Centre professor turns interest in Florentine fresco into book


William R. Levin long has been interested in Allegory of Mercy, a 14th-century Florentine fresco. What started with dissertation work in 1976 and continued through a sabbatical from 1993-94 and another stint from 2000-01 has led to the publication of a book about the artwork. The tome is titled "The Allegory of Mercy at the Misericordia in Florence: Historiography, Context, Iconography and the Documentation of Confraternal Charity in the Trecento."

The Centre College professor of art history's book reflects his particular art history expertise: late medieval and renaissance art and architecture, and the relationship of art to historical and social events. The book analyzes the history surrounding Allegory of Mercy as well as the elements of the fresco itself.

"I like art on the cusp of medieval unreality and Renaissance reality," says Levin.

Mercy, in human form

The painting is a personification of the concept of mercy. It is a large allegorical figure, and female, Levin says.


"About 95 percent of the time, personifications are women," Levin notes.

The conical hat, or tau, is labeled "Mercy of the Lord." To the right of the figure are men; to the left, women. There are around 20 human figures in the fresco.

"They come from various walks of life ... although it's hard to be specific about who they represent," Levin explains. "They can be identified three ways: as the entire population of Florence that looks up and prays to Mercy; as members of the Misericordia organization; and as people who are recipients of Misericordia's charity and benefactors, members and non-members alike."

The cityscape at the bottom of the fresco is pointed to by a man in red. Mercy atop the cityscape displays "her protective aegis," Levin notes.

The central part of the fresco contains inscriptions from the Bible in Latin reflecting the notion of mercy. Within the orphreys, or circles, are names of what is represented in reference to the works of mercy, as they are mentioned in the book of Matthew. They include: clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, feed the hungry, welcome the traveler, visit the sick, and visit the imprisoned. A seventh, non-Biblical inscription is included in two orphreys: bury the dead.

"The theological tradition, over the Middle Ages, expanded the six works to seven," Levin says. "Seven pops up in Christian theology. The fact is, the historical Misericordia more and more became involved with the number seven."

Details in the border of Allegory of Mercy include other personified virtues.

Signs of the times

Levin says the theme of mercy in the fresco was a "product of the times."

"It's hard for us to understand - it's pretty peaceful in central Kentucky," Levin explains, then illustrates. "I read an article once that said the greatest disaster in human history was World War II. Second was the Black Death; third was World War I.

"Consider that the mid-14th century was a very devastating era, with continual warfare and disease. It's unimaginable. Wars cost money, and the financial stress was added to by the crop failures and famines."

So in light of all the troubles and the desire of the medieval society to be devout, "it was the right thing to do to help one another."

"The Misericordia was one of many philanthropic organizations," he notes.

Today, the Misericordia no longer primarily does works of mercy but rather is an ambulance service. The Misericordia's headquarters is located across the street from the baptistery and cathedral of Florence, Levin notes.

"Trecento" is how Italians say 1300, Levin says. "Misericordia" is the Italian and Latin word for mercy. The Misericordia was a confraternity, or organization, principally comprised of lay people with a few priests and nuns and members. The confraternity's had two primary functions, Levin says.

"They came together for group prayer, and the were committed to acts of charity," he explains.

But there has been some dispute about the Misericordia's philanthropic works, he adds. Levin found evidence of the organization's good works in archives in Florence. He pored over account books and wills from the 1300s and early 1400s that contained evidence of the Misericordia's good works "as laid out in the Bible," Levin adds.

The actual painter of Allegory of Mercy is anonymous, although scholars have pinpointed an assistant of Bernardo Daddi's as the creator of the piece. Daddi was a student of Giotto's, who is considered a cornerstone of modern art, Levin explains.

There is no documentation about the painting itself. Levin says evidence he found in the archives "established that the Misericordia provided shelter for children and help for the poor."

"A big problem was that things were falling apart then," he notes.

In his book, which was published in January, Levin discusses what other critics have said about the painting as well as presents his own conclusions about the artwork.

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