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Edith Wharton, the Italophile who put the San Vivaldo Terracottas on the artistic and tourism map


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Edith Wharton, Italophile

Saint Vivaldo and Jerusalem of Tuscany

Edith Wharton Goes to San Vivaldo

She's Distracted by the Beauty of Tuscany

She Arrives at San Vivaldo

Her Favorite Terracottas

The Presepe of San Vivaldo

Re-attribution to the Della Robbia School

Some Interesting Links

Edith Wharton's Italy Books


Edith Wharton, Italophile


Edith Wharton wrote often about Italy.  She lived and died in France, but she loved Italy's art and landscapes.  She published two books about Italy:

  • Italian Backgrounds (Travel Writings)

  • Italian Villas and Their Gardens (About Italian Villas and their Renaissance Gardens)

In January 1895, she had an article published, 'A Tuscan Shrine', in Scribner's Magazine (reprinted in Italian Backgrounds).  In the article she described how she helped reattribute some forgotten, terracotta sculptures to the famous Della Robbia School of terracotta art.  


I provide here excerpts from her article, with illustrations of what she wrote about, some from her article, others not.  


I also provide links below for those who wish to research the terracottas more, visit San Vivaldo, or read her entire article.



Saint Vivaldo and Jerusalem of Tuscany


Saint Vivaldo of San Gimignano lived in the late 1200s.  He was a Franciscan monk and later a hermit who withdrew to and died in a forest outside of San Gimignano in the area called Montaione.  (Image right: Montaione north-west of San Gimignano, Florence is east of Certaldo.)


The locals built a shrine by the hollowed-out tree he lived and died in.  Pilgrims came to the shrine, prayed, and miracles happened.  Eventually Friar Vivaldo was declared Saint (San) Vivaldo.  


In the early 1500s,  Friar (Fra) Cherubino of Florence, also of the Franciscan order, supervised the building of the San Vivaldo monastery and church to honor the saint and to host pilgrims.  




San Vivaldo Monastery courtyard  -  Interior of San Vivaldo Church


At that same time, one of the Franciscan monks, Fra Tommaso, who had been to the Holy Land in pilgrimage, imagined the wood around the monastery to resemble in miniature the landscape of Palestine. 


Using the landscape of the woods as a guide, Fra Tommaso mapped out a design for a mini-pilgrimage that would allow pilgrims to recreate a tour of the holy sites of Jerusalem and her surrounding areas.  


At each point on his map, Fra Tommaso supervised the building and decorating of a chapel.  Each chapel was filled with art and objects to make each place and event come alive for the faithful visitors, a sort of Holy Land Theme Park, to put it crudely.  They called it "The Holy Mount" and also "Jerusalem of Tuscany".



Pianta del Sacro Monte con le indicazioni delle cappelle 

1. La chiesa A. Sacrestia B. Chiostro grande C. Lavatoio 2. Museo del Sacro Monte 3. Cenacolo 4. Casa di Anna 5. Cappella dell'Annunciazione 6. Cappella della Fuga in Egitto 7. Casa di Simone Fariseo 8. Casa di Pilato 9. Casa di Erode 10. Cappella dell'Andata al Calvario 11. Chiesa dello Spasimo 12. Cappella delle Pie Donne 13. Casa della Veronica 14. Cappella del Calvario 15. Edicola del Santo Sepolcro 16. Cappella del Noli Me Tangere 17. Cappella del Carcere di Cristo 18. Cappella di San Giacomo 19. Casa di Caifa 20. Valle di Giosafat 21. Cappella dell'Ascensione


The monks who planned and built the San Vivaldo monastery and chapels were not only a devout group of Franciscans, but an enterprising group.  Fra Cherubino drew in crowds of up to 3000 faithful with his entertaining outdoor sermons.  Then as payment for an afternoon’s entertainment, he sent the faithful to the river to bring back building materials for the monastery, church and chapels.




Two of the Chapels - to give an idea of the size, design and locations


Once a few chapels were built and decorated, the paid tours began.  The monks guided the faithful around the Holy Mount of San Vivaldo.  They provided stories, homilies and prayers in exchange for financial support for their monastery.



Edith Wharton Goes to San Vivaldo


Pilgrims were replaced over the ages with tourists.  Early tourists were wealthy British and Americans experiencing the Grand Tour of continental Europe.  It seems that all of the writers who traveled, documented their experiences in memoirs and magazine articles for their less fortunate countrymen who could not afford the Grand Tour.  


Edith Wharton was just such a travel-writer.  In 'A Tuscan Shrine' she describes the beginning to her trip to San Vivaldo via medieval San Gimignano.  


"For some months we had been vaguely aware that, somewhere among the hills between Volterra and the Arno, there lay an obscure monastery containing a series of terra-cotta groups which were said to represent the scenes of the Passion.  


"No one in Florence, however, seemed to know much about them; and many of the people whom we questioned had never even heard of San Vivaldo.


"Even a consultation with Professor Enrico Ridolfi, then director of the ‘Royal Museums at Florence (ed. Gli Uffizi) thought there was much to discover, as local tradition attributed the San Vivaldo terracottas to a partially blind artist called Gonnelli, from the 1600s, a period when Italian terracotta art was in decline."

She stubbornly set out anyway, first by train, then by carriage with an Italian coachman to San Gimignano where she an her traveling companion, her husband, spent the night.  They set out the next morning before sunrise.


"The next morning before sunrise the little carriage awaited us at the inn-door; and as we dashed out under the gate-way of San Gimignano we felt the thrill of explorers sighting a new continent."





She's Distracted by the Beauty of Tuscany


The beauty of Tuscany overtook her artistic endeavour.  She waxes prosaic about all she sees, dismissing the rough four-hour carriage ride as a minor inconvenience.  And who can blame her?!



The View Leaving San Gimignano


"It seemed in fact an unknown world which lay beneath us in the new light.  


"The hills, so firmly etched at mid-day, at sunset so softly modelled, had melted into a silver sea whose farthest waves were indistinguishably merged in billows of luminous mist.  


"Only the near foreground retained its precision of outline, and that too had assumed an air of unreality.


"Fields, hedges, and cypresses were tipped with an aureate brightness which recalled the golden ripples running over the grass in the foreground of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”  


"The sunshine had the density of gold-leaf; we seemed to be driving through the landscape of a missal."



"At first we had this magical world to ourselves, but, as the light broadened, groups of laborers began to appear under the olives and between the vines; shepherdesses, distaff in hand, drove their flocks along the roadside, and yokes of white oxen, with scarlet fringes above their meditative eyes, moved past us with such solemn deliberateness of step that fancy transformed their brushwood laden carts into the sacred caroccio of the past."



"Ahead of us the road wound through a district of vineyards and orchards, but north and east the panorama of the Tuscan hills unrolled itself, range and range of treeless undulations outlined one upon the other, as the sun grew high, with the delicate precision of a mountainous background in a print of Sebald Beham’s."




"Behind us the fantastic towers of San Gimignano dominated each bend of the road like some persistent mirage of the desert; to the north lay Castel Fiorentino, and far away other white villages, embedded like fossil shells in the hillsides."



"The elements composing the foreground of such Tuscan scenes are almost always extremely simple--slopes trellised with vine and mulberry, under which the young wheat runs like green flame; stretches of ash-colored olive-orchard; and here and there a farmhouse with projecting eaves and open loggia, sentinelled by its inevitable group of cypresses."



"These cypresses, with their velvety-textured spires of rusty black, acquire an extraordinary expressiveness against the neutral-tinted breadth of the landscape; distributed with the sparing hand with which a practiced writer uses his exclamation points they seem, as it were, to emphasize the more intimate meaning of the scene; calling the eyes here to a shrine, there to a homestead, or testifying by their mere presence to the lost tradition of some barren knoll."


"But this significance of detail is one of the chief charms of the mid-Italian landscape.  It has none of the purposeless prodigality, the extravagant climaxes of what is called “fine scenery;” nowhere is there any obvious largesse to the eye; but the very reticence of its delicately molded lines, its seeming disdain of facile effects, almost give it the quality of a work of art, make it appear the crowning production of centuries of plastic expression."




She Arrives at San Vivaldo


"…we caught sight of a brick campanile rising above oaks and ilexes on a slope just ahead of us, and our carriage turned from the high-road up a lane with scattered chapels showing their white facades through the foliage.  (Image to right: a drawing that accompanied the article, depicting the view described.)


"This lane, making a sudden twist, descended abruptly between mossy banks and brought us out upon a grass-plot before a rectangular monastery adjoining the church whose bells had welcomed us." 




"Here was San Vivaldo, and the chapels we had passed doubtless concealed beneath their cupolas “more neat than solemn”  the terra-cottas of which we were in search."


They did indeed.  With a monk as a guide, they toured the chapels.  There were roughly 20 chapels, and she mentions that at least that many were said to have already perished over time.  Some were stripped of major pieces, but others were salvaged by the monks who had the works whitewashed over before government forces could steal them during a religious repression of their monastery.  


Each chapel had a terracotta set in a recess at the end of the chapel, decorations in the chapel, and places to pray.  And under Pilate's house, there was even a dungeon where Barabas awaited his release in place of Jesus.



Inside the Chapel of 'Lo Spasimo' or 'The Swoon/Faint', a depiction of Mary when she sees Jesus carrying the cross (From, could you guess?)


They were amazed by the quality of the life-sized terracotta figures they saw.  Some depicted the Passion, others the lives of Jesus and Mary.  They definitely did not fit the description of late, lesser works by a minor artist, that they had been led to expect.  


She felt the best of the terracottas (and moldings around them and ceiling decorations) looked to be from the early 1500s and were of high quality, almost certainly of the Della Robbia School, the epitome of Italian terracotta artwork.



“The careful modelling of the hands, the quiet grouping, so free from a distorted agitation, the simple draperies, the devotional expression of the faces, all seemed to me to point to the lingering influence of the fifteenth century; not, indeed, to the incomparable charm of its prime, but the refinement, the severity of its close."



Her Favorite Terracottas


Edith Wharton decided that the best of the terracotta reliefs were most probably by the same artist.  She described these in her article accompanied by black-and-white photographs.  Here's what she had to say about them, with her accompanying photographs by the Alinari Brothers Studios of Florence.  I provide color images where possible and a comparison of how they've changed.



The Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Disciples


"The central figure, that of the Virgin, is one of the most graceful at San Vivaldo; her face austerely tender, with lines of grief and age furrowing the wimpled cheeks; her hands, like those of all the figures attributed to Gonnelli, singularly refined and expressive.  


"The same air of unction, of what the French call recueillement, distinguishes the face and attitude of the kneeling disciple on the extreme left; indeed what chiefly struck me in the group was that air of devotional simplicity which we are accustomed to associate with an earlier and purer period of art."





A recent image shows some of the painted decoration surrounding the terracotta figures.  It looks like quite a bit of restoration work has been done to these figures and niche.



Lo Spasimo


"Next to this group the finest is perhaps that of “Lo Spasimo,” the swoon of the Virgin at the sight of Christ bearing the cross.    


"It is the smallest of the groups, being less than life-size, and comprising only the figure of the Virgin supported by the Maries, with a Saint John kneeling at her side.  


"In it all the best attributes of the artist are conspicuous; careful modelling, reticence of expression, and, above all, that “gift of tears” which is the last quality we look for in the plastic art of the seventeenth century."








Here is how the terracotta figure appears today in its niche in its chapel.  The hub-cap-looking halos are missing, which is an improvement, in my humble opionion, and the niche looks different from when Edith Wharton saw it.  (From of, in case you didn't notice!)



Christ Before Pilate


"In the group of “Christ Before Pilate” the figure of Pilate is especially noteworthy; his delicate, incredulous lips seem just framing the melancholy “What is truth?”  As we stood before this scene our guide pointed out to us the handsome Roman lector who raises his arm to strike the Savior has had his hand knocked off by the indignant zeal of the faithful."



In this recent image of "Christ Before Pilate", the stricken hand of the "handsome Roman lector" about to strike Jesus has been replaced.  It looks like the faithful are less full of "indignant zeal" these days.  You can see the painted and molded decoration behind and around the figures.





"In the group of the “Ascension” the upper part has been grotesquely restored; but the figures of the Virgin and disciples, kneeling below, are intact.  On their faces is seen that look of wondering ecstasy, “the light which never was on sea or land” which the artist excelled in representing.  In every group his Saint John has this luminous look; and in that of the “Ascension” it brightens even the shrewd, bearded countenances of the older disciples."


I don't have an image of the "Ascension" but this is "The Resurrection" with Mary Magdalen as the central figure with Jesus in the "Noli me tangere" position.  The disciples are arranged around them much the same way as described by Edith Wharton for the "Ascension".





Magdalen Bathing the Feet of Christ


"The representation of the “Magdalen Bathing the Feet of Christ” (ed.: La Casa di Simone Fariseo) is noticeable for the fine assemblage of heads about the supper-table.  


"That of Christ and his host are peculiarly expressive; and Saint John’s look of tranquil tenderness contrasts almost girlishly with the clustered majesty of the neighboring faces.  


"The Magdalen is less happily executed; she is probably by another hand."





This recent image of the terracotta figures shows that the patterned background is no longer as it was when Edith Wharton visited, and the tablecloth looks restored.


There also seems to have been a change over the heads Jesus (no halo now) and Simone Fariseo (hat decor stands up now - first to Jesus's left), and the head of Saint John (the third to Jesus's left) is very-much altered.  It looks like it may have fallen off and been glued back on facing a different direction!  Poor Saint John no longer has a "look of tranquil tenderness" but more the look of someone with Attention Deficit Disorder.


Jesus has gained two fingers on his right hand, and the scented oil pot is different.  Could the silver-looking one have gone missing with a pilgrim?  I certainly hope not.



The Crucifixion


She mentions with praise by name only one other work, "The Crucifixion", and says she believes it to be by another artist, but wonders if the thieves are by the better artist.  


"In the group of the “Crucifixion,” for the most part of inferior workmanship, the figures of the two thieves are finely modelled, and their expression of anguish has been achieved with the same sobriety of means which marks all the artist’s effects."



Here you can see very clearly the painted backgrounds that back many of the terracotta figures.


She also mentions three works on the outside of the Church of San Vivaldo which still stand today:


"The remaining groups in the chapels are without merit, but under the portico of the church there are three fine figures, possibly by the same artist, representing Saint Roch, Saint Linus of Volterra, and one of the Fathers of the Church."




The San Vivaldo Presepio


Only the Presepio, crèche or Nativity Scene, was taken and never returned, they were told.  However, Edith Wharton recognized the missing Presepio in the collection in Florence’s Bargello museum.  There it was attributed to Giovanni Della Robbia of the Della Robbia school.  


Giovanni Della Robbia was the son of the famous Luca Della Robbia.  The work is from 1521, around the same period she suspected the San Vivaldo terracottas were really from, and with many stylistic similarities.


She provided this black-and-white image with the article.  I've been unable to get an image of the Presepio that is still in the Bargello Museum in Florence.  But I have been able to find an image of a Nativty done by the same artist in the same period, so you can get an idea of the colors that were used. (see below)


"…I was startled, on seeing it, by the extraordinary resemblance of the heads to some of those in the groups ascribed to Gonnelli.  I had fancied that the modeller of San Vivaldo might have been inspired by the “Presepio;” but I was unprepared for the absolute identity of treatment in certain details of the hair and drapery, and for the recurrence of the same type of face.  


"Undoubtedly, the “Presepio” shows greater delicacy of treatment; but then the figures are smaller, and it is a relief, whereas at San Vivaldo the figures are so much detached from the background that they may be regarded as groups of statuary.  


"Then the glaze which covers all but the faces of the “Presepio” has preserved its original beauty of coloring, while the groups of San Vivaldo have been crudely daubed with fresh coats of paint, and even whitewash; and lastly, the “Presepio” is enhanced by an excessively ornate frame of fruit-garlanded pilasters, as well as by its charming predella, subdivided by panels of arabesque."  



This 'Nativity' is also by Giovanni Della Robbia in the same period and is in The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.  The scene is very similar especially in the background such as the roof and angels.  There are also similarities in the decorative frame top and sides.


"Altogether it is a far more elaborate production than the terra-cottas of San Vivaldo, and some of its most graceful details, such as the dance of angels on the stable roof, are evidently borrowed from the earlier repertoire of the Robbias; but, in spite of these incidental archaisms, who can fail to be struck by the likeness of the central figures to certain of the statues at San Vivaldo?  


"The head of Saint Joseph, in the “Presepio,” for instance, with its wrinkled penthouse forehead and curled and parted beard, suggests at once that of the disciple seated on the right of Saint John in the house of the Pharisee; the same face, though younger, occurs again in the Pentecostal group, and the kneeling female figure in the “Presepio” is treated in the same manner as the youngest Mary in the group of “Lo Spasimo.”  Even the long, rolled-back tresses, with their shell-like convolutions are the same."



Re-attribution to the Della Robbia School 


Convinced the terracottas were incorrectly attributed, Edith Wharton arranged for a photographer to travel to San Vivaldo to photograph the terracottas.  Then she sent the photos to the museum director to study.  


He concurred with her that the terracottas were from a century earlier (the early 1500s) than they had up to then been attributed, and that they were certainly of the Della Robbia School and of a very high quality.  He also identified the Presepio in the Bargello as the San Vivaldo Presepio.


Thanks to the efforts of Italophile Edith Wharton, the terracottas of San Vivaldo began their climb in artistic and tourism importance.  



Some Interesting Links


A Tuscan Shrine in Scribner's Magazine, January 1895


Images of the Chapels from John Vales of Tuscany


Images of the Terracottas from John Vales of Tuscany


The Comune di Montaione site's pages about San Vivaldo


Montaione, the area where San Vivaldo resides, has a very informative website


The Montaione site has this page all about San Vivaldo


San Vivaldo has this site in Italian all about the monastery and chapels 

You can visit San Vivaldo, the town, monastery and chapels.  You can even enjoy free open-air classical music concerts every Sunday in summer.


The Sacro Monte di Varese boasts later chapels and more elaborate decorations.

The chapel idea to convey the life of Jesus was used by other churches, and Passion pilgrimages were very popular in Italy from the middle ages onward.  Even today, there are some towns in Southern Italy that re-enact the Passion Play every Easter.  

Another site for virtual tours of Sacro Monte di Varese


And there is another: Sacro Monte di Varallo Sesia with 43 chapels in a beautiful nature reserve in Piedmont (Piemonte).  The chapels are decorated with frescos and lots of life sized statues.


Summary of Italian Backgrounds from the Edith Wharton Society


Summary of Wharton's Italian Villas and Their Gardens from the Edith Wharton Society



Edith Wharton's Italy Books






 This unusual image is the Chianti area from space, courtesy of GoogleEarth.  You can clearly see the golden and green patchwork of fertile fields that give Chianti it's famous golden glow.