In Montefalco, Benozzo Gozzoli’s Renaissance Splendor
There’s no better place to start your visit to Montefalco than in the Church of San Francesco, a synthesis of history, culture and traditions.
Built by the frati minori (Friars Minor) between 1335 and 1338, the Gothic church was the third Franciscan site in Montefalco and the first inside the medieval walls. In 1863 – three years after the unification of Italy – the church became property of the Comune (city) and as of 1895, seat of the Museo Civico.
In the apse of this Gothic church, the St. Francis stories reign, magnificently frescoed by the great Florentine painter, Benozzo Gozzoli who had trained with Beato Angelico:
The fresco cycle was commissioned by Fra Jacopo da Montefalco, padre guardiano (the Franciscan term for their superior) of the Franciscan monastery, adjacent to the church (now housing the pinacoteca, art gallery) and was the first independent commission for a fresco cycle for Gozzoli.
Next to the fresco of the sermon to the birds, Gozzoli depicts the balding, white-haired friar kneeling piously in prayer in the fresco espisode of Francis blessing the people of Montefalco and the town. Fra Jacopo is behind another friar, Fra Marco, the bishop of Sarsina who doffs his mitre before San Francesco, perhaps thus indicating that he considers himself inferior to the great saint. Two Montefalco citizens in red kneel with the friars, the one with the hat probably a city magistrate…and the other, perhaps the commitmente (he who commissioned the fresco).
In the fresco, Bevagna is down below in the valley off to the left and Mount Subasio, backdropping Assisi and Spello, rises in the distance with walled town of Montefalco off to the right in the fresco, vineyards sweeping out below it (perhaps of the famed Montefalco grapes, Sagrantino?):
Fresco artist Gozzoli had first came to Montefalco, though, upon request of another Franciscan, Frate Antonio da Montefalco, who had seen his work in Rome while working as an assistant to the great Beato Angelico on decorations in the Vatican.
Benozzo’s first work in Montefalco, in fact, was in 1450 for Fra Antonio’s monastery of San Fortunato. His image of Francis and San Bernardino di Siena (15th-century Franciscan) flanking the Virgin below a choir of angels crowns the entrance to the church at the San Fortunato Franciscan monastery:
The fresco most obviously appealed to Fra Jacopo who had Gozzoli come two years later inside the Montefalco medieval walls to fresco the most important Franciscan church, la Chiesa di San Francesco:
In the St. Francis fresco cycle in the apse, Gozzoli used the Giottesque model set out in the great fresco cycle in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi (very late 13th-century) but diverged from it, probably at the suggestion of Fra Jacopo himself.
Gozzoli’s twenty episodes from the Saint’s life are narrated in twelve scenes arranged on three registers, depicting St. Francis’ life from birth to death.
The narration culminates in the vault with the fresco of St. Francis in glory, bordered by images of his first followers:
Francis, seated in priestly garb, is in an almond of light holding a cross and an open book with an inscription in Latin proclaiming his similarity to the Savior: “…in that I bear on my body the signs of Christ the Lord..”
The leitmotif of Gozzoli’s Montefalco fresco cycle is in fact Francis as the “alter Christus” – “or another Christ,” the key concept of Franciscan spirituality – also reflected in the fresco decoration of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. The Franciscans, though, are the first to stress that Francesco was similar to Christ in His humanity (and no association to His divinity).
In fact, the first episode in the Gozzoli fresco cycle depicts the birth of St. Francis – not represented at all in Assisi – in a stall. Like Christ:
The adjacent episode recounts the Franciscan story that Christ disguised as a pilgrim, mounts the steps to the family home to predict the greatness of Francesco to his mother, Monna Pica, from whom he seeks alms. Another interpretation interprets the pilgrim as an angel.
At the bottom of the steps, a simple man lays down his cloak in the narrow backstreets before the young Francis who has a halo, a prediction of his sanctity.
This episode is also in the Assisi fresco cycle (late 13th-century) – attributed to the school of Giotto – but as the first episode of the twenty-eight about the life of San Francesco. In Assisi, Francis walks onto the cloak spread out before the 1st-century B.C. Roman temple to Minerva:
The Assisi Giottesque image of Francis giving his cloak to a poor knight…..
…is also depicted in the Gozzoli fresco cycle with Francesco on a prancing, muscular white horse – and the dress of the two figures now Renaissance garb (rather than medieval):
This fresco stresses the Franciscan ideal of denial of wealth and assistance to the less fortunate, ranking Francis “ahead” of St. Martin of Tours, often depicted giving just half of his cloak to a beggar (who is Christ in disguise).
The adjacent fresco depicts the episode of the dream of the palace full of weapons (also depicted in Assisi) when the Lord appears to Francis, who was enroute (he had hoped) to join a crusade leaving from southern Italy:
In Francesco’s dream, the Lord indicates to him a palace with red and white crusader flags fluttering in the breeze: he Palazzo della Signoria of Florence which Gozzoli knew well. The image is a metaphor for the conquests Francis would have following the Lord’s call:
Renuciation of his earthly patrimony before Bishop Guido of Assisi is turning point in the life of the young Francesco and isdepicted in both Assisi at the end of the 13th-century…
…..and here in Montefalco about 150 years later with an elaborate portrayal of Renaissance dress by Gozzoli:
Another Giottesque episode was depicted by Gozzoli in Montefalco in the mid-15th century: the first crib scene of Greccio, depicted by Gozzoli backdropped by a Renaissance church, perhaps Brunelleschi’s San Lorenzo, according to art historian, Elvio Lunghi:
The death of St.Francis is depicted by Gozzoli backdropped before the beloved Porziuncola chapel, the small chapel in the valley below Assisi that Francesco and his followers had restored. In his ermine-collared red cloak, doubting nobleman, Girolamo has permission to verify the stigmata. (Note: when Gozzoli frescoed, the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli had not yet been built over the Porziuncola).
Gozzoli also depicts aFranciscan moment not depicted in the Assisi fresco cycle: the meeting of San Domenico and San Francesco in Rome, in front of the portico of the Basilica Vaticana, both there to request Papal recognition of their monastic groups:
The scene takes place above portraits of Franciscan personages – twenty of them – bordering the lower level of the Gozzoli fresco cycle
Two Franciscan popes are present: Alexander V….
…and Nicholas IV, flanked by the 13th-century emperor of Constantinople, Giovanni di Brienne, present at the canonization of San Francesco in 1228 and buried in the Basilica of St. Francis – in a humble Franciscan tunic as he had requested:
Another regal personage is figured as well: Roberto D’Anjou, King of Naples and brother of St. Louis of Toulouse, and a devout follower of the Franciscan message who took his vows as Franciscan just before his death in 1337. Hr was buried in his Franciscan tunic in the Church of St. Clare in Naples:
Three laici (lay) personages are under the window: Petrarch, Dante and Giotto:
The inscription below Petrarch (1304 – 1374), first Italian intellectual, denotes him as”monarch of all virtues.” Dante (1265-1321) is next to Petrarch, holding open his Divina Commedia and celebrated in Montefalco as a “theologian gifted with universal awareness,” writes Elvio Lunghi, Assisi art historian. Dante’s inscription denotes him as “theologian Dane, expert of every science.” Giotto (1267-1337) – whose Assisi fresco cycle plays a foundational role in modern Italian art – is the third personage. The inscription below Giotto, paintbrush in hand, lauds him as ” most esteemed among Italian painters.”
Before you leave the stunning apse area, do note the letter Gozzoli wrote in June, 1452 (on display here in Montefalco as of 2014) in a glass case near the wooden choir stalls:
In this letter, Benozzo refuses a commission from a wealthy and highly-esteemed Florentine family in order to stay in Montefalco and complete the fresco cycle in the Church of St. Francis.
Mille grazie, Benozzo, for having completed the splendor.
(..and my thanks to the Museo di San Francesco for the lead photo.)
Click here to read about Sagrantino celebrated in Montefalco
Read about a Montefalco church where the heart is so important