By: Amy Fredrickson
On August 5, 1505, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), known as “Il Sodoma,” began working on frescoes in Monte Oliveto Maggiore, near Siena. Over the course of three years, from 1505 to 1508, Il Sodoma completed twenty-six frescos depicting Saint Benedict’s life. Before Sodoma’s arrival, Luca Signorelli began the first nine episodes of the fresco cycle. It is unknown why Signorelli left the cloister in 1499; however, a contract from April of that year may prove that he started working in Orvieto. Another unanswered question is why Signorelli began painting frescos depicting the second half of Saint Benedict’s life, and not the first.
Nevertheless, Il Sodoma started the first part of the cycle, after Signorelli’s departure. The thematic elements of the frescos derived directly from Pope Gregory I, or “Gregory the Great’s” Dialogues from approximately 593-94; however, the frescos stylistic and iconographic qualities are a representation of Il Sodoma’s inclusion of the humanist ideas flourishing during the High Renaissance. Il Sodoma’s iconographical choices show elements of Leon Battista Alberti’s (1404-1472) De Pictura, which called on artists to turn towards antiquity for inspiration. Humanists sought models in literature, philosophy, and history, which is evident in Il Sodoma’s frescoes. In Rome, humanism flourished with the re-establishment of the papacy, and Alberti’s publication transformed the concept of artists as craftsmen to educated artisans. He called for artists to incorporate variety, composition, and history within their oeuvre, which Il Sodoma answered within the Monte Oliveto Maggiore fresco cycle.
Alberti mentions immortalizing oneself in his writings, which Il Sodoma’s does within How Benedict Repairs a Broken Colander through Prayer. He included his self-portrait and he portrayed himself in ornate Renaissance dress. The fresco cycles include several examples of scenes set within classical architecture, which is a clear use of mathematical perspective. Il Sodoma’s Benedict Founds Twelve Monasteries is a representation of figures in naturalistic positions, and set within a carefully executed architectural setting.
In Benedict Sends away the Harlots, Il Sodoma represents two different groups of people, set in antique architecture. The setting and portrayal of the figures ties into Alberti’s idea of variety in composition, as well as the study of the human body in movement. To answer Alberti’s call to show movement, he represented some of the female figures in contrapposto.
The choice of the iconography applied to the monks daily life, and the artwork itself shows Il Sodoma’s interpretation of humanism in painting. The Life of Saint Benedict reminded monastery residents of the miracles of Saint Benedict, which exemplified his moralistic acts, that the monks should contemplate everyday. Signorelli and Il Sodoma produced what is considered by some scholars as the most significant and comprehensive production of the Life of Saint Benedict.
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Life of St Benedict, Benedict Leaves His Parent’s House, 1505-08, Fresco, Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore
Life of St Benedict, Benedict Repairs a Broken Colander through Prayer, 1505-08, Fresco, Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore
Life of St Benedict, Benedict Repairs a Broken Colander through Prayer (detail), 1505-08, Fresco, Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore
Life of St Benedict, Benedict Founds Twelve Monasteries, 1505-08, Fresco, Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore
Life of St Benedict, Benedict Sends away the Harlots, 1505-08, Fresco, Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore
Life of St Benedict, Benedict Sends away the Harlots (detail), 1505-08, Fresco, Abbazia, Monteoliveto Maggiore