When in Umbria: Spoleto, Part 2

Rocca Albornoziana, second courtyard

The Umbria portion of our travels ended with a final full day in Spoleto. Our first days in Spoleto had coincided with the Rocca Albornoziana closing days, though there was plenty to see looking out over its ramparts.

view over Spoleto from Rocca Albornoziana

This time, though, we were able to gain entry to its Museo Nazionale del Ducato di Spoleto and see the art on view.

Rocca Albornoziana

The Rocca has been repurposed more than once since it was built in the 14th C.

Not long after its completion, the Rocca became part-fortress, part-holiday home, with several popes staying over, most notably Julius II, sometimes accompanied by Michelangelo . . . . The fort’s main latter-day function (until 1982) was as a high-security prison; as many as five hundred prisoners were kept here by the papal authorities between 1817 and 1860 . . . . while more recent inmates included members of the Red Brigades and Pope John Paul II’s would-be assassin . . . [cite]

The Museo wall plaques include identification of each room’s prison-days use, and thus are several layers of Rocca history kept in view. The second courtyard (head of post), for example, previously served as the prison exercise yard.

We entered through an arched passage frescoed with images of “six towns in the papal domain.” [cite]

Spoleto was immediately recognizable by its Ponte delle Torri. Had we visited some of the other towns, we would have been able to identify them by centuries-old landmarks as well.

archway fresco of Spoleto

Other frescoes in the arch “were damaged by fires lit by guards, who sheltered on duty in the passage.” [cite]

The below is a detail from the sarcophagus of the Blessed Gregory I found attractive in its simplicity. I can’t pin down the story it depicts, but I don’t feel alone, as even identification of the Blessed Gregory seems to be in doubt.

sarcofago del Beato Gregorio (15 C, detail)

There seem to have been two men of this name:

✴One is known from a wooden sarcophagus that was documented in the Duomo in 1348.

✴The other was a Franciscan friar at San Francesco di Monteluco, where he died in 1473. [cite]

One could spend one’s life tracking down stories of the saints—and of course there are those who have done so.  I, however, contented myself with ad hoc investigations, like that into the martyrdom of St. Blaise, patron saint of throat ailments and English wool combers. [cite]

Martirio di san Biagio (12-13 C, detail)

I’ve not yet determined why he seems to have a tree growing from the neck of his severed head. Here’s the closest I’ve got so far:

Blaise was apparently forced to flee to the back country. There he lived as a hermit in solitude and prayer, but he made friends with the wild animals. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the amphitheater stumbled upon Blaise’s cave. They were first surprised and then frightened. The bishop was kneeling in prayer surrounded by patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears. [cite]

The hunters hauled him off to prison, where

Agricolaus, governor of Cappadocia, tried to persuade Blaise to sacrifice to pagan idols. The first time Blaise refused, he was beaten. The next time he was suspended from a tree and his flesh torn with iron combs or rakes. Finally, he was beheaded. [cite]

Paintings included various depictions of the crucifixion and deposition, including this one, in which I couldn’t help but see some resemblance to Nathan Lane.

Pittore spoletino, Christus patiens (1300 circa, detail)

Another intriguing investigation that awaited was attempting to identify coats of arms by the symbols they contained, like this with the Barberini bees,

Barberini coat of arms

this, with the Piccolomini half-moons,

Piccolomini coat of arms

and this, with the keys and papal tiara of the Holy See and Vatican City State.

coat of arms of the Holy See and Vatican City State

Here are the same symbols, surely telling a story, but not one I’ve been able to track down.

Rocca Albornoziana, fresco detail with papal tiara and keys

Also, in the Camera Pinta, were entirely secular frescoes. This one is of “a knight, who seems to be a fugitive, sleeps by a fountain, observed by a spy,” with subsequent frescoes continuing the narrative. Unlike so many of the sainted, the story contains no beheadings or combing skin with rakes, just a fight between two knights, “observed by a lady who seems to have been out hunting.” [cite]

Camera Pinta fresco

Palazzo Collicola

Traversing from old to new, our last “art stop” in Spoleto was a visit to the Palazzo Collicola.

The Collicola building was one of the most important aristocratic buildings in the city built between 1717 and 1730 by the Sienese architect Sebastiano Cipriani, known for a long career in Rome and central Italy. The residence of the noble Collicola family, the palace had illustrious guests over time, such as Carlo di Borbone (1734), Pope Pius VI (1782) and Carlo Emanuele IV, king of Sardinia (1801). [cite]

The juxtaposition of old and new was startling, ranging from the Gallery of Noble Hall, covered in 18th C tempera decoration

Gallery of Noble Hall (w/contemporary work on floor)

Sol LeWitt room

to a room painted entirely in the conceptual art of Sol LeWitt.

More interesting to me than the work of artists I know were those of Italian artists unknown to me and the accompanying invitation to speculate on visual commentary their work seemed to offer about art that had come before.

An entire room was devoted to Spoleto’s own Leoncillo Leonardi. Below is his Elementi per una serra [Elements for a Greenhouse] (1945-46).

Leoncillo Leonardi, Elementi per una serra (1945-46)

With the aid of Google translate, here’s a bit about his beginnings:

Third and last son of the dialect poet, guitarist and professor of drawing Fernando Leonardi and Giuseppina Magni, he remains an orphan of a father at the age of three. Rebellious and particularly unruly, at fifteen he was rejected for his conduct at the Technical Institute; by reaction he isolates himself and moves to the attic, closed in a rancorous silence. Here he begins to sculpt blocks of clay that his brother Lionello (1904 – 1999) brings him to comfort his solitude. It is not limited to modeling, but draws and becomes passionate about art history. [cite]

Elements for a Greenhouse seems to me to reflect that passion, as do his Cariatidi (1945-1946)

Leoncillo Leonardi, Cariatidi (1945-1946)

and Colonna (1946, detail).

Leoncillo Leonardi, Colonna (1946, detail)

During the period in which he created these works, Leonardi had signed on to the Fronte Nuovo delle Arti. Again with the help of Google translate:

“Fronte Nuovo delle Arti” was founded in September-October 1946 with the name Nuova Secessione Artistica Italiana (New Italian Artistic Secession). The first manifesto was published on 1 October 1946 in Venice. . . . Later on, Guttuso proposed to change the name of the movement to Fronte Nuovo delle Arti.

The reasoning for this group of artists and critics to develop the ideas leading to the formation of the Fronte was to go beyond the positions of the movement Novecento italiano. [cite]

(Novocento Italiano “was an Italian artistic movement founded in Milan in 1922 to create an art based on the rhetoric of the Fascism of Mussolini.”) [cite]  An amusing side-note to the Fronte Manifesto is this:

It suffers from the lengthy, serpentine phrasing that often marks Italian art theory and criticism. Nearly two-thirds of the text is taken up by the first sentence, which twists itself around clauses in a rhetorical slalom that threatens any potential for making a strong, comprehensible statement. [cite, p. 59]

With reference points entirely different from those of Leonardi, Fausto Melotti was represented, among other works, by Insonnia (1984).

Fausto Melotti, Insonnia (1984)

Melotti first studied mathematics and physics before graduating with a doctorate in electro-technical engineering in 1920. Soon after, he became interested in art and architecture.

During much of World War II, Melotti lived in Rome. He returned to Milan in 1943 to find that bombs had destroyed his studio. . . . he installed a muffle kiln in 1943 in his studio in Milan and began making figurative ceramics and small terra-cotta figurines. Melotti made his first Teatrini, Solo coi cerchi (Alone with Circles), in 1944. These Teatrini represent miniature “theaters,” small and condensed worlds that use abstract and figurative elements to convey narratives. . . .

In the late 1950s, Melotti began adding delicate metal motifs to his Teatrini, which soon evolved into separate, free-standing sculptures. . . . these works also add identifiable figurative motifs to the vocabulary of abstract forms. . . . He has brought the mysterious and wonderful tales of the Teatrini into his delicate metal sculptures, fusing his love for geometric and musical harmony with his penchant for enchanting story-telling. [cite]

Mario Schifano, in Faminio (2015) & Le palazzine di Roma (2016), seemed to have another mission—the desire to counter Rome’s storied architectural history with the quotidian present.

Mario Schifano, Faminio (2015) & Le palazzine di Roma (2016)

Similarly, for a Rome replete with ancient statues, Schifano’s offering, in Sacchi/Sacco (2014-17), is sacks—an oblique reference, perhaps, to the Sack of Rome?

Mario Schifano, Sacchi/Sacco (2014-17)

In Roma, Roman artist Andrea Pacanowski captures his city by means of yet another set of referents.

Andrea Pacanowski, Roma

The next day, we headed back to Rome for the last of our Italian sojourn. We had fomented a plan we hoped would release us from the shackles of logistical struggles and set us free to enjoy Rome. It remained an open question whether the plan would work. (Spoiler alert: it did, but that’s for another post.)

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Listening List

Gian Carlo Menotti’s now 60+-year-old Festival dei Due Mondi revived Spoleto, so it seems only fitting—and also befitting of the season—to offer a piece by Menotti. Herewith, then, is his Amahl and the Night Visitors – Suite (1951)


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

6 thoughts on “When in Umbria: Spoleto, Part 2

  1. Steve Schwartzman

    Your mention of Beato Gregorio reminds me that Jack Kerouac, who grew up with Canuck French as well as English, liked to draw a parallel between French béat, the cognate of Italian beato, and the so-called Beat Generation of which he was a main exemplar.

    As for “the lengthy, serpentine phrasing that often marks Italian art theory,” that kind of writing afflicts not just Italian art theory nor anyone else’s art theory, but much academic writing in all disciplines. You know the gambit: if you don’t have much to say, say it obscurely.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Kerouac, a Renaissance man in his own way, eh? And I laughed out loud at your academic maxim: “if you don’t have much to say, say it obscurely.”

  2. David Nice

    Looks like you made the best of some rather weird collections… Have you come across Amahl and the Night Visitors in the States? It’s hardly ever done here, and I’ve just missed a performance at St John’s Smith Square accompanied by two pianos.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I think I saw Amahl when it was on TV here many, many moons ago. I haven’t come across a live performance, though I may easily have missed spotting one. As for the art on exhibit in Spoleto (and elsewhere in Umbria), my “beginner’s mind” found it all interesting in one way or another. Beyond the art itself, which was indeed a mixed bag, the context, including the architectural surround, was interesting, and with the early art, there’s certainly plenty of iconography and history to explore (if desired).

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