Refining the Soul: Spiritual Art and Architecture in the Camaldolese Hermitages of Renaissance Tuscany
Rebekah Compton is Associate Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the College of Charleston. She received her PhD in the History of Art from the University of California, Berkeley and completed a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the interplay between materials, sight, and desire in early modern Italy. Rebekah has written articles and essays on Fra Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Her book Venus and the Arts of Love in Renaissance Florence will be published by Cambridge University Press in the spring of 2021.
In his writings, Plotinus (270 CE) describes the soul as a beautiful entity and explains its refinement through a series of sculptural metaphors. One should “cut,” “smooth,” “disengage,” and “straighten” the soul in order to uncover its “radiance.” Other metaphors for this entity—which hovers between the material and the spiritual—include the cultivated garden, the shining mirror, and the adorned bride. This study examines early modern notions of the soul and its relationship to the spiritual settings, sacred art, and devotional practices of the Hermits of Camaldoli. The project focuses on the Holy Hermitage of Camaldoli in the Tuscan Apennines (founded 1012) and the Monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence (founded c. 1293). It investigates art and architectural patronage for these institutions and includes analysis of works by Lorenzo Monaco, Filippo Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Raphael, and the “Scuola degli Angeli.” In their writings, Camaldolese monks discuss the purification of the soul through solitude, penitence, prayer, and metaphysical encounters with angels as well as demons. This research hopes to shed light on different paths of devotion, examining how visible forms—fashioned from earthly materials—encouraged inner meditation and visionary experiences of the invisible.