The Faith, a Florentine tapestry commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo III dei Medici




Faith
Tapestry; wool and silk; 358x302cm
Cartoon by Antonio Bronconi (Florence, news from 1700 to 1733), 1701-1702, partially copied from a 1523 cartoon by Andrea del Sarto (Florence, 1486-1530).
Florence, Medicean manufacturing, circa 1702-1705.


            The tapestry represents the female personification of Faith, one of the three Theological Virtues, which is portrayed standing, clad in a red dress and a blue cloak, with her hair held in a white handkerchief. In her right hand she is holding a chalice on which a host lies carrying the inscription “IHS", from the name of Jesus. In her left hand she is holding a crucifix. Although the architectural context suggests that the figure might be a statue in a niche, the colours of her skin and clothes are those of a living person. The chalice and the crucifix are typical attributes of Faith since, as Cesare Ripa’s Iconology [1593] explains (see the anastatic reproduction of the 1603 Rome edition [Hildesheim – Zurich – New York 1984], pages 149-150), they indicate that “the two main foundations of Faith, as Saint Paul says, are to believe in Christ who was crucified and in the sacrament of the altar.”


The white handkerchief that holds her hair becomes her since, as Ripa explains, “the whiteness of the clothes shows that this virtue is not acquired by introducing science in the soul, just like white clothes are not dyed by means of material colors but only by purifying the clothing from the other colors.”
 
 

The fact that the figure is placed on a basement also proves its allegoric meaning, since “it shows that she (…) is the Queen of, and the basis for all the other virtues,”and the fact that she is standing actively proves – as the learned iconologist himself claims in opposition with Protestantism – that faith is expressed through deeds.
   In the tapestry, Faith is therefore portrayed on a podium decorated in relief by a shell and by two naked, winged sirens, which probably allude to the Vices defeated by virtue. The figure is also placed in a niche (or apse), whose upper concave part is a large shell. This is in turn inserted in an arch, whose keystone is decorated by two concave spirals. 


 On the two sides of the niche there are two pilasters, decorated with series of minute ornamental reliefs and by little angels’ heads between red and blue wings, on which spirals and shelves/capitals are found with shells on top of them. Two multi-coloured festoons of leaves and fruit rest on the two shells. The festoons’ middle section hangs from the spirals on the keystone of the middle arch. The flexuous winding of the festoons, together with the curvy lines of the arch structure, the spirals, the niche, the bodies of the carved sirens, contrasts the  architecture’s vertical rhythm, thus offering a more harmonious, elaborate background for the gently rounded and swollen figure of the Faith. The architectural context which is represented in the tapestry is clearly baroque in style and provides the illusion of an alentour, thus anticipating a typically eighteenth-century decorative trend. 

 The architectural context had the function of camouflaging the tapestry inside a room characterized by the same architectural structures, as a part of a homogeneous furnishing style. In order to facilitate this function, the tapestry was designed and manufactured without a proper border, which was replaced by a simple moulding along its external perimeter.   

 Finely woven, not without a few restored areas, the tapestry is in good condition, even though some of the colours are slightly faded. The parts where the colours are brighter – the central figure, the festoons, the angels’ heads, the ribbon-shaped ornamental patterns interwoven along the sides of the pilasters, where we can find red, blue, yellow, and green – stand out from the more monotone colours of the architectural structures, which have softer cream, ocre, and brown tones.

            Although the tapestry has not been mentioned in specialized literature so far, it has been known for a few years; precisely, since it was auctioned with the Christopher Gibbs collection from Manor House in Clifton Hampden, near Oxford (Christie’s, 25-26 September 2000, lot 220). After it was sold, the tapestry was moved to the USA, where it was auctioned again before it was moved back to Europe. Its previous history is unknown but it is very likely that it was woven for the Grand Duke of Florence Cosimo III de’ Medici, probably as part of Palazzo Pitti’s furniture. It is also likely that the tapestry belonged in the past to the Medicean collections, since it was woven in Florence and it is part of a series of tapestries (of which other subjects are known) that was designed and repeatedly manufactured on commission of the Florentine court.


            It is important to state beforehand that the personification of Faith as it appears in the tapestry in question is a faithful copy of the same monochrome figure which was frescoed by Andrea del Sarto in 1523 as a part of a cycle of Virtues painted in Chiostro dello Scalzo in Florence (see S.- J. Freedberg, Andrea del Sarto, Cambridge 1963, I, p. 122, n. 156, II, tables136-138). This information, together with the tapestry’s size and format (which prove its original “door curtain” function), and the shape of the architectural alentour leave no doubt as to whether this tapestry is part of a specific and already known series of door curtains of Virtues woven in Florence, which include central figures mainly copied from the homonymous allegorical figures painted by Andrea in the Chiostro dello Scalzo and inserted in identical or very similar architectural structures.


            The series was made up of five figures of Virtues, of which the following are already known: Force, Justice (in two versions), Hope and Charity (in two versions). They are all preserved in the Quirinal Palace in Rome, to which they were moved from Florence, where they were part of the Medicean collection, later acquired by the Lorena family and then, after 1860, by the Savoy family (see N. Forti Grazzini, Il patrimonio artistico del Quirinale. Gli arazzi, Roma-Milano 1994, I, pp. 71-77, nn. 23-28). 



An identical copy of the Force in the Quirinal Palace and a second version of the same subject, although with a modified figure (see M. Viale Ferrero, Arazzi italiani, Firenze 1961, table 62), are preserved in Palazzo Pitti’s storage rooms in Florence (see C. Innocenti, La produzione medicea di arazzi, in R. Spinelli, ed., Arti fiorentina. La grande storia dell’Artigianato. Volume quinto. Il Seicento e il Settecento, Firenze 2002, table on page 69). Two copies of Hope in the Quirinal Palace are preserved in the Palatine Chapel and at the Silver Museum, while two copies of Charity are preserved at the Silver Museum and in Palazzo Pitti’s storage rooms. Also, a further copy of the two Justice subjects from the Quirinal Palace was put on the market, after having been part of the 1997 RABEL collection of San Marino and Monte-Carlo. Finally, an identical copy of the Faith tapestry studied here is preserved in the San Matteo Museum in Pisa. 
 The copy (380x270 cm) comes from Medicean collections (the tapestry is reproduced and analyzed by M. Stefanini Sorrentino, Arazzi medicei a Pisa, Firenze 1993, pp. 124-126, n. 25; however, for a more detailed account see Forti Grazzini above, page 71).


As it is well know, Florence was the Italian city where tapestries were woven with the most intensity and continuity, from 1545 to 1744, in shops patroned by the Medicean court, to which most tapestries were destined. The numbered door curtains, all woven, as we will see, between 1700 and 1705, are very typical artifacts of the Florentine production in those years. The climate of religious bigotry at the Medicean court during Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici’s reign (1640-1723) explains the didactic and religious character of the subjects, although the tapestries were destined to non-religious settings, such as the rooms and chambers of Palazzo Pitti. 

Moreover, the Florentine manufacturing industry in those years was going through a period full of uncertainty and afterthoughts, although all this had some interesting effects. To the small shops that were working at the time, the Medicean court did not commission large tapestry series with religious or historical subjects but tapestry cycles or single tapestries that were relatively small in size.
These were mainly door curtains or over door decorations to be used as furnishing accessories which could complement the rooms’ baroque-style architectural structures and the frescoes that gave the illusion of those structures. But exactly because of its “minor” and secondary character, this production acquired novel stylistic features, which firmly moved towards baroque and strong illusion-like overtones. Also, because of the specific role assigned to tapestries – not that of standing out from walls as autonomous works of art but of homogeneously blending into the surrounding furniture – this production was a precursor of a trend that would become common in Europe during the rest of the eighteenth century. At that time in Florence the top cartoonist was Alessandro Rosi (see E. Acanfora, Alessandro Rosi, Firenze 1994), who had proposed models for the Virtues’ Overdoors (produced in Medicean tapestry shops as of 1692) and for a series of Virtues’ Door Curtains (produced as of 1695).
These works had inaugurated a repertoire characterized by the presence of personifications of Virtues within architectural structures, both as busts and as whole-length figures similar to statues. In particular, the door curtain models designed by Rosi, with whole-length Virtues placed on basements and with niches in the background, which were also copied for rather large tapestries (up to five meters), were used as a reference model for the “second” Virtues’ Door Curtains series, the one on which we are focusing here and to which the Faith and other above-mentioned tapestries also belong. This series was probably designed as a consequence of the Medicean court’s necessity to have small door curtain tapestries, less than four meters long, i.e. smaller than those designed by Rosi.


            There is no completely reliable information on the series’ models’ authorship and on its chronology. The documents concerning the making of cartoons and tapestries which are available from the Medicean shops’ ledgers at the Florence State Archive are not very clear, since the production of the “first” door curtain series, the one designed by Rosi, overlaps with the “second” one.
            However, it is very likely that the two versions of Force, at the Quirinal Palace and in Palazzo Pitti’s storage rooms, were copied from a documented cartoon, the first of the series, which was being manufactured by painter Francesco Nani on 30th January 1699: “cartoon for a door curtain or column with the statue of the force, with a natural-colour putto and heads, with said figure wearing an armour, shield and morion” (see C. Conti, Ricerche storiche sull’arte degli arazzi in Firenze, Firenze 1876 [anastatic reprint: Firenze 1985], p. 81). The personification of Force that appears on the two tapestries together with a putto, was not copied from Andrea del Sarto. However, in a second cartoon for Force (copied from a still existent tapestry in Florence) the same, although slightly simplified, architectural background was used as a background for an allegorical figure which, if it was not copied, was at least strongly inspired by Andrea del Sarto. To this cartoon others followed for the Faith, Hope, Justice and Charity door curtains, in which the central personifications were systematically copied from Andrea’s sixteenth century figures in Chiostro dello Scalzo.
           


It is unknown whether the use of del Sarto’s prototypes – one of many proofs of the extraordinary, century-old success enjoyed in Florence by the works of the “painter without mistakes” (see S. Meloni Trkulja, in Andrea del Sarto 1486-1530. Dipinti e disegni a Firenze, exhibition catalogue, Florence 1986, pp. 69-76) – was required by the customers, i.e. the Florentine court, or whether it was determined by the cartoonist’s individual choice, maybe imposed by the opportunistic necessity to “cover up” his poor creativity by using already-established and renowned models. It seems, however, that the cartoonist in question was no longer Francesco Nani but Antonio Bronconi, a lesser known painter of whom no works have survived but who, judging from documents concerning him, might have been a copier or a modifier of someone else’s models rather than an original “inventor” (cfr. Forti Grazzini, op. cit., p. 71). As a nephew, and probably a pupil, of Alessandro Rosi, in 1717-1733 Bronconi would have become the director of the Medicean tapestry production, but he accepted payments as a cartoonist at the service of Florentine manufacturers, and in particular for door curtain cartoons, as early as 1700-1702 (see Conti, op.cit., p. 81; F. Sricchia Santoro, Bronconi, Antonio, in Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, XIV, Roma 1972), that is in the same years in which the Door Curtain Virtues, with figures copied from Andrea del Sarto, must have been drawn. In particular, in September 1702 Bronconi received payment for a “new model” destined to the tapestry shop and representing Faith (see E. Acanfora, op.cit., Firenze 1994, p. 45, referring to Florence, State Archive, Medicean Wardrobe 951, fasc. 319). As Acanfora reasonably suggests, the model could be identified with the cartoon for the Faith door curtain in the San Matteo Museum in Pisa, and with the tapestry analyzed here, which is a copy of the latter. It is therefore likely that, after the first one drawn by Nani, all the other door curtains could have been designed by Bronconi, particularly the one representing Faith.


          

  It is however impossible to identify the exact chronological moment in the production of the tapestry analyzed here and of the tapestry maker involved, and it is just as difficult to be sure of the time and authors of the other door curtains from the same group. As noted above, various small shops (those of Giuseppe Cavalieri, Michele Pucci, Andrea e Domenico Manzi, Stefano Termini) were active in Florence around 1700, each working individually and receiving commissions from the Medicean court. Starting in 1703 these shops had a single director, Giovan Battista Termini and, as Conti observes (op. cit., p. 82), documents between 1704-1705 attest to a strong increase in the production of door curtains “with architecture and a niche in the middle, in which a coloured figure is placed”. It could be hypothesized that all or nearly all of the door curtains inspired by del Sarto’s Virtues were woven between 1700 and 1705, although this necessarily becomes a three-year period – 1702-1705 – when speaking specifically about Faith, since the cartoon, which was paid to the painter in September 1702, had probably become available to tapestry makers only at the beginning of that year.


           

  In conclusion, the Faith tapestry analyzed here, which was part of a larger series of door curtains representing Virtues, offers interesting cultural evidence because of its religious and allegorical content, and it is an extraordinary artifact because of its figurative creativity and its decorative effect. The tapestry is a result of the juxtaposition of a figure copied from a prototype by Andrea del Sarto, one of the major artists in the Italian Renaissance, and of a wavy, clearly baroque architectural system. As such, the tapestry is a typical Florentine artifact from the period between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth centuries. Its cartoon, by Antonio Bronconi, was paid for in September 1702, while the tapestry was plausibly woven between 1702 and 1705. Produced in Florence, one of the most renowned and long-lasting tapestry manufacturing centers in Italy, the tapestry also carries a special significance, since it was commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici and it was preserved, probably until the second half of the nineteenth century, in one of the most prestigious art collections in Italy, that of the Medici family.





Comments

  1. Hello Raffaele, Thank you so much for posting this extreem interesting article ! It was a delight to read it. Regards, Chris van Dijk.

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