Italian Renaissance churches and the museums connected to them house impressive but often overlooked treasures in a variety of media: paint, stone, textile, glass, parchment, and precious metals and gems. Within the walls of the Museum, Archive, and Church of Santa Croce in Florence is a group of artworks created by Pacino di Bonaguida (about 1303-about 1347) and his workshop. Once one looks past the impressive fresco cycles by Giotto, Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi and others, and after using a bit of imagination to envision what the church looked like before Giorgio Vasari’s renovations in the 16th century and the Neoclassical revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, one finally encounters sets of stained glass windows and a pair of choir books that have survived the Black Death, floods, and a world war. In the fourteenth century, these works of art together guided the Franciscan friars and members of the laity in their spiritual pursuits of piety and communion with God.
Pacino di Bonaguida headed one of the most prolific workshops in early Renaissance Florence: he and his team produced a staggering number of illuminated manuscripts – liturgical and secular alike (including numerous copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy) – in addition to altarpieces and smaller devotional panels. The only known surviving works in glass by this workshop are those from Santa Croce, which happens to boast the largest holding of fourteenth century Italian stained glass. Two of the ten windows by Pacino were generously lent to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for the 2012/2013 exhibitions Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350 and Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, respectively, where they were seen by nearly 200,000 visitors. This post offers some reflections about Pacino di Bonaguida’s involvement at Santa Croce in light of the two exhibitions, and considers how the choir books and windows relate to the larger decorative program within the church in the early Renaissance.
High aloft in the north side aisle of the nave – above Giorgio Vasari’s Pentecost altarpiece – are copies of stained glass windows by Pacino di Bonaguida representing a deacon- and a pope-saint. Sometime around or during World War II, the original windows that date from about 1310-1315 were put into storage and replaced by copies. The fourteenth century decorative program that likely surrounded and complemented the windows is now lost, the result of Vasari’s white-washing campaign and later renovations, but we might logically imagine that it once included a fresco cycle or other bust-length saints in glass. In the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce the original windows radiate light alongside near-contemporary windows by Giotto and possibly by Taddeo Gaddi (from the opposite side aisle of the nave and the cappella maggiore, or High Chapel, respectively).
Pacino has long been considered a Giottesque painter, since his large-scale figures on panel and in glass often present the same monumentality and attention to a figure’s mass and physicality that one finds in works by Giotto (indeed 19th and early-20th century art historians often assigned commissions jointly to both artists). One need only compare Giotto’s Saint Stephen panel – part of an altarpiece possibly intended for a chapel in Santa Croce – and Pacino’s window with A Bust of a Deacon-Saint to note the similarities between the two painters. Notice especially the similarity in the shape and articulation of the right hand in Giotto’s panel and the left hand in Pacino’s window. They appear to be nearly identical and one wonders if the two artists shared preparatory drawings while working together at Santa Croce.
Art historians generally agree that Pacino designed his windows at the same time or shortly after Giotto began producing windows for the opposite nave side aisle (see below). Giotto was a highly sought after artist and thus his work at Santa Croce was intermittent, but his followers and pupils like Bernardo Daddi and Taddeo Gaddi remained active at the church in the master’s absence. It is noteworthy that another set of eight windows by Pacino (from about 1320s), also showing bust-length saints, survives and is today located in the Peruzzi Chapel, famously known for Giotto’s frescoes with scenes from the lives of Saints John the Evangelist and John the Baptist (these windows were originally located in the Giugni Chapel). The figures in these windows retain the monumentality seen in the earlier windows, but they are often overlooked in favor of Giotto’s fresco cycle, despite its worn appearance. The frescoes have recently been conserved thanks to generous grants from the Getty Foundation and others and they radiate anew, thanks in part to the daylight transmitted into the church through Pacino’s windows. One hopes that future conservation efforts and archival work by art historians might further define the working relationship between Giotto and Pacino.
Up to the time when the stained glass windows were transferred to the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, the faithful and visitors to the church would hardly have been able to admire the color, design, and painted surface decoration of the stained glass windows given their original height within the ecclesiastical setting. Likewise, the rood screen (or tramezzo) that once divided the nave from the crossing and regulated access to the choir, cappella maggiore, and transept chapels, would have prevented most individuals from glimpsing the gold and bright colors of the illuminated choir books that contained the sung portions of the mass and the friar’s prayer services. Today the surviving choir books are stored in the Archivio di Santa Croce, reserved for the study of scholars and specialists. Two volumes were illuminated by Pacino and his workshop, and although worn from centuries of use, they contain important examples of Pacino’s early work as an illuminator (from about 1320).
The illuminations across the two choir book volumes contain various scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, including The Birth of the Virgin, The Baptism, The Ascension, and The Assumption. The figure of Saint Francis from the beginning of this post fills an initial F, which starts the phrase of the antiphon for the Feast of Saint Francis: Franciscus vir catholicos et totus apostolicus ecclesiae (Francis, the catholic and all-apostolic man). You can hear a sung version of the antiphon here. Of the fourteen miniatures across the two volumes, this image contains the most direct reference to the Franciscan order. One additional illumination would have also had great appeal to the Franciscans, specifically those at the Church of Santa Croce: the Arma Christi, the so-called Instruments of Christ’s Passion (for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, September 14). Within the initial O one finds the Holy Cross – the Santa Croce – along with the crown of thorns, scourges, the spear, and the sponge on a rod. Finally, a scene of The Elevation of the Host (for the Feast of Corpus Christi) would have directly reminded those singing from or glimpsing the choir book of the most significant portion of the mass: the moment when Christ’s body and blood in the form of the bread and wine of the Eucharist are elevated, consecrated, and presented to all the faithful.
One scholar has argued that the Santa Croce choir books were actually produced for a Clarissan house, perhaps the Chiesa e Convento di San Piero a Monticelli, located at the far western end of the Oltrarno. Pacino and his workshop are thought to have painted the over-eight-feet-tall panel showing The Tree of Life for the convent and indeed styllistic similarities do exist between the panel and the manuscripts (the painting is today in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence). I am currently working to arrive at a more firm conclusion as to the original choir book commission through my ongoing research into Pacino and Santa Croce.
When examining the early output of Pacino’s workshop, the Franciscans emerge as some of his most important patrons. By the mid-1320s, Pacino and his shop produced several notable works for Franciscans or those devoted to the order, including the Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Life of Gerard of Villamagna (The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.643), a diptych in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the famous Tree of Life mentioned above, in addition to the stained glass windows and choir books for Santa Croce that we’ve been considering. One may conclude that the Franciscans, and the mendicant orders more broadly, helped launch Pacino’s career, which lasted over four decades. Santa Croce, in sum, preserves some of the great early works by Pacino, and the mediums of glass and parchment provide insights into the differing specializations with an early Renaissance painter-illuminator workshop.
Our distinguished guest blogger, Bryan C. Keene is assistant curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum. He is pursuing a PhD at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London and holds a master’s from Syracuse University in Italian Renaissance art as well as a bachelor’s degree from Pepperdine University in art history and Romance linguistics and cultures. His most recent project was the exhibition and book Gardens of the Renaissance. He was also contributing curator and author to the exhibition and catalogue Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300–1350. He is currently working on the exhibition Renaissance Splendors of the Northern Italian Courts, which opens March 31, 2015, and on an exhibition conceived around the idea of a global Middle Ages. – See more at: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/author/bkeene/#sthash.zTjR1QhB.dpuf