Friday, January 18, 2013

CHAPEL OF THE CARDINAL OF LUSITANIA

Tucked off to one side in the San Miniato al monte church of the Benedictine monastery which overlooks Florence, there is an exquisite renaissance funerary chapel which was added into the fabric of the Romanesque church in the 1400s (it was finished in 1473).

View of the chapel from the left side aisle of San Miniato al Monte church, Florence

Cardinal James of Lusitania was 25 years when he died in Florence in 1459.  He was the Portuguese ambassador to the Florentine republic. He had extremely blue blood as attested by the thirty coats of arms in the entablature running around the whole chapel. James of Lusitania (the name of the ancient Roman province which corresponds roughly to modern day Portugal and some areas of Spain) was the archbishop of Lisbon and the nephew to the King of Portugal. His uncle, the king, commissioned the funerary chapel for his nephew. Some of the most important artists of Florence participated in its decoration. The architecture and sculpture was first entrusted to Antonio Manetti, an associate of Brunelleschi, however, the commission was very quickly passed to the Rossellino brothers workshop, Antonio and Bernardo. The frescoed decoration was by Alessio Baldovinetti (the teacher of Ghirlandaio), the altarpiece painting by the workshop of the Pollaiolo brothers, Antonio and Piero, and finally the ceiling of stunning glazed terracotta by Luca della Robbia. These artisans are some of the most frequently cited from the fifteenth century Florentine renaissance period and they all had successful workshops. Their style was very modern, a la page, for the time. These artisans were part of the renaissance group who translated the humanist renaissance revival of the centrality of man into an artistic vocabulary. This was achieved through an attentive study of the world around them which lead to both the introduction of an acute realism into figurative representation, as well as the novel insertion of the natural world into the art. Both of these aspects had not previously, in the medieval world, been a priority as life on earth and the here and now had been overshadowed by the spiritual world.

 Consequently, as art reflects life, the images reflected the spiritual realm which had to be depicted differently to the earthly existence. When art began to resemble the world around us, it reflected the shift in consideration given to man’s actions independent of their relationship to the spiritual. Finally, these artisans were also using as a guide the classical world in a way that the medieval artisan had far from considered. All of these new factors can be clearly seen in the tomb sculpture of the cardinal.

Tomb of the cardinal of Lusitania, Antonio Rossellino, 1461-66, white marble and porphyry with traces of polychromy and gold

 It follows the renaissance tomb archetype, created by Bernardo Rossellino (the same workshop), of Leonardo Bruni in the Santa Croce church, begun in 1444. 

Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, Bernardo Rossellino, 1444-47, marble, Santa Croce church, Florence

Both tombs are set in an arch frame reminiscent of the triumphal arch from antiquity and although it could be argued that this is to be interpreted as expressing the desire of eternal salvation for the soul, the highly realistic rendering of the man, lying as if in state for people to come and pay homage, on his tomb leads us to believe the desired effect is for a lasting memory on earth of the man that he was, rather than being solely concerned with his soul. The wonderful stone curtains on the sides create the sense of a stage and add an element of warmth to the stone wall. The frescoes in the pendentives above the arch hint at the colour that the overall chapel would have once had when the frescoes were newly finished and the colouring on the marble was still evident. The porphyry background behind the tomb harks to the royal lineage using symbolism from antiquity when only the emperor and his family could use this most precious purple stone from Egypt.

The chapel structure was inspired by Brunelleschi’s architecture, most notably the Old sacristy in San Lorenzo church. It is the first Greek cross format of the renaissance. The altar piece painting, the original is in the Uffizi gallery, by the Pollaiuolo brothers depicts three standing saints, Vincent James and Eustace.
Altar piece painting of saints Vincent, James and Eustace, Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo, 1468, tempura on wood, Uffizi gallery, Florence

Vincent (dressed in his deacon’s robes) because he is the patron saint of Lisbon and patron of the royal house of Portugal, James (depicted with his usual attribute of a pilgrim’s staff and hat) because he is the cardinal’s namesake and patron saint, and finally, Eustace because it was the cardinal’s titular church in Rome. The floor in the painting resembles the floor of the chapel. The different artistic mediums are all in harmony with one another and fit together like pieces of a puzzle, the painting with the carved marble surroundings and the overall architecture.

The floor is similar to the medieval Romanesque pavements, called cosmatesque, seen most often in religious structures (the same design can be seen in the Sistine chapel done at a similar time to this chapel and then shortly afterwards, in the Raphael rooms of the Vatican palace).


View of the floor in the chapel of the cardinal of Lusitania, cosmatesque style.

The name, cosmatesque, refers to the family workshop of mosaicists called Cosmati, active in Rome in the twelve and thirteenth century, who specialised in this inlay style. It is opus sectile mosaic which uses different size pieces of stone not opus tessile mosaic where the tessarae are of the same size. The stones used are semi precious such as porphyry and green serpentine with Carrera white marble and when not decorating floors (columns, pulpits of walls for example) coloured glass is often used, glazed terracotta or gold leaf glass.

Finally, the ceiling is a marvellous display of the della Robbia workshop production.

Ceilinng of the chapel depicting the four cardinal virtues, Luca della Robbia, 1460s, glazed terrracotta.

Luca della Robbia was the first artisan to take advantage of terracotta and perfect the coloured glazing which made highly pleasing objects for the decoration of domestic domains as well as churches without the cost of marble. The ceiling here is a testament to the skill in moulding and colouring that he produced in his most successful family workshop. The four cardinal virtues are shown in the tondos in the four corners; temperance mixing wine and water, fortitude with her sword and shield bearing the cardinal’s coat of arms, prudence with her mirror and snake and lastly, justice with her scales. In the middle is the dove of the holy spirit surrounded by seven candle stick holders. These could be symbolic of the seven branched candelabrum (menorah), the ancient symbol of Judaism. To Christians, the menorah symbolises divine wisdom and its seven branches stand for the seven planets, the seven virtues, the seven sacraments to name a few of the Christian groupings of seven to which it could be referring. The shades of blue glaze with the white make the scene seem celestial set against the strong geometric pattern of diamond interlay with yellow, green and black.

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