In the Shadow of the Spirituals: Franciscan artistic patronage in central Italy at the dawn of the Trecento

Wednesday 1 February, 18.00–19.30

Donal Cooper (Cambridge)

The ample historiography on Franciscan art is littered with unsuccessful attempts to relate the paintings and buildings commissioned by the friars with the bitter conflicts over the observation of poverty that gripped the Order in the years to either side of 1300 – when groups of idealistic Franciscans known today as the ‘Spirituals’ resisted the Order’s increasing institutionalization and its patronage of art and architecture. This paper avoids the sweeping claims for the doctrinal significance of artworks that scholars have made in the past and presents new archival research on Franciscan communities in Tuscany and Umbria to highlight the complexity of the Conventual-Spiritual divide as it played out in specific convents across central Italy. Recent discoveries by manuscript scholars and new finds in the archives – presented here for the first time – on the date and authorship of the Meditations on the Life of Christ invite a reassessment of this core devotional text, its relationship to internal debate within the Order, and its impact on Franciscan artistic patronage. Reviewed in this light, the fresco cycles painted by Giotto and Pietro Lorenzetti at Assisi can be understood as complex responses to the Order’s troubles, which absorbed devotional messages derived from the Spiritual experience at the same time as they asserted an approved image of Franciscan poverty.

Donal Cooper (BSR 1997-98) is Senior Lecturer in Italian Art at the University of Cambridge and has published widely on the art and architecture of late medieval and Renaissance Italy, particularly the artistic patronage of the Franciscan Order. Publications include his co-authored monograph with Dr Janet Robson on the Upper Church of the Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi, The Making of Assisi (Yale University Press, 2013) which won the Art Book Prize in 2014.