Edith Wharton’s Art History Lesson in San Vivaldo

by Don Benson

In a rather remote village in the southern hills of Tuscany is an ancient monastery.  There is a church and eighteen separate free-standing chapels.

We – four American tourists – drove to San Vivaldo, which is one of the most unique religious sites in Italy.

I say, we drove there, but we did not get in.

We went unknowingly on a day not open to visitors. It was closed to us. Over a century earlier, in 1894, Edith Wharton arrived at San Vivaldo and not only got in, she revised the artistic history of the place.

The full story indicated here is a real-life whodunit with a marvelous cast of characters that includes – beside Edith Wharton – Florence’s director of Royal Museums, a hermit living in a hollow chestnut tree, and a “blind” sculptor. The setting for the tale is the monastery which at one time had upwards of twenty five (the number varies according to source) chapels, each its own size and style.

Wharton originally journeyed to San Vivaldo to find some rarely seen terra cotta figures she had heard about, unsuspecting of the gems of sculpture she would actually find.

We went because Wharton wrote about it and raised our interest with her deft prose and inspiring attitude toward travel. She wrote, for instance, that “one of the rarest and most delicate pleasures of the continental tourist is to circumvent the compiler of his guide-book.”

We were in tune with that, although it is not easy to do in thoroughly documented and described Italy. But we had among us three standard, off-the-shelf guide books to the country and none of them mentioned San Vivaldo. So we went.

Edith Wharton is known above all as a writer of short stories and novels. They have been widely read for a century and have been, perhaps, a little more in the public eye in recent years for the movies made from her stories, most notably the well-received films of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.

In addition to her fiction, she wrote about her travels in Europe, around the Mediterranean, and in North Africa. Her discriminating eye and skill with a pen created books of great pleasure for the traveler.

Wharton wrote about traveling in Italy in a book entitled Italian Backgrounds where she says that, though the primary destinations found in guidebooks are most important and should be seen first, a greater intimacy with the country can be gained by seeing the secondary sites, the backgrounds.

She employs an analogy with early Renaissance religious paintings where the artist’s discretion is rather limited in his foreground by the conventional ways of presenting church figures. But Wharton says, in the backgrounds the artist is free to present everyday life and that it is there that the viewer sees candid depictions of Italian life and landscape.

In the book, Wharton details eight backgrounds including San Vivaldo in a chapter called, “A Tuscan Shrine.” Her trip to see it also began in Florence where she took a train heading south to Certaldo. There she hired an “archaic little carriage, with a coachman” and rode to San Gimignano. After a night in this multi-towered city, she continued by carriage for a four-hour ride to San Vivaldo.

Moving at the measured pace of her horse, Wharton gave as much close attention to the landscape as she would to the artwork at San Vivaldo. Looking out across the rolling hills she noted the orchards, the farmhouses with open loggias, how “young wheat runs like a green flame” on the lower slopes, and the effect of scattered groupings of cypresses. About these tall and slender trees she said that, because of their texture and dark color, they “acquire an extraordinary value against the neutral-tinted breadth of landscape; distributed with the sparing hand with which a practiced writer uses his exclamation-points.”

After the ascent into the hills in her carriage, Wharton arrived in the village from a southerly direction. We arrived from the north on the same road and together we turned on a lane that she portrayed “making a sudden twist, descended abruptly between mossy banks and brought us out on a grass-plot before a rectangular monastic building adjoining the church … here was San Vivaldo.”

The monastery was built on the site where Vivaldo Stricchi once lived in a hollow chestnut tree. After joining the Franciscans he became a hermit, chose the tree for his abode and so it remained for the years until his death in 1320. In the next few decades a chapel and a monastery were built on the site.

Another two hundred years would then elapse before San Vivaldo developed its special character. It was in the early sixteenth century, under the direction of Fra Tommaso di Firenze that chapel building began. One by one, the chapels, all with handsome exteriors and some with brightly frescoed walls inside, arose in the surrounding forest.

The site’s terra cotta work that Wharton sought had been insulated from critical attention for centuries by two factors. One was simply the remoteness of the location, exampled by Wharton’s two-day effort to get there from Florence.

The second insulating factor was that the sculptures had been attributed to a seventeenth century artist named Giovanni Gonnelli, known as Il Cieco di Gambassi, the blind man of Gambassi. Wharton surmises that Gonnelli, who was blind in only one eye, had probably done some restoration work from which the attribution to him evolved. Since critics had generally believed seventeenth century art unworthy of their attention – no effort had been made to even see the work.

Wharton, though, upon studying the sculptures, which mostly depict scenes from the Passion, strongly believed that they were created in an earlier century, perhaps by the Florentine school of the della Robbias.

We were able to see another group of three life-size figures in an elevated niche under the portico of the church. These, Wharton says, “are possibly by the artist of the Spasimo, representing Saint Roch, Saint Linus of Volterra, and one of the Fathers of the Church.” Saint Roch is protector from the plague and the church father is Saint Anthony of Egypt, a famous hermit.

Her conclusion was that the various sculptural factors “all seemed to point to the lingering influences of the fifteenth century.”

With her convictions firmly in place, Wharton hired a photographer to go to San Vivaldo and take images of the sculptures back to Professor Enrico Ridolfi, who at that time was the director of Royal Museums at Florence. Ridolfi studied the photos and confirmed her assessment of the age of the work.

A final insight for the traveler from Wharton – whose eye for detail found aesthetic pleasure wherever she traveled, particularly in Italy – is to appreciate the little things. Even small towns she enjoyed for specific architectural features such as the Alpine village of Tirano, “one of those unhistoried and unconsidered Italian towns which hold in reserve for the observant eye a treasure of quiet impressions.”

She relished fountains in a quiet square, wrought-iron balconies, and churches which time had melded with their surroundings.

As for our own trip to San Vivaldo, we spent a pleasurable hour roaming the grounds, peeking in where we could and having a lovely picnic. We dined on a table at the edge of the forest where tall pines defended us from the bright sun.

Most travel destinations improve us in one way or another, either adding to our store of knowledge or of aesthetic pleasures. Wharton reversed this process in San Vivaldo – she corrected the art history.

For once the traveler improved the destination.

The monastery of San Vivaldo has since established its own website, www.sanvivaldointoscana.com, with photos, historical information and visiting hours.

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