Pinturicchio in Spello: a masterpiece that merits rediscovering in the heart of Umbria
We are in the heart of Italy, surrounded by rolling hills, groves of olive trees, roads that clamber around curves and other sights that constitute one of the most extraordinary landscapes in the peninsula – Umbria.
Dominated by the outline of Mount Subasio, Spello is located between the plain and hills and its character reflects both its Medieval and Renaissance history, a dual essence that has a compelling charm. Walking among the city’s defensive walls, narrow alleyways, mullioned windows, tower-houses, and finally, heading down one of its main streets, you will find Santa Maria Maggiore, the town’s most significant church.
If you enter it without reading up on it, by chance, you will find the masterpiece known as the Baglioni Chapel in the center, which will amaze you for two reasons. The first is the frescoes that decorate its walls, the second for the almost complete lack of information or promotion for one of the greatest, and yet most overlooked works from the Umbrian Renaissance.
The artist, Pinturicchio, was forgotten and underrated by art critics for centuries, beginning with the scathing opinion of Vasari and others, but later returned to favor, being studied and reviewed as one of the most important Italian painters of the period.
As is often the case, there is a rather complex story, full of scheming and intrigues, behind the story of the chapel’s commission.
Baglioni is the family dynasty that held control of Spello for the longest period of its history and who left the most tangible signs on the area.
Their power extended as far as Perugia. They were known for their differences with other families and the papacy, but the familial infighting was the greatest reason for its instability. The difficulties stemmed from their dominion over Spello, the capital of their fiefs, which extended over most of central Umbria. The tension amongst its factions came to a head on 14 July 1500, and was known as the Red Wedding. Several days after his marriage ceremony with Lavinia Colonna, Astorre Baglioni, a member of the main branch of the family, was killed, along with several other family members, by Grifonetto Baglioni, a member of the military branch of the family, who was in turn killed by his cousin Gentile. The survivors of the massacre were Gian Paolo and Troilo Baglioni, who decided to demonstrate to the city, the defeated branches of the family, and other ruling families the power and prestige of the victors through his chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
He decided to decorate a chapel in the church and to commission Pinturicchio for the work. The artist was returning to his native city from Rome where he had assisted Perugino in creating frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, and where he had gained particular fame for having decorated the apartment of Pope Alexander XI, or Rodrigo Borgia. Within one year, he had completed the fresco cycle in Santa Maria Maggiore.
More comfortable with painting walls and having an extremely organized nature, Pinturicchio made use of talented assistants who followed the master’s style.
The cycle contains three separate scenes: the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Dispute with the Doctors, while the vault shows the figures of the fours Sybils.
The Annunciation is shown on the left-hand side, with the traditional depiction of the Virgin welcoming the Angel. However, the frame is unique for its perspective marked by the repeating arches of the church, that continues into the garden and through a gate and relate popular stories from the town. Grotesque scenes developed in this period when, with the spirit of modern explorers, some artists, including Raphael, descended into the underground Domus Aurea and discovered, by the light of their torches, ancient decorations that they then reused in their own works. They were impressed by frames with geometric effects and braids and other stylized objects in the background. To the right, on one wall, inside a fake canvas, the artist included a self-portrait and signed it.
The Adoration of the Shepherds, in the center, was constructed as a sort of episodic story, where the space relates both a certain place and time. The salient moments are the Nativity, the Adoration of the Child as well as the foreshadowing of his sacrifice evident in certain symbols of the Passion borne by an angel. This backdrop also shows Pinturicchio’s formidable skill in rendering details. For example, a battle scene is depicted on a rocky ridge, probably a reference to the Baglione family massacre.
To the right is the Dispute with the Doctors. it is a crowded scene in the foreground, but becomes lighter and the architecture is decidedly utopian in the background, borrowing from Perugino’s work Delivery of the Keys in the Sistine Chapel. The building in the center has two niches with decorations and statues, clearly a reference by the painter to the splendor of ancient buildings.
Pinturicchio’s skill as a miniaturist, the illusionistic rendering of the canvas space, his love of details from nature, his interest in the study of the ancient world, reinforced by numerous archeological exploration of the Domus Aurea, are all evident throughout the cycle.
After admiring the frescoes, take a long walk around Spello, full of workshops, medieval ruins, olive oil mills, and other monuments in which you can immerge yourself in engaging and pleasant itineraries.