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EARLY ‘INSTALLATION ART’
OF AN ITALIAN CONVENT:
A 4-DECADE CURATORIAL RECORD
BY METILDE BENVENUTI, NUN:
CUSTODIAN OF THE HOLY PRESEPIO
AT SAN GIMIGNANO IN TUSCANY

BENVENUTI, Metilde / [SAN GIMIGNANO]. . Libbro di memorie appartenenti al presepio. 1750. [San Gimignano], [1739-1770].

[17.4 x 12.7 cm], 8vo manuscript (1) f. with contemporary German engraving of the Holy Family affixed to verso of front flyleaf (see below), 37 pp., (1) p. blank verso, (23) ff. original blanks, (2) ff. table of contents, first page with manuscript headpiece of nomina sacra of Jesus and Mary and Sacred Heart in red and black ink and gold paper, leaves headed in red ink with “A. M. G” / “I. M. I.” (“Ad maiorem gloria / Jesus, Maria, Joseph”). Bound in contemporary vellum, title in manuscript on upper cover, three of four ties still intact. Only very minor rubbing to binding. Minor marginal glue toning to engraving, the manuscript neatly written, legible throughout and remarkably well preserved.

$7,850

Extraordinary, unpublished, autograph manuscript written by the Augustinian nun Metlide Benvenuti (d. 1772) detailing her custodianship of the devotional presepio – or sculptural ‘manger scene’ – housed at the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena in San Gimignano. Compiled over nearly four decades, between the years 1733 and 1770, the manuscript both provides a detailed record of how Benvenuti and her sisters tended to the material needs of this important symbolic artwork and offers a rare glimpse into how the presepio functioned in varied liturgical contexts, even serving as a link through which the cloistered nuns at Sta. Maria Maddalena connected with their male spiritual advisors and with the wider secular world.

Early autograph, first-person accounts on any topic deriving from female monastic contexts are rare, given that such documents were never produced in great quantities and that many of those that were produced on the Italian peninsula were lost during the widespread confiscation of church property and the suppression of monasteries and convents that followed both the Napoleonic invasion of 1797 and the rise of secular politics in Risorgimento Italy in the middle of the 19th century. Especially scarce are substantial accounts of nuns’ interactions with the artworks or material culture of their convents, and given that physical evidence of this material culture is itself vanishingly rare, written accounts such as Benvenuti’s manuscript are of vital importance in reconstructing the material-liturgical practices of such communities.

The presepio at Sta. Maria Maddalena consisted of a hut or small stable, a manger or crib, and separate, free-standing figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child, along with several accompanying angels. These figures apparently were somewhat under life-size, but rather larger than the baroque ‘figurines’ of nativity scenes becoming popular in southern Italy at the time. The sisters at Sta. M. Maddalena exercised a certain amount of creativity, even spontaneity in how they clothed, rearranged, and posed these figures in novel contexts. Made of wood, plaster, and papier-mâché and intended almost exclusively for the private use of cloistered nuns, these figures seem to have been unlike most surviving presepi (see below), which are made of stone or terracotta, had a more permanent position in a more ‘public’ setting, and often were valued as fine art even more than as devotional or liturgical aides.

In an inventory at the start of her account, Benvenuti records that the convent had 3 statues of the baby Jesus, one of which is normally used, one reserved for the Christmas season, and “un altro bambin Gesù,” and she similarly notes that there are every-day angels and special Christmas versions. There is but one sculpture of Joseph (although among his accessories are three different flowering rods). The Virgin’s wardrobe includes “4 dresses, 3 mantles, 3 wigs, 4 veils, 4 crowns, 3 belts: one of gold, one of silver, one of silk,” while the infant Jesus has various necklaces, bracelets, rings and diadems of silver and gold set with coral, pearls, and garnets, as well as a silk frock with a silver belt.

Benvenuti then makes year-by-year entries on which items arrived in the collection and which were culled from the collection, including, textiles, candlesticks, lamps, Venetian mirrors, devotional sacred hearts, artificial and natural flowers, and various clothing and jewelry for the figures, including ‘Turkish’ cloth. Through these passages we learn not only about the quality and cost of such items, but also about their buyers, sellers and donors. The sisters manage much of the upkeep of the presepio themselves, but Benvenuti readily commissions local artisans to do more challenging work, dutifully recording their names and the amount she paid them from the presepio’s endowment. Benvenuti herself provides the Virgin with a new blue-and-white dress, disposes of old and ragged clothes no longer deemed appropriate (e.g., “a veil which I threw on the fire”), and more than once renews old clothing by dyeing it. In 1741, she has one of the virgin’s wigs repaired (‘the one Sister Adelaide Marzo had made in Lucca’), and in 1742 she commissions a certain Antonio Franco Cantini of Florence to do some goldsmith work (there is a dispute over the bill). In 1744, she records payment to the carpenter Francesco Baroni for work on the presepio’s hut and crib and to Valentino Taccagni for painting these objects; Andrea Tonini of Florence, also a part of this crew, did his work pro bono. Benvenuti often mentions the need to raise funds from her fellow nuns, male clerics, and from laypeople.

Benvenuti is careful to record in detail the occasions when the presepio is used in liturgical events open to outsiders, when it is removed from its normal setting, or when the figures are rearranged in novel ways. During the Easter season of 1739, for example, the sisters remove the Virgin from the presepio, take her to the sacristy, place her on a table covered with a carpet, dress her all in black, and borrow a statue of the Dead Christ from the church (Gesù morto che sta in chiesa) to complete the ensemble; they leave the pair with lit candles at night and add vases of flowers during the day. The canon Niccolò Mostardini (also a noted local antiquarian) who is shown these “images,” is delighted, and arranges for the group to be transported to the chiesa esteriore (likely S. Agostino) to be displayed “to the adoration of the populace.” Benvenuti describes this procession, her leading the singing of Stabat Mater, the placement of the group in the church, the happiness of both the nuns and laypeople, the eventual dismantling of the group at the end of Easter season, and the final “return to the presepio of the Virgin and of the Dead Christ to his place.” The ritual is repeated at Easter of 1740, “but with more decorum than last year.” At the death of Lodovico Pandolfini, Bishop of Volterra, in 1743, she describes not just the (rather elaborate) roles of the presepio figures in the memorial service, but also records details of the musical arrangement, which begins with a concert for organ, basset horn, and two violins, and includes renditions of Ave Regina Celorum and Ave Maria Stella started by a cantor who is joined by ‘many voices accompanied by organ,’ among other pieces. In a later mass, Sister Rosa Constant Soldini sings a motet with accompaniment.

The volume is dated ‘1750’ on its cover and on its first page, but in both instances the final two numbers of this date show signs of early alteration, apparently having been changed from ‘1739.’ It is possible that in 1739 Benvenuti copied an earlier version of her presepio diary into this new book (although it is unclear why it was subsequently dated 1750). Benvenuti decorates the open pages of her volume with a manuscript headpiece depicting the sacred names of Jesus and Mary flanking an image of the Sacred Heart and with a contemporary German engraving of the Holy Family which is pasted on the first leaf of the book. To create the headpiece, Benvenuti used red ink and cut gilded paper, an interesting fact given that in 1739 she notes the purchase of carta dorata; it is possible that the paper used here is from that purchase. The engraving is by the Augsburg artist Johann Andreas Pfeffel the Younger (1715-68) and depicts a noted devotional painting of the Holy Family housed at a Clarissan convent in Oberkrain (Upper Carniola, in present-day Slovenia, probably the Convent of Poor Clares in Ljubljana). Benvenuti likely recognized in this image an affinity to the presepio figures at Sta. Maria Maddalena.

That the present manuscript was written entirely for the use of the nuns at the convent and not for wider dissemination is suggested both by the personal, devotional character of its decoration and by the fact the Benvenuti nowhere actually states the name of her convent, the monastic order to which she belongs, or even what town she lives in. The nuns’ male canons and confessors, however, can be traced to the area around San Gimignano, and Benvenuti’s mention of celebrating “La festa del Nostro Padre St. Agostino” hints at her Augustinian background and refers to the principal church of S. Agostino in San Gimignano. Archival research further records that in 1816 the Canon Giuseppe Mostardini had transported to S. Agostino “from the demolished church of S. M. Maddalena, many bones of nuns and the skeleton of the R. M. Matilda Benvenuti, native of Livorno, decease in 1772” (Cellini, p. 115). The final entry in Benvenuti’s presepio book is dated July 1770.

Founded in a former private residence in 1334, the convent of Sta. Maria Maddalena del Agostiniane Romite originally housed just 12 nuns, a number that, judging by Benvenuti’s naming of her sisters (fewer than 20 names over 37 years), could scarcely have been augmented by the 18th century. The convent was suppressed in 1786, stripped of its liturgical furniture, and “returned to a private dwelling as it had been at its origin” (Repetti, 48). It is presumably at this date that the presepio was lost, although already from the 1750s the presepio figures were showing signs of their age: Benvenuti records that Joseph’s hands were replaced in Lucca (“they were badly made and very old”), that the bambino’s face and hands were sent to be re-plastered and repainted, and that angels’ legs had to be rebuilt in papier-mâché (carta pesta).

The presepio as a liturgical form (and as an artform) is said to have been invented by St. Francis in 1223 to encourage popular devotion, but very few ‘interactive’ versions of this art have come down to us today. Although we cannot be sure what the figures of the presepio at Sta. Maria Maddalena truly looked like, or when they were first made, they seem to have been unlike the majority of surviving presepi, which either are stationary arrangements in stone or terracotta (and often associated with a rather prominent artist) or belong to the category of elaborate, baroque ‘figurine’ nativity scenes popularized around Naples during the very period that Benvenuti was tending her presepio at San Gimignano (e.g., the stone presepio of Arnolfo di Cambio at Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome [1291], the polychrome terracotta presepi of Santa Maria del Ponte in Tione deglo Abruzzi [by Satunino Gatti, 1512], at S. Giovanni in Carbonara [Pietro Alemanno, 1478], and at S. Francesco in Leonessa, or the stone presepio of the Antonio Rossellino [Metropolitan Museum, c. 1460]; ‘theatrical’ Neapolitan presepi are relatively common).


* L. Cellini, “Le inscrizioni del territorio Sangimagnese: II. Inscrizioni della Chiesa de S. Agostino in San Gimigano,” Miscellanea Storica della Valdelsa, vol. XXXVI, no. 2, series 105, pp. 103-23; E. Repetti, Dizionario geographico fifico della Toscana … Ducato di Lucca, vol. 5, pp 47-8; J.P. Lowe, Nuns’ Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.

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