- Dominican Women and Renaissance Art: The Convent of San Domenico of Pisa
For almost twenty years, there has been a steady upsurge of scholarly interest in female religious communities in Renaissance Italy. In comparison with surviving documentation of laywomen's lives, convent archives have offered a broader and deeper (though still fragmented) range of source material that has provided significant insights into women's diverse experiences in convents. Ann Roberts makes an important contribution to this growing body of research with her examination of life and art at the convent of San Domenico in Pisa, analyzing paintings that have until now been overlooked and situating them within the context of Dominican devotional practices as they were performed at San Domenico.
While books and articles on Florentine, Venetian, and Roman convents are relatively numerous, works that consider houses outside the major cities are rarer. Roberts introduces readers to the Pisan milieu while also demonstrating San Domenico's considerable influence outside Pisa. The convent's foundress, Chiara Gambacorta, was the daughter of Pietro di Andrea Gambacorta, ruler of Pisa from 1363 to 1392. In 1392 a political rival assassinated Pietro, resulting in the collapse of the family's political and financial position and leaving San Domenico without its most reliable patron only a decade after its foundation. Nevertheless, the devout, resourceful, and determined Chiara managed not only to sustain the convent but to build it into a flourishing community famous for its sanctity. She was certainly aided by her social connections, but her reputation for extreme piety eventually became well known and attracted devotees from outside Pisa, including the merchant of Prato, Francesco di Marco Datini, with whom Chiara corresponded and on whose patronage she came to rely following her family's disastrous change of fortune. Another important contact, the Dominican reformer Giovanni Dominici, served as Chiara's counselor and was instrumental in spreading the convent's reputation. Thanks in large part to observant practices at San Domenico, the convent's nuns were called on to help found the convents of San Pier Martire in Florence and San Silvestro in Genoa, and to reform other Dominican convents in Lucca and Pisa. The convent's constitutions also informed those of the convent of Corpus Domini in Venice, which Dominici helped establish. Although it was a relatively small community located outside center of Renaissance culture, San Domenico's impact on the women of the Dominican Order was undeniable.
To tell the story of Chiara's life and influence, Roberts relies on her vitae, one in the Acta Sanctorum and another written by a contemporary in the community. By combining these sources with other primary documents, Roberts presents a compelling portrait of a complex woman whose influence endured long after her death in 1419. Nearly half of the book is devoted to the subject of Chiara as Roberts distills the most important aspects of the heroine's story and incorporates them into an analysis of the convent's paintings —those viewed by the public and those meant for the convent community—to clarify how Chiara's own spirituality [End Page 1247] informed the models and devotional practices followed by those who succeeded her, and how and where in the convent complex art functioned in the service of those aims. Roberts follows the convent's history into the Cinquecento and confirms that the nuns not only exercised control of the subject and style of the art they commissioned, they also produced works themselves. They remained remarkably consistent in their dedication to Chiara's vision, but also to Dominican ideals, modes of worship, and iconography.
An inventory produced as a consequence of the 1808 Napoleonic convent suppression helped Roberts identify works whose association with San Domenico was previously unknown, to place them in particular locations within the convent complex and, therefore, to explain how they were used and understood by the community. This document is reproduced in the book's...