Architectural Frame as a Mirror of Communities. Some Reflections on the Architectural Norms in the Italian Observant Congregations
. Haude Morvan

Talk to be presented at Weingarten, November 29 2018

The architectural norms enacted by regular orders are not only indicative of the way the orders “represent themselves in architecture” (cf. Dominique Donadieu-Rigaut, “Penser en images les ordres religieux), but also of their administrative framework (their level of centralisation in particular) and of their relationship with the laity. They might help us answer the following questions: What was the laity’s place in the monastic space ? To what extent did religious communities follow the artistic changes of their time?

The talk focuses on the Observant communities of the Franciscan, Dominican and Benedictine orders in the Italian peninsula, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Italy offers a particularly interesting situation, because it was both a centre of Observant reforms and of artistic changes during the Renaissance. The sources considered here are “normative texts” in the broad sense: they include the orders’ constitutions and capitular acts as well as the sermons of a number of great figures of the Observant movement (such as Savonarola).

In accordance with the Observant project of going back to a stricter observance of original normative texts, the Observants’ norms regarding architecture and ornamentation echo foundational texts. They condemn “superfluities” and “curiosities”, a leitmotiv in previous reforms of the Benedictine order (for example in Cistercian texts) and in thirteenth-century normative sources enacted by the Mendicant orders. The condemnation of superfluities and curiosities that could “scandalize” the secular clergy and the laity is consistent with a desire for sobriety and moderate spending which aimed at presenting the communities as exemplary.

Foundational texts are not the only reference used by Observant communities when defining the space of their reformed way of life: Early Christian architecture is also used as a model, regarding the organisation of the sanctuary and of the choir in particular. It is striking to note that we find the same tendency in contemporary treatises of architecture: the definition of the ideal church is influenced by Constantine’s basilicas (see treatises by Alberti, GiorgioMartini, Palladio). The Early Christian influence crystallises the aesthetic aspiration to go back to Antiquity and the desire for religious reform.

The norms enacted by Observant congregations define their relationship with the outside world (secular clergy and laity). For example, they testify of the Observants’ will to restrict within their churches the visual presence of the laity, as manifested in overly sumptuous tombs and heraldic symbols. Nonetheless, they show that it was also necessary to maintain harmonious relationships with benefactors. Observant Franciscan capitular acts, like thirteenth-century ones, allow the friars to accept gifts breaking the rule of poverty in cases where a refusal could lead to scandal.

Savonarola goes even further: the ideal ecclesial space that comes to light in his sermons reveals a societal project  that goes beyond the sole reform of his order. The Florentine preacher advocates a stricter separation in church between the religious and the laity, and between men and women. A similar desire guides the spatial arrangements found in the churches of the Benedictine congregation of Santa Giustina.

In Observant congregations, the enforcement of architectural rules is insured by committees that evaluate the needs of the communities, authorize  the construction or demolition of a building, and supervise the work. This particular organization reflects a desire for centralisation present in the Mendicant orders from the start, but new for the Benedictines.

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