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  • The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy
  • Helen Geddes
Louise Bourdua . The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xiv + 242 pp. index. illus. bibl. $75. ISBN: 0–521–82158–4.

The art and architectural patronage of the Franciscan Order has always presented a paradox: how the members of the Order were able to reconcile the tenets of their founder, who rejected the material world and espoused the virtues of [End Page 593] poverty and humility, and their commissioning and financing of some of the most visually rich and also some of the most costly paintings, sculptures, and building projects of the Trecento. This was despite the fact that the actual handling of money was expressly forbidden by their Constitutions. The central theme of this new study of Franciscan art and patronage is concerned with the ways in which the Order was able to accommodate, even circumvent, the rules governing its conduct, most particularly those concerning money and involvement in activities such as the commissioning of works of art, which would of necessity require contact with cash. A related, and equally important, theme is a critique of the proposal made by Dieter Blume in his study of the mural decoration and other art works located in a group of Franciscan churches in North and Central Italy, Wandmalerei als Ordenspropaganda (1983). This postulated that the wall-paintings of the basilica of S. Francesco at Assisi, both in the lower and upper church, were to serve as models for imagery which all other churches were to follow in order to create a homogeneous and consistent picture of Francis and by this means reinforce and promote a certain image of the Franciscan order. Bourdua's study addresses these aspects, and develops a response through an analysis of three Franciscan churches all located in the Veneto; the building and embellishment of San Fermo Maggiore at Verona, San Lorenzo at Vicenza, and Sant'Antonio at Padua, the last being accorded the lengthiest treatment due to its importance in the region, and the relative wealth of surviving documentary and visual evidence. After an introduction outlining the literature on Franciscan patronage, and an initial chapter devoted to the history of the establishment of the Franciscans in the Veneto region and the Constitutions of the Order, a single chapter focuses on each building wherein different aspects are considered in detail. For San Fermo Maggiore, the only one of the three Franciscan convents included in Blume's survey, the interior decoration of the church is described, and the author speculates on the respective roles of Daniele Gusmerio, a friar, and Guglielmo Castelbarco, a lay patron, in ordering this embellishment. The third chapter discusses the facade and portal sculpture of San Lorenzo, where one friar acted as an administrator, and another actually executed figural sculpture for which he received remuneration, and a fourth looks at the lay patronage at the Santo with the chapels of St. James and the oratory of St. George adjacent to the church, where it would appear that Franciscan involvement was more minimal.

The picture that emerges from these close studies is a rich and complex one, which entailed a collaboration between the Franciscan order, acting within certain constraints, and the lay patrons who provided the funding and who would naturally have their own devotional concerns and aesthetic expectations, which latter were expressed through the artists enlisted to fulfill the requirements of the commission and who in turn brought their own experiences to the project. Friars are seen acting in a variety of capacities, and although they may not have physically handled money, this was in a certain sense a technicality as they entered into contractual obligations through written legally binding contracts, with attendant financial penalties, and they could also be responsible for distributing money to artists through use of an intermediary. While the author acknowledges that the [End Page 594] crucial question concerning the apportioning of responsibility for aspects of each commission remains obscure, it is possible that documents, even if they had survived, and supposing that such aspects were written down, might not necessarily have shed light on precisely who chose...


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pp. 593-595
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Archived 2009
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