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More Catholic than Rome: Art and Lay Spirituality at Venice's Scuola di S. Fantin, 1562-1605


This dissertation explores the art patronage of a small group of devout Venetian laymen across five decades up to the papal Interdict of Venice in 1606-1607. It takes a new approach to, and offers new perspectives on, this crucial but largely neglected moment in the city's cultural history. Authorized by the state to provide spiritual comfort and assistance to prisoners condemned to death, the Scuola di S. Fantin played a pivotal role in both the city's religious life and its criminal justice system. Public execution was a highly choreographed rite with profound political and theological meaning. By repositioning the brutal rite of punishment within the context of Christian forgiveness, charity, and salvation, the Scuola sought to turn this spectacle of violence into an opportunity for spiritual transformation for its members, the condemned, and the broader community. The confraternity's meeting house was built and decorated between 1562 and 1605, a period marked by increasing antagonism between the Venetian Republic and the Papacy, and by the ongoing struggle between Catholic orthodoxy and Protestant theology.

This study of the building and its decoration employs the methodologies of art history, ritual studies, anthropology, and cultural history to offer a multi-faceted case study on Venetian art, ritual, and devotion. The themes and issues analyzed include: the interplay between local visual traditions, lay devotional practices, and the new aesthetic and doctrinal demands of the Catholic Reformation; the artistic expression of Catholic orthodoxy in a city at odds with the Roman Church; the defense of contested religious doctrines (especially Purgatory and Indulgences) in treatises and in the visual arts; and the use of images to ease the tension between state-sanctioned violence and the moral imperatives of Christianity. Ultimately, this dissertation shows how the members of one confraternity used art and ritual to present themselves and their city as embodiments of orthodox Catholicism, civic piety, and patriotism in a period fraught with religious and political conflict.

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