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Cover for the book The Usurer's Heart

The Usurer's Heart

Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni, and the Arena Chapel in Padua Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona
  • Copyright: 2008
  • Dimensions: 9 x 11
  • Page Count: 304 pages
  • Illustrations: 41 color/146 b&w illustrations/
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-03256-6
“A significant contribution to one of the most famous monuments in the history of art.”
“This is a valuable study that brings together a coherent, persuasive argument, a useful review of the literature, an amplification of sources, and stunning visual support.”
“These complex arguments are presented in a book whose format is most elegant, and the authors and the publisher are to be commended for organizing the text and images with the needs of the reader in mind.”
“No previous study has marshalled the evidence . . . so thoroughly and with such conviction. . . . [Derbes and Sandona] demonstrate a profound knowledge of late medieval writing, from the sermons of St. Anthony of Padua, to the theology of Thomas Aquinas, to secular literature and chronicles. This is a focused and tightly argued book; and the result is both convincing and compelling.”
“Written by distinguished scholars of medieval art and literature, [The Usurer’s Heart] benefits from an interdisciplinary approach, and the wealth of visual and verbal evidence presented makes a thorough and convincing case for the impact of the patron’s personal history on the chapel’s unique imagery. The clearly written prose is enhanced by an abundance of illustrations in black and white interleaved conveniently within the text, supplemented by high-quality color plates at the volume’s end.”
The Usurer’s Heart is an outstanding book that should be in every academic library in this country. It is beautifully illustrated, meticulously researched, thought-provoking, and challenging. That some readers, like this reviewer, may not accept every conclusion the authors draw is irrelevant; all readers will be enlightened by Derbes and Sandona’s interpretation of one of the most important works in the history of Western art.”

At the turn of the fourteenth century, Enrico Scrovegni constructed the most opulent palace that the city of Padua had seen, and he engaged the great Florentine painter, Giotto, to decorate the walls of his private chapel (1303–5). In that same decade, Dante consigned Enrico’s father, a notorious usurer, to the seventh circle of hell. The frescoes rank with Dante’s Divine Comedy as some of the great monuments of late medieval Italian culture, and yet much about the fresco program is incompletely understood.

Most traditional studies of the Arena Chapel have examined the frescoes as individual compositions, largely divorced from their original context, almost as if they were panels detached from an altarpiece and hung on a museum wall for the viewing pleasure of the connoisseur. Anne Derbes and Mark Sandona, in contrast, consider each image as part of an intricate network of visual and theological associations comparable to that of Dante’s poem. The authors show how this remarkable ensemble of paintings offers complex meanings, meanings shaped by several interested parties—patron, confessor, and painter.

The Usurer’s Heart pieces together new historical evidence on the chapel’s origins and describes the fresco program as, in part, an attempt to ameliorate the Scrovegni family’s reputation. It interprets the chapel’s fresco program and the chapel’s place in the heart of an ambitious and guilt-ridden moneylender.

Anne Derbes is Professor of Art and Co-Director of Honors at Hood College. Her previous books are Picturing the Passion in Late Medieval Italy: Narrative Painting, Franciscan Ideology, and the Levant (1996) and, with Mark Sandona, The Cambridge Companion to Giotto (2003).

Mark Sandona is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Hood College. He is co-editor, with Anne Derbes, of The Cambridge Companion to Giotto (2003).


List of Illustrations



1. A Family Chapel: Usury, Piety, and the Scrovegni in Late Medieval Padua

2. Judas and Mary: The Chancel Arch Antithesis

3. Past and Present: History as Metaphor

4. “This Is My Cleansing”: Figures of Penitence

Conclusion: Authors and Audiences



General Index

Index of Biblical Citations

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Painting in the Age of Giotto

A Historical Reevaluation
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Giotto's O

Narrative, Figuration, and Pictorial Ingenuity in the Arena Chapel