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Spoleto (South Umbria)

Inside the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta

(built between the 1100 and 1500)

 

LINK TO PHOTOS OF THE CATHEDRAL FACADE AND AROUND SPOLETO

 

Plus a note on lapis lazuli and fresco painting techniques

 

Apse fresco cycle painted by Fra Filippo Lippi (c1406 - 1469 (63)), a painter who experienced an unusually eventful life.  He was captured by Moors whilst out boating and sold into African slavery, then later freed and returned to Italy where he became famous not just for his painting but for his long relationship with Lucrezia Buti (it was in fact Lorenzo de'Medici who quietly organized his unmonking).

 

A classically beautiful Annunciation on the left side (detail with faded lapis lazuli and transparent angel wings below)

 

 

and on the right side an equally beautiful lapis-less Nativity (detail below)

 

 

San Francesco and the Origin of Nativity Scenes

 

 

 

 

The idea of building Nativity Scenes at Christmas time each year was a relatively late arrival in the European Christian Church.  It is said that the practice was originated by Saint Francis in 1223 in a place called Greccio, which is just south of the Umbrian border, where live participants were involved in a recreation in a local cave.  The unlikely exactness of the date is due to San Bonaventura's "Life of Saint Francis", which was one of the most widely disseminated texts of the later middle ages.  Most of the sculptured stone scenes below predate the good San Francesco.

 

Today it is possible to walk the "Cammino di Francesco" (sic) - an 80 km circular hike around "the Sacred Valley" through beautiful south Umbrian countryside and medieval hamlets.  The route includes four of San Francesco's sanctuaries and is run from Rieti.  You can live the experience via DVD which can be bought via their website.

 

The fresco on the left is from Greccio and claims (but is unlikely) to be a contemporary portrait of Saint Francis.

 

 

 

 

Lapis lazuli and Renaissance fresco painting techniques

 

There were two basic ways of painting frescos - buon fresco and secco.

 

In buon fresco, the painter applied the paint to the intonaco - a layer of fresh still wet plaster.  The paint pigment was absorbed into the plaster, giving a reasonably thick layer of colour which did not need any additional binding agents to stay in place.  The painter had a window of just a few hours between the plaster beginning to dry and getting too dry.  Typically the plasterer and painter would agree on where and how much plaster to put up at the beginning of the day to ensure that there was enough but not too much in place.

 

In secco (dry) frescos, the painter applied the paint to dry plaster - a process which needed an additional binding agent such as egg (tempera) or glue and left only a thin layer of colour.  It was also a process which for obvious reasons needed much less pigment per square whatever, and so was attractive for the expensive pigment mixes.  The downside was the need for a binder, and in the longer run the risk (indeed certainty) of thin layers of pigment falling off.

 

It was possible (and indeed done) to undertake secco painting on a dried buon fresco job.  One of the situations which required this was the application of the deep blue which was traditionally used in the robes of the Virgin Mary.  The lapis lazuli required for this colour could only be found in Afghanistan and was both expensive, difficult to prepare, and spoilt by an alkaline wet plaster base.

 

So the Virgin's gear was usually painted secco, after the buon fresco had thoroughly dried.  This is what presumably happened in the Lippi fresco above and the Pinturicchio Madonna below.

 

Over time secco painting is much more prone to deterioration than buon fresco, because the pigment layer is much thinner and its adhesion to the plaster will deteriorate, whereas in buon fresco the pigment is in the plaster itself.  Which presumably is why the Virgin Mary has lost her blue gear here whilst most of the other colours are pretty vibrant.  You will also notice that poor old Gabriel has lost his wings - again probably down to secco, though not lapis.

 

Finally, it's worth remembering that obtaining pigments generally was not anything like popping down to the hardware shop and using a colour chart to get the right tin ...... every workshop and named painter had their own pigment supplier, who was more important in the scheme of things than others, because if he got it wrong the painter had to remove the plaster and start again at his own expense (as happened for example in the Sistine Chapel).  This also means that it is nowadays relatively easy to identify a painter by analyzing the pigments he used.

 

 

 

In the centre "the death of the Madonna" which includes a self portrait of the artist Fra Filippo Lippi (in the black hat below)

 

all surmounted by "the Coronation of the Virgin"

 

A little letter penned and signed by Saint Francis (1182 - 1226 (44)) to Brother Leo 800 years ago.  Spoleto was part of the "Umbrian Circuit" where Saint Francis hung out.  The only other example of the good Saint's letter writing is in his home town of Assisi.

 

MORE ABOUT SAINT FRANCIS

 

 

Madonna and Child by Pinturicchio (c1452 - 1513 (61)) in 1497 in the Eroli Chapel (detail below).  As explained above, the thin layer of lapis lazuli applied in secco style has not lasted the distance.   What Pinturicchio was capable of on the Madonna front  is clear from the Santa Maria dei Fossi Altarpiece below below.

 

 

 

 

Bust of Fra Filippo Lippi (1406 - 1469 (63)), by his son (by Lucrezia Buti) Filippino (1457 - 1504 (47)), over his tomb in Spoleto Cattedrale.  In the intervening years since 1469 the body in the tomb has gone walkabout.

 

 

This is part of Pinturicchio's Santa Maria dei Fossi Altarpiece (1496-98), now in the Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria in Perugia.  It's an oil painting rather than fresco, but it gives some idea of what decent lapis could look like, and how good Pinturicchio was at painting Madonnas.

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Memorial to Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) (1568 - 1623 - 1644 (76)) who had been made Cardinal Bishop of Spoleto in 1608, and who supervised the baroquing of the cathedral.  Nepotist par excellence (even by papal standards) and melter of the Pantheon doors (for the dome of Saint Peters), he also taxed heavily for military adventures with Cardinal Richelieu of France and against the Habsburgs.   Not one of your popular Popes, but he has a Bernini tomb in Saint Peters and the bust in this memorial is also by Bernini. 

 

 

Grotesque style painted border in the west chapel

 

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