Life-size votive effigies in Italy (15th, 16th and 17th centuries)

Valeria Motta has a PhD in the History of Art from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. She is an Associate Member of the Centre d’Histoireet de Théorie des Arts (CEHTA-EHESS).

I wish to thank Gill Dilmitis for the revision of my English text

Figure 1 Votive effigies along the nave Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone, Mantua, 16th Century

Figure 1: Votive effigies along the nave; Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone, Mantua, 16th century

Despite the fact that the reproduction of wax or silver anatomical parts is a particularly widespread and ancient form of votive offering, life-size representations of the full human figure, in which the devotee offers the image of themself, are less frequent [1]. It is for this reason that the set of real-size votive effigies in the sanctuary of “Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone”, not far from Mantua, appears so striking (Fig. 1). In the heart of the Mincio Natural Park in Lombardy, this sanctuary stands out spectacularly, overlooking the marshy waters of the Mincio, in a maze of reeds and lake flora. This church was built between 1399 and 1406 by Francesco I Gonzaga, Mantua’s fourth capitano generale. The whole church was an ex-voto to the Virgin and was built after the eradication of a plague. An extraordinary group of fifty-three life-size votive statues can be admired in the church, most of which can be dated to the 16th century. They are polychrome statues made of diverse materials and placed in niches within the wooden architectural structure which is entirely covered with wax anatomical ex-votos, displayed in a decorative manner. This design, with loggia in which the votive effigies of the Virgin’s miracles were placed, was created in 1517 by the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor who lived in the convent adjacent to the sanctuary. The statues are arranged along the two longitudinal sides of the nave. They include popes, prelates, emperors, princes, men of the church, soldiers, ladies, noblemen and ‘commoners’ [2]. They are formed by superimposed wet sheets of paper that were glued onto a wooden structure. The clothes are made from canvas or cotton, treated with a layer of plaster and then painted [3].

Figure 2 Votive effigy of the executioner and a convict sentenced to capital punishment by beheading Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone, Mantua, 16th Century

Figure 2: Votive effigy of the executioner and a convict sentenced to capital punishment by beheading.
Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone, Mantua, 16th century

Offerings of life-size votive effigies (bòti) are not infrequent in Italy. This practice has been documented since at least the first half of the 14th century in the Santissima Annunziata Basilica in Florence [4]. There is a close relationship between the votive effigies of the Curtatone Sanctuary and those of Florentine tradition which have not been preserved but have been studied based on  documentation made by Aby Warburg at the beginning of the 20th century [5]. Warburg was the first to explore the association of real hair and clothes in these sculptures with bodies created on wooden frames – a unique portrayal of human desire to approach the divine in a material fashion. More recently, David Freedberg has suggested that figural life-size ex-votos generated the powerful illusion of the embodied presence of the votary [6] while Megan Holmes affirms that the semantics of physical embodiment in the votive effigies were articulated through their life-size scale, three dimensionality, colouration, simulation of skin, hair and the occasional incorporation of physical objects associated with pain, suffering and consolation that had been directly implicated in the drama of salvation [7].

Figure 3: Decoration of wax ex-votos glued onto the wooden structure of the nave Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone, Mantua, 16th Century

Figure 3: Decoration of wax ex-votos glued onto the wooden structure of the nave.
Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie di Curtatone, Mantua, 16th century

The Annunziata’s votive effigies are documented in texts of the 16th and 17th centuries, and illustrate an interesting convergence of different theories linked to the topos of mimesis. In his “Life of Andrea del Verrocchio”, Vasari describes the way in which these sculptures were made, writing that “he [del Verrocchio] painted hair and all necessary details in oils in such a life-like way that they resembled live men, rather than wax images of men” [8]. The custom of offering life-size votive effigies to the Virgin of the Annunziata was so popular that the church rapidly filled with bòti, which were arranged in the galleries; then, when the sculptures could no longer be kept within the church, they were placed in the cloisters, which were given the name Chiostro dei bòti. Certain documents indicate that in 1447, since the galleries were full, two new structures were constructed within the church to accommodate the effigies, one on the right and the other on the left of the entrance door and that in the following year, when these additional places were also full, the effigies were hung on ropes from the ceiling [9]. The votive effigies were principally made by the Benintendi family which had a real monopoly in Florence, to the point that its members were known as ceraiuoli (wax workers) or fallimagini (image makers).

Figure 4: Votive effigy of Leonardo, the last Count of Gorizia (1462-1500) Tiroler; LandesmuseumFerdinandeum, Innsbruck, 15th Century

Figure 4: Votive effigy of Leonardo, the last Count of Gorizia (1462-1500)
Tiroler; LandesmuseumFerdinandeum, Innsbruck, 15th century

Although the Basilica of the Santissima Annunziata possessed a large quantity of life-size effigies [10], it was not the only church in Florence or Tuscany where these could be admired. In the first half of the 16th Century, the church of Orsanmichele contained numerous examples of life-size votive effigies [11] as did Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato [12]. More generally, various literary sources relating to this practice have survived, but preserved objects are rare. The only known examples are a votive effigy of Leonardo, the last Count of Gorizia (1462-1500) in the regional Tyrolean Museum Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck, where he is portrayed on his knees and dressed in pilgrim’s clothing [13] (Fig. 4), and the sculptures of the sanctuary of Curtatone. There is also an early 17th-century manuscript which reproduces the most spectacular ex-votos from another imposing sanctuary: that of the Madonna della Quercia in Viterbo. This codex, entitled Libro dei Miracoli, is illustrated by the local painter Vincenzo Panicale, and presents a hundred watercolour and sanguine (red chalk) studies representing the life-size votive effigies that were offered at that time to the Virgin of this sanctuary. The manuscript is kept at the Fondazione Marco Besso in Rome; it provides a concrete and precise idea of the votive sculptures from this sanctuary, as well as technical information about the way in which they were made, their cost and how they should be handled (Fig. 5).

Figure 5: Votive effigy of Simone Foglietta Canapinese (1504) Libro dei Miracoli, watercolour by Vincenzo Panicale, 1624

Figure 5: Votive effigy of Simone Foglietta Canapinese (1504)
Libro dei Miracoli, watercolour by Vincenzo Panicale, 1624

All the votive effigies were removed from the sanctuary of Viterbo, presumably around 1860, following renovation of the church, as well as from the Florentine Basilica. After the renovation of the Annunziata, between 1664 and 1669, the bòti were installed in the cloisters of the convent where they remained until 1785 when the Grand Duke Leopold II of Tuscany (1747-1792) decided to remove them permanently from the cloisters because “they blocked the view of the frescoes” [14]. The loss of the bòti created a gap in the visual culture of the Renaissance, only partially brought to light by the votive effigies of the Sanctuary of Curtatone, which are the only known examples to have remained in situ.

 

Notes

 

[1] Cf. Valeria Motta, “Les effigies votives grandeur nature en Italie (XVe-XVIIe siècles)”, in Techniques & Culture, 2018/2 (n° 70), pp. 98-119.

[2] Anne Lepoittevin, “La chambre des merveilles votive du sanctuaire mantouan de Santa Maria delle Grazie. Le rôle des franciscains au xviesiècle”, MEFRIM126,2, 2014, 365-380.

[3] Anna Bianchi, Ilaria Conti et al., “Le sculture e l’impalcata : problemi e metodi di intervento per i manufatti polimaterici”, in Maria Grazia Vaccari, Ed., Mira il tuo popolo. Statue votive del santuario di Santa Maria delle Grazie, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, 11 February-2 April 2000, Rizzoli, Milan, 64-71.

[4] Guido Mazzoni, I bòti della SS. Annunziata di Firenze. Curiosità storica, Le Monnier, Florence, 1923.

[5] Aby Warburg, “The art of portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie. Domenico  Ghirlandaio in Santa Trinita. The Portraits of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his Household”, in Aby Warburg.The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural Historyof the Renaissance.  Edited by Kurt W. Forster. Getty Research Institute for the History ofArt and the Humanities, 1999, pp. 184-216.

[6] David Freedberg, The Power of Images. Studies in the History and Theory of Response, University of Chicago Press,1999, pp. 225-29.

[7] Megan Homes, “Ex-votos: materiality, memory, and cult”, in M. Cole, R. Zorach, The Idol in the Age of Art: Objects, Devotions and the Early Modern World, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, pp. 159-81.

[8] Giorgio Vasari,Lives of the most excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,1568, trans. and ed. E.L. Seeley, New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahy, 1908, p. 369.

[9] Guido Mazzoni, I bòti…, p. 22.

[10] At the beginning of the 17th Century, the Basilica had approximately 400 life-size effigies.

[11] Ferdinando L. del Migliore, Firenze città nobilissima illustrata, Stamperia della Stella, Florence, 1684, p. 535.

[12] Piero Morselli, “Immagini di cera votive in S. Maria delle Carceri di Prato nella prima metà del ‘500“, in Andrew Morrogh, Renaissance studies in honor of Craig Hugh Smyth, Giunti Barbèra,Florence 1985, 327-340; Robert Maniura, “Ex-Voto, Art and Pious Performance”, Oxford Art Journal, 32, 3, 412.

[13] Robert Stiassny, « Eine gotische Votivstatue », Allgemeine Zeitung, 21 and 22 December, 1898.

[14] Andrea Daninos, Avere una bella cera. Le figure in cera a Venezia e in Italia, cat. Exp. (Venice, 10 may-25 june 2012), p. 19.

 

 

 

 

 

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