Narrative and allegory in the Genesis fresco cycle in the Chiostro Verde, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
McAlister, Amber Allison
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The Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister) at the Dominican convent of Sta. Maria Novella, Florence, is decorated with a monumental fresco cycle, forming a continuous narrative, spanning three walls. The thirty-six scenes are painted in terra verde (green earth) by Paolo Uccello and anonymous Florentine artists (ca. 1422-1439). The subject matter is drawn from the lives of the Patriarchs, namely, Adam, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob, with the notable exclusions of Joseph and Moses. The Chiostro Verde is the only narrative Genesis cycle known to have been painted in a Florentine cloister, and as such is of primary importance in the artistic history of Florence, cloister decoration, Genesis cycles, the use of terra verde, and the development of mendicant iconographies. The dissertation focuses on the iconography of the mural cycle, as well as questions of style, dating, context, and audience. In order to consider the cycle in its contemporary terms, it must be read as the product of two historical moments: 1348/49 when the commission was initiated, and ca. 1420-39, when the project was finally realized. The iconography is considered not only in relation to the history of art and patterns of patronage, but also in the context of the Dominican Order, the Church, and Florentine state politics during the long span, almost a century, between its gestation to its completion. Study of the cloister as physical and narrative spaces place the cycle in the context of the history of art, while consideration of the fraternal and communal spaces grounds the cycle in its specific Dominican context. In its function as fraternal space, the cycle speaks directly to the mission of the friars, likens them to the first Patriarchs, and reads as an allegory of the Dominican Order. The Chiostro Verde was also open to select laymen and visitors, and functions as a communal space. In this capacity, the narrative reminds viewers of the importance of the Dominicans, particularly those at Sta. Maria Novella, in the life of Florence and of the Church, and thus the cycle also becomes an allegory of Sta. Maria Novella.