A songbook from renaissance Florence
After a decade of fires, floods, and famines, a group of women and men from middle-class families in 1340s Florence, Italy commissioned a luxurious illuminated manuscript. Slightly larger than 18 x 11 inch sheets of paper, the over 120 parchment pages of this Christian book contain hymns of praise to God, called laude, and compelling narrative scenes from the life of Christ and of a full range of saints. The patrons were especially devoted to Saint Agnes, and so the songbook is called the Laudario of Sant’Agnese.
Today, only 31 sheets or fragments survive in nineteen collections because the songbook was cut apart and sold to collectors in the early 1800s. The Laudario is one of the most important examples of early Renaissance illumination, primarily because of the varied and innovative imagery, the impressive scale of these painted scenes, and because it was decorated by two of the most sought-after workshops at the time. This legacy continues into the present as scholars attempt to reconstruct the book’s eventful history.
Music and theatrical performances by candlelight
Every evening around 6pm, worshippers from the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese (Confraternity of Saint Agnes) gathered to sing from the Laudario by candlelight in a private chapel annexed to the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine (famous for the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel). Many other groups like this met across the city and sang from their own laudario manuscript.
The Laudario of Sant’Agnese was carefully prepared to include half- or ¾-page illuminations, lines of music and text, plus elaborate decorative borders. On the page of the Ascension of Christ, disciples and the Virgin Mary gaze heavenward at Christ surrounded by angels, one of whom looks out at the viewer.
Kneeling figures appear at the bottom of the page (and across many others), perhaps as a reference to the people who paid for portions of the book or as visual stand-ins for perpetual prayer and song. Flower and vine patterns fill the margins, where we also see two angels holding instruments, possibly a reference to the musical accompaniments to the Compagnia’s songs.
In spring, timed with Easter celebrations, the group enacted Christ’s ascension into heaven with an elaborate theatrical performance in the church. The event featured scenes that took place along the screen (called a tramezzo) that divided the church between the spaces for the priests (and private chapels of the wealthy families) on the one side and the laity and other chapels in the main portion of the nave. An elaborate pulley system allowed actors to be hoisted high above the viewers below. The sumptuous page showing The Ascension captures the splendor of the event. Imagine looking up at the performance just as the kneeling figures do in the manuscript.
The theme of ascension had special importance for the Carmelites, the religious order of the church where the group met. The friars trace their spiritual practices to the Jewish prophet Elijah, who, like Christ centuries later, is believed to have been miraculously taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.
Throughout the Laudario of Sant’Agnese, the souls of martyred saints are taken to heaven by angels. These Christian individuals were put to death during periods of persecution in the late Roman Empire. One stunning example shows Saint Lawrence being burned alive on a grill, but despite the torture, he is already at peace as an angelic host guides his soul to Christ above. These images demonstrated the remarkable faith of saints and provided models for the community to follow.
Manuscript illumination in Florence at the time of Dante and Giotto
In the early 1300s, the city of Florence experienced a boom in the production of art. As many churches throughout the region expanded and middle-class families gained greater wealth through industry and trade, numerous artist workshops formed to meet the demand for art for altars, private chapels, and personal consumption. One of the foremost shops in the book trade has been associated with an individual called Pacino di Bonaguida, who is documented as a painter in 1303 and around 1330. Based on archival documents about how artists at the time trained, Pacino’s collaborators likely included artists-in-training, called disciples, as well as day laborers or individuals hired out by another professional depending on their specific skills. Art historians believe this workshop produced works of art in an impressive range of materials, including painted altarpieces of all formats and sizes, stained glass windows, possibly mosaics and frescoes, and most importantly, the largest quantity of illuminated manuscripts per shop during the period. By the time the Laudario of Sant’Agnese was commissioned, the workshop associated with Pacino had already produced over thirty large choir books for churches all throughout the region, in addition to twenty-seven copies of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and a dozen other religious or literary texts. But they were just getting started, as the late 1330s and 1340s witnessed another burst of patronage likely sparked by the many natural disasters and political upheaval in the region. The artists involved in the Laudario commission also at times collaborated with the pupils of Giotto, such as Bernardo Daddi, who otherwise dominated the market for painting up to that time. Within Pacino’s orbit came even larger and more ambitiously illuminated manuscripts in the years leading up to the Black Death.
Unfortunately, it appears that only one of his collaborators survived the pandemic, a figure known as the Master of the Dominican Effigies (named for a panel painting of Christ and the Virgin Enthroned with Seventeen Dominican Saints, after 1336). In the Laudario of Sant’Agnese, the Master of the Dominican Effigies excelled at populating vast architectural spaces with crowds of people, as seen in the page with the feast of Pentecost. The scene is set in a room with columns and a Gothic arch that pierce through the rectangular frame around the illumination. A dove descends against a star-filled blue vaulted ceiling and emits rays of golden light—a literal visualization of the biblical passage that describes the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove coming from heaven and tongues of fire resting on the heads of the disciples (if you look carefully you can see tiny flames above each figure).
Only three laudario manuscripts survive from 1300s Florence: the others were used at the Church of Santo Spirito ( c. 1310), near the Carmine, and at the Church of Sant’Egidio (c. 1340s) across town and which was begun by the Master of the Dominican Effigies. A confraternity that met at the Church of Santa Maria Novella would have sung from a laudario when venerating Duccio’s Madonna and Child (called The Rucellai Madonna), but that volume is now lost (it is worth noting that the workshops associated with Pacino and the Master of the Dominican Effigies also provided illuminations for choir books at the church).
Scissor men and the cutting up of Italian manuscripts
Since Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1797, many churches and monasteries throughout the peninsula were forced to sell their manuscripts (and other works of art), while others had been cut apart by the so-called “scissor men,” those collectors desiring to own miniature masterpieces at a fraction of the cost of an entire book or of panel paintings. The Laudario is an example of a manuscript that was cut up and dispersed. The pages of countless volumes across the Italian peninsula were dismembered and their illuminations would eventually fetch high prices at auction from that time to the present (indeed nearly every museum with manuscript leaves or cuttings has profited from this period of destruction). By 1838, several pages from the Laudario appeared at the famous auction of manuscript leaves and cuttings owned by British collector William Young Ottley; they were attributed to Giotto at that time.
For the last century, art historians have been tracking down the remnants of the Laudario and trying to better understand its contents. For example, a small fragment showing Saint Lawrence being buried with the relics of Saint Stephen was once part of the same page that showed Lawrence’s brutal martyrdom. Since 2000 alone, about ten new miniatures have been discovered, and there is still a possibility that many more will come to light as collections are digitized and as sleuthing eyes are on the lookout. Additionally, the backs of some of the surviving pages or cuttings contain the original page numbers from the manuscript. At present, the highest known number is 121. These investigations refine our understanding of how workshops functioned during the early Renaissance and also reveal the interests of collectors of Italian art from the 1800s to today.
Several leaves and cuttings from the Laudario of Sant Agnese can be viewed online:
- The British Library
- Fitzwilliam Museum
- The Free Library of Philadelphia (and here)
- Getty Museum
- Louvre Museum
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- The Morgan Library & Museum
- Musée Antoine Vivenel, Compiègne, France
- National Gallery of Art (Pacino and Master of the Dominican Effigies)
- Queen’s College, Cambridge
- Web Gallery of Art
Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300–1350 (Getty Museum exhibition, 2012–13)
Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2013)
Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence, 1300–1450 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994 exhibition catalogue)