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.


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