When in Umbria: Spello

Marcantonio Grecchi, Madonna con Bambino, San Felice Vescovo e il Beato Andrea Caccioli (17 C, detail)

More frescoes, specifically “Pinturicchio’s superlative frescoes in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore,” awaited us at the hill town of Spello . . . or so we thought. [cite] Vasari didn’t think much of Pinturicchio’s work:

It pleases [Fortune] to exalt by her favour certain men who would never be known through their own merit; which is seen in Pinturicchio of Perugia, who, although he made many works and was assisted by various helpers, nevertheless had a much greater name than his works deserved. [cite]

Of frescoes that likely include those in Spello, Vasari wrote:

This master made an infinite number of other works throughout all Italy, which, since they are of no great excellence, and wrought in a superficial manner, I will pass over in silence. [cite]

As often happens, Vasari’s dim view of Pintoricchio was subsequently revised:

Vasari, of course, tended to denigrate anything that did not emanate from Florence. But in the case of the Perugian-born Pintoricchio, he was especially negative, and omitted, for example, any mention of the artist’s impressive frescoes at Spello, a hilltop town near Perugia. . . . Pintoricchio was the “third man” of the trio of major artists that emerged from this region during this period – the others being Perugino and Raphael – but has long been the least appreciated .. . . Pintoricchio’s painting, in contrast to that of Perugino and Raphael, is marked by an extraordinary close attention to detail – from fabrics and costume accessories to everyday domestic objects and landscape – rendered with consummate skill. [cite]

Pinturicchio, Annunciation (1501)

I would have liked to see for myself, but alas, on arrival in Spello, we found the church doors closed and locked, and it turned out there’d been no forewarning, nor was there any indication when the church might open again.

This led us to the neighboring Pinacoteca Civica Diocesana, which we otherwise might have skipped. We encountered there a series of Madonna and child paintings set out side-by-side, bringing into bold relief, even for the uninitiated, the variety of depictions and styles.

Here’s the one we saw on entering the gallery:

Madonna con il Bambino (date unk.)

Here’s another, from the 15th century:

Madonna in trono con il Bambino (15 C)

And yet another from the 16th century:

Andrea d’Assisi detto l’Ingego (?), Madonna con il Bambino (16 C)

d’Assisi (16 C, detail)

Madonna and child paintings abounded throughout, including one with St. Jerome (who was quite the scholar) reading,

and St. Bernadino (who, on looking into him, doesn’t seem such a swell guy), holding what I think is the IHS monogram.

d’Assisi (16 C, detail)


Bernardino’s legacy was far from benign: of fanatical moralizing temperament, he preached fiery, intransigent sermons against many classes of people. His sermons were riddled with ostensible anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia. . . . He thus became a major exponent of what historian Robert Moore has called “the persecuting society” of late medieval Christian Europe. [cite]

In another Madonna and child painting, by Marcantonio Grecchi, the pair is flanked by San Felice Vescovo, Spello’s patron saint, and Il Beato Andrea Caccioli.

Marcantonio Grecchi, Madonna con Bambino, San Felice Vescovo e il Beato Andrea Caccioli (17 C)

They are depicted presenting a miniature of Spello (see image at the head of the post), in which “most of the buildings are still recognizable: the roman walls; the Consolare roman arch; the Santa Maggiore church,” to the Madonna for her blessing. [from wall plaque accompanying the painting]

There is also a suitably gory St. Barbara, who was beheaded by her father:

Lorenzo Doni (attrib.), Stendardo processionale, Martiro di Santa Barbara (16 C, detail)

A couple of paintings strongly feature rosaries.

The cult of the rosary is dated back to the XIII century: during the crusade against the Albigensians the Virgin Mary appeared to Saint Domenico and she gave him a rosary as a present and told him to recite it. . . . the iconography of the Virgin Mary giving Saint Domenico the rosary appeared only at the end of the XVI century and it was particularly encouraged by the Counter-Reformation to contrast the Protestantism. [wall plaque accompanying the painting]

Here’s a detail, with rosary, from Noël Quillerier’s L’Immacolata e santi Caterina, Francesco e committente (David Dominici):

Noël Quillerier, Immaculate Conception (17 C, detail)

I was struck, throughout, by the facial expressions. Here’s St. Anne, looking a bit weary:

Madonna con il Bambino e i Santi (16 C, detail)

And here’s a group sheltering under the Madonna’s cloak:

Madonna della Misericordia (18 C, detail)

Among the most curious was this:

Ascensidonio Spacca, Madonna del Rosario (16 C, detail)

I’m going to guess the portrait is of Pope Pius V (but don’t hesitate to say otherwise):

In 1571, Pope St. Pius V organized a coalition of forces from Spain and smaller Christian kingdoms, republics and military orders, to rescue Christian outposts in Cyprus, particularly the Venetian outpost at Famagusta which, however, surrendered after a long siege on August 1 before the Christian forces set sail. On October 7, 1571, the Holy League, a coalition of southern European Catholic maritime states, sailed from Messina, Sicily, and met a powerful Ottoman fleet in the Battle of Lepanto. Knowing that the Christian forces were at a distinct materiel disadvantage, the holy pontiff, Pope Pius V, called for all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory, and led a rosary procession in Rome. [cite]

In addition to our tour of the Pinacoteca, we strolled around the town, stopping for cappuccino near the Porta Consulare, “with an ancient olive tree growing from its crumbling upper reaches.” [cite]

Porta Consolare

We spotted a woman walking with big bunches of flowers:

Along the way, we learned that Spello is the home of Norberto Proietti, and we happened on a copy of his Il Ritorno di Francesco, which we’d seen in Assisi.

Finally, before heading back to Spoleto, we climbed up to the Porta Venere:

Porta Venere

and beyond to the Porta dell’ Arce, the highest point in Spello.

Porta dell’ Arce

[For more on Spello’s Roman wall and gates, click here.]

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Listening List

 Mildred Couper, Xanadu (1930)

Casting around for music for the post, I happened upon Mildred Couper (1887-1974), who, with Charles Ives, was “one of the first musicians to experiment with quarter-tone music.” [cite]

She moved to California in 1927 and established a studio in Santa Barbara* where she started her quartertone experiments, the first work in this medium being a ballet, Xanadu, (1930). She was a friend of composers Igor Stravinsky, Henry Cowell, and Harry Partch, who dubbed her the “Fairy Godmother of his Chromatic Organ.” [cite]

Couper wrote of the work:

The Drama Branch of the Community Arts Association, under the direction of Irving Pichel, produced a series of plays at the Lobero Theatre, with casts selected from a wide range of social groups. For example, you might find a milkman, a plumber, a musician, an artist, and a member of a prominent family putting on a successful production together. When Pichel decided to produce “Marco Millions” he asked me to compose the music. Having heard some quarter-tone music in a New York recital [by Charles Ives] I decided that this system would be appropriate for the Oriental setting of the play. . . .

Let me explain how I produced quarter-tone music; the smallest interval on the piano is a half-tone. There are 12 half-tones within the octave; in order to get 24 quarter-tones I used two pianos and had the tuner raise the second piano by a quarter-tone, so that a chromatic scale played alternately, note by note, from one piano to the other produced the ultra-chromatic scale. “Marco Millions” went over with a bang and I received expressions of appreciation from many sources for the music. [cite]

*Thus did Santa Barbara, named as it is after St. Barbara, provide a musical connection to my Spello post.


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The source for the image of Pinturicchio’s Annunciation may be found here. The remainder of the photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.


6 thoughts on “When in Umbria: Spello

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: So pleased to know that! they are also new to me. It’s been quite interesting to learn more about them and the history surrounding them as I go through the photos and choose what to post.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Indeed, that is one of many interesting lessons that can be drawn from looking at so many depictions of Madonna/Bambino side-by-side in close proximity. I found particularly the Andrea d’Assisi (or at least attributed to him) Madonna/Bambino well-balanced and appealing, though I also enjoyed seeing the variety of efforts. Hard to believe, in a couple instances, that the works were from the same century. For example, the one with St. Anne seemed particularly primitive, yet it was created in the same century as the d’Assisi I liked. It would be interesting to know what led the museum curators to make their choices of what to include in the collection and what to display.

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