V&A Online Journal
Issue No. 5 Autumn 2013
Sacred Space in the Modern Museum: Researching and Redisplaying the Santa Chiara Chapel in the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries
In 1860 John Charles Robinson purchased the 15th-century high altar chapel from the Florentine convent church of Santa Chiara for the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Rebuilt piece by piece in London, the chapel’s Florentine context was gradually forgotten. New research for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries reveals Santa Chiara’s complex history, artistic significance, and original Renaissance arrangement.
The Chapel came to the Museum in 1861, having been purchased in Florence the previous year by John Charles Robinson, the first curator of the art collections at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Santa Chiara was the most audacious of Robinson’s many Florentine acquisitions: he paid £386 for the High Altar Chapel and High Altarpiece of the convent church, including ‘the right to remove anything and everything we like’.(2) Despite Florentine protest, the Chapel was carefully dismantled and the fragments numbered, recorded and shipped to London for reassembly.(3) Robinson noted in his 1862 catalogue of Italian sculpture at the Museum that its ‘importance […] to a collection like the present, as a complete specimen of Florentine architecture of most characteristic style, could scarcely be overrated’.(4) As Robinson foresaw, the Santa Chiara Chapel dominated the display of monumental sculpture in the North Court, and its scale has ensured the Chapel’s cardinal position in succeeding displays of the Museum’s sculpture collections.(5) In the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries it provides the centrepiece for the display of ecclesiastical art, Gallery 50b (fig. 1), and marks the climax of the long vista through the top-lit galleries available to visitors from the Museum’s main entrance.
The Santa Chiara Chapel has generally been overlooked by scholars of the Italian Renaissance, largely due to its presence in London for the past 150 years.(6) With the opening of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries in December 2009, interest in its art-historical significance has started to revive.(7) The renewed presentation of the Santa Chiara Chapel raises, in turn, a number of museological issues around the authenticity of display and the reconstruction of historical contexts. This article presents original research undertaken in London and Florence that underpinned the reinterpretation of the Chapel in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries and the design of the digital reconstruction that accompanies the new display. We reassess the Chapel’s original setting in Florence and disentangle the various reconfigurations of the monument after its arrival in London in 1861. We also consider the practical and methodological issues that arose when applying our academic research to a museum display.
The Chapel in Florence
The V&A Chapel was originally the High Altar Chapel of the convent church of Santa Chiara in Florence, forming the eastern end of the single-aisled church (figs. 2 and 3). Located in the Oltrarno district, south of the river, the church stands on the corner of Via Santa Maria and Via dei Serragli. Santa Chiara was a convent of Clarissan nuns (also known as Poor Clares), a female religious order founded by Saint Clare (Chiara) of Assisi (d. 1253) to complement the Franciscan male order of friars established by Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226); these two saints are commemorated on the church’s High Altarpiece. The convent was suppressed in 1808 during the French occupation of Florence under Napoleon, and part of the church was converted into a school.(8) The Chapel and the section of the nave directly in front of it were preserved as a separate oratory accessible from Via Santa Maria, before finally being deconsecrated in 1842.(9) That year, the sculptor Pio Fedi (1816 - 1892) bought the church and converted its spaces into his studio, while the Chapel seems to have passed into the hands of an unnamed owner, who eventually sold it to Robinson.(10) Fedi divided the nave into three large rooms; in more recent times the nave has been sub-divided again with internal floors and walls to form office spaces for the current owners, the Florentine art publisher Edizioni Polistampa.(11) Original elements of the nave’s architecture are still visible behind the modern additions, but the plot on which the High Altar Chapel stood until 1860 is now a private house and garage. Very little survives of the adjacent nunnery, which was rebuilt as the Goldoni theatre in the early-19th century.(12) The architectural evidence in Florence therefore presents many complexities of its own.
During the Renaissance, nuns lived in cloistered communities; they were not allowed to leave the confines of their convents freely. Forbidden from mixing with the laity even within the spaces of their own churches, these strictures were reflected in Santa Chiara’s architecture, which included a choir loft so the nuns could attend Mass hidden from public view. The Clarissan presence in the Oltrarno dated to 30 May 1452, when a group of Poor Clares led by Maria di Maso degli Albizzi, a Florentine noblewoman, took over the hospital complex of San Giovanni Battista, on the present site of Santa Chiara, from its dwindling community of Augustinian nuns.(13) Renovations were already under way in the 1470s and gathered pace in the 1480s when the wealthy merchant Iacopo Bongianni, who had two sisters and a niece in the convent, began to support a comprehensive rebuilding programme.(14)
The Chapel, with its grey sandstone pietra serena pilasters and entablature, recalls Filippo Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy at San Lorenzo (begun 1421).(15) Commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici (1389 - 1464), the Old Sacristy had marked a new departure in Florentine ecclesiastical architecture. It was only the third domed chapel in the city, and demonstrated both Brunelleschi’s appreciation of ancient architecture and the Medici family’s appropriation of classical motifs previously reserved for public buildings. The Old Sacristy is centrally planned, with grey pietra serena pilasters and framing elements set against whitewashed masonry, while the altar area is framed by two doors on either side. A frieze of polychromed cherub heads decorates the classicising entablature that runs around the Sacristy walls.
Brunelleschi’s design proved enormously popular and at least thirty-five churches and chapels in Italy, predominantly in Tuscany, demonstrate its influence.(16) The High Altar Chapel of Santa Chiara reprises several aspects of the Old Sacristy scheme, including the dome, pietra serena pilasters, and the relief frieze on the entablature (now interspersing cherub heads with the Lamb of God and the ‘IHS’ monogram of Jesus Christ, all executed in tin-glazed terracotta). In 1950, Giuseppe Marchini, undeterred by the absence of any corroborating documentation, asserted that Santa Chiara was ‘unequivocally’ by Giuliano da Sangallo.(17) The uneven quality of design argues against a direct attribution to a leading architect like Sangallo. However, as Marchini observed, Santa Chiara does display similarities with elements of the Palazzo Gondi designed by Sangallo in about 1490 (steps from which are displayed in Gallery 50a: V&A 26 to 39-1891) and the architect’s octagonal sacristy at Santo Spirito of 1489. No building records have survived for Santa Chiara, however, and for now the identity of its architect remains a mystery.Most of our information for Bongianni’s reconstruction of the church comes from his three surviving wills – composed in 1490, 1497 and 1506 – and the act of donation he made in 1494.(18) Thanks to Sharon Strocchia’s research, we know that the dates of Bongianni’s testaments correspond with his sisters’ tenures as abbesses of the convent (Gostanza in 1490 and 1497 and Francesca in 1506).(19) Iacopo’s first will, dated 26 September 1490, demonstrates that his support of the Clarissan community must already have been well-established before that date.(20) He left 500 gold florins to the Clares for the construction of their church, called ‘Santa Chiara Novella’, and requested burial in a floor tomb positioned in the middle of the church, so the nuns could see it from the grates of their choir. In the act of donation, dated 21 March 1494, Iacopo endowed the Clarissan convent with land and property that would support the nuns. He described the church as ‘suitable for use by nuns, with a main and principal chapel and two further chapels, opposite one another, with vaults within the church above which is the designated space for the nuns to celebrate the divine office’.(21) The nave was 40 Florentine braccia long and 15.5 braccia wide (roughly 24 by 9 metres). The 1494 document confirms the building was largely complete except for the High Altar Chapel, which Iacopo could not begin until he had acquired the house occupying the site. The owner was refusing to sell, but was eventually convinced to turn over the space to the nuns. In 1494, Bongianni - and possibly his sisters in the convent - already had a clear idea for the altarpiece; Iacopo instructed his heirs to build the Chapel with an altarpiece incorporating a marble tabernacle for the Eucharist, held by figures of Saint Francis and Saint Clare.(22) They also had to order a pair of painted altarpieces for the two side altars; Pietro Perugino would sign and date his altarpiece for the church in the following year (1495), while Lorenzo di Credi would not complete his work until after 1497. Santa Chiara was to be a Bongianni family church: Iacopo’s will forbade the nuns to allow anyone else to display coats of arms within the church, either sculpted or painted, on the walls, in the glass windows, or on the altarpieces.(23) Iacopo’s second testament of 1 July 1497 reveals that his tomb was ready and although the High Altar Chapel was still incomplete, it had been designed and the blocks cut and sculpted in preparation for its construction.(24) The patron ordered his heirs to finish the Chapel and High Altarpiece within two years. Of the two side altarpieces, only the painting commissioned from Lorenzo di Credi remained to be finished. In his last will of 17 November 1506, Bongianni requested burial in a Franciscan habit in the church, and left 3,000 florins to the convent.(25) After eighteen years preparing for it, Iacopo Bongianni finally died on 27 November 1508 and was duly interred in Santa Chiara.(26)
Stefano Rosselli’s 17th-century survey of tombs, and Giuseppe Richa’s 18th-century guide to Florentine churches add further detail regarding the interior arrangement of Santa Chiara.(27) Bongianni’s floor tomb was located in the main Altar Chapel, directly in front of the marble High Altarpiece, bearing his coat of arms (two red pelicans drinking from a central golden chalice, set against a white field) and the date 1492, commemorating the establishment of a shared family tomb.(28) An unpublished drawing of the tomb slab, dated 1699, confirms that Bongianni’s arms were accompanied by those of his mother’s family, the Zanchini da Castiglionchio (fig. 4).(29) His heraldry is also recorded at the top of the Chapel’s arch and sculpted on the sides of the marble High Altarpiece (fig. 5).
Examination of the church’s surviving structure on Via dei Serragli confirms the documented description of Santa Chiara. The open beam roof of the nave was concealed by a barrel vault inserted around 1715, but the timber structure (now restored) is still visible in the attic and in the former nuns’ choir (figs. 6 and 7).(30) The interior was lit by arched lancet windows; the brick frames of those facing Via Santa Maria can be seen from within the Polistampa offices (fig. 8). Giuseppe Marchini deduced that the nave must have had six lancet windows on this northern side, but did not realise that matching windows also faced the convent side to the south.(31) The nuns sat in an elevated choir at the opposite end of the church to the High Altar, supported by vaults resting on two rows of four columns. The pair of columns closest to the altar end of the church remains in situ, together with the engaged capitals on the nave walls (fig. 9). The arches and front wall of the nuns’ choir facing the High Altar survive largely intact, and the nuns would have viewed the nave through rectangular, grated windows. Similar raised choirs can still be seen elsewhere in Florence, for example in the nearby convent church of San Felice in Piazza.(32)
The convent was suppressed in 1808, the two altarpieces by Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi were removed soon after, and all traces of the side altars disappeared.(33) Perugino’s Lamentation entered the Galleria Palatina in the Palazzo Pitti, while di Credi’s Adoration of the Shepherds went to the Uffizi. Richa also recorded two tin-glazed ceramic lunettes above the altarpieces, depicting a Resurrection of Christ and an Assumption of the Virgin, which were attributed to the della Robbia family.(34) They were subsequently immured over the doors of the Accademia di Belle Arti where they can still be seen today. Perugino’s and di Credi’s altarpieces, over two metres square and set within monumental frames, faced each other across a nave that was only about nine metres wide. With their accompanying lunettes, they must have been set within impressive stone altar frames, and it has been argued that a Florentine marble altar frame in the Museum (V&A 548-1864) may also come from Santa Chiara.(35)
The plans and elevations establish the original arrangement of the High Altarpiece within the Chapel, together with its altar table and steps. In particular, the ground plan reveals that the altarpiece was freestanding within the Chapel, around 80 cm clear of the back wall (fig. 11).(38) The spatial relationship between altarpiece and Chapel was therefore different than it is today as it would have been possible to walk behind the altarpiece from within the Chapel.
The artistic programme in Santa Chiara
The construction and decoration of Santa Chiara incorporated a variety of media: painted panel altarpieces, tin-glazed terracotta reliefs, carved marble, and pietra serena architecture. Different artists and workshops were involved, but as presiding patron for the whole project, Iacopo Bongianni (and probably his sisters) managed to create a remarkably cohesive decorative programme around his burial space in under a decade. The principal element is the marble High Altarpiece. Vasari attributed this complex work to the mediocre woodworker Leonardo del Tasso, a puzzling but tenacious attribution.(39) Doris Carl has now identified the figures of Saints Clare and Francis with statues recorded in the May 1497 posthumous inventory of the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano’s workshop.(40) Benedetto’s nephew, Leonardo, then completed the various elements of the altarpiece between 1497 and 1499, perhaps with the assistance of Giovanfrancesco Rustici.(41) This not only explains Vasari’s mistaken attribution but also the altarpiece’s uneven quality, as it was begun by Benedetto (one of Florence’s leading sculptors) and finished by his nephew (a specialist in carving wood rather than stone).
The iconography of Benedetto’s altarpiece was highly unusual, and in many respects ahead of its time. An older tabernacle, probably carved by the Rossellino shop in the 1460s, was set into the upper level of the altarpiece.(42) The permanent incorporation of Eucharistic tabernacles into High Altar arrangements was becoming more widespread over the course of the Quattrocento but was still relatively rare in the 1490s, and would only become standard practice during the Tridentine Reforms in the 16th century.(43) Furthermore, no other example is known to have reused an earlier tabernacle in the same way as the Santa Chiara High Altarpiece. The tabernacle’s original context in Santa Chiara is not known, but it is typical of wall tabernacles produced in Florence from the 1450s onwards, which were usually immured near altars but not over them.(44) A comparable example commissioned by the Rucellai family (V&A 6743-1859) is displayed near the Santa Chiara Chapel in Gallery 50b.(45) The Rucellai tabernacle still has its original gilt bronze door, engraved with the Pietà; the tabernacle at Santa Chiara probably had a similar cover and its iron hinges are still visible.
Bongianni’s 1494 donation described the planned High Altarpiece with Saints Clare and Francis holding aloft the tabernacle ‘for the Eucharist’.(46) The sculptures were left unfinished at Benedetto’s death and by then the altarpiece’s form had evolved. The embedded tabernacle, probably associated with Eucharistic miracles, was mounted high in the centre to allow the nuns to see it more clearly from their elevated choir loft.(47) A consecrated Host may have been stored in this tabernacle for veneration, although a portable tabernacle was probably used for the daily liturgy of the church. The figures of Saints Clare and Francis were inserted within separate niches, rather than supporting the tabernacle as Bongianni’s will had specified. A disc of red glass set within the altarpiece, surrounded by a gilded sunburst, could have contained a candle or lamp to signify the Host’s presence above or on the altar. This would reflect present-day Catholic practice, where a red candle marks the location of the consecrated Eucharist. Both the tabernacle and lamp compartment must have been accessed and tended from behind, a feasible solution given that the altarpiece was originally free-standing.
The Eucharistic emphasis of the High Altarpiece would have been enhanced by the altarpieces by Perugino and Lorenzo di Credi that were displayed over the two side altars on opposite walls of the church. Depicting the beginning and the end of Christ’s earthly life, from the Nativity to the Lamentation, the paintings direct the viewer’s gaze toward the High Altar.(48) In Perugino’s Lamentation, Joseph of Arimathea gazes out of the picture to the left, effectively looking diagonally across the space of the church at the Host reserved on the High Altar.(49) In Lorenzo’s Adoration, the four angels adoring the Christ child echoed the four framing the tabernacle on the High Altar.
The centrality of Eucharistic veneration to the church’s design is underlined by Bongianni’s final will of 1506, in which the patron left 100 gold florins for the construction of a wooden platform below the roof beams to connect the High Altar Chapel with the nuns’ elevated choir.(50) This work was to be completed within two years of his death, but the surviving beams show no trace of it, casting doubt on whether this ‘palco’ was ever constructed. Bongianni did not specify the purpose of the gangway or balcony; it may have been meant to allow the nuns to approach the High Altar from their choir to venerate the Host more closely.
Around the same time as Bongianni was rebuilding Santa Chiara, Florentines were debating the placement of a tabernacle over the High Altar of Florence Cathedral. In November 1497, the diarist Luca Landucci recorded the temporary installation of a tabernacle in the Duomo, ‘to see whether it was pleasing’, only to note its removal six months later.(51) The introduction of the Duomo tabernacle has been linked to the programme of ecclesiastical reform proposed by the Dominican friar, Girolamo Savonarola.(52) This may also have been the case at Santa Chiara: Bongianni’s surviving letters, many addressed to the Dominican friar, Santi Rucellai, reveal him as an ardent follower of Savonarola, and many of the Santa Chiara nuns had Savonarolan ties.(53) In 1496, Bongianni was described as being in Lorenzo di Credi’s workshop, discussing Savonarola’s latest miracle at San Marco.(54) He may have been there to talk about the painter’s commission for the Santa Chiara Adoration.
Bongianni’s rebuilding of Santa Chiara should be considered within a broader programme of church and convent renovation urged upon Florentines by Savonarola.(55) The Dominican nuns of the Annalena convent, located just up the road from Santa Chiara, were particularly interested in the words of Savonarola.(56) Across town, the Dominican convent of Santa Lucia on the Via San Gallo was reformed and rebuilt by followers of Savonarola in the early 1490s. By 1495 the new church and dormitory were finished and Savonarola himself vested the Santa Lucia nuns and imposed the rule of clausura upon them. Programmes of convent reform did not stop with Savonarola’s death in 1498. Three more Dominican female convents were founded soon afterwards in Florence, inspired by Savonarola’s calls for reform: Santa Caterina da Siena in Piazza San Marco, founded by Camilla Bartolini Davanzati in 1500; Santa Maria degli Angeli (known as the Angiolini) on Via Ventura, founded by Marco Strozzi and Sister Vicenza Nemmi in 1508; and the convent of La Crocetta on Via Laura, founded by Sister Domenica da Paradiso in 1511.(57) All of these ‘Savonarolan’ convents have been destroyed or restructured in the intervening centuries, unlike Santa Chiara, which remained remarkably intact well into the 1800s. Bongianni’s church, including the High Altar Chapel now in the V&A, therefore assumes a special importance in any understanding of Savonarola’s impact on Florentine religious life.
Scholars debate whether there was a distinctively Savonarolan style in Florentine visual culture during the 1490s and early 1500s.(58) Although Santa Chiara was built by a documented adherent of Savonarola at the height of the friar’s influence in Florence, it is difficult to speak of a ‘Savonarolan’ aesthetic vision for the church. Bongianni’s display of his family arms contradicted the friar’s injunctions against the display of patrician patronage at the expense of the poor.(59) The elaborate altarpieces paid for by Bongianni would have provided a rich aesthetic experience that challenged Savonarola’s emphasis on simplicity in churches, yet at the same time cohered with the friar’s desire to inspire Florentines to greater devotion. Bongianni himself was not an uncritical follower of Savonarola, especially when it came to the governance of female monastic communities.(60) He took a traditional view on such matters, which may help to explain the overall conservative feel of Santa Chiara’s architecture. By highlighting such contradictions, Santa Chiara sheds significant new light on Florentine visual culture at the close of the 15th century.
The Chapel in London
On the grounds of scale as much as expense, the purchase of the Santa Chiara Chapel in 1860 was a remarkable extravagance for the nascent South Kensington Museum. When its components arrived in London the following year, the Museum Board was divided on how to reconstruct the Chapel. In his 1862 catalogue, John Charles Robinson had confidently promised ‘to rebuild the entire work precisely as it originally stood’, but minutes of Museum Board meetings from 1863 reveal much debate over the role of the Chapel in the Museum’s North Court.(61) Early that same year Robinson was involved in acrimonious disputes with the Museum’s executives, Henry Cole and Richard Redgrave, with the Chapel’s reconstruction being a particular bone of contention.(62) The Board regarded Robinson’s approach to the display of the Santa Chiara Chapel as typical of ‘his spirit of insubordination’.(63) Cole prevailed and, on 16 March 1863, Robinson was demoted from his post as Keeper of the Museum’s Art Collections, becoming second artistic referee to Redgrave.(64) Contrary to Robinson’s confident prediction that the Chapel would be rebuilt, the minutes for that meeting affirmed that the Board felt that ‘the attempt to construct a chapel to represent the original is not desirable’.(65)
The Board’s reservations introduce the enduring curatorial conundrum posed by the Chapel’s presence in London: whether to attempt to recreate an ‘authentic’ architectural space from the late 15th century, or to display the Chapel’s fragments as exempla of Renaissance ornament and design. The initial display on the north side of the North Court (fig. 12) steered decisively towards the latter, with early photographs showing the Chapel open on four sides (fig. 13).(66) The High Altarpiece was not included, as the intention was to provide access and a clear vista to the fernery on the north side of the building (fig. 14). The altarpiece was displayed on the opposite side of the court and later moved into the Chapel around 1880.(67)
In 1861 the High Altarpiece of Santa Chiara had been shipped to London without its altar block, probably because the latter was not regarded as an integral part of the sculpted object (and perhaps also to secularise the altarpiece for display in a museum of art and design). Following the 1909 reinstallation in Gallery 50b, photographs record first a shallow fictive altar incorporating five vertical panels (fig. 16), followed by the tin-glazed ceramic relief of the Last Supper by the della Robbia shop that was probably designed for display over a door (fig. 17).(69) Finally, the area was simply left as a blank face, matching the altarpiece’s white Carrara marble. The side walls of the Chapel were left open and these arches seem to have been filled in relatively late, probably during the reinstallation following the Second World War.
Aston Webb designed Gallery 50b with a terminating apse visible over and beyond the dome of the Chapel (fig. 18); the dark void gave a jarring aspect to the display, but offered a clear division between Renaissance artefact and Edwardian architecture. The gap was covered over, perhaps in the 1930s, and the apse is now only visible from within the lateral spaces to either side of the Chapel. While aesthetically more satisfactory, the masking of the apse made it harder to appreciate where the object ends and the museum begins, by presenting the Chapel as a natural termination to Gallery 50b. This elision was one of the challenges the new gallery interpretation had to address.
Some aspects of the Chapel’s current display were added in 1909, such as the Sicilian stone purchased to install marble steps into the Chapel and before the High Altarpiece.(70) The altarpiece itself was supported from behind by a brick wall, rendered and painted white, which accounts for the altarpiece’s white outline when seen from the front. The brickwork was engaged with the back wall of the Chapel, fully encasing the rear of the altarpiece. The wall surfaces, including the dome, are later museum work, mostly made of boards painted to imitate white-washed masonry. The original Renaissance material comprises the pietra serena armature and the tin-glazed ceramic frieze on the entablature.(71) Twice dismantled and redisplayed, the Chapel’s appearance had been significantly modified and the Renaissance stonework supplemented by a variety of modern materials.(72)
The Chapel therefore presented a range of interpretative and display challenges for the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries project team.(73) The new galleries aimed to display objects as authentically as possible and to communicate their broader contexts – not only artistic, but also cultural and religious – in ‘an exciting, meaningful and accessible way’.(74) The 19th- and 20th-century installations in South Kensington consciously downplayed the liturgical and devotional aspects of the Chapel and its altarpiece, presenting them as exemplary pieces of Renaissance ornament in line with the Museum’s early remit to foster good design. Significant research was required not only in London but also in Florence to reassess the original Renaissance fabric of the Chapel and its broader setting within the now deconsecrated church of Santa Chiara.
Research and Redisplay
Our research on Santa Chiara underpinned the Chapel’s redisplay in a range of different ways. The analysis of the pre-1860 plans clarified that significant aspects of the Gallery 50b display departed from the Chapel’s original arrangement in Florence. In particular, the manner in which the High Altarpiece had been shifted backwards had not previously been recognised. The Edwardian display demonstrated little interest in the altarpiece’s liturgical design, with the tabernacle niche – the central focus of Benedetto da Maiano’s programme – neutralised by an anonymous slate fill.
While repositioning the High Altarpiece would have introduced an additional aspect of historical accuracy to the display, this was greatly outweighed by the practical difficulties and substantial cost of dismantling the retable and its Edwardian support. The High Altarpiece is now composed of roughly 150 separate sections bound by cement. As well as being extremely labour intensive, dismantling these pieces would have entailed inevitable damage to the object. From a conservation point of view, the consequences of moving the High Altarpiece were unacceptable. Instead, more feasible interventions were pursued. The unsympathetic terrazzo floor within the Chapel was replaced with terracotta tiles characteristic of Tuscan church paving, while the Lombardini glazed pavement (formerly in the church of San Francesco, Forlì; V&A 30-1866) that had been installed in front of the High Altarpiece, was moved into the main space of Gallery 50b to allow visitors to enter into the Chapel space. Given the impossibility of reconfiguring the Chapel display to match the Renaissance arrangement, the advantages of communicating the divergences between the two through a virtual reconstruction quickly became evident.
It was therefore decided to develop a digital reconstruction of the church of Santa Chiara as part of the programme of interpretation to be integrated into the gallery displays. The digital reconstruction would offer a powerful means to explain the dislocation of the High Altar Chapel from the rest of the church. Affording a multi-layered interpretation, it could also encourage visitors to consider the different ways in which the church interior would have been experienced by the clergy, laity, and cloistered nuns of the Clarissan community. At a more general level, it would clarify the Chapel’s present secularisation within a museum space.
With Edizioni Polistampa’s generous cooperation, it was possible to undertake a detailed examination of Santa Chiara’s surviving structure in Florence, including the attic areas. Photographs and measurements taken during these visits provided data for the graphic reconstruction developed by Stuart Frost and Dr Martin White’s team at the University of Sussex.(75) Their reconstruction positioned the altarpiece correctly according to the pre-1860 plan. Another amendment that was possible in the virtual reconstruction, but not feasible for the actual object, was the reinstatement of bottle-end glass in the Chapel’s windows (a detail recorded in the pre-1860 elevation).
Not all features of the church could be reconstructed with complete confidence. Although its provenance is uncertain, the V&A altar frame cited above was used to provide matching frames for the two side altars. The original floor material in Santa Chiara is not recorded and the choice of a terracotta tile floor for the Chapel evokes Renaissance paving that survives in other Florentine churches. Equally, some features were consciously not included. No attempt was made to reconstruct the ceiling ‘palco’ specified in Bongianni’s third will, given the uncertainty over its form and whether it was even built. The Chapel was formerly barred with iron grates (the hinges are still embedded in the pietra serena pilasters) but we have no evidence of their form or decoration (or even if they were part of the original Renaissance fittings), so these too were omitted from the interactive. Bongianni’s tomb slab is also absent as its precise location (whether inside or immediately outside the Chapel) is not known.
Since its arrival in South Kensington in 1861, the Santa Chiara Chapel has posed unique display challenges for generations of curators. The problems of recreating an authentic period interior are evident in the earliest curatorial discussions in 1863, and successive Museum installations downplayed the Chapel’s liturgical design and devotional function. The Chapel of Santa Chiara, removed from its original location, was largely forgotten by scholars of Renaissance Florence. The Medieval & Renaissance Galleries provided an opportunity to present the Chapel anew to a broad public. Painstaking research in London and Florence allowed the Chapel’s presentation to be set on a sound historical footing for the first time. By clarifying the Chapel’s original appearance and its successive installations in South Kensington, it was possible to develop strategies to improve its display and accompanying interpretation. Not only did our research provide the underpinning for a more accurate display, it also highlighted Santa Chiara’s artistic and historical significance.At the opening of the new galleries in December 2009, several reviewers expressed surprise to find an entire chapel from Florence on display, providing a distant echo to Robinson’s original hope that his most ambitious purchase would offer the British public an experience ‘to be seen nowhere else out of Italy’.(76)
We are grateful to Peta Motture, Stuart Frost, Charlotte Hubbard, Antonio Pagliai and his colleagues at Edizioni Polistampa, Sharon Strocchia, Doris Carl, Paul Davies, Alison Wright and the anonymous readers for sharing their expertise, assisting our research and providing helpful suggestions as we prepared this material for publication.
1. Museum no. 7720-1861; John Pope-Hennessy, assisted by Ronald Lightbown, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1964), I: 177-9.
2. V&A archives: file no. 231, 11552/1860 (letter of 11 November 1860). On Robinson in Italy, see Helen Davies, ‘John Charles Robinson’s work at the South Kensington Museum, Part 1: The creation of the collection of Italian Renaissance objects at the Museum of Ornamental Art and the South Kensington Museum, 1853 - 62,’ Journal of the History of Collections 10, no. 2 (1998): 169-88, especially 185.
3. Giovanni Boschi, ‘Cappella maggiore della soppressa chiesa del convento di Annalena in Firenze: opera del 1450,’ L’Arte 10, no. 52 (1860).
4. J. C. Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages and Period of the Revival of Art: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works forming the above Section of the Museum, with additional Illustrative Notices (London: Chapman and Hall, 1862), 71.
5. A Guide to the South Kensington Museum illustrated with ground plans and wood engravings (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1866), frontispiece.
6. Though see Jeryldene M. Wood, ‘Breaking the Silence: The Poor Clares and the Visual Arts in Fifteenth-Century Italy,’ Renaissance Quarterly 48 (1995): 279-84; Wood, Women, Art and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 145-58; and Giuseppe Marchini, ‘Aggiunte a Giuliano da Sangallo,’ Commentari 1 (1950): 34-8.
7. For example, the Santa Chiara High Altarpiece features as the concluding example in Alison Wright, ‘Tabernacle and Sacrament in fifteenth-century Tuscany,’ in Carvings, Casts and Collectors: The Art of Renaissance Sculpture, ed. Peta Motture, Emma Jones and Dimitrios Zikos, forthcoming 2013. We are very grateful to the author for the opportunity to read her text prior to publication.
8. L’Osservatore fiorentino sugli edifizi della sua patria (Florence: Gaspero Ricci, 1821), VII: 117.
9. See Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages, 75; Boschi, ‘Cappella maggiore della soppressa chiesa’, gives 16 July 1842 as the deconsecration date.
10. Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages: 71; Boschi, ‘Cappella maggiore della soppressa chiesa’.
11. Guido Carocci, L’Illustratore fiorentino: calendario storico per l’anno bisestile 1880 (Florence: Giovanni Cirri, 1880), 104. Fedi reworked the church’s facade facing Via dei Serragli, sculpting his portrait over the door and added the buttresses with lions to either side on the façade. We thank Antonio Pagliai of Polistampa for generous access to their offices several times during our research. See also Pagliai, Antonio. ‘Chiesa di Santa Chiara a Firenze: Dove nasce questa rivista; dapprima chiesa inserita in un complesso conventuale, poi studio dello scultore Pio Fedi, oggi tipografia Editrice Polistampa,’ Amici dei Musei 57 (December 1993): 77-9.
12. L’Osservatore fiorentino, VII: 117.
13. Giuseppe Richa, Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine divise ne’ suoi quartieri, XI, Del quartiere di S. Spirito, parte prima (Florence: Pietro Gaetano Viviani, 1756), 78-88; Sharon Strocchia, ‘Begging for Favors: The “New” Clares of S. Chiara Novella and Their Patrons,’ in Florence, 1350 - 1550, eds. Peter Howard and Cecilia Hewlitt (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming 2014). We are grateful to Professor Strocchia for sharing her unpublished text with us.
14. On Iacopo di Bongianni di Mino Bongianni (1442 - 1508), see Dizionario biografico degli italiani (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, XII, 1970), 743-4 (entry by Franco Cardini); Renzo Ristori, ‘Religione e politica nei savonaroliani fiorentini. Iacopo Bongianni e le sue missioni diplomatiche a Bologna del 1496 e del 1497,’ in Studi in onore di Arnaldo d’Addario, ed. Luigi Borgia et al. (Lecce: Conte Editore, 1995), IV: 827-42.
15. Marvin Trachtenberg, ‘On Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy as Model for Early Renaissance Church Architecture,’ in L’église dans l’architecture de la Renaissance, Actes du Colloque, ed. Jean Guillaume (Paris: Picard, 1995), 9-39.
16. Ibid., 33-4.
17. Marchini, ‘Aggiunte a Giuliano da Sangallo’, 34.
18. Doris Carl, Benedetto da Maiano: A Florentine Sculptor at the Threshold of the High Renaissance (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), I: 517-21, edited the 1490, 1494 and 1497 documents. For the unpublished 1506 will, see Archivio di Stato, Florence (ASFi), Notarile Antecosimiano 21123, fols. 98v-103v.
19. We are very grateful to Sharon Strocchia for allowing us to publish this information on Bongianni’s sisters, included in her forthcoming article cited in note 13 above.
20. Ristori, ‘Religione e politica’, 831-2, regarding Bongianni’s 1487 negotiations with the Franciscan Observant friars of Ognissanti who had jurisdiction over Santa Chiara.
21. Carl, Benedetto da Maiano, I: 518; the document was first published by F. W. Kent, ‘Lorenzo di Credi, his patron Iacopo Bongianni and Savonarola,’ The Burlington Magazine 125 (1983): 540, n.8.
22. Carl, Benedetto da Maiano, I: 519.
24. Ibid., 520.
25. ASFi, Notarile Antecosimiano 21123, fols. 98v-103v; see also Strocchia, ‘Begging for Favors’: forthcoming.
26. Ristori, ‘Religione e politica’, 842.
27. Stefano Rosselli, Sepoltuario fiorentino ovvero descrizione delle chiese, cappelle e sepolture, loro armi et iscrizioni che sono nella città di Firenze e suoi contorni (1657), Biblioteca Moreniana, MS 320, fols. 146v-148v; Richa, Notizie istoriche, 78-88.
28. Rosselli, Sepoltuario fiorentino, fol. 147v.
29. ASFi, Carte Bardi, Serie III, 87, no. 14, fol. 1 (mistaking the second coat of arms for that of his wife). Iacopo never married and had no children; in 1480 he is recorded as living with his father, see Ristori, ‘Religione e politica’, 831.
30. On the construction of the vault and its fresco decoration by Gian Domenico Ferretti, see Pagliai, ‘Chiesa di Santa Chiara a Firenze’, 78.
31. Marchini, ‘Aggiunte a Giuliano da Sangallo’, 34-8.
32. For this example, which is later than Santa Chiara (constructed between 1578 and 1584 following the transfer of San Felice to the Dominican nuns of San Pietro Martire in 1553), see Lucia Meoni, San Felice in Piazza a Firenze (Florence: Edifir, 1993), 115-24.
33. Meghan Callahan and Donal Cooper, ‘Set in Stone: Monumental Altar Frames in Renaissance Florence,’ Renaissance Studies 24 (2010): 33-55, especially 49-52.
34. Richa, Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine, IX: 84.
35. Callahan and Cooper, ‘Set in Stone: Monumental Altar Frames’, 33-55.
36. V&A archives: file no. 231, 11552/1860. The sheet is signed ‘D. Cellesi inc.; Lit. Ach. Paris’ (draftsman: Donato Cellesi; printmaker: Achille Paris). The lithographs were not cited by Pope-Hennessy and Lightbown, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, I: 177-9, suggesting that the authors either did not know the sheet or did not appreciate its significance.
37. See note 27 above.
38. V&A archives: file no. 231, 11552/1860. Boschi, ‘Cappella maggiore della soppressa chiesa’.
39. Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, ed. Rosanna Bettarini and Paola Barocchi, IV (Florence: SPES, 1976), 283.
40. Carl, Benedetto da Maiano, I: 383-92.
41. For Rustici’s possible involvement, see Tommaso Mozzati, Giovanfrancesco Rustici. Le compagnie del Paiuolo e della Cazzuola (Florence: Olschki, 2008), 66-7, figs. 99-104. We are grateful to Stuart Frost for this reference.
42. Pope-Hennessy, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, I: 128-9. Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages, 76, attributed the tabernacle to Desiderio da Settignano.
43. In Florence the positioning of tabernacles over High Altars had been encouraged from the 1440s by Archbishop Antoninus. For detailed consideration of fifteenth-century High Altar tabernacle arrangements, see Francesco Caglioti, ‘Altari eucaristici scolpiti del primo rinascimento: qualche caso maggiore’, in Lo spazio e il culto, ed. Jörg Stabenow (Venezia: Marsilio, 2006), 53-89. For earlier evidence of tabernacles over High Altars in the late medieval period, see Joanna Cannon, Religious Poverty, Visual Riches: Art in the Dominican Churches of Central Italy in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming 2013).
44. Paul Davies, ‘Framing the Miraculous: The devotional functions of perspective in Italian Renaissance tabernacle design,’ Art History, forthcoming 2013. See also Alison Wright, ‘“Touch the truth”? Desiderio da Settignano, Renaissance relief and the body of Christ,’ Sculpture Journal 21 (2012): 7–25 and Wright, ‘Tabernacle and Sacrament in fifteenth-century Tuscany’. We are most grateful to Paul Davies and Alison Wright for providing us with copies of their essays prior to publication.
45. Pope-Hennessy, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, I: 182.
46. Carl, Benedetto da Maiano, I: 519.
47. Carl, Benedetto da Maiano, I: 384, n.58. Fra Dionisio Pulinari’s late-16th-century chronicle records that a sacrament tabernacle in Santa Chiara spoke to the Franciscan blessed Fra Mariano da Lugo di Romagna, see Cronache dei Frati Minori della Provincia di Toscani, secondo l’autografo d’Ognissanti (Documenti Francescani, vol. 1), ed. Saturnino Mencherini (Arezzo: Cooperativa tipografica, 1913), 176: ‘Ma lui [Fra Mariano], il quale orava per tutti e massimamente per quei che gliene chiedevano, pregando per il detto frate [a certain Fra Domenico di San Giovanni] avanti il Sacramento della chiesa di santa Chiara, udì una voce, che usci del tabernacolo del Sacramento…’ Fra Mariano died on 1 January 1495 at La Verna, so the miracle must have occurred before the tabernacle was set into Benedetto da Maiano’s high altarpiece.
48. Wood, ‘Breaking the Silence’, 279-84; Wood, Women, Art and Spirituality, 145-58, suggested both side altars were on the right of the church. However, the 1494 donation explicitly describes them as opposite one another.
49. Donal Cooper, ‘La commissione di Atalanta Baglioni e la collocazione originaria della Deposizione nella chiesa di San Francesco al Prato,’ in Raphael Raffaello: La Deposizione in Galleria Borghese, il restauro e studi storico-artistici, ed. Kristina Herrmann Fiore (Milan: Federico Motta, 2010), 29-30.
50. ASFi, Notarile Antecosimiano 21123, fol. 99v; cited by Ristori, ‘Religione e politica nei savonaroliani fiorentini’, 833.
51. Luca Landucci, Diario fiorentino dal 1450 al 1516 (Florence: Sansoni, 1883), 160, 174.
52. Alexander Nagel, The Controversy of Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 209.
53. Strocchia, ‘Begging for Favors’, forthcoming.
54. Kent, ‘Lorenzo di Credi, his patron Iacopo Bongianni’, 541. Kent suggested that the elderly shepherd in di Credi’s Adoration (see Kent’s fig. 19) may be a portrait of Iacopo, but the man dressed in black in Perugino’s Lamentation (at the back, second from right) could well be a better candidate. This identification has not, to our knowledge, been proposed before in the Perugino literature. For the Lamentation, see Pietro Scarpellini, Perugino (Milan: Electa, 1984), 89, 187; fig. 97.
55. Lorenzo Polizzotto, ‘When Saints Fall Out: Women and the Savonarolan Reform in Early Sixteenth-Century Florence’, Renaissance Quarterly 46 (1993): 486-525.
56. For this and the following examples, see Meghan Callahan, The Politics of Architecture: Suor Domenica da Paradiso and her convent of La Crocetta in Post-Savonarolan Florence (Ph.D dissertation, Rutgers University, 2005), 204-7.
57. For la Crocetta see also Meghan Callahan, ‘“In her name and with her money”: Suor Domenica da Paradiso’s Convent of la Crocetta in Florence,’ in Italian Art, Society and Politics: A Festschrift for Rab Hatfield, ed. Barbara Deimling, Jonathan Katz Nelson and Gary M. Radke (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 117-27.
58. Among others see Ronald Martin Steinberg, Fra Girolamo Savonarola, Florentine art, and Renaissance historiography (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1977); Meghan Callahan, ‘Poor Spaces and Rich Devotion: The Savonarolan model for the convent of La Crocetta in Florence’, forthcoming 2014.
59. Marcia B. Hall, ‘Savonarola’s Preaching and the Patronage of Art,’ in Christianity and the Renaissance: Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento, ed. Timothy Verdon and John Henderson (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 495-7.
60. See Bongianni’s letter opposing Savonarola’s call for Florentine women to take control of their own religious reform, published by F. W. Kent, ‘A Proposal by Savonarola for the Self-Reform of Florentine Women (March 1496)’, Memorie Domenicane 14 (1983): 335-41.
61. Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages, 74; National Archives, ED 28/16, Minutes of the Board of the Science and Art Department, 1852 - 65.
62. Clive Wainwright, ‘The making of the South Kensington Museum III: Collecting Abroad’, Journal of the History of Collections 14, no.1 (2002): 54-5.
63. National Archives, ED 28/16: 90-94.
64. Ibid., 100.
65. Ibid., 102.
66. Ibid., 66-7, minutes of the museum board, 3 March 1863.
67. A Guide to the art collections of the South Kensington Museum (London: Spottiswoode and Co., 1879), 32, recorded the High Altarpiece and Chapel displayed separately, but the 1882 edition describes them together.
68. V&A archives: file no. 231, 11552/1860, letter from J. Fitzgerald to the Board of Education, 15 August 1908, for Aston Webb’s opinion that the bridge would block the view of the chapel. The Santa Chiara Chapel was one of only three objects which were not moved during the installation of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries (the other two being the altar-frame potentially associated with Santa Chiara and the Hertogenbosch rood screen).
69. V&A no. 3986-1856; Pope-Hennessy, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, I: 237.
70. V&A archives: file no. 231, 11552/1860.
71. On the frieze, see Pope-Hennessy, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, I: 227-8, attributed to Andrea della Robbia; given to Benedetto Buglioni by Giancarlo Gentilini, I Della Robbia: La scultura invetriata nel Rinascimento (Florence: Cantini, 1992) I: 230.
72. The altarpiece has probably been dismantled four times: 1860 - 61, ca. 1880, 1909, and ca. 1942.
73. Within the broader structure of the project, content for the Gallery 50 displays (including the Santa Chiara Chapel) was developed by ‘Group C’, chaired by Peta Motture (project director) and comprising Glyn Davies, Stuart Frost (both Concept Team members), Simon Carter, Donal Cooper, and Meghan Callahan, with first Cooper then Callahan as designated ‘subject parent’ for the Santa Chiara display, known as ‘the chancel’. Important contributions also came from Charlotte Hubbard, head of Sculpture Conservation, who assessed the Chapel’s condition and the viability of moving the high altarpiece.
74. Peta Motture, ‘Inspire, Engage, Preserve, Connect, Transform: meeting the aims for the new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum,’ in Museum Narrative & Storytelling: engaging visitors, empowering discovery and igniting debate, ed. Gregory Chamberlain, Museum Identity, 2011: 15-32, see 18-19.
75. Discussed in detail by Stuart Frost, ‘Reinterpreting a Florentine Chapel at the V&A,’ in Social History and Museums – Journal of the Social History Curators Group 37, ed. Helen McConnell (forthcoming summer, 2013). The reconstruction can be viewed at: www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/interactive-explore-the-church-of-santa-chiara
76. Stephen Bayley, ‘The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries,’ The Guardian, December 5, 2009; Boyd Tomkin, ‘Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, London,’ The Independent, December 6, 2009; Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages, 76.