Giancarla Periti. in the Courts of Religious Ladies: Art, Vision, and Pleasure in Italian Renaissance Convents

By Terry-Fritsch, Allie | Seventeenth-Century News, Fall-Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Giancarla Periti. in the Courts of Religious Ladies: Art, Vision, and Pleasure in Italian Renaissance Convents


Terry-Fritsch, Allie, Seventeenth-Century News


Giancarla Periti. In the Courts of Religious Ladies: Art, Vision, and Pleasure in Italian Renaissance Convents. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016. ix+ 294 pp. $75.00. Review by Allie Terry-Fritsch, Bowling Green State University.

Giancarla Periti's engaging and well-illustrated book on the visual culture surrounding patrician religious women in Renaissance Italy investigates the inherent contradictions between rules of monastic decorum that were understood to guide female religious communities in the late medieval and early modern period and the material splendor once actively promoted within their conventual spaces. Based on analysis of extant artistic and architectural evidence largely found in Parma, Brescia, and Milan, as well as extensive archival and secondary sources, Periti argues that, in spite of efforts to limit the access of the secular world to female religious spaces and promote visual cultures of modesty with them, monastic spaces inhabited by aristocratic women demonstrate acute affinities with refined courts in their social organization and material decoration. The aim of the book is to reconstruct and examine "monastic spatial contexts and the historical modes of looking at images made for noble religious women" (4). The chapters examine a variety of works in different mediums, including panel paintings, frescoes, maiolica tiles, wood intarsia, and pietra serena inscriptions, to establish the motivation for and use of art in elite Benedictine female convents during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries before the Council of Trent and to offer new interpretations of works by leading artistic figures in northern Italy, ultimately with the goal of offering a contextual understanding the decorative program created by Correggio in 1518-1519 at the convent of San Paolo in Parma.

The first chapter establishes the rich context for understanding the complex ideologies embedded in the architecture of female religious spaces and the attendant social behavior performed in them to define patrician nuns in terms of their "institutionalized liminality" (22). As opposed to a complete renunciation of familial and civic ties expected of female religious, the patrician nuns under investigation retained and made use of their secular identities to subvert controls normally placed upon their bodies and minds. As Periti demonstrates, patrician nuns often were distinguished by material signs of their status, including elaborate garments and accessories, and by their sustained access to the secular world outside the convent's walls.

Chapter Two reconstructs the physical experience of engaging with the decoration of the convent of San Paolo in Parma in an effort to redefine the gaze, touch, and perception of nuns in relation to their decorated surroundings within the convent. Periti proposes a new interpretation of Jacopo Loschi's frescoes, today preserved in detached and fragmented form in the conventual museum, as the original decoration of the Chapter House, which she argues represented living female members of the San Paolo community, including the Abbess Maria Benedetti, the noblewoman (and former wife of the signore Pier Maria Rossi) Antonia Torelli, and the abbess's sister Simona. While based on circumstantial evidence, Periti grounds her claim within the institutional politics of the convent and the struggles demonstrated by Benedetti and Torelli in archival documents to maintain independence from local ecclesiastical regulation. In this context, Loschi's paintings are framed as an assertion of female authority and agency. In the same chapter, Periti offers a reconstruction of the tin-glazed, or maiolica, tiles of the original floor pavement--today removed to the Galleria Nazionale of Parma--as products of two distinct, but related, patronage campaigns under Abbess Maria Benedetti (after 1475) and Abbess Giovanna Piacenza (after 1507). While again Periti's claims in this section are based on circumstantial evidence, she grounds her argument within the complex political context of the convent's shifting allegiance from Rossi to the Sforza family after 1477 and connects the iconography and medium of the tiles to distinct emblems and tastes of the Sforza. …

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