A Renaissance audience considered: the nuns at S. Apollonia and Castagno's Last Supper.

Author:Hayum, Andree

It is not difficult to explain why, until relatively recently, few visitors to Florence routinely went to see Andrea del Castagno's Last Supper, although the fresco is hardly off the beaten track at S. Apollonia. Only two blocks from that more publicized tourist attraction containing Fra Angelico's works at S. Marco, this neighborhood in the north of the city became notably dense in its concentration of monasteries and convents during the course of the fifteenth century. (1) Giorgio Vasari, who refers to a now-destroyed Last Supper painted by Castagno at the nearby complex of S. Maria Nuova, is silent on the subject of the S. Apollonia version, which does not appear in the literature before the 1870s and, at first, without secure attribution. (2) Furthermore, at the time of its suppression as a religious institution in 1866, S. Apollonia was put to use as a storage warehouse for the military. (3) Yet even once the refectory space of this former Benedictine establishment was opened to the public in 1891 and after it officially became a Castagno museum in 1911, the building that sits between Via S. Reparata and Via S. Gallo was periodically inaccessible while it was undergoing repair, renovation, and restoration. (4) Lately, the complex has been further fragmented, portions of it having been transformed into office and classroom space for the perennially overcrowded facilities of the University of Florence.

If they did not actually see it firsthand, however, those with basic training in art history could form an idea of Castagno's formal power after his Last Supper at S. Apollonia made its debut in American art history textbooks around 1960, especially once it began to appear in successive editions of H. W. Janson's History of Art. (5) Aspects of the fresco were eloquently characterized, such as the "explosive" marble veining in the background, which is sometimes compared to an Abstract Expressionist canvas, accessible several hundred pages later in such a global gallery of art. But what most stays in the mind of a textbook audience is the role Castagno's Last Supper was made to play from the retrospective vantage point of Leonardo's much more celebrated example in Milan. In that account, Castagno's fresco, painted toward the middle of the fifteenth century, is superseded by the more universal human drama Leonardo staged some fifty years later, with his radical revisions of iconographic tradition and mode of representation in treating the theme.

At the same time, a more specialized, scholarly literature began to alert us to a particular contextual setting for this type of Last Supper. The subject had long formed part of narrative cycles of the Life and Passion of Christ, as in Giotto's Arena Chapel. An important shift occurred when, in Florence, the Last Supper was monumentalized to become a principal scene and focus for the end walls of monastery refectories--something, consensus has it, that began about 1350 with Taddeo Gaddi's fresco at S. Croce (Fig. 1). There, the gabled end wall is covered with a representation of Christ on the cross as the Tree of Life, a favored image of Franciscan iconography. The Last Supper extends across the entire horizontal field at the bottom frame, forming, in effect, a giant predella for an implied triptych format of the scenes constituting the wall decoration. A "high table"-like arrangement (to use Eve Borsook's formulation) for Christ and the Apostles--obviously meant more or less to reflect the conditions of the actual dining room--is the phenomenon scholars like Luisa Vertova and Creighton Gilbert examined in terms of a Florentine tradition that develops in the course of the fifteenth century (Castagno at S. Apollonia, ca. 1447, and S. Maria Nuova, completed 1457, now lost; Ghirlandaio at S. Marco, 1477-80, and Ognissanti, 1480) and continues well into the sixteenth (Franciabigio, Convento della Calza, 1514; Andrea del Sarto, S. Salvi, 1511-27). (6) In this line of thinking, there was agreement about the innovative nature of Castagno's example, at least from a formal standpoint, in its ingenious sharpening of the illusion of a projected scene, with its trompe l'oeil rendition of marble revetments backing the seemingly palpable presence of Christ and the Apostles (Fig. 2). Thus, Gilbert refers to it as "the first of our familiar Last Suppers for a refectory"; Vertova, measuring Castagno's achievement here in terms of its chronological position a mere decade after Leon Battista Alberti's treatise on perspective, intriguingly puts it this way in her book I Cenacoli fiorentini: "the first [fully] Renaissance Florentine refectory is that of the Benedictine nuns of Sant' Apollonia." (7)

Identifying these patrons so definitively was more than most scholars had done. That female religious should be responsible for commissioning such a substantial and, in Vertova's estimation, stylistically avant-garde work was not something she further delved into. Within a decade after the publication of Vertova's book, issues of patronage and context of works of art were to become much more central to art historical investigations. It seems fair to say, however, that those concerns did not at first fuel the contemporaneous emergence of feminist inquiries, which were more engaged by the careers and identities of women artists, past and present, or by manifestly relevant iconographic ingredients of works of art, even if determined by male patrons in appeal to male viewers. (8) By now, to be sure, the situation is very different. Women as patrons and collectors--from Isabella d'Este to Isabella Stewart Gardner--are the subject of intensive study. A younger generation of historians and art historians has been productively turning its attention to the histories and ceremonies as well as the literary and artistic production of female religious orders of the late medieval to late Renaissance periods, exploring the role of the visual arts in the lives of such women and, frequently through archival research, shedding light on the choice of artists employed and types of art commissioned by these female communities. (9) Yet there is still a tendency in these studies to employ works of art more illustratively than as objects themselves deserving interrogation, with interpretative consequences drawn from the analysis of their inherent structures of form. Pertinent examples, as with certain picture types like the altarpiece, can, in fact, be rather conventional, their main interest lying in a newly identified association with a group of female patrons. (10) Moreover, when it comes to possible artistic output by convent women, production is often miniature in scale (manuscript illustrations, embroideries), impermanent in material (textile, papier-mache), occasional in purpose and/or marginal in quality--products of visual culture, in other words, that have not necessarily lent themselves to exclusive focus. (11) Given the important research being carried out on issues of gender and aspects of women's piety, the sustained visual analysis of and critical reflection on a major monument--indeed, by now even a canonical reference point in our study of Renaissance art--such as Castagno's remarkable Last Supper, and how this mural would have related to an audience comprised exclusively of female viewers, thus seems all the more pressing. (12) We may even be stimulated in this endeavor by ways in which the theme of the Last Supper, that proto-typical male assembly exemplified in our mind's eye by its most famous visual representations, has proved to be a recurring target for the interventions of women artists since the beginning of the feminist movement in the 1970s right up to the present.


From the time Castagno's name started being associated with the S. Apollonia frescoes in the later part of the nineteenth century, this attribution has remained unchallenged. (13) For the modern student, in fact, the Last Supper became one of the works considered most representative of the artist's style, though, from the perspective of my present study, Andrea del Castagno may seem an unlikely candidate for a group of women religious to choose as their artist. Here, the dramatic portrayal of Castagno as a murderer, who beat his colleague Domenico Veneziano to death in professional jealousy and rage, cannot help but affect our perception, even if documentary evidence later proved this account, disseminated through Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, to be false. (14) Castagno died relatively young in 1457 during an outbreak of the plague, four years before Veneziano's death in 1461. Insofar as the story has a ring of truth, however, it would seem to follow from distinctions, sharply drawn by Vasari and obvious also to the modern viewer, between the representational styles of these two painters: Castagno's incisive contouring, rugged figures, and dense, earthen tonalities conjuring up the traits of a dominant, aggressive personality when pitted against the delicate effect of Veneziano's pastel hues and optical transparencies of form. Furthermore, the personages that first come to mind when reviewing extant works from Castagno's short career, apart from this Last Supper, are other assertive, even militant male figures, whether the equestrian portrait of Niccolo da Tolentino, neighbor to Uccello's Sir John Hawkwood in the cathedral of Florence, or the condottiere Pippo Spano, from the "Huomini Famosi" cycle of the Carducci family villa at Legnaia (Fig. 3). But just as Meyer Schapiro in his essay "Freud and Leonardo: An Art Historical Study" supplied evidence of Leonardo da Vinci's interest in human deformity, instruments of warfare, and scenes of violence in order to redress Freud's notion of a predominantly feminine ideal of subject and form fueling Leonardo's output, so, conversely, we do well to invoke a Castagno who during his own lifetime seemed to be singled out for his narrative cycles and...

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