Saturday, 8 October 2011

Santa Fina and the violets

This blog relates to the poem "Santa Fina", one of an Italian Suite published on the blog "Vagaries, auguries and encounters".

Domenico Ghirlandaio
In 1485 Domenico Ghirlandaio was thirty five, and well on the way to becoming the most respected artist in Florence.  He was the exact contemporary of Botticelli and Perugino, and with them, had been part of the massive commission to paint the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses on the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where his famous pupil Michelangelo was later to paint the ceiling.  The workshop of Domenico and his brothers Benedetto and Davide turned out small panel portraits and charming Madonnas, but Domenico's real skill lay in the painting of frescos.

The Tornabuoni family witness the Visitation
Domenico had everything that was needed to make a successful fresco painter in the highly materialistic society of late fifteenth century Florence.  He had taken on the new science of linear perspective, which meant that he could paint a townscape that gave the impression of a view through a window.  He was superb at capturing a likeness, which meant that when commissioned to paint a religious scene, he could skilfully work in portraits of the commissioning family and their associates.  The portrayals in his pictures have dignity and gravitas.  He knew how to make bankers look benevolent and pudgy-faced fourteen-year-olds look like desirable brides.

Domenico's important commission of 1485 was again out of Florence.   He was to work in the medieval hilltown of San Gimignano, in the province of Siena, painting two frescos depicting the life of a girl who was locally regarded as a saint.

The illustrated Bible of la Collegiata 
Italy is the home of the fresco.  While the great Gothic churches of France, England and Germany were decorated with stone carvings and stained glass, the main way of depicting Biblical narratives in Italy has always been fresco, except in damp and mouldy Venice where the mosaic prevailed.  The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano has a truly remarkable collection of frescos, forming a veritable "Poor Man's Bible".  It is one of the very few churches in Italy to have survived the centuries of war and ground movement with its ancient frescos substantially intact.

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano
On approaching the church, one is greeted by a wide flight of steps and an undecorated stone facade which at some point in its history has been extended in the upwards direction in brick.  Oddly, it doesn't have a central door, just two side doors into the aisles.   In France, one would expect to see a massive central doorway with the figure of Christ in Majesty on the Day of Judgement carved in splendour on the arched tympanum over the door.   San Gimignano has a Last Judgement, but because it is fresco on the inner wall, you tend not to notice it when you walk in.  The section over the left aisle, a terrifying scene which includes people suffering ghastly torments for the sins of their lifetimes, is the last thing you see as you leave the church.   It was painted around 1400 by Taddeo di Bartolo.

The church, as is typical with large churches, is divided into three by two rows of stout columns supporting arches, which in this case are of radiating stripes of alternating black and white marble.  The vault overhead is sky blue, and sprinkled with little stars.   And the walls of the two aisles are decorated with two fresco cycles, which despite the demolition of one entire bay for the insertion of the organ, another for the creation of a chapel and a rather clumsy 17th century restoration, have remained otherwise intact.

A bay of the wall depicting scenes from
the Life of Christ: Barna of Siena, 1350s 
The left wall of the church, painted by Bartolo di Fredi, a follower of the famous Sienese painter Simone Martini, is probably the later of the two, but depicts the earlier narrative, the Old Testament.   It is shown in three levels, with the Creation and Fall exquisitely depicted in the arched spaces between the vaults. The brilliantly realised stories of the other level include Noah and the Ark, Abraham and his descendants, Joseph the Dreamer and Moses. The last story is that of Job.

The other side of the church was decorated a little earlier and probably completed around 1360. The 16th century biographer, Vasari, says that the artist, Barna of Siena died by falling off the scaffolding so the work was completed by his pupil Giovanni di Ascanio. While many of the upper frescos, including the Nativity narratives, have been badly damaged by damp and poorly restored, most of the frescos of the two lower levels are in good condition and reveal a great expressive drama in the telling of the events of the life of Jesus. The Crucifixion, which takes up the space of four smaller pictures, is particularly impressive as it seeks to contain the entire narrative of the event, including the interaction with John, the traditional image of the fainting Virgin, the dice players and the centurion's proclamation all within a single image.  The later scenes of Deposition, Resurrection and Ascension have been destroyed.

St Sebastian by Benozo Gozzoli, 1465
The adornment of the church did not cease with the completion of the Last Judgement.  In the 1420s the church had acquired a pair of statues by Jacopo della Quercia, representing with simplicity and elegance, the Blessed Virgin and the Archangel Gabriel.  These were later painted in brilliant colours  but were possibly intended to be monochrome.  Benozzo Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, came to paint a large fresco of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian below the Last Judgement on the western wall.  Saint Sebastian,  having been wounded with many arrows, was invoked in times of plague.   An outbreak in 1464 caused the townsfolk to  commission two such paintings from Benozzo, one at the Collegiata, and the other in the large church of Sant'Agostino, at the opposite end of the town.

The Chapel of Santa Fina
It was into this Late Medieval environment came Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1485, to decorate a small chapel that had been built in 1468 as an extension to the Collegiate church.  San Gimignano, high on the hilltop, with its steep narrow streets, and beetling towers, walled in and accessible only by narrow gates, must have seemed very provincial compared with the civilised life of Florence on its level ground by the River Arno, with its many spacious airy churches, its modern architecture, its town squares and the narrow medieval houses making way for the wider facades of palazzi built by the bankers and cloth merchants.  

The whole chapel is to this day acclaimed as San Gimignano's greatest masterpiece of art, and indeed, at the time of the completion of its decoration, its Renaissance style must have seemed to overshadow all the wonderful Late Gothic treasures.  In 1468, this chapel was ultra-modern, having been designed by Giuliano da Maiano in the Classical style of architecture that had been introduced to Florence by Brunelleschi, after his archaeological expedition to Rome.  The altar with rich carvings and architectural details in gilded marble was by Giuliano's highly-accomplished brother Benedetto.  Corinthian columns, cornices, classical niches and cherubs had suddenly become part of the oeuvre of San Gimignano, and it was up to Domenico to respond to it in a way that paid homage to the subject, the city and the structure of the new chapel.

One might ask why Ghirlandaio was called in, to fill this important but relatively small fresco commission, when the town had an established relationship with Benozzo Gozzoli, who was a highly competent painter, and had created, as well as the two Saint Sebastians, an impressive fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Augustine of Hippo in the chancel of the church of Sant'Agostino.  The reason is probably that the aging Benozzo had a massive commission to fulfil at Pisa Cathedral, which he was never able to complete.  Although he lived until 1497, there is no known painting by him after 1485, the year that Ghirlandaio painted the Saint Fina frescos.

Saint Fina and her nurses witness the apparition of St Gregory the Great

The story of Santa Fina
Saint Serafina, to give her her full name, is neither the patron saint of the city, nor even a saint.   The patron of the city is, unsurprisingly, the saint after whom the town is named, Saint Geminianus who was Bishop of Modena in the late 4th century.   But whether she has ever been officially recognised by the Vatican or not,  Santa Fina remains the home-grown saint of San Gimignano, celebrated in legend, in art and in veneration.

According to her legend, Serafina, who was born around 1238, was a bright, happy little girl, devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  At the age of ten she was struck down by illness which may have been poliomyelitis.  She was left paralysed and unable to walk.  From that time her preferred bed was on a wooden pallet, possibly so that she could be easily transported.  Within a short time both her parents died, leaving her in poverty.  A gruesome detail of her reported suffering is that rats came and nibbled on her flesh.  However, her endurance, her patience and good humour brought her a stream of visitors.

Fina was nursed by two women, Beldia and Bonaventura, and lived to the age of fifteen.  On the 4th March, 1253 there appeared in her room a vision of Saint Gregory the Great who informed her that she would die on 12th March.   The prediction proved correct, and on her death, all the bells of all the towers of San Gimignano peeled spontaneously, and large pale-coloured violets grew on the pallet on which she rested and burst into bloom.

On the day of her funeral,  as her nurse Beldia bade her farewell, the hand of the dead girl raised suddenly and touched that of the nurse, healing her of a paralysis that had resulted from many long hours spent supporting her patient's head.   A blind choirboy was also cured by touching her.  Subsequently people came forward and told the stories of many miraculous deeds, some of them described as taking place before her illness.

The funeral of Saint Fina

Ghirlandaio's paintings 
Ghirlandaio was required to paint the  two most miraculous incidents associated with Fina, the vision of Saint Gregory and the healing of her nurse.   The two scenes were to occupy the walls of the chapel, and were to be the same size, set into broad arches.  However, one of the scenes was to depict a public occasion, her funeral, which was attended by many people, and the other was to depict a private event, in a domestic interior, with only Fina and her nurses there to see the miraculous appearance of the 6th century pope.  It was necessary that each picture gave an appropriate sense of space, in one case intimate and the other expansive.

Ghirlandaio handles this cleverly by simply reducing the amount of space dedicated to the narrative, in the vision of St Gregory.  He frames a stark domestic interior with two wide decorated Classical piers supporting a low architrave.  Although the perspective within the room thus created is steeply receding, its actual depth is defined by the coffered ceiling, which indicate that the stage set on which the action takes place is quite shallow.  Light streaks across the floor from an open door and from within the actual chapel,  with Ghirlandaio's painted pier casting a painted shadow.  Santa Fina, her head supported by Beldia, raises her hands in prayer to receive the papal blessing.  Through the open door a garden is glimpsed, and out the window, bathed in clear white light, is a city on a mountain, symbolising the goal of the pilgrim soul.  In the spandrel that Ghirlandaio created with his painted architectonics two angels bear Fina's soul up to heaven in a glorious rainbow.

The second painting does not have the framing devices, and is made to appear far more expansive, just by the arrangement of the figures which stand around the bier of Santa Fina in two arcs, with the figures at the sides being of larger proportion than those at the back.  The arcs made by the figures are echoed in a corresponding arc created by a chancel surrounding a small altar. This chancel is boldly constructed in the classical style, with its jutting painted cornice rising up and beyond the arch that encloses the painting.  Ghirlandaio has set the curve of the chancel wall with three marble veneers in different colours, blue, red and yellow, with the blue falling on the shaded side, the red centrally placed behind the Crucifix, and the yellow catching the light and adding a golden haze to St Fina.  Beyond the chancel a vista opens up, as if the walls of the church had dissolved. On either side are the famous towers of San Gimignano, with the bells being rung by an angel.

The faces of the people who attend the funeral are undoubtedly those of 15th century San Gimignano, but they could be those of the 20th century.  The choirboys are variously distracted. The artist himself stares directly at us from the back row.  A young suitor wistfully removes the ring from his hand.  Other details of both paintings enhance the narrative.  One of the broader towers has a nest of storks.  The simple bunches of violets that grow from the pallet in the domestic scene have become a rich blue and gold brocade at the funeral.  A large platter forms a link between the vision of Pope Gregory and the halo of the little saint.  And skulking under the bench, is a solitary rat, to remind the viewer of the less pleasant aspects of the story.

Domenico Ghirlandaio,
second from the right
The large pale-coloured violets of Santa Fina still grow in crevices between the stones of San Gimignano.  Her feast day has been celebrated on 12th March since 1481.

Ghirlandaio went back to Florence where he painted a fresco cycle of the Life of Saint Francis of Assisi in the family chapel of  the Sassettis at Church of la Trinita.  Francesco Sassetti was the Manager of the Medici Bank at Genoa.  His successor, Giovanni Tornabuoni commissioned another cycle of frescos, for his family chapel at The Church of Santa Maria Novella.  The two fresco cycles are a "whose who" of  Florence, containing not only portraits of the banking fraternity and their families, but also philosophers, poets and painters.  Ghirlandaio, the great capturer of likenesses, painted himself in the crowd, looking pensive, one hand pointing to himself, and wrapped nonchalantly in a red cloak.

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