“Stand by your man”: Caterina Lupi, wife of Bonifacio. Artistic patronage beyond the deathbed in late medieval Padua
By Louise Bourdua
Venice and the Veneto during the Renaissance: the Legacy of Benjamin Kohl, edited by Michael Knapton, John E. Law, Alison A. Smith (Florence: Firenze University Press, 2014)
The chapel of St. James situated opposite the shrine of St. Anthony of Padua in his eponymous basilica in Padua has received a fair deal of attention in recent years. We can safely say that it was a collaborative venture in many ways, from the authorship of its frescoes (Altichiero and Avanzo), its architecture and sculpture (Andriolo de’ Santi, his son and extended family), and its patronage, even though the commission has been described in the not too distant past as the “Chapel of Bonifacio Lupi”.
The chance discovery of a document, some years ago led to the conclusion that the initial foundation was a more complex affair, which owed much to the relationship between the Lupi and their relations on Bonifacio’s mother’s side, the Rossi family. More recently, I have argued that the Franciscan friars could not be removed from the equation particularly with regards to the choice of the titular saint. In this essay, I wish to turn to the most neglected collaborator until now, Caterina di Staggia, wife of Bonifacio.
The narrative scenes depicting christological and Jamesian stories were among the first to include portraits of contemporary and recently deceased men among the saints and other protagonists, and Caterina has occasionally been credited as a participant. Everyone agrees that Bonifacio Lupi must be the bearded man sporting a helmet bearing the word “AMOR”, who appears at the bottom right of a council meeting presided by a monarch located on the east wall of the chapel.The problem arises with the identification of the figure to his right, who looks at the observer and is painted in three-quarter profile with fine features and long eyelashes. Diana Norman was reluctant to accept suggestions that this may well be Caterina for, as she argued, how could a woman have been depicted “within the overtly male context of a council”?
Later, Alessandra Sibilia contested the, until then, accepted depiction of Caterina as the devotee kneeling next to St. Catherine flanking the enthroned Virgin and Child with Sts James and Bonifacio on her other side. This was on account of the cloak worn by St. Catherine’s protégé, which in her view could only have been worn by a man. John Richards, on the other hand, has identified the pilgrims in two other narratives as the disguised Bonifacio and Caterina, and reminded us that fourteenth-century painting in Padua frequently mixed reality with fiction. Thus, if Petrarch could make guest appearances in Padua fresco cycles after his death including the Council scene in St. James’, why could not Caterina, the patron, during her lifetime?