An Illuminated Initial by Lorenzo Monaco

Miniature from a Choir Book:  Initial D with a Prophet Tempera and gold on vellum, 6-5/8 x 6-1/4 inches Lorenzo Monaco Italian, Florence, 1370-1424 The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund  1949.536 Miniature from a Choir Book: Initial D with a Prophet Tempera and gold on vellum, 6-5/8 x 6-1/4 inches Lorenzo Monaco Italian, Florence, 1370-1424 The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J.H. Wade Fund 1949.536

La fede e la pietà cristiana permearono profondamente la vita fiorentina durante il Rinascimento e gli ordini religiosi assunsero un’importante presenza nella città creando una richiesta di arte religiosa che abbondò per affreschi, sculture, pale d’altare dipinte e oggetti liturgici in oro o argento dorato. Una forma d’arte in cui eccellevano gli artisti fiorentini era il manoscritto o l’illuminazione dei testi. Tra i tanti illuminatori di libri della città ci fu il monaco Lorenzo Monaco. Nato nel 1370 circa, si dice che sia l’ultimo importante esponente dello stile giottesco. Entrò come novizio nel monastero fiorentino camaldolese di Santa Maria degli Angeli, dove lavorò a lungo come miniatore nello scriptorium e come pittore su tavola, consacrandosi all’epoca come il maggior pittore di soggetti sacri a Firenze. La miniatura di Monaco che il Museo di Arte di Cleveland conserva nella propria collezione è un iniziale simile a un gioiello che include rami di foglie d’acanto rosa, blu e arancione su un fondo d’oro brunito. Il profeta in turbante raffiguarato all’interno, tiene in mano una pergamena con lettere e si fregia di una bellissima tavolozza gialla, blu e arancione. Le tonalità color carne tendenti ad un verde-brunastro, più tipico della pittura senese, suggeriscono la formazione iniziale di Lorenzo in quella città.

The Italian Renaissance had its birth in Florence, a prosperous medieval banking and mercantile center. We are familiar with the names of the artists whose genius flourished there: Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. What do we know of the city itself that bred and nurtured such talent? What was it about Florence, the city that so stimulated creativity, spurring artists and their patrons to such heights of achievement? The Florentines saw art as more than mere decoration. It was woven into the very fabric of their daily life. Streets and piazzas, painting and sculpture, churches and palaces, all reflected a civic identity. There is evidence that Florence possessed the highest literacy rate, perhaps a third of its males, of any city in Europe in the 1300s. A city dedicated to banking, manufacturing and international trade, fueled by civic pride, Florence nurtured literacy and talent as its very life force. 

Christian faith and piety also permeated Florentine life in an important way. The religious orders held a major presence in the city. Among them were the Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans, Camaldolese, and Servites and all were a dynamic factor in the religious life of the city. With so many churches, the demand for religious art in Florence abounded for frescoes, sculptures, painted altarpieces, and liturgical objects in gold or gilt-silver. This demand for art created a vibrant milieu for artists and their patrons. An art form in which Florentine artists excelled was manuscript or book illumination. Florence was especially noted for the production of large decorated choir books for use in her many churches. Among the city’s many such illuminators of books was the monk Lorenzo Monaco.

Lorenzo Monaco was the acquired name of the Florentine painter Piero di Giovanni, who worked in Florence for almost 30 years until his death in about 1424. In 1390, he entered the strictly cloistered Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, a seat of Florentine culture and an institution popular with the city’s political elite. The monastery and its church no longer exist. It was located on the site of the present Piazza Brunelleschi. Taking the name Don Lorenzo, he concentrated on his religious studies from 1390 until 1396, when he left the cloister to pursue a career as a painter – a trade for which he presumably already had been trained as a teenager before his decision to enter the monastic life. Lorenzo was not a native of Florence. He came from Siena but settled in Florence at a young age before becoming a monk.

Lorenzo’s earliest works as an independent artist appear to have been miniatures, or pictures, painted in choral books produced by (and, in some cases, for) his brethren in Santa Maria degli Angeli during the 1390s. These fairly large miniatures, some ranging over 5 inches, appear to have been produced in the early 1400s. They generally feature individual saints and prophets, placed alongside liturgical texts dedicated to the feast days observed in their honor. One such miniature by Lorenzo is preserved in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The museum’s miniature is a jewel-like initial that reveals Lorenzo to be a master colorist. The initial includes pink, blue and orange sprays of acanthus leaves on a burnished gold ground. The turbaned prophet enclosed within holds a lettered scroll and is emblazoned with a striking yellow, blue and orange palette. The flesh tones tend towards a brownish-green, more typical of Sienese painting and suggesting Lorenzo’s early training in that city.

The Cleveland initial belongs to a three-volume set of graduals (choir books for the Mass) produced in the scriptorium of Santa Maria degli Angeli for the nearby hospital church of Santa Maria Nuova. Lorenzo was among the team of illuminators and scribes who worked on this commission. The decorated initial “D” introduces the Introit to the Mass for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Deus in loco sancto suo (God is in his holy place). Most of the surviving miniatures from this gradual appear to be Lorenzo’s work. The volume to which the Cleveland miniature belonged had 45 miniatures of which seven are missing. Many of the miniatures from this set of choir books and others were removed during the incursions of Napoleon and his armies through Italy in the 1790s. Most of these have now been dispersed among libraries and museums in Italy and across Europe and the U.S. The Santa Maria Nuovo choir books were famous and many visitors came to the hospital church in the 15th and 16th centuries to marvel at their stunning miniatures.

Unlike most manuscript illuminations produced for lay readers in private devotional books, Lorenzo’s paintings had to be large enough to be seen from some distance, as the choir books for Santa Maria degli Angeli and Santa Maria Nuovo were placed on lecterns high over the heads of the monks who used them to sing their chants. Lorenzo periodically returned to the task of miniature painting and produced impressive pictures for the choir books of the Angeli and the church of Sant’Egidio near Santa Maria Nuova hospital.

Lorenzo Monaco today is best known, not for his miniature paintings, but for the large and sumptuous painted altarpieces he produced for Santa Maria degli Angeli and a few other select monastic institutions in Florence. Indeed, most of his works were intended for fellow monks and clergy like himself, not secular clients. In 1398–99, for example, he worked on a now-lost altarpiece for a chapel owned by the Confraternity of the Bigallo in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria del Carmine. 

The hospital church of Santa Maria Nuovo was founded on June 23, 1287 by Folco Fortinari, the father of the Beatrice celebrated by Dante Alighieri. Santa Maria Nuova is now the main hospital of Florence and located in the piazza of the same name. Though modified over the centuries and enlarged, its church dates to about 1418. It would have been here that Lorenzo’s choir books, including the Cleveland miniature, would have been kept. This tiny fragment speaks powerfully to our eyes of its history. We can almost hear the clergy singing their chants from its page.