How A Franciscan Friar Helped Bring A Botticelli Painting To Boston's MFA

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More than almost any other artist, Sandro Botticelli’s work embodies the luminous achievements of Renaissance Italy.

One of those paintings, "St. Augustine in his Study," usually hangs in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence. It was brought to Boston, for a big new Botticelli exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, with an unusual minder -- Brother David, a Franciscan friar.

"Saint Augustine in his Study," by Sandro Botticelli (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
"Saint Augustine in his Study," by Sandro Botticelli (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Brother David has been charged with keeping tabs on the thousands of works of art tucked away in churches large and small all over Tuscany.

The Unassuming Friar

Some of the churches are quite out of the way and must be reached by foot. For example, the San Francesco monastery sits on the top of a hill, with an amazing view of Florence and its famous Duomo in the Arno valley below.

It's here, among the frescoed corridors and sun-filled cloisters, that Brother David lives.

He looks every bit the figure of a friar, with a full dark beard too. He asks if it's OK if he doesn't wear the traditional habit. He explains that he doesn't always wear the distinctive brown habit of a friar, as he is often out of the monastery at his office in Florence. From there, he oversees the thousands of pieces of art in Tuscany’s Franciscan churches. He tracks what’s going out on loan, what’s getting restored and who unlocks the church doors for art-loving visitors.

However, he is not trained as an art historian.

"I study every time I have the possibility to do it," he says, "but my role is more technical. My job in the Tuscany region is to be the secretary of the province .... to coordinate with the ministries."

Brother David has always been involved in this type of work, he says. "Most of the convents we live in, they are cultural heritage," he explains. "When we live in a place, we have to know what our possessions [are] ... because it's part of our lives."

Brother David says the art historically belongs to the Franciscan Order, but after 1800, the Italian state declared that all things belonging to the church became part of the National Heritage. But for practical purposes, the paintings remain hanging inside the churches, like San Francesco.

Why The Monks Loan Art

Brother David says that while the art in the churches enriches the Franciscan Order in many ways, the brothers don't have the riches to maintain their historic buildings, let alone the paintings.

Brother David (Anna Bensted)
Brother David (Anna Bensted)

"We are mendicant orders, we don't possess much money or things," he says. "Normally we ask private individuals or foundations ... to help us."

He says that last summer, the daughter of the family associated with the coffee company Lavazza got married in one of their churches and she financed the restoration of part of the ceiling of the church.

Lending the art to museums like the MFA, says Brother David, is an important way of looking after the paintings -- a necessary complement to private philanthropy and modest state funding. The loans allow for restorations that otherwise would not get done. Sometimes a sort of bartering often takes place, whereby conservation is carried out — if not of the actual painting on loan, of other works for which the order is responsible.

Brother David was on hand at the MFA when one of the works he oversees, Botticelli's "St. Augustine in his Study," was unpacked from its crate.

"We want to spread in a certain way arts, but we also want to find a way of collaborating with people or other institutions to restore things," he says.

Botticelli's 'St. Augustine'

A few kilometers down the hill from San Francesco is another Franciscan church in Florence, called the Ognissanti. Brother David says it is "one of the most beautiful churches in Florence." It's also where the MFA's loaned Botticelli usually resides.

Inside the church, Brother David sits in a pew and looks at an exact copy of the painting to be on display at the MFA. The representation of St. Augustine is monumental — the white-haired saint, his gaze firmly upwards, is a large figure, robed in red, seated at his desk in a study lined with weighty-looking tomes.

"The painting was one of the most famous paintings of Botticelli," says Brother David. "It represents St. Augustine in his room where he studies." He also points out that the globe in the painting. The symbol, he says, means the Catholic theology "wants to speak with science."

"It's perhaps, for my opinion, it's one of the most beautiful [paintings]," he says.

There is added poignancy to that beauty, because of the artist's connection to Ognissanti. Not only did Botticelli live in the neighborhood, he is buried in a small chapel of the church. It was a wealthy local family, the Vespucci, who commissioned the painting from the artist.

That name may sound familiar: Amerigo Vespucci was the Italian explorer whose first name framed the great lands to which he journeyed, around 1500. Typically, families like the Vespucci, who commissioned paintings in the Italian Renaissance, would have wanted a symbol of their patronage in the work, to prove not just the faith, but their power too.

And true to form, above St. Augustine's head in the painting is a coat of arms, a shield, with tiny dots. Those dots, Brother David explains, are wasps. The reasoning comes from the surname of the family Vespucci; vespa is wasp. But for many they will recall the zippy Italian scooters, called Vespa. The sound they make — the "zzzzz" — resembles the wasp.

This segment aired on April 17, 2017.



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