Dante, Giotto  and the Scrovegnis


So as I went gazing upon the throng,
I saw a purse display, azure on or,
The gesture and form of a lion: further along

My eye pursued, and fell on one that bore
A purse of blood-red gules, which had on it
A goose white as curd; and yet one more

Beside him sat, who on his wallet white
Showed a blue sow in Farrow; this one cried
To me “What art thou doing in this pit?”

Away! And learn (since thou has not yet died)
My neighbour Vitaliano shall come here
To sit with me upon my left-hand side.

These Florentines keep bawling in my ear -
I’m Paduan myself – all day they shout:
‘Let come, let come that knight without a peer

Who hears three goats upon his satchel stout!’ ”
With that he writhed his mouth awry, and made
A gross grimace, thrusting his tongue right out

Like an ox licking his nose. Then I, afraid,
To anger him who bad me make short stay
By staying longer, left that sad brigade.

The Divine Comedy: Hell. Canto XVII
Translation by Dorothy L Sayers.


  In Canto XVII Dante enters the lowest sub-circle of the seventh circle of Hell, where he meets the usurers sitting on the burning sands. Why are they here? Usury produces nothing of value to mankind, and is simply the means to gain  money. The usurers are not named, but the symbols of their families appear on their purses, which gives the game away.
  Last of all, Dante encountiers a usurer from Padua, whose badge is a sow: and here it is!
 
 

  The sow is the symbol of the Scrovegni family: Dante is talking to Reginaldo Scrovegni, who died around 1290. Let's head for Padua and visit one of Italy's greatest artistic treasures, the Scrovegni chapel.


 This was built between 1302 and 1305 by the financier Enrico Scrovegni, the son of Reginaldo, as a small independent chapel or oratory on the site of the Roman arena. It was decorated inside by Giotto, perhaps his finest masterpiece, and was dedicated to Santa Maria degli Carita, St Mary of charity. So what was the building’s function? 

  It is generally thought that the object was to save his wicked, usurious family from ending up in Hell. As Dante tells us, usury was considered a grievous sin by the church. You will be aware though,  that the church offered speedy exits from purgatory in exchange for devotions, in the form of lots of money. This chapel doesn’t quite fit the bill as it was a private family chapel, though it has to be said Enrico was a generous donor to other religious buildings. It is also suggested that it might be the means to rescue Reginaldo from Hell, though the usual view is, once you are there, you're there for good. Dante started the Divine Comedy in 1308, so clearly it hadn't worked for Reginaldo by then.
  Here's the view of the west wall of the chapel. Here we see the last judgement, with Paradise on the left, and the horrors of Hell on the right.  The detail shows Enrico handing the chapel over to the Virgin Mary. Quite a clear message, then.

   
Perhaps even more telling, here’s the view looking the other way.

In a prominent position on the left is the scene of Judas taking the bribe from the priests. Opposite, on the right the Virgin is greeting Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. In Christian theology, this is the moment that John was cleansed of original sin.
  

So what did Enrico say about his motive for building the chapel? ‘I have solemnly dedicated a temple to the mother of God, so that I can be blessed with an eternal award, and divine virtue has taken the place of pagan vices.’ The last comment is a reference to the location for the chapel, the site of a Roman age arena.

  Some critics take the view that Enrico’s real motives were quite different – not family salvation but family glory, the equivalent of driving round in a large Mercedes today. One piece of evidence to support this is that originally the chapel was intended to be much larger, but it was kept to the size following the protests of the monastery next door, the Eremitani.
 

But were the family really usurers? Money lending was strictly controlled in Padua at the time. The definition of usury was charging interest rates over 30 p.c. Records around the time show that the Scrovegnis charged around 20 p.c. on loans. Interesting to compare with Pay Day loan companies today – 1500 p.c.
   What a pity Dante isn’t around to deal with them.

 
For more on this, I recommend the Cambridge companion to Giotto: ‘Giotto and his lay patrons’ by Benjamin G Kohl and, most important, ‘Reading the Arena Chapel’ by Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona.

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