Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

By Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins | Go to book overview

A Widow's Choice: Alessandro Allori's
Christ and the Adulteress in the
Church of Santo Spirito at Florence

Elizabeth Pilliod

Among his late cinquecento contemporaries, Alessandro Allori's (1535–1607) importance must have been obvious, for his paintings and other designs were highly sought after in both Medicean and non-Medicean circles. Yet his astonishing productivity, which was sometimes achieved through the aid of apprentices and assistants, has acted to blind scholars to the sensitivity of many of the individual works of art.1 In fact, much still remains to be discovered about his career, especially his role in the transformation of Florentine art from the late Renaissance forms of the 1540s to the burgeoning realism of the seicento. What is well known is that Alessandro was the designated heir, both financially and artistically, of his mentor Agnolo Bronzino.2 Allori ultimately became the premier artist in Florence during the third quarter of the sixteenth century, even dabbling in architecture on several occasions. Alessandro's long career led to his becoming the formative influence on virtually all the significant Florentine Baroque painters of the next generation, including Cigoli, Passignano, and his own son, Cristofano Allori, all of whom received training in his bottega.3


Alessandro Allori's Christ and the Adulteress

Among Alessandro's many altarpieces still to be found in situ is the Christ and the Adulteress (fig. 1), located in the church of Santo Spirito at Florence. Although the painting is inscribed with the date 1577, and in two near-contemporary descriptions of the painting the name of the patron appears to be recorded, the painting, its subject, and meaning have remained mysterious. Our lack of information about this altarpiece probably is a result of the relative scholarly neglect of late sixteenth-century Florentine religious painting. Yet the painting rewards the persistent observer, as it is both a moving and intelligent visual statement, one carefully shaped by the special circumstances of the commission and its meaning. Yet, to date, only its elegant style has been singled out; the subject matter of the altarpiece, which is rare for its time and place, has elicited no discussion.4

In Allori's lifetime, however, the Santo Spirito painting was mentioned in the two major published accounts of the arts in Florence. Raffaello Borghini's Il riposo (1584) and Francesco Bocchi's Le bellezze di Fiorenza (1591), both composed within a generation of the installation of the altarpiece in Santo Spirito, contain some highly significant criticism, as well as information regarding the patrons of this chapel and altarpiece—the Cini family.5 The earlier account of the two, Raffaello Borghini's text, describes the notable works of art to be seen in Santo Spirito: ""By Allori there is" in Santo Spirito…a painting at the Chapel of the Cini family, where the adulteress "is shown" demonstrating remorse for her sin.…" In a second descriptive passage, Borghini repeats that he particularly likes the figure of the "woman caught in sin, who, in addition to being beautifully outfitted, is arranged in such position as to demonstrate shame for her error."6

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