In 1439 Abraham of Souzdal, a Russian bishop visiting Florence, was in the audience in Santa Maria del Carmine for the famous Ascension play, arranged by the members of the lay confraternity, the Sant’Agnese. Sitting in the body of the church, Abraham looked up and saw, on top of one end of the huge stone choir screen, a castle with towers and ramparts, and at the other a Mount of Olives. From here the ascending Christ was drawn up through celestial curtains to be united with God the Father, suspended ‘in a miraculous fashion’ in the far distance above the altar. Invisible ropes and pulleys and visible local children, ‘who represent angels with pipes and lutes and lots of tiny bells’, contributed to a spectacle that had been performed annually for at least 50 years.
It is a wonderfully evocative vignette, a glimpse into another world, and its place in Painted Glories is characteristic of Nicholas Eckstein’s oblique approach to one of the greatest treasures of the Florentine renaissance. The Brancacci chapel, with its frescoes painted in the mid-1420s by Masolino and Masaccio, and finished some 60 years later by Filippino Lippi, has frustrated generations of art historians with its lack of documentary evidence that might help pin down who did what and when. Scientific analysis has gone some way to fill in the gaps, but speculation has inevitably been a feature of many studies over the last decades. Eckstein has chosen a different course. The significance of the frescoes in the history of western art is taken for granted, and instead he looks at the chapel in the context of the social, religious and historical life of the church and the community it served.
Contemporary context is particularly important in relation to these paintings, stranded as they are in a time-capsule in the west transept of a church otherwise entirely remodelled inside after a devastating fire in the 18th century. Eckstein takes the reader back to a time when the interplay of associations between the spaces in the church would have been apparent; when the Florentine parishioners would have understood the subtleties of the immensely complex decorative scheme as a ‘visual sermon’, a confection of quotations rather than a straightforward narrative.
So the scenes of the life of St Peter which occupy the inner walls of the chapel not only underline Peter’s importance to the status of the Carmelite order but relate the apostle’s life to the charitable work of the church, the confraternity and the parishioners.
In excavating the lives of the local people, Eckstein also throws a fascinating sidelight on the battle of Anghiari in 1440, won by Florentine forces on 29 June, the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. The result of the battle had been miraculously predicted in the church and the prestige accruing to the Carmine as a result raised its profile so much that the incomplete state of the Brancacci chapel frescoes became an embarrassment. Eckstein argues convincingly that it was largely the financial contribution of women that enabled Filippino Lippi to get to work and finish the job.
Such themes are drawn out with the minutiae of contemporary sources — letters, poems, official documents, rent books, wills, financial records and the like — but also take comprehensive account of recent scholarship.
If a book which freely uses words such as ‘thaumaturgic’, ‘paratactic’, ‘imbricated’ and ‘proleptic’ would at first glance seem to exclude a general readership, then such is not really the case. In the age of the blockbuster exhibition here is a vivid reminder that there is nothing to rival the pleasure of seeing great art within its proper context. And that very small cubic space, the Brancacci chapel, flanked with Masolino’s beautiful ‘Temptation’ and Masaccio’s astonishing ‘Expulsion’ and filled with paintings as numinous as anything produced in the city in the quattrocento, surely proves the point as few places can.
If Eckstein is also correct in saying that these days you are only allowed 15 minutes inside, that is all the more reason for getting his superbly illustrated book.