Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Nuns and Their Art: The Case of San Zaccaria in Renaissance Venice [*]

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Nuns and Their Art: The Case of San Zaccaria in Renaissance Venice [*]

Article excerpt

This article discusses the ways in which fifteenth-century nuns financed, shaped, and used works of art and architecture at the Benedictine convent of San Zaccaria in Venice. Evidence from chronicles, account books, liturgical manuscripts, reports of visits to the convent, and inscriptions on the works of art themselves shows that the nuns viewed art within their convent extremely proprietarily. While they accepted subsidies from the civic government, indulgences from popes, privileges from Byzantine emperors, and donations from private patrons, the nuns paid close attention to the administration of commissions within the convent church and committed substantial funds to artistic projects, making them their own.

On August 21, 1521 the abbess of San Zaccaria and the leaders of three other convents in Venice came before the Venetian Collegio to protest radical reforms being imposed on their communities. For several years the nuns had been employing both diplomacy and physical resistance to fight off attempts by the Patriarch to impose strict clausura on their convents. But neither sending requests for dispensation to the pope nor hurling rocks at church officials who were sent to install iron grills and gates at San Zaccaria proved effective. [1] Instead, their spokesperson, Abbess Chiara Dona of the convent of Le Vergini, complained that "where all used to be noble, there are now installed nuns of another order, following a different rule and wearing a different habit -- base-born women, Greeks and plebians to boot. What had stood for 760 years has now been taken from them, when they had spent 46,000 ducats on the church, the convent and the magnificent refectory." [2] A centuries-old, symbiotic relationship between the nuns and their numerous friends in high places -- doges, emperors, popes, Venetian senators, wealthy ecclesiastics, and devout laypersons -- had been summarily dismissed. Centuries of investment in art and architecture at the convent suddenly seemed foolhardy.

In this article I will explore one of the major contributing factors to the nuns' outrage and disillusionment, namely the great extent to which the church and the art within it was viewed as theirs. While the costly architecture, chancel decorations, and choir stalls of the fifteenth-century convent of San Zaccaria were commissioned with the assistance of male agents, partially funded with contributions from male civic authorities, enhanced by other private donations (both male and female), and overseen by male supervisors, I will argue that the nuns saw these spaces and their adornment as their special province and even canvas. They initiated artistic projects and shaped the form and subject matter to meet their own needs. Legal jurisdiction over San Zaccaria of course rested with the bishop (later Patriarch) of Venice, who installed the abbess and held ultimate responsibility for the convent's spiritual and physical health, [3] but a great deal of the art and architecture at San Zaccaria is better understo od as having been the nuns', financed by personal and communal resources within the convent and closely shaped and orchestrated by the nuns themselves. As Chiara Dona had said, "What had stood for 760 years has now been taken from them, when they had spent 46,000 ducats on the church, the convent and the magnificent refectory [italics mine]." It was their vision, their church and their community that was challenged by zealous reformers.

The nuns of San Zaccaria not only made informed aesthetic and programmatic choices about the buildings which they occupied and the altarpieces in front of which they worshiped; [4] they also shaped those works in light of frequent and significant interactions with the Venetian community at large. They skillfully exploited a symbiotic and necessarily permeable relationship between the convent and the city at large. Neither they nor their art could serve their full purpose if locked away for safe keeping. …

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