Monday, September 16, 2013

Spotting Spoleto

Spoleto's impressive Duomo.
Lucrezia Borgia (maybe)
Portrait of a Woman byBartolomeo Veneto,
 traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia.
Umbria: another day, another hill town. But this one - Spoleto - has a curious history - in 1499, the notorious Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, appointed his 19 year old daughter Lucrezia governor of the town. She acted in this capacity, apparently quite well, until 1502. Perhaps she lived in The Rocca, the castle on the hill, and reached it via the tall Ponte delle Torri, a bridge-cum-aquaduct...

In any event, whatever it was like in Lucrezia’s day, Spoleto is a charming town these days. Lots of narrow medieval streets, well preserved, the odd few Roman left overs (there’s an Arco di Druso that’s quite well-preserved). You can buy Umbrian wool and ceramics, and chic modern art pieces; or stop in cute trattorias or bars. You could, at the right time of the year, linger for Spoleto’s famous Summer Festival.

The Duomo facade - 13th century.

But very soon, rounding a corner, you’ll come upon the glorious facade of Spoleto’s Duomo. Your approach will be along the cobblestones at the top of a hill, and you’ll look down upon the facade and its piazza, the mosaics gleaming in the sunlight. Behind it, the sky and countryside roll away -- an unusual combination of town and country in the one view. I suggest you pause at the chi-chi bar at the bottom of the broad steps, to enjoy a café or aperitivo at your leisure, and absorb the sight of the facade. It’s from the 13th century, with a portico added in 1491. 

Inside, you can admire a wonderful old Cosmati marble floor, the original; and some faded but delicate frescoes in the Erioli chapels. The ‘Madonna and Child’ by Pinturicchio (1497) should entrance for at least a few minutes.

Detail from ‘Madonna and Child’ by Pinturicchio (1497)  
Detail from ‘Madonna and Child’ by Pinturicchio (1497) 
The apse frescoes - Lippi

But in the apse you’ll find the masterpieces of Spoleto’s Duomo - the impressive frescoes by Fra’ Filippo Lippi, painted around 1469. Anything by Lippi is given pride of place in a modern museum (his ‘Madonna and Child’ is a treasure of the National Gallery of Art on Washington DC, to name but one example). But here before you, the walls of the apse are emblazoned with his large scale work - the central ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ is the star turn, but I rather like the 'Annunciation' - the angel's see-through wings, the virgin sitting in a 15th century palace...

Lippi's 'Annunciation'
Actually, my Rough Guide informs me that Lippi died soon after he finished these frescoes:
...the rumour being that he had been poisoned for seducing the daughter of a local noble family, his position as a monk having had no bearing on his sexual appetite. The Spoletans, not too perturbed by moral laxity, were delighted at having someone famous to put in their cathedral, being, as Vasari put it, “poorly provided with ornaments, above all with distinguished men”, and so refused to send the dead artist back to Lorenzo de’Medici, his Florentine patron.
Lippi was interred in a tomb in Spoleto's Duomo designed by his son, Filippino Lippi, which you can now see in the right transept of the Duomo. Rumour has it that the corpse disappeared during restoration two centuries later...

Spoleto Duomo - Apse.
Wiki  tells us of Lippi:
That floor's seen a lot...
Filippo Lippi died in 1469 while working on the frescoes of Scenes of the Life of the Virgin Mary, 1467–1469 in the apse of the Spoleto Cathedral. The Frescos show the Annunciation, the Funeral, the Adoration of the Child and the Coronation of the Virgin. A group of bystanders depicted at the funeral includes a self-portrait of Lippi, together with his son Filippino and his helpers, Fra Diamante and Pier Matteo d'Amelia. Lippi was buried on the right side of the transept, with a monument commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici and executed by his son Filippino and others. He had always been zealously patronized by the Medici family, beginning with Cosimo de' Medici.Francesco di Pesello (called Pesellino) and Sandro Botticelli were among his most distinguished pupils.
Fra. Filippo Lippi (probably).
Further investigation reveals that in addition to painting medieval masterpieces, Lippi led an adventurous life, including marrying a nun. You can read about it here. Robert Browning wrote a poem about him in 1863, which begins...
I am poor brother Lippo, by your leave!
You need not clap your torches to my face.
Zooks, what's to blame? you think you see a monk!
What, 'tis past midnight, and you go the rounds,
And here you catch me at an alley's end
Where sportive ladies leave their doors ajar?....
San Francesco's letter.

Oh, and while you're in the Spoleto Duomo, don't forget to pop in to the side chapel where you'll find displayed a letter written and signed by St Francis of Assisi...

Yes, Spoleto is definitely worth a stop. Here's a photo gallery of some of the non-religious  delights of the town...

Umbrian cashmere.
Shops in funny old market stalls.
Local ceramics.
Charming narrow medieval streets.
Countryside views.
Linger a while.

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