- Art and Culture at the Sistine Court: Platina's "Life of Sixtus IV" and the Frescoes of the Hospital of Santo Spirito
Eunice Howe's primary subject is the well-known and revered humanist scholar, Bartolomeo Platina (1421–81), the first librarian of the Vatican Library (1475), and the variety of distinctive artistic projects that he promoted, as well as helped plan, during the reign of Pope Sixtus IV (1471–84). Howe begins her book with an informative introduction and divides the body of the book into five chapters. The first two chapters focus primarily on Platina, his manuscript recounting the lives of the popes, other of his literary works, and the decoration of the Vatican Library. In the following three chapters Howe focuses especially upon the interesting, but rather inaccessible and little-studied, fresco cycle at Hospital of Santo Spirito in Rome, located just outside of the Vatican near the Tiber. Howe supports her text with detailed evidence in her appendices, which include the Latin text of Platina's "Life of Sixtus IV," Latin inscriptions for the paintings in the hospital, a diagram of the placement of the murals, and sources for the inscriptions and written copies of the inscriptions. She has an extensive bibliography and fifty-seven black-and-white illustrations (with disappointing printing resolution) grouped together at the end of the book.
Howe does not attempt to be comprehensive in covering the della Rovere pope's patronage or Platina's literary works. From the beginning, she focuses on the joint projects of Platina and Sixtus and maintains that extensive collaboration went on between the humanist scholar and his circle and the largely unknown or little-known painters who illustrated the manuscripts and murals in the hospital (1473 and after). The first documented evidence of collaboration between an artist and advisors occurs later, in 1499, when Luca Signorelli (who also worked for Sixtus IV) requested direction from the governing board of the cathedral of Orvieto after finishing the two sections of the south vault that Fra Angelico had left unpainted, but had planned for by leaving drawings, presumably sinopie. Signorelli's relationship with his advisors is similar to, though perhaps less formal, than the one that Howe proposes. Although many art historians believe that such advice was so routine that it was unrecorded, few have tried to reconstruct who specifically might have advised an artist or group of artists working on a particular project. Howe makes a convincing case for the identity of the collaborators through her logical survey of the material and her supportive evidence.
Both Platina's essay on Sixtus IV in the Lives of the Popes and the murals in the hospital of Santo Spirito chronicle the life of a living pope. The hospital series, which includes forty-six scenes, is especially comprehensive. Sometimes Sixtus's deeds draw parallels with those of saints. Most pre-1470 Italian fresco cycles usually decorated religious buildings with either biblical events or the lives of saints. Sometimes veiled parallels align the life of the patron (or their deceased [End Page 858] relatives) with the life of a saint, as in the case of Ghirlandaio's funerary Sassetti Chapel at S. Trinitá in Florence (ca. 1479–86). The subsequent frescoes by Pinturicchio in the Piccolomini Library in Siena (1502–08) recount the life of a (relatively) recently deceased pope. On the other hand, the decoration of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, which dates mainly to the 1440s, depicts scenes related to healing miracles of various saints, long deceased, and to the founding and function of the hospital. The hall-like spaces in both hospitals seem to have had similar functions: to house pilgrims, orphans, and the sick. I am not aware of any fresco cycle that has a subject similar to that of the hospital of Santo Spirito, which makes me curious about the tradition from which...