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This study tries to prove that there was an aesthetic specific to cloistered women

The production of works for garth and home

One reaches the last page of this extremely serious study with the sense of having been bludgeoned into submission by the sheer weight of detail, and Anabel Thomas is certainly to be congratulated on the fact that her searchlight is as intensely focused, as it is illuminating.

The title of the book is, however, misleading: the study is a small snapshot of some Tuscan and Umbrian convents, rather than an overall view of Italian monasteries, and it is hard to extrapolate from the limited records further information about the situation in the rest of Italy, limitations which Dr Thomas acknowledges in her introduction: “the records, physical and documentary, are incomplete and not easy to interpret”.

But that is to carp, for what is produced here is a clear insight into the mores of a handful of religious houses. In particular, we are introduced to two convents of Franciscan tertiaries, Sant’Anna in Foligno and Sant’Onofrio in Florence, in such a way that the communities come to life.

There is a fascinating discussion of the frescoes in the nuns’ refectory at Sant’Anna: Giovanni di Corraduccio’s depiction, about 1430, of Saint Martha engaged in physical exertion for Christ’s sake is seen as a suitably active “foil” for the cloistered tertiaries who would gaze on it several times each day.

The argument of the book is that a significant distinction can be drawn in the female religious houses of late Renaissance Italy between public and private spaces. The former would be those areas, mainly in the conventional church, where clergy and lay people would join the nuns, while the latter would be those parts of the complex marked by enclosure and, by definition, open only to its consecrated inhabitants. Dr Thomas maintains that within this inner space, not only was there much more art than has been usually presumed, but that this art can be shown to take forms which would be sympathetic to the specifically feminine eye.

She argues convincingly that women religious were patrons of the arts, commissioning works for their own use within the enclosure: in 1439, for example, (nine years after they had initiated discussion with the artist) the Bridgettine nuns of the Paradiso outside Florence received from Giuliano di Jacopo an altarpiece of the Virgin which included a depiction of their foundress, Saint Bridget, handing her rule to both members of the Order and to men: the records show that the subject matter, materials, decoration and methods of payment were all very clearly the nuns’ responsibility and choice. There are also clues to the beginnings of mass-produced religious kitsch. The Diario, or record, of the Dominican nuns’ printing press, San Jacopo Ripoli in Florence, indicates that their press served a wide circle of Dominican communities in and around Florence around 1480: these Nonnenarbeit woodcuts and engravings, were judged “particularly appropriate for circulation and use within female religious communities”. The current purveyors of plastic and plaster bondieuseries at Lourdes clearly had 15th-century cloistered prototypes.

For many reasons to do with inheritance and dowry, the daughters of European noble houses often entered convents. Although exceptional in many other ways, Teresa of Avila, for example, was not untypical in her education and broad familiarity with high cultural concerns. Rigid enclosure that in many ways put a stop to this practice was something to come later with the reforms of the Council of Trent, and for many religious women of the 15th century theirs was an agreeable and civilised existence which afforded easy contact with the life of their town or city. Not for nothing does Dr Thomas say of two of her Florentine communities: “their blood was so ‘blue’ that each was individually known as ‘the monastery of the countesses’”.

This book is an excellent test case, but more research and subtle interpretation are needed to clinch the argument that religious women of the Renaissance produced specially feminine art forms for their personal space.

The notes to the chapters are extensive and helpful. It is disappointing that the illustration of the text is so spare, and that the handful of colour plates are all clumped together at the front of the volume with little apparent relation to what follows.

o Anabel Thomas, Art and piety in the female religious communities of Renaissance Italy: iconography, space and the religious woman’s perspective (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003), 400 pp, 88 b/w ills, £75, $100 (hb) ISBN 0521811880