The chapel of the courtesan and the quarrel of the Magdalens.

Author:Witcombe, Christopher L.C.E.

When Raphael died in 1520, his workshop in Rome was jointly inherited by his two leading pupils, Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni. Among the numerous projects they undertook before Giulio's departure from Rome for Mantua in 1524 was the decoration of a chapel dedicated to Mary MAGDALEN in the church of SS. Trinita dei Monti in Rome. (1) Giorgio Vasari refers to the project twice in the 1568 edition of the Vite. In his life of the painter Perino del Vaga he states that Giulio Romano and Penni painted "four scenes in fresco of St. Mary Magdalen in the lunettes and an altarpiece in oil of Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen in the guise of a gardener." (2) In his life of the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, he notes that Marcantonio engraved prints of "the four scenes of the Magdalen and the four evangelists in the vault of the chapel in the Trinita." Of special interest, however, is Vasari's comment that these paintings were done for "a prostitute [una meretrice]. " (3) This information is repeated by Vasari i n his statement that the face of the dead woman carved on top of a marble sarcophagus set against one wall of the chapel was a portrait of "a very famous courtesan of Rome [una famosissima cortigiana di Roma]" (4)

Assuming Vasari is correct in stating that the chapel's decorations were commissioned by a courtesan (and there seems to be no good reason to doubt him), the project raises questions about the status and role of courtesans in early sixteenth-century Roman society. During this period, courtesans in Rome were tolerated and accepted at the highest levels of society. At the same time, the Church actively encouraged prostitutes and courtesans to follow the example of Mary Magdalen, who had become established as the paradigm of the penitent prostitute. The choice of scenes from the life and legend of Mary Magdalen therefore suited the decoration of a chapel for a presumably repentant courtesan. Moreover, it can be shown that the frescoes also served to reaffirm the Church's belief in Mary Magdalen's identification as a prostitute at a time when this long-held tradition was being challenged by the French humanist Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples.

The chapel (the fifth on the left from the entrance; the third on the left from the altar) did not remain the courtesan's for long. In 1537 it was ceded to Angelo Massimi, who commissioned Perino del Vaga to paint frescoes on each of the lateral walls and on the pilasters on either side of the entrance. (5) To a certain extent, Perino's frescoes continue the decorative program begun by Giulio Romano and Penni by including imagery that emphasizes the traditional identity of Mary Magdalen. The paintings from both projects evidently survived until the early nineteenth century, when they were removed to make way for a complete redecoration of the chapel. (6) Although Perino del Vaga's contributions have been examined, the project undertaken by Giulio Romano and Penni has received little scholarly attention. (7)

Reconstructing the Chapel's Decorations

The chapel's altarpiece (8) has been identified as the Noli me tangere now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid (Fig. 1). (9) The painting shows the Magdalen on the right reaching toward Christ, who, with his left hand extended, appears to both warn her away and bless her at the same time. (10) A print engraved by Giovanni Battista Cavalieri in 1570 reproduces the altarpiece with a fair degree of accuracy (Fig. 2). (11)

Besides the altarpiece, one of the lunettes, depicting Mary Magdalen Borne Up by Angels, has also survived and is now in the National Gallery, London (Fig. 3). (12) It shows Mary Magdalen, nude but for her covering of hair, reclining amid clouds and sustained by six angels. The fresco is also known through an engraving attributed to Leon Davent in which the design has been adjusted to suit a circular format (Fig. 4) (13) Below the main figure group has been added a view of a mountain, presumably the massif near Marseilles in the south of France where Mary Magdalen supposedly lived in the cave of La Ste-Baume for the last thirty years of her life. Although it seems likely that all four lunette frescoes were removed from the walls at the same time that the chapel was dismembered, the other three apparently have not survived. However, the scenes in two of the lunettes were reproduced, as Vasari states, in engravings. Helpfully, Pierre Jean Mariette (1694-1774), writing in the eighteenth century before the chape l was redecorated, described the disposition of each of the frescoes in the chapel and identified the engravings associated with them. (14)

The first scene described by Mariette is Mary Magdalen Anointing Christ's Feet in the House of Simon the Pharisee, which he associates with the print of the same subject by Marcantonio (Fig. 5). (15) Mariette states that the fresco was in the lunette over the stained-glass, or leaded-glass, window ("du vitrail") above the altar. The upper arch of the full lunette shape, although not indicated in the print, can be easily imagined as fitting over the design. Directly opposite, above the arched entrance to the chapel, appeared Martha Leading Mary Magdalen to Christ, (16) which is reproduced in Marcantonio's print (Fig. 6). (17) Two drawings of the scene survive, one in Munich and the other in Chatsworth (Fig. 7). (18) In both drawings, the upper portion is curved, reflecting the upper arch of the lunette. Besides the upper arch of the lunette, the original fresco had also to accommodate the curve of the entrance arch. Although not indicated in either drawing, this lower curve can be easily imagined below the fi gures, eliminating in the fresco the otherwise empty steps in the foreground. Details of the scene recall Raphael's tapestry design for Saint Paul Preaching in Athens, which Marcantonio engraved about 1515-16 (Fig. 8). (19) In particular, a correspondence may be noted between the figure at the left in both scenes watching with bearded chin in hand as well as the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite, converted by Saint Paul's preaching, on the right in the one print and the figure with a similar open-armed gesture in the center background of the other. The visual correspondence serves to underscore the theme of conversion.

Mariette notes that, contrary to Vasari's statement, the remaining two scenes were not engraved by Marcantonio. He does, however, specify the scenes occupying the lateral lunettes in the chapel as Mary Magdalen in the Desert and Mary Magdalen Borne Up by Angels, which is identified with the fresco fragment in London. (20) Unfortunately, no clue remains to indicate what the fresco of Mary Magdalen in the Desert may have looked like.

"A Very Famous Courtesan of Rome"

As mentioned earlier, at one point Vasari describes the patroness of the chapel as a prostitute (meretrice) and at another as a very famous courtesan ("una famosissima cortigiana"). The word meretrice dates back to ancient Rome. (21) The word cortigiana, however, originated in the Renaissance, having emerged within the culture of the courts in the latter part of the fifteenth century. Through obvious association with the name cortigiano, the male courtier, made famous by Baldassare Castiglione, it effectively elevated the status of the prostitute and suggested that, like the cortigiano, the cortigiana was a woman of breeding and virtue. Cortigiana, or courtesan, was used to describe a high-priced prostitute, distinguished from the puttana, or common prostitute, whose sexual services cost much less. (22) However, by the second decade of the sixteenth century, cortigiana had come to be applied generally to all women of ill repute, though distinctions were still made; in the census taken during the reign of Pope Leo X, a prostitute fell into one of three categories: cortesana puttana, cortesana da lume or da candela, or cortesana onesta. (23) The last category of "honest or respectable courtesan" (also given in Latin as meretrix honesta) appears as early as 1501 in the diary of Johann Burchard, the master of ceremonies to Pope Alexander VI, who recorded that fifty "meretrices honestae, cortegianae nuncupatae" attended a dinner given by Cesare Borgia, the duke of Valentino, in the Palazzo Apostolico on October 31. (24)

In referring to the patroness of the Magdalen Chapel as "a very famous courtesan," Vasari was probably describing a cortigiana onesta. The cortigiana onesta was a successful prostitute, a woman who had acquired conspicuous wealth through first attracting and then catering to wealthy clients. More than this, in modern parlance she was a woman who had acquired celebrity status and who used the opportunities that such status offered for psychological and social maneuvering. This status brought her a certain social prominence and, with it, a measure of admiration, if not tolerance. (25) Her wealthy and powerful clients added to her prominence, which thereby increased both her prestige and theirs. During the reign of Pope Leo X (1513-21) courtesans in Rome enjoyed an extraordinary social position. In the learned, Grecophile culture of the Medici pope's court, courtesans were regarded as latter-day reincarnations of hetairai, the women who entertained men at the symposium in ancient Greece. (26) This identificatio n as hetairai offered some women a rare opportunity for independent social and educational advancement, which they could take advantage of to exercise their intellectual abilities and display qualities of mind otherwise denied them because of their status as women. It was possible for a successful courtesan to acquire a measure of wealth and independence, and thereby the means and opportunity to pursue other interests. Later in the century the courtesans Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Franco, and Tullia d'Aragona, for example, made significant contributions to the poetry of the period. (27)

Despite official disapproval and occasional campaigns against it, prostitution...

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