The Room of the Pillar (“Sala del Pilastro” in Italian) houses the Uffizi’s Counter-Reformation altarpieces.
The Counter-Reformation is the name scholars gave to the period of Catholic resurgence and reform that began after repeated criticism launched by the newly forming Protestant faiths during the 16th and 17th centuries. It came to a head in 1545 when the Catholic Church began holding conferences, known as a Synod, to settle matters of doctrine and reform in light of the growing Protestant threat. This series of conferences, held from 1545 through 1563, became known as the Council of Trent (after the city in which it was held: Trento, Italy). During this Council, the Church reaffirmed its central doctrines, including the worship of the martyrs and transubstantiation, both of which were vehemently dismissed as superstition by the Protestants. Most importantly for our purposes here, the Council discussed the role of art in Catholic belief and in its churches.
The Council increased Roman Catholic Church commissions of grandiose works of art that were intended to inspire, and even intimidate, viewers. The thinking was that parishioners were less likely to convert to Protestantism if their churches were awe-inspiring (at the time, Protestants believed that religious artwork violated the First Commandment – thou shall not have any God but me – because artwork encouraged viewers to worship the images rather than God himself so their churches were generally whitewashed). Therefore much of the art produced during this era was highly stylized, focusing on a frozen moment of time, which was generally a moment of crises or high drama. The works plunged viewers into a narrative in media res, creating the feeling that the viewer has been sucked into the narrative and is watching it unfold in real time, as if he or she was part of the story.
Such art was also supposed to be instructive, demonstrating to the viewers – the majority of which would have been illiterate at the time – how to behave. To ensure the “uneducated” would receive the right message, the Council of Trent decreed that images should be simplified and not include any frivolous decorations that would perplex the viewer. Thus, the art should be straight-forward and clear.
The pieces in this room reflect these principles espoused during the Council; their sheer size impresses, the high drama is palpable, and each provides moral guidance to the viewers. To enhance visitors’ viewing of these altarpieces, the walls of this room are kept blank, echoing the stone walls of those churches in which these pieces would have been originally displayed.
The centerpiece of the room is known as the Madonna del Popolo (Madonna of the People) painted by Federico Barocci. The name is derived from Barocci’s insistence in depicting people of all walks of life, conveying the message that all people – no matter wealth, social status, gender – are protected by the Virgin. For instance, the young mother in the left corner is sumptuously dressed, indicating she is a woman of wealth and status whereas another young mother directly beneath the Virgin is receiving alms from a child.
The work had originally been commissioned to Giorgio Vasari by the Confraternity of the Misericordia for the Church of Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo, but Vasari passed away before he could start it. The Vasari contract had been to paint what is known as la Madonna della Misericordia, a common subject in Christian art wherein the Virgin is depicted sheltering individuals under her cloak. Barocci, however, believed the subject matter of la Madonna della Misericordia could not be reflected in a beautiful work of art. So he painted a modified Madonna Misericordia; in Barocci’s depiction, it is not the Virgin’s mantle that provides the protective cover, but her shadow and her intercession with her son, Christ. Barocci, therefore, simplifies the message of la Madonna della Misericordia by stripping it of its metaphor: we are not protected by the Virgin’s cloak, but instead by her intercession on our behalf with Jesus. This distillation reflects the Tridentine principle that art should be straightforward and simplified so that the (in the Council’s view) uneducated masses would be given moral instruction.
Some scholars have suggested that several of the Seven Acts of Mercy appear in the scene, although only one is explicitly depicted. The Seven Acts of Mercy are those espoused by Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Verses 35-36: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”
The Act that is explicitly depicted is that of visiting those in prison, which occurs in the center-left background of the work. In attempting to apply the theory that this work depicts the Seven Acts, scholars have speculated that the shirtless figure in the foreground is asking to be clothed, while the musician’s closed eyes signify that he is blind and therefore sick. Whether these speculations are convincing or not, the giving of alms and visiting of the prisoners do suggest that Barocci was interested in portraying everyday people engaging in good works and pious acts, which were central to the Counter-Reformation’s platform in response to Protestant doctrine.
Indeed, contemporary Protestant teaching advocated the idea that salvation was achieved through belief alone and therefore decried the idea that one could – in their view – “buy” their way into heaven by doing good works. This disagreement stemmed from the Catholic practice of selling indulgences to decrease time spent in Purgatory. Purgatory has been a doctrine of the Catholic faith since at least the 13th century, which endorsed the idea that an individual’s soul did not go immediately to heaven. Instead, it went to a “half-way” house where the soul underwent purifying punishment until the soul was cleansed of all its worldly sins. To speed up this process of purification, living individuals could pay for masses and prayers to be said for the soul of the dead. Around the late 11th century, however, Pope Urban II was in desperate need of cash to fund the First Crusade and the selling of indulgences, a remission of sins to speed up your own purification process when you went to purgatory, became a wide spread fundraising tactic. Although the selling of indulgences was eventually condemned and banned by the Council of Trent, the practice was a major point of contention with the bourgeoning Protestant religion. Thus, the focus of this painting on the traditional belief that good works should be performed directly refutes the Protestant belief that faith alone brought salvation.
Another Protestant teaching that this painting tackles head on is the belief that religious art was a form of idolatry, which had been condemned by God in the Ten Commandments. The Council of Trent, however, proclaimed its continuing dedication to images of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints:
[T]he images of Christ, of the Virgin Mother of God, and of other saints are to be placed and retained especially in the churches, and that due honor and veneration is to be given them … Moreover, let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith; also that great profit is derived from all holy images, not only because the people are thereby reminded of the benefits and gifts bestowed on them by Christ, but also because through the saints the miracles of God and salutary examples are set before the eyes of the faithful, so that they may give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety.“Twenty Fifth Session,” Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. United Kingdom, B. Herder Book Company, 1960.
To endorse this doctrine in this work, Barocci depicted a small infant gleefully watching the musician, demonstrating that the innocent pleasure found in art is blessed by the Virgin and therefore cannot be characterized as a vain distraction.
Barocci’s work also represents the conjunction of a debate between Florentine and Venetian artists over whether design/form or color was the key to successful paintings. Heavily influenced by the painter known as Correggio, Barocci choose a third path: emphasis on sfumato, which gives his figures three dimensionality, which is reinforced by rich and solid colors. Barocci even made his preparation drawings in oil, further blurring the distinction between the two theories, but, as evidenced by the Madonna del Popolo, producing a beautiful end result.
Another massive altarpiece in this room is known as The Honesty of Saint Eligio (c. 1614), painted by Jacopo Chimenti (also known as Jacopo da Empoli) for the Company of Saint Eligius, a group formed by a few goldsmiths from the Florentine Guild of Silk. The work depicts the legend surrounding St. Eligius wherein the Merovingian king Clotaire II commissioned St. Eligius, who was a goldsmith, to craft a throne. Due to his skill as a goldsmith, he was able to use the small amount of precious metals provided to him by the king to make two thrones rather than the single one commissioned. When presented with the two thrones, Clotaire was so impressed that Eligius was honest enough to use the extra precious metal to make another throne instead of pocketing it that he hired Eligius as master of his mint.
In the work, you can see the two thrones on the left along with St. Eligius and King Clotaire on the right. As is typical of works at this time, the figures are dressed anachronistically, with King Clotaire sporting the fleur-de-lys, a traditional symbol of French monarchy (part of the Merovingian empire included what later became the modern state of France). Similarly, the depiction of the interior of the room is how a typical 17th-century goldsmith’s workshop would have looked. (King Clotaire reigned during the first half of the 6th century.) Empoli was known for his use of color and glossy techniques, which he used to their full effect in depicting a goldsmith’s workshop and the precious works of metals displayed on the shelf behind the figures. Jacopo da Empoli also uses this opportunity to create a painting within the painting, a stylistic innovation that would be expanded upon by later artists, such as Velasquez in his Las Meninas.
The Honesty of Saint Eligio typifies Counter-Reformation art via the work’s incredible size (over 9 1/2 feet tall and 6 feet wide); its focus on a single moment in the story of a saint’s life and its simple and direct message (i.e. be honest).
Surprisingly, since many galleries lack works created by Renaissance women, this room contains a work known as Noli me Tangere (“Touch me not”) (1581) by Lavinia Fontana. Lavinia was the daughter of a Bolognese artist, as Renaissance women artists typically were since they, unlike other women of the time, had access to the tools of the trade and their fathers’ workshops.
Lavinia’s work depicts what was once a common theme in Catholic art; in fact, it is one of two pieces in this very room entitled Noli me Tangere. The theme is a depiction of Mary Magdalen’s first encounter with the resurrected Jesus Christ, as narrated in the Gospel according to John:
14. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. 15. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. 16. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. 17. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
Although the subject had once been popular, it had lost its potency as debate over whether St. John’s account of the encounter was to be considered canon (i.e. accepted by the Church as divinely inspired), a debate likely due to the patriarchal church leaders unable to fathom that Christ would reveal himself first to women rather than the male apostles. St. John’s account of the incident, however, was eventually confirmed as such during the Council of Trent, giving the subject matter a boast in popularity once again.
In the account, Mary Magdalene mistakes Christ for a gardener and so Lavinia has given Christ the typical tools and dress of a farmer while she depicts Mary Magdalene in a flowing red dress, typical of contemporary depictions of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was usually shown as a beautiful woman richly dressed with an ointment jar during the 16th century, as she is here. Interestingly, it is Christ who is reaching towards Mary Magdalene while telling her not to touch him. He holds his hand over her hand, almost akin to the typical arrangement of figures in works dealing with the subject of the Annunciation:
The small size of the work suggests that it was intended for private devotional purposes, such intention buttressed by the rise in popularity of the Magdalene among reformist women desiring to demonstrate their deep spiritual piety. Additionally, Lavinia does not strictly adhere to the Counter-Reformation tenets: she actually depicts two separate scenes in one work. The background scene depicts Mary Magdalen and a female companion approach Christ’s tomb, only to find a glowing angel. By including the preface of the narrative in the background, Lavinia disregards the notion of in media res, demonstrating that the work was likely for an educated patron who did not require a simplified, direct single moment in time.
Lavinia’s work was likely based on that of Correggio’s earlier work of the same name and subject matter:
Lavinia’s work, however, clearly incorporates some of the other Doctrines espoused by the Council of Trent, which first convened in 1545 and therefore after the completion of the work by Correggio. For instance, the Council of Trent demanded that art depict accurate and credible scenes, a direct rejection of the Mannerism style that had emerged during the late Renaissance. (Mannerism was typified by exaggerated and complicated postures; it emphasized art over beauty.) Thus, in Lavinia’s version of the scene, Jesus is dressed as a gardener, to clearly indicate the Magdalen’s mistake of identity. In Correggio’s version, Jesus is garbed in a mantle and could almost be mistaken for a classical statue. Lavinia adheres to the Council of Trent’s demand that art be narrative and accurate in nature. Correggio’s work, on the other hand, contains little indication, other than its name, of the narrative it is meant to convey.
The other version of the Noli me Tangere story in this room was painted by Barocci (the artist who painted Madonna del Popolo, discussed supra.
This work, like that of Lavinia Fontana’s, was clearly influenced by Correggio. In fact, it was Barocci’s keen study of Correggio’s works that prompted a rediscovery and popularization of Correggio through the 17th century.
The works appear to be mirror images of one another. Although, Barocci has placed his scene within a structure with a window to the outside world rather than in the natural world itself. Unlike Lavinia Fontana, Barocci flouted the new rules proscribed by the Council of Trent despite his well-known religiosity (only a single secular work by Barocci is known to exist today). Perhaps Lavinia felt she was already breaking one convention – by simply being a woman artist – and was determined that her art would not be rejected on any technical grounds? Regardless of the why, Barocci’s Noli me Tangere does not oriented the viewer as to what Biblical scene is being portrayed nor does it portray the narrative accurately. According to the Gospel, Mary meets Jesus outside his tomb, not, as shown here, in a sparsely furnished structure. Barocci does, however, at least identify the figures via traditional iconography – the wounds of the stigmata are clearly seen on Jesus’ feet and hands while Mary Magdalen places her hand on a jar of ointment, is dressed sumptuously, and is a beautiful young woman with loose hair. Whereas, Correggio’s version contains no such allusions aside from the tools of a gardener strewed behind Jesus.
Finally, although not strictly religious, The Allegory of Virtue by Jacopo Ligozzi (c. 1577-78) is housed in this room as well, perhaps due to its massive, altarpiece size, as well as its moralizing nature that is akin to Counter-Reformation altarpieces. The work is meant to depict the fate of man by showing Virtue kidnapped (or rescued depending on your interpretation) by Eros/Amore (represented by the winged boy), yet held by Ignorance (represented by the woman at the base of the work) and dragged down by Prejudice (represented by the old woman with owl wings on her temple and bat wings on her back).
Although created after the Council of Trent, Ligozzi does not dismiss mannerism as the Council dictated. Instead, he merges the Florentine mannerist style with Northern Italy’s emphasis on colors, reflecting his training in Verona, to create an ambiguous and strange work, in direct contravention of Tridentine teachings. Perhaps because this work was not meant to be a religious piece, Ligozzi felt that he did not have to adhere to Tridentine doctrine.
Ligozzi also merges the natural (the scientifically accurate depiction of the plants, owl tail feathers, and bat wings) with the bizarre to demonstrate his skill at depicting nature accurately. Ligozzi was employed by Duke Francesco I de’Medici to produce studies of nature, including plants and animals, to feed the Duke’s obsession with science and alchemy. In fact, this picture was likely commissioned to hang in the anteroom of the Casino di San Marco’s garden, the Duke’s alchemical laboratory where the Duke entertained himself by conducting experiments. Thus, Ligozzi uses this opportunity to include – what at the time were – exotic flowers and plants, the possession of which indicated wealth and status. The mixture of science and fantasy also reflected the Casino di San Marco’s experiments: the mixture of alchemical metals in an attempt to create gold.
Some of the figures can be identified using contemporary iconography. Ignorance was associated with donkeys at the time. Thus, the woman with the donkey ears languishing at the bottom of the work is likely meant to represent Ignorance. Whereas the figure of Prejudice was characterized as a gaunt, unnerving woman. Ligozzi, however, has jettisoned all of the traditional attributes of Virtue, making her look more like a martyred saint than an allegorical personification, as well as those of cupid. Ligozzi likely meant to instill ambiguity in this piece and allow the viewers, all of whom would likely be classically educated men, to determine the meaning behind the work.