We’re all so overwhelmed always by the innumerable art treasures ready to welcome us in magnificent churches, famous museums and in many a small chapel down side streets in medieval towns.
But ever thought about all those not-to-be-seen treasures in the deposits of the great museums and those uncountable locked up churches and chapels, needing restoration or without a custodian?
There was a small chapel in the countryside near Deruta which I had read about and wanted to see – not far from the area where dear rural friend, Giuseppa lived. I called her to ask if she knew how I could see the church. And che fortuna! (“what luck”): the key-holder is a distant relative.
The next day, Pino and I headed with Giuseppa to the minisicule borgo (hamlet) di Fanciullata (pop. 350), in the countryside along the Tiber River, just a couple kilometers from Deruta.
Elderly, slightly stooped, Signora Laura awaited us with a smile. Recently widowed, she lives in the house attached to the chapel and has the key to open the small frescoed chapel. You only know that the building is a chapel by noting the church bell on the roof:
Proudly, she led us up to the altar to the Madonna del Fanciullo, considered by many art historians to be the masterpiece of Perugia Renaissance artist, Bartolomeo Caporali, who was very influenced by another Perugia painter, Pinturicchio (whose masterpieces may also be seen in Spello).
As Franciscan medievalist Ugolino Niccolini wrote, “I hope the affection I feel for this rustic shrine that has led me to carry out assiduous research on it does not lead me to exaggerated conclusions but I want to say anyway that this Maesta’ appears to me as one of the best things Caporali did.”
The name of the fresco, “la Madonna del Fanciullo,” derives its name from the small hamlet, “Fanciullata,” named after a notary living there in the 15th-century called “Fanciullo.” A curiosity for me: as “fanciullo” means “little boy” in Italian, I had assumed the borgo was named after the fresco rather than the reverse.
Niccolini considers Caporali a talented student of a fine painter from Florence, Benozzo Gozzoli, who frescoed the majestic cycle of the life of St. Francis of Assisi for the Franciscan church in Montefalco.
The date of this Fanciullata fresco is painted along the bottom – 1459 – and for Ugolini, that date is most significant for “it is the oldest dated work that has come down to us from Benozzo’s best student.”
The city of Perugia commissioned restoration of the fresco in 1485 or about thirty years after Caporali painted it; at the time, the Madonna was “reluminata” (literally, “given more light”) as inscribed after the date of its painting.
The Madonna holds the Christ Child and is flanked by four angels, two with folded hands, two playing instruments. The Christ Child’s hand is raised in blessing and I smiled to see the coral necklace around His neck: traditionally, coral keeps away the evil eye and not infrequently the Son of God in medieval and Renaissance art is being protected from the malocchio. (Just in case…?!)
The Madonna and her fanciullo (“little boy”) are flanked by St. James on the left (as we view the fresco), holding the pilgrims’ staff. Patron saint of Spain, his remains are in Campostella, significant pilgrimage site. Certainly this small chapel, after all, might be visited by those pilgrims coming from the south perhaps on their way to the Tomb of St. Francis in Assisi or to the tombs of Perugia’s patron saints. The other saint flanking the Virgin and Child is St. Antony Abbot, patron saint of animals and most venerated by the rural people.
God the Father, hand raised in blessing, is in the roundel above the Virgin and Child and saints and angels:
The Child and His Mother hold together a rose, symbol of divine love.
On the chapel wall to the left of the niche, San Sebastiano, 3rd-century martyr saint pierced with arrows, is depicted and this might very well be a votive image painted at the time of a plague outbreak. At such times, both San Sebastiano and San Rocco were invoked: “pandemic saints.”
San Bernardino da Siena, 15th-c follower of St. Francis of Assisi, is depicted on the right. The Franciscan influence in the area was diffuse – also evidenced by the Church of St. Francis with adjacent monastery (now a ceramics museum) in Deruta. In the Deruta church, images of San Bernardino appear more than once.
Giuseppa and Signora Laura sat in one of the few pews of the tiny chapel, quietly sharing family news in whispers.
Standing behind them, it was easy to decipher the origins of this chapel: the fresco had certainly been painted to simply adorn a roadside edicola, a small devotional shrine. The shrine was probably later enclosed to protect it from the elements and eventually, a chapel was built.
Many a small church or chapel in Italy originated in this way.
For decades this chapel was called “la Madonna di Ranuccio” as a certain Ranuccio di Deruta had either commissioned the fresco or owned the land on which the shrine was built. In the early 17th-century, the edicola was amplified into a chapel.
Before we left, I noted a detail above the niche on the right: the Virgin kneeling in the Annunciation – though the Angel Gabriel on the other side is lost:
Pino, the builder, noted and appreciated the skilled restoration:
Mille grazie, Signora Laura, for opening the wonders for us. And Giuseppa, how grateful we are that you knew the key-holder!
Read here about the origin of the edicola
Read about the many edicole in Assisi
Read about Deruta as a “hymn to maiolica”
Read about the maiolica folk art splendors just outside of Deruta
Click here to read about – and see – maiolica splendors in a Deruta church
Read about the mayor’s welcome to visitors in the citta’ della ceramica
Click here to read about – and see!- the creation of maiolica in a famed Deruta workshop