Born around 1325, the painter Andrea di Bonaiuto survived the bubonic plague which swept through Florence in 1348 and worked in Pisa and Florence until his death in 1379. Relatively few archival records of his life remain, and he signed and dated virtually none of his works. However, his most significant achievement, the fresco cycle in the chapterhouse of Santa Maria Novella (for which documents do survive), serves as one of the great artistic triumphs of the Trecento, and provides important insights into Florentine religious life.
Andrea entered the Florentine Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries in 1346 and, beginning in 1351, lived in the quarter of Santa Maria Novella that was named for the great basilica of the Dominican Order. His work bears resemblance to that of Nardo di Cione (ca. 1320-1365), another Florentine artist with whom he may have apprenticed. Andrea left Florence in 1355 to work in Pisa for roughly ten years. When he returned in 1365, he received the commission to decorate the walls of Santa Maria Novella’s chapterhouse, now known as the Spanish Chapel. In return for his work, Zanobi Guasconi, the prior of Santa Maria Novella at the time, granted Andrea and his wife a house valued at sixty-five florins (the modern equivalent of roughly $130,000). Andrea’s contract stated that he complete the project within a period of two years, beginning on January 1, 1366, and he appears to have honored this stipulation.
The Dominican chapterhouse served as one of the focal points of daily Dominican life and ritual. Many liturgical and ceremonial functions took place there, as well as the day-to-day administration of the chapter. Upon the arrivals of prominent visitors, the Dominicans would have guided their guests first to the chapterhouse, the center of their organization. Thus, the pictures that decorated the chapterhouse would have been seen by the Dominicans on a daily basis and would represent their chapter to visitors.
Although one of the Dominicans probably devised the mural cycle’s sophisticated program, their decision to commission Andrea for the chapterhouse decorations demonstrates their esteem for him and his work. Scenes from the Passion of Christ make up the cycle’s central image, with images of the Way to Calvary, the Crucifixion, and the Harrowing of Hell covering the north wall of the chapel. Other images such as the Via Veritatis depict Saints Dominic, Peter Martyr, and Thomas Aquinas celebrating the intellectual and spiritual triumphs of the Order. In the same year he received the chapterhouse commission, civic leaders in Florence appointed Andrea to a committee tasked with designing the dome for Florence’s cathedral. He served as a committee member for two years until 1367, and the representation of the domed cathedral in the Via Veritatis surely reflects his own conception of how that cupola ought to have looked.
Andrea spent brief periods of the next ten years working in both Orvieto and Pisa. Upon his death in 1379, he left behind only a meager sum for his widow and child, suggesting that Andrea’s expenses largely outpaced his revenues. Despite the rather quiet end to his career, Andrea’s frescos on the walls of Santa Maria Novella’s chapterhouse document Dominican identity, preserve examples of their particular world view, and present their take on larger issues of Christian ideology. These images stand as some of western Europe’s most important achievements of late fourteenth-century painting.
Bent, George. “Andrea Di Bonaiuto.” In Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher Kleinhenz, 33-34. Vol. 1, 2. New York, London: Routledge, 2004.
Gardner, Julian. Patrons, Painters, and Saints: Studies in Medieval Italian Painting. Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain: Variorum, 1993, 107-29.
Polzer, Joseph. “Andrea Di Bonaiuto’s Via Veritatis and Dominican Thought in Late Medieval Italy.” The Art Bulletin 77, no. 2 (1995): 263-89.