- Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500-1800
Works of art created as a result of the expectation or experience of bubonic plague seem an unlikely topic for a successful exhibition; any museum director might question the degree of public enthusiasm for repeated examples of dead and dying bodies, however artistically arranged, while various not-particularly-well-known saints appeal for divine clemency in the skies above. One must, therefore, warmly congratulate the team responsible for the present publication and accompanying exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum in 2005. Building on the success of a previous exhibition involving many of the same participants (Saints and Sinners: Caravaggio and the Baroque Image, exh. cat., ed. F. Mormando, Chestnut Hill, MA, 1999), to which the current volume reads almost as a second installment, the catalogue is a valuable contribution to the still relatively little discussed subject of plague imagery.
The book is divided into two distinct sections: an introduction and series of essays by the curators and invited scholars, which takes up a good two-thirds of the volume and represents the real meat of the publication; and the exhibition catalogue proper, which reproduces all thirty-seven exhibited works in color, with brief accompanying notes by Gauvin Bailey and Pamela Jones. Inevitably, the fit between these two sections is not perfect, and the aims of each — on the one hand, a focused scholarly survey of the subject, and on the other, an accessible and appealing exhibition — do not entirely coincide. This is particularly evident in the choice of works, which do not always readily fall under the rubric of plague pictures as such, which I take to mean works of art that in some way refer to the plague in their choice of subject. Some, by virtue of their association with death, if not death by plague, might perhaps be justified as setting the mental stage. City views which happen to represent monuments associated with the plague are not really concerned with plague per se, even though their inclusion allows the organizers to commission excellent essays on differing regional responses to the disease. Still other works, however, such as the sequence illustrating the virtue of charity and two of the seven acts of mercy, or standard Marian and Christological subjects with no discernable connection with the plague, appear much harder to justify. Constraints of available works for loan are no doubt also the reason why, even when saints known to be plague protectors are featured, the chosen examples do not necessarily represent the saint acting in this guise. Hence we have paintings of the archangel Michael as vanquisher of the devil and psychopomp for souls at the Last Judgement, neither of which role self-evidently invokes him as a plague saint; the martyrdom of St. Gennaro (Januarius), rather than his deployment as protector of his city of Naples against the plague; and a soulful devotional portrait of the Jesuit saint Luigi Gonzaga (1568–91, canonized 1727). This last is a fascinating case of a recent "plague martyr," whose cult is examined in illuminating detail in the essay by Sheila Barker. Gonzaga was a Jesuit acolyte who died caring for plague [End Page 501] victims during an epidemic in Rome. Nevertheless, the exhibited painting presents the saint not as a plague worker or intercessor but rather as a model of youthful asceticism, resting his arm on a skull and lovingly cradling a crucifix. As a result of these perhaps unavoidable compromises, the focus on plague imagery is significantly diluted in this section.
Although the exhibition does include some notable works, the publication succeeds primarily on the strength of the seven accompanying essays, which together offer many new insights on Baroque plague imagery in major Italian cities. Franco Mormando's introduction draws on contemporary literary sources to discuss early modern beliefs regarding the nature and cause of the disease...