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.
We 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.
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.