A Church of Small Miracles

Castiglion Fosco in the Umbrian countryside south of Panicale was bathed in late autumn sunshine when I visited this week with the long-suffering husband in tow once more in his capacity of photographer.  (I take truly terrible photos. He now knows more than he ever wanted to about Renaissance painting). This tiny hamlet, perched on a hilltop, was home to 750 people in 1410, according to the catasto returns, and in the late middle ages its tiny square must have been bustling and noisy.  On Monday afternoon the only sounds were those from the small gathering of men playing cards and smoking at a painted metal table outside the bar.

The village is best known, if it is known at all, for its striking round stone tower, completed in 1500, that testifies to the strategic importance this place once held. I had made the trip to look at a ‘Perugino School’ fresco in the church of Santa Croce at the centre of the village.  The church door, however, was firmly locked. A paper sellotaped to the door gave the telephone number for Don Fabrizio, who might be able to give access.  I phoned, and the number rang, but there was no response. Resigned to a wasted trip, we returned to the bar and ordered a coffee.  On the off-chance I asked the teenaged waitress if she knew if it was possible to visit the church. She considered me quietly for a moment, and I assumed that this would go no further.  Then she slipped outside and began a conversation with the card-players. Animated discussion ensued, until one participant pulled out his mobile phone and dialled a number, then handed the phone to the waitress.  We could hear her explaining that someone was asking to enter the church.  After a moment she came back to us and said that someone would arrive in dieci minuti. 

DSCN2784We finished our coffee and no more than five minutes later Ezio pulled up carrying the church keys and invited us in through the side door of the stone church that holds a series of small miracles.

A fifteenth century carved wooden figure of the crucified Christ is displayed surrounded by ex voto images that testify to its miraculous achievements. I was intrigued by one of its more practical attributes. The arms are hinged and removable so they can be detached to facilitate moving the figure for the Venerdi Santo procession. Such details make me think about the physical process of making such an object, and the conversations that must have taken place between maker and purchaser during its construction. “We will be able to take it down for Good Friday, right? You’re sure? It looks a tight fit.  How do we get the arms out?……”

Another wooden statue, this time of the Madonna and Child, stands serenely beaming to the left of the main altar. The aptly named Madonna del Sorriso  has reason to smile. Having stood in the church since the 1400s the figure was stolen in the late twentieth century. She was apparently lost for thirty years until she was spotted in a private museum near Milan by an art historian who grew up in Castiglion Fosco. She remembered the Madonna from childhood, and was able to secure her eventual return to her native village. Our guide, Ezio, had played his part in helping to identify the figure, and I would like to think that the Madonna helped to work her own miracle and make her way home.

And so to the fresco that I had made the trip to see.  This too seems to have made itself known in a miraculous way. The niche in which the fresco is held was entirely covered by a false wall that was destroyed, by accident, by workmen carrying out renovation in the church in 2008. According to Ezio, the builder bashed the wall and it crumbled away, revealing the niche and the fresco behind. The fresco has been restored and stabilised, although the right hand side is completely lost. It is clearly dated 1516, although frustratingly, the patron’s name is no longer fully legible along the lower edge of the painted scene. The composition, despite the abraided surface, retains the stillness and quietude of Perugino’s style.DSCN2785

Another small miracle will be needed to continue the restoration of the church.  When the outer roof tiles were replaced recently a band of sixteenth century frescoes running around the top of the walls, hidden when the vaulted ceiling was installed within the existing plain beamed and tiled roof,  was revealed.  A major donation of funds will be required to restore these frescoes and to make them accessible.

Oh – and is the fresco by Perugino? I’ll leave you to decide.





Paintings and prosecco: Bellini e i Belliani

To Conegliano, in the Veneto, at short notice to visit the exhibition Bellini e i Belliniani in the Palazzo Sarcinelli. Short notice, because I only realised it was happening a week before it was due to close.  But a 24 hour trip to the Veneto was never going to be a hardship, and the town of Conegliano is long on charm, and mercifully short on tourists. I was lucky enough to have the exhibition almost entirely to myself on a Saturday afternoon.
Many questions about the everyday functioning of the Renaissance painter’s workshop remain unanswered, and the curators of this exhibition in Conegliano set out in their introduction to the show an intention to address some of these questions by displaying together works by Bellini and by some of the artists dubbed his pupils, or followers.The artists of Venice are well outside the focus of my research, but the workings of the Renaissance workshop are highly relevant to an understanding of artistic production in Perugia at the close of the fifteenth century. In this period demand for art in the Umbrian towns was so high that numerous artists forged busy careers. The names of these artists, such as Berto di Giovanni and  Sinibaldo Ibi, are mostly unfamiliar today, but in the last decades of the fifteenth century these men operated thriving painting businesses and their skills were in great demand. In order to meet that demand they utilised designs, techniques and cartoons learned from Perugino, and produced numerous works that aped his style.
We know surprising little, however, about the detailed operation of artists’ workshops in the Renaissance. The existence of multiple paintings by different artists that are so similar as to appear to be ‘copies’ surely suggests collaboration. But what form did this take? Did pupils in a workshop copy finished works by the master, in order to hone their skills, and to produce paintings for less aesthetically demanding clients? Did the master lay out the designs and let the pupils do the ‘easy’ bits; returning to give it their finishing flourish? How do we even define who was a pupil, who a follower, or who should be dubbed ‘circle of’ a particular master painter? I went to Conegliano with hopes of learning something of how other scholars, focusing on other artists, are approaching these questions.
Bellini is perhaps the perfect subject for such an enquiry; so many versions of many of his works are still known today, and his influence was widespread and long-lasting.  And certainly the printed Guide to the exhibition raises crucial issues such as ‘How was work carried out in the bottega? With what instruments? And following what rules?’. In his essay in the printed catalogue Giandomenico Romanelli discusses the existence of Bellini’s scuola, and the manner in which more and less talented pupils ‘copied’ the master’s works.  Romanelli also makes the pertinent observation that pupils paid the master whose workshop they joined, and were not selected for their ability. As a result, their abilities and therefore the quality of the ‘copies’ they made, varied widely. However the exhibition itself, although beautifully hung, and lit, never gets to grips with these issues.
The highlight for me was the opportunity to view, side-by side, two versions of the Circumcision of Christ, both here attributed to Bellini’s pupil Marco Bello, although dated ten years apart. Reference is made to the almost identical painting of the same subject in the National Gallery in London, and the inclusion of a reproduction of this would have added impact to the exhibition’s claim to be focusing on issues of workshop production, and reproduction.  As it was I was able to pop into the NG the following day to remind myself just how similar their version (attributed simply to Workshop of Giovanni Bellini) actually is.
DSCN1982 Another glaring omission in the Palazzo Sarcinelli was surely the lack of any information from technical examination of the paintings. Modern methods such as infra red reflectology can reveal the underdrawing beneath the painted surface, and allow an understanding of how the composition was initially transferred to the panel. It was not clear whether this sort of examination has been undertaken. Without it, new understanding is limited.
What the display of the paintings together does do is to underline just how much there is still to be learned about the techniques used to make these duplicate images. The two versions of the Circumcision displayed here, and the one in the National Gallery, are dated at ten year intervals from each other. In our digital age we are so used to being able to call up in front of us any image we choose that it is easy to forget that the Renaissance artist was reliant on sight of the painting he wished to recreate, or on the use of a very detailed cartoon. In a pre-photographic era such precise reproduction is awe-inspiring.  In particular, it made me wonder just how  it was possible to make an exact copy a full decade after the first painting was completed, and had presumably left the workshop?
I left the exhibition buzzing with questions.  It was a treat to visit a show which stirs the intellectual curiosity. It would be nice to have had a few answers to contemplate as well. It did not quite get there.
Oh  – and did I mention that Conegliano is also the heart of the Prosecco region? Fortunately there was still time for an aperol spritz before dinner……

Face to face

One of the most frustrating things about studying Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century frescos is rarely being able to get really close-up.  I am usually straining my neck to look at img_4450something ten metres above me. ‘Art History Neck’ is a real affliction. Today I had the wonderful experience of seeing a fresco as the artist would have seen it as he worked on it.  The accidental accumulations of subsequent building projects have meant that floor level now in this early sixteenth century confraternity room in Perugia is probably just about at the height the artist would have had his scaffold to paint this serene and harmonious crucifixion. What a treat to be able to come face to face with this Magdalene. To appreciate, and to wonder, just how the artist was able to reproduce the folds of her white linen undershirt as they gather along the neckline so carefully that now, after five hundred years and a lot of damp and decay notwithstanding, they are as clear to me as if she was standing here. Which of course she almost certainly never was, because the speed required of the fresco painter meant that this wall must have been completed in a img_4431matter of days, rather than months. Studies for the figures must have been completed beforehand  and were ready for transfer to the surface before the artist* got on the scaffold to start work.

And just to continue my rant about Why Art History was never intended to be just for posh people; this was painted for a confraternity whose members ranged from shoemakers to wool merchants, and shopkeepers to stonemasons.  Art for everyone.

*The identity of the artist is still the subject of debate.



Why art history matters…..

I haven’t written anything on the campaign  that has been running in the UK to raise the profile of art history as a taught discipline. The prospect of the extinction of Art History A- level appeared, and then disappeared, at the end of 2016. I did not feel I had much to add – the arguments were already being made. After all, as Michael Baxandall, always ahead of his time, almost said in 1972; ‘Money is very important in History of Art’.  Not quite what he meant, I know; but it was no surprise when it turned out that money, rather than any pressing academic issue, was behind the exam board AQA deciding to drop the subject.No doubt Pearson are stepping into the breach because they believe there is money in it.

I am going to add my piece now purely because today, as happens intermittently, I see something which reminds me why I am an art historian.  Something that makes my soul leap, and moves me to tears.  Something that makes all those freezing mornings trying to make my camera work with numb fingers in ancient churches worthwhile. More of that in my next post.  But it also moved me to wonder why on earth the debate about the worth of art history is happening at all.

No-one, as far as I know, even in these straightened times, is suggesting that we ditch English Literature from schools – are they?  The subject may have been ‘dumbed down’ in recent years, but it’s still taken as a given that the study of our written culture is ‘A Good Thing’.  Can anyone explain to me why the study of our visual culture is any different? It has the same ability to inform us about the time, and the place, in which it was produced, and to teach us about ourselves, as human. When did Art History become a subject just for posh people? It didn’t start out that way. For hundreds of years art was the medium through which Church and State projected their view to the majority of the population. Elizabeth I was as careful with her reproduced image as Kim Kardashian. Wherever you stand on the ‘Art as books for the illiterate’ debate, it is clear that fresco cycles in medieval churches brought Christian texts and ideas to life for many in a pre-literate and pre-photographic age. Art enabled communication on a large scale to those who could not read. Art really was for everyone.

Why is it now only studied in private schools, when literature is on the National Curriculum?

There.  I knew I could get quite angry about that when I thought about it properly…….

A church-mouse in Spoleto

The period I work on in Umbria,(the end of the fifteenth and the start of the sixteenth centuries), saw a huge amount of money being spent on chapels and altarpieces in town churches. Commissioning documents repeatedly tell us that patrons were looking at what others had commissioned, and requesting that their work be similar, equal to, or ‘better’ in some way, than another.  There cannot have been much chance of quiet contemplation in any of these churches at this time.  They must have been alive with the sound of frames being hammered into place, of artists shouting at their assistants to bring paints and implements, and the rustle of parchment as notaries itemised the agreement between patron and artist.  All these things took place IN the church. The  proximity of trade and the Almighty, at a time when God was very much part of every-day life, was unremarkable.


We, the creatures of a secular age, have perversely assumed over-reverent hushed tones that we imagine to be the appropriate demeanour of the believer, as we creep about Italian churches in our quest to glimpse the masterpieces of this frenetic business of art production.


Last week I had the luxury of being almost the only tourist visiting the Duomo in Spoleto, in Umbria.  The main doors of the church were being revarnished, and so were flung open throughout the chilly, bright, December day.


Inside, three men in brown overalls took noisy measurements for a new lining for the font, while the decorators sang as they varnished.  Sunlight flooded into the church and illuminated the Lippi frescos in a way that the ubiquitous horror of the Italian church, the coin-in-the-box-spotlight, never does.  For a moment I had a glimpse of what it might have been like to have stood there at the end of the fifteenth century, when this was a place of business; as deals were being struck, careers being made, and as the daily grind of making things went on.   Baxandall’s “church-going businessman” felt close by my side.

Tactile textiles

Part of my Umbrian based research is on a type of textile known as ‘Perugia Towels’.  It’s a name which they seem to have acquired at the end of the nineteenth or the start of the twentieth century when they were collected by English and American antiquarians and it comes from a mistranslation of the Italian ‘Tovaglie Perugine’.   This, of course, strictly translated means ‘Perugian tablecloths’ ( the Italian word for towel being ‘asciugamano’) and  NOT ‘Perugia towels.’ One of those tricky Italian translations which my Italian teacher used to call ‘false friends’ – it looks easy enough to translate it as the word it sounds a bit like in English but it can lead down all sorts of wrong trails.  Believe me, I know, I have done it.  The one that always gets me is the Italian verb ‘controllare’……..no, not ‘to control’, in fact it means; ‘to check.’

Horses, Citta

Oddly enough it seems from the evidence of inventories and paintings that in the Renaissance household Tovaglie Perugine were in fact used as both tablecloths and towels, and in many rooms of the home; the dining room, the kitchen, the study and the bedroom. I love to have the chance to handle old textiles like this.  Objects used so closely by our Renaissance forbears seem to bring them alive to me as people with the same practical needs we all have.  The stains and worn patches these have accumulated over the years tell their own stories.

It was the patterns on the Tovaglie Perugine which made them popular with early collectors and which remain fascinating today, as my photos here give an idea of.  Some of those early collectors started to document the different types of patterns and these records themselves inadvertently reveal something else which hasn’t changed through the centuries.  A lot of the pieces which have survived are very small, and small pieces of the same patterns can be seen repeated in different collections.  The textile dealers selling these to the collectors must have cut up the cloths into small pieces in order to sell each piece separately.  An antique dealer can usually be relied upon to maximise returns!

Lions, Citta

I wonder if Renaissance dogs treated them in the same way as my dog with our tea towels…?


‘Wolf Hall’ – a sixteenth century ‘West Wing’?

I was so looking forward to the BBC production of ‘Wolf Hall’. Although it has already been reviewed just about everywhere I am going to dive in as well. When I was an undergraduate in the 1980’s I was fortunate enough to have been taught by the great JJ Scarisbrick at Warwick University.  It was his course, on England in the 1530’s, that first showed me how it was possible to tease out the real personalities from the dry remnants of lives left recorded in the archives. The student of this period is, of course, also blessed with the records of Chapuys, the Emperor’s ambassador; a gossip of a man who sent such detailed accounts back to his employer of both formal occasions, and chance encounters, that it is possible to get a real sense of the bitchiness and tension rife in the Tudor court.  It is from such accounts and from the factual recordings of comings and goings at the court that Hilary Mantel has pieced together a life of Cromwell, and the television production has remained true to her book.  The atmosphere in the hall where we are first given a glimpse of Anne Boleyn was thick with menace.  For me the most powerful scene was right at the end of the episode, when Cromwell meets Henry in the gardens.  Once his companions have left him alone with Cromwell, Henry, and the man who will become his closest aide,  size each other up.  This was conveyed beautifully; not so much in the words spoken, but rather in the pauses between them. This was a master class in acting up close, as the foundations for mutual respect were laid and conveyed through the smallest of facial expressions. The weak link, as it was in the book, for me, was the family scenes.  Even the tragedy which unfolded failed to move me, and it felt like something being relayed to us simply in order to explain why Cromwell became the man he did.  This is a small gripe though. I can’t wait to see these two actors, Ryland and Lewis, develop the characters in the coming weeks.  This is a ‘West Wing’ from the sixteenth century; reminding us that the big historical events are all made by people, and that the greasy pole has been around a long, long time.


Real life?

Firefly having breakfast!

I am researching part-time for my PhD. This means  I feel I have two lives: my 21st Century ‘real’ life, and my fifteenth century life in Umbria. This blog is going to be largely about the latter, but this morning the former has already entailed my trudging around a very muddy field feeding and mucking out for my three alpacas; Galliano, Razzamataz and Firefly. Knee deep in Kentish clay and mud, with the rain dribbling down my neck, and accompanied by two dogs whose secondary purpose in life is to collect as much mud on their bodies as possible in a short time (the first being entirely food-related), I was not feeling particularly intellectually inspired.

In a good week for my research, the fifteenth century starts to feel more real than the twenty-first. There is, however, plenty about our every-day lives which can contribute to a fuller understanding of the past. The current trend in historical and art historical research towards the recovery of a ‘lived experience’ (Lucy Worsley’s excellent programme  on the christening celebrations for Edward VI at Hampton Court is a first-class example of this) is all about trying to recover the physical detail of being there. And the physical reality of the weather loomed much larger in the fifteenth century than it does now.  Just one example………Raphael probably painted some of his works commissioned for Citta di Castello in the first years of the sixteenth century while he was actually in Perugia, some 55 kilometres south.  Just a short drive now – but more than a day on horseback, and several days for a large cart carrying the resulting three metre tall wooden altarpiece to be placed in the church. And that does not take into account the day that must have been spent wrapping it in something approaching waterproof, (animal skins?) and packing it with padding to prevent damage as the cart bumped along (sheeps wool?) A wet winter, such as the current one, in which the dirt roads would have been churned to

Piccolpasso Piante
Travel through the Umbrian countryside, depicted in Piccolpasso’s sixteenth century topography of Umbria.

mud by traffic, might have made the carriage of the altarpiece impossible for several months. All these things had, as they would now, an implication of time, and therefore cost. This tells us something about how much the patron wanted a particular artist to do the work, and also about how keen the artist was to undertake it.

Choosing an artist in Perugia in 1505

I am currently researching the choices made by Suor Battista, abbess of the Monteluce Convent, when, in 1505, she selected the artist Raphael to make an altarpiece for the high altar of her convent church in Perugia. Of course most of us, presented with the possibility of Raphael when casting about for an artist to take on a commission would not hesitate. Raphael’s tiny Conestabile Madonna, which he had just completed in 1505, probably for Suor Battista’s nephew, (it’s now in the Hermitage in St Petersburg), is one of those paintings that never fails to give you that shiver down the spine. (It’s my luxury item for Desert Island Discs, just in case anyone ever asks).  It you can’t get to St Petersburg then The Madonna of the Pinks in the National Gallery comes close. To my mind Raphael is just about as good as it gets.  But in 1505 Raphael wasn’t yet ‘Raphael – famous artist of the Renaissance’…….he was just another jobbing artist in Perugia, along with Perugino, Pintoricchio – who were much better known – and at least twenty more.  His greatest works were still to come.  Suor Battista may have seen the Conestabile Madonna and got that shiver down the spine, but a tiny Madonna and Child  was a long way from the sort of large altarpiece depicting the Assumption of the Virgin which she wanted for the church.

So what was Suor Battista looking for?  I am piecing together the possibilities open to her and the factors which might have influenced her decision.  She was a fascinating woman seems to have made a number of interesting artistic commissions for the Abbey and has left us a record of these through her entries in the Abbey Memoriale.As ever when carrying out historical research, it is that moment when the characters suddenly come to life across the space of the centuries that makes it so addictive. I can’t help feeling that there must have been some animated conversation about this commission in The Monteluce Convent of the Poor Clares.

Interdisciplinary Research

Adoration of the Magi; Eusebio di San GiorgioIn 2014 I was delighted to be awarded an AHRC funded studentship through the CHASE consortium for my research on Umbrian patrons. On Saturday, 15th November, the 2014 CHASE cohort attended the inaugural annual Encounters Conference at the Courtauld Institute. It was stimulating to see the breadth of research being carried out at the Universities involved in CHASE; East Anglia, Kent, Sussex, Essex, Goldsmiths College, The Courtauld, and the Open University. The theme of the day was Interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity has always been at the centre of what Sussex University is about, and has always been a subject close to my heart aswell.  As an art historian I am always trying to understand why an object looks the way it does, and to do this I have drawn on history (my first degree was in history) but also anthropology and sociology.  The difficulty comes with feeling sufficiently sure-footed in one of those other disciplines to read and reference theories with confidence.  This was a theme covered by Dr Maria Lauret at the conference, and it was reassuring to know that even senior academics feel the same!