Category Archives: history

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.


When in Umbria: From Spoleto to Norcia

Vallo di Nera

For our next outing, though we knew the 2016 earthquake damage would truncate our journey, we headed east. The prospect of mountainous countryside, dotted with hill towns, was the key enticement. Frescoes, at least theoretically, were also on offer, but, as we suspected, issues of access foiled our attempts to see them. Continue reading

When in Umbria: Assisi

Norberto Proietti, Il Ritorno di Francesco

Our initial decision was to give Assisi a miss, for forewarned is forearmed, as they say:

Be warned: this is the third most visited pilgrimage site in Italy (after St. Peter’s in Rome and Padre Pio’s shine in Puglia), meaning often impenetrable crowds in the main visitor hotspots. [Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria]

But, after viewing frescoes by Da Volterra in Rome, Fra Filippo Lippi in Spoleto, and Benozzo Gozzoli’s St. Francis cycle in Montefalco,  it seemed preposterous to miss out on Giotto’s* St. Francis cycle in St. Francis’s home town. We’re pleased to report that, while the streets were gently “peopled,” we didn’t encounter crowds. Continue reading

When in Umbria: Montefalco

Gozzoli, Preaching to the Birds & Blessing of Montefalco

The hill town of Montefalco is tiny (pop. 5,581), but that doesn’t prevent it from having a surfeit of spectacular art. As reported by the Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria: Continue reading

When in Umbria: Spoleto, Part 1

Spoleto Duomo bell tower

Chiesa San Gregorio Maggiore bell tower

After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, we decided on Spoleto as the base for a week in Umbria. We found what looked to be (and was indeed) a comfortable, reasonably-priced apartment with lots of light and even a terrace with a view. The owners, British expats Norma and Laurie, were bursting with excellent information and, where needed, gratefully appreciated assistance in getting around. But it was more than that: they truly made us feel we’d arrived at a home away from home. Continue reading