In Assisi, Wood-working Artisans, Past and Present
The creative output of many Assisi artisans is owed to the inspiration of family members of past generations. And so it is for the assisano wood-carver, Rossano Rondoni, great-grandson of Domenico, art restorer, painter and photographer whose photograph reigns in Rossano’s bottega (workshop). Rossano’s grandfather, too, was a man of many talents and interests, including wood-working.
As a young child, Rossano remembers playing at this feet with discarded wood chips. He later picked up a chisel of his Nonno
to transfer figures of his imagination to wood. Rossano now has an infinite array of carving tools:
On a recent visit, Rossano showed me the walnut relief of an elegant prancing rearing griffin which he had carved before he became a teen-ager.
And recently, for city hall, Rossano sculpted a prancing and rearing lion for together with a cross, the pair take center stage on the coat-of arms of Assisi. He painted this sculpted relief in blue and red, the colors of Assisi:
That morning, he was working on the sculpted headboard of a bed commissioned by a Friuli couple who had given Rossano free rage in the choice of the decorative motif.
A winged cupid – “dio dell amore,
” he told me with a wink – will reign over the sleeping couple:
The cupid clutches a twisting rope attached to garlands of fruit:.
I remarked to Rossano that i noted the pomegranates, bursting open, seeds visible, the symbol of fertility. “Precisamente,” he told me with a grin.
And as was customary in medieval and Renaissance art, Roberto included his portrait in the work, not visible unless you knew where to look. He showed me: his face was in profile in the midst of rounded fruits, not far from a bursting pomegranate, just below a loop in the ribbon:
I asked Rossano if any particular artisan works in his birthplace of Assisi had inspired him. He immediately replied “Si! Specialmente le porte della Basilica Inferiore di San Francesco. I cori, anche.” After my visit to Rossano, I wanted to have a more careful look at the doors of the Lower Basilica and the choirs: his inspirations.
Writing about Assisi artisans and their grandissima passione for the history and art surrounding them – inspiration for so many of them – has honed my eye, peaked my interest in all that surrounds us here in Assisi, medieval gem. My Virtual Experiences Zoom presentations have substituted my tour guide work for the past year – and stimulated me to more attentive observation of all that surrounds me.
The day after my visit to sculptor, Rossano, I spent most of the morning at the Basilica di San Francesco, heading first to the Basilica Inferiore
(Lower Basilica) to study those doors:
Since passing the atrocious exams to be come a guida regionale dell’Umbria in 1997, I have been in and out of the Basilica di San Francesco myriads of times. Uncountable times. Always eager to share with tour guests the highlights of 10,000 square meters of stunning medieval frescoes adorning both the Lower Basilica and the Upper Basilica, I know there simply isn’t enough time to stop and share information on the doors.
There was almost no one near the entrance to the Lower Basilica – my target- except Fr. Raphael, a Brazilian Franciscan friar:
While I was photographing the door, a couple of Italian visitors asked me why. We talked together about the mid-16th-century wooden doors, their history and significance of the depicted figures. They studied the doors with interest…
…and thanked me before heading inside to view the Basilica majesty, telling me they’d never have noticed the sculpted splendors. I told them that I wouldn’t have either, without the spark from of a local wood-carver.
On the doors at the entryway, Francesco is sculpted flanked by the Assisi hills, olive trees growing on them. Below Francis, a scene from his life is depicted: the making of peace with the wolf harassing Gubbio. With minute detail, the artist has sculpted the walled city of Gubbio behind the wolf on the hill:
As I noted on the door the border of carved fruits…..
…..I wondered if they might have inspired the bed headboard he was carving?
Or the stunning picture frame I’d also seen in his workshop?
Fruit garlands also border the door on the right as you enter, depicting, St. Clare looks down at visitors entering, two cherubs flanking her. Below Santa Chiara, the scene of her life recounts the terrified Saracens attacking Assisi in flight after St. Clare held the monstrance out the window of San Damiano:
And over the entrance doors in tri-lobed arches bordered by garlands of fruit, St. Francis and Christ are depicted:
The other doors (from which one exits the Basilica) are sculpted with images of St.Francis in Glory…
….and St. Louis of Toulouse, 13th-century Anjou prince who renounced the throne to became a Franciscan and -and then bishop:
An evil jester figure on the lower part of the Lower Basilica entrance door reminded me of the clay model Rossano had showed me of Bacchus:
Rossano had made the Bacchus clay model to show a client the Bacchus relief he would sculpt for their dining area.
Inside the Basilica, I noted sculptures in wood which Rossano most probably had noticed and keenly observed: one was a lectern placed in a corner in the Upper Basilica.
The inlaid swirling and curling leaves on the base brought to mind a walnut tabernacle Rossano was creating (for a church in the Umbrian town of Marsciano) with similar designs sculpted on a side, below a hanging garland of fruit:
On another side of the tabernacle, the head of an angel was sculpted under a garland of fruit. Above, a blank roundel was prepared for the incising of a dedication.
The head of an angel flanked by wings is a common motif in Renaissance sculpture. The head of the angel is the place where the priest can rest his hands when preaching a sermon at a lectern I noted today in the Basilica Superiore (Upper Basilica):
An angel also appears on the lower part of the lectern…
….though this angel represents St. Matthew, one of the Four Evangelists. The other Evangelists appear on the other 3 sides.
St. John’s symbol is the eagle…
…and St Mark’s symbol is the lion and St. Luke’s, the oxen:
The Franciscans’ choir stall – 102 seats – of the Basilica Superiore is a ten-year masterpiece of wood inlay and wood carving of Domenico Indovini of San Severino (in the Marches region) and assistants finished in 1501.
Rossano told me he has never tried intarsio
(inlay) but the sculpting framing the Indovini inlay work has certainly been an inspiration for his sculptural work.
Note the corner floral motifs of a Rossano walnut picture frame….
…..and look for the floral motif in the cusp of the choir stall on the left in the photo below…
….and in the cusp of the righthand choir stall in this photo:
That floral motif appears again and again on the choir stalls:
On each side of the choir stall, the sculptor has incised his name and date of termination of the project, a carved flower and swooping leaves – motifs favored by Rossano, too – above the signatures:
Rossano, too, signs his works – and uses two different methods. He sometimes carves his full name and gave me a demonstration, carving out an “R”:
And sometimes he signs with a seal:
An avid rider, a prancing horse crowns Rossano’s seal…
And years ago, his lovely daughter received a rocking horse made by her Papa’
for her first birthday:
Before I left, I noted the symbols of buona fortuna
in the midst of wood chips and Rossano’s carving tools: the horseshoe and the corna
(that red horn to keep away the malocchio
or “evil eye”).
Wishing you that desired – well-merited – good luck, Rossano: may many more soon know of your extraordinary talents.
about other Assisi artisans influenced by past masterpieces.
Agenzia Viaggi Stoppini in Assisi handles all technical support for my guided visits (bus transportation, organization of meals, etc)