artistic patronage of the mendicant orders is often still interpreted as an expression of something unique and as a unified and centralized strategy towards the arts.

The question is whether these conclusions on mendicant patronage drawn from research on the Franciscan and Dominican orders are also valid for other mendicant communities in the early modern period. In order to gain more insight into the issue of patronage in the smaller mendicant orders, the following articles reflect upon artistic and architectural expressions of specific mendicant identities and place these in local and international contexts so as to explore how these smaller mendicant orders dealt with private individuals commissioning works of art and how they accommodated central regulations with local circumstances. Two orders in particular are dealt with here: the Discalced Carmelites and the Servites, orders that had a particular impact on art patronage in the Italian sphere, with the Carmelites playing a role of some significance in the European context and well beyond. The three articles that follow are not only related because they focus on these two mendicant orders; they also focus predominately on the Italian context. The time span under discussion is the so-called long Renaissance, the period between 1500 and the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Eveline Baseggio Omiccioli discusses the Servite Order, founded in Florence, which soon spread over the rest of the Italian peninsula. Omiccioli's study focuses on the order's attempt to gain a position in Venetian politics and society around 1500. This study shows how the relation of the Servites with a particular Venetian patron was crucial for the iconography selected for an altar decoration in an important position in its church, in this case a bronze altar relief by the sculptor Riccio. The article suggests that there were no general regulations for the Servite Order prohibiting the influence of an individual on the decoration of a prominent altar in their church.

In the second article, Saverio Sturm focuses on the architectural patronage of the Carmelite order, in particular the Discalced branch, which originated in sixteenth-century Spain under the guidance of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. This observant branch became popular for its stress on prayer and contemplation, and Sturm shows how this identity was expressed in the architectural typology of their hermitages in Italy and beyond. In this case, we see a centrally guided architectural patronage taking form, with the explicit aim to provide for a fitting physical environment for a specific religious tradition. One can conclude that the centralized approach to architecture that had been developed by other orders--including, for example, the Jesuit Order--was followed by the Discalced Carmelites in order to create a clear spiritual image of the order.

The third article, by Joseph Hammond, discusses a case of Carmelite patronage in Venice and focuses on the celebration of a new saint, S. Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi, which occurred in the late 1660s. The expectation that a new altar would be dedicated in this church to the new saint, with appropriate images, surprisingly does not hold true. Instead, an old Renaissance altarpiece was installed that bore no connection to any patron or the dedicatee of the altar, circumstances that prompt questions about the assumptions normally made in art historical literature on iconography, function, and patronage. Seemingly, in this case, the Carmelites in Venice chose to underline their oath of poverty and distance themselves from outside intervention and interference, by (re)installing an altarpiece already in the possession of the monastery. By the late seventeenth century, at least in the Venetian context, the oath of poverty had gained the upper hand in a church situated outside the realm of ecclesiastical politics: the need for recognizable imagery was sacrificed to maintain the credibility of the order in the local religious community.

These three articles, therefore, show that the tension between poverty and patronage continued to exist throughout the early modern period, although its intensity varied according to local circumstances and through time. They also suggest that broader research on mendicant orders might open up an interesting perspective on the continuing tension between the centralized regulations and local circumstances with respect to mendicant patronage, and, as Hammond indicates, not only should the new commissions be looked at, but also, more generally, the use and reuse of works of art in this context should be examined.

Works Cited

Bourda, Louise, and Anne Dunlop. Art and the Augustinian Order in Early Renaissance Italy. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Cuthbert, Father, O.S.F.C. The Capuchins: A Contribution to the History of the Counter-Reformation. 2 vols. London: Sheer and Ward, 1928.

Goffen, Rona. Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice: Bellini, Titian, and the Franciscans. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Hansen, Dorothee. Das Bild des Ordenslehrers und die Allegorie des Wissens: Ein gemaltes Programm der Augustiner. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995.

Jedin, Hubert. Kirche des Glaubens, Kirche der Geschichte: Ausgewahle Aufsatze und Vortrage. 2 vols. Freiburg, Basel, and Vienna: Herder, 1966. Vol. 2.

Levy, Evonne. Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: U of California P, 2004.

Lingo, Stuart. The Capuchins and the Art of History: Retrospection and the Reform of the Arts in Late Renaissance Italy. Diss. Harvard U, 1998.

O'Malley, John, and Gavin Alexander Bailey, eds. The Jesuits and the Arts, 1540-1773. Philadelphia: Saint Joseph's UP, 2005.

Smet, Joachim. The Carmelites: A History of the Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. 5 vols. Rome: Carmelite Institute, 1978-85.

Thode, Henri. Franz von Assisi und die Anfange der Kunst der Renaissance in Italien. Vienna: Phaidon, 1934.

Vasari, Giorgio. Levite de' piu eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori Italiani nelle redazioni del 1550 e 1568. Vol. I: Testo. Ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barochhi. Florence: Sansoni, 1966.

Weibel, Walter. Jesuitismus und Barockskulptur in Rom. Strasburg: Heitz, 1909.

Wisch, Barbara, and Diane Cole Ahl, eds. Confraternities and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Italy. Ritual, Spectacle, Image. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Baroque Art: The Jesuit Contribution. New York: Fordham UP, 1972.
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Author:Witte, Arnold
Publication:Explorations in Renaissance Culture
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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