Seeking the Spoleto Hidden Wonders
Spoleto’s Piazza del Mercato (Market Square) was once site of the forum of Roman Spoletium.
A narrow street leading out the square is flanked by the medieval botteghe (shops) with arched doorways and stone display counters now holding flowering plants:
In one of the shops at the end of the street, a sign on the wall lets visitors know that inside, thy can enjoy can purchase legumes, wines, olive oils, salamis, truffles and more…
…or enjoy a panino di prosciutto:
Just around the corner, the entrance to the Museo Diocesano
The collection of the Museo Diocesano – masterpieces of the 12th to 19th centuries – is displayed in the porticoed Palazzo Arcivescovile (Archbishop’s Palace), probably built on the site of the 6th-8th century Lombard Ducal palace.
In the 10th-century, the residence of the Lombard dukes was transformed into a Benedictine monastery, linked to the Church of Sant’Eufemia, just across the courtyard:
The collection of the Museo Diocesano is a rich one, meriting more than one visit. I’ll talk here about a few of the Museo highlights (at least for me).
A headliner must be the Deposition group sculpted in the 13th century and once in the 12th-century parish church of San Giuseppe d’Arimatea located a kilometer from Umbria’s tiniest township, Roccatamburo.
The church was built on site of a pre-existing monastero benedettino (Benedictine convent), for not far away is Norcia, birthplace (5th-century) of St. Benedict. Once dedicated to the Virgin, I expect the church’s dedication to St. Joseph of Arimatea was mandated when the sculptured Deposition scene entered the church with Joseph of Arimatea as a principal figure.
Located in the spectacular mountainous Valnerina area, this town has a population of 120 and average age of 63 years. During the winter months, 15 people live here – and more return in the summertime.
…and to think that such a treasure once graced a parish church outside of this minuscule village. I spent an extensive amount of time in the Museo room dedicated to this Deposizione.
Figures include Joseph of Arimathea, secret disciple of Jesus, given permission by Pilate to remove Christ’s body for burial
Nicodemus, too, was figured, for he had brought oils for the anointing of the body..
John the Beloved Apostle, was at the foot of the Cross, opposite the Virgin, hand upraised to indicate to us the Crucified Christ:
From every angle, the images were powerful
In another Museo room, under an elegantly frescoed ceiling, crucifixes are displayed of two types (with insightful explanations on both): the Christus Triumphans (“Christ Triumphant”, ie. over death, Christ Resurrected) and Christus Paziens (“Suffering Christ”), the image most prevalent following the preachings of our St. Francis of Assisi (early 13th-century) who stresses Christ who suffered and felt pain as a man – like us.
On the left as you enter the room, you’ll see another treasure from Roccatamburo, the 13th-century Christus Triumphans crucifix painted in tempera on wood by a Spoleto area artist. The open-eyed Christ is not defeated but triumphant over death:
A 15th-century cross depicts Christus Paziens, Christ as a man suffering and His suffering is echoed in the gestures of the figures flanking Him, the Virgin and John the Beloved as well in the expressions of the angels holding cups which fill with Christ’s blood.
Another Christus Paziens crucifix on display was sculpted and painted in the 14th-century for the San Salvatore church of Campi di Norcia by a maestro known simply as the “Maestro del Crocefisso di Campi.” This masterpiece highlights the interlinking tight relationship between sculpting and painting, underscoring the polyhedric activities of Umbria’s 14th-century artisan workshops.
A 13th-century tempera-on-wood crucifix by an artisan who signed the work “Petrus Pictor,” might be termed “a work of passage,” between “Triumphans” and “Paziens” for here Christ has died but seems triumphant in His solemn calm….
…almost as if in a serene sleep:
A Christus Paziens – probably 17th-century – reigns in the imposing frescoed Sala dei Vescovi (Room of the Bishops), portraits of ecclesiastics behind and above the crucifix.
The crucifix flanks the limestone fireplace bearing the coat-of-arms of Maffeo Barberini, once archbishop of Spoleto (1608-1611) and later Pope Urban VIII. He reigns in a regal red cape in a fresco above the fireplace
His portrait is on the wall above, a Murano glass chandelier illuminating the portrait and the ceiling;
Bernini’s 17th-century elegant bronze bust of Maffei Barberini – done when he was Archbishop of Spoleto – is in an adjacent room in the Museo Diocesano. St. Peter holding the keys, the first Pope, is incised on the bust on the shoulder of Barberini:
The Pope presented the bust as a gift for the inauguration in 1644 of Spoleto’s cathedral upon the completion of restoration (mandated by his nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini) – and it was for many years in a place of honor in the Duomo.
As one leaves the Sala dei Vescovi, a 15th-century elegant seated Madonna – sculpted and painted by an unknown Tuscan artist – seems to greet the visitor in humility, her head bowed, hands folded in prayer:
A chubby Baby Jesus sits on her lap, the folds of her gown seeming to enclose Him protectively:
Once again, I was astounded to read about the provenance of the masterpiece: Preci, a tiny mountain town of the Valnerina (Nera River Valley). The population of the town prior to the 2016 earthquake was 706 – but just a handful of locals live there now, others awaiting restoration of their homes.
And yet another splendid sculptured Madonna con Bambino reigning in this Museo is also from Preci. Sculpted in the 14th-15th-century, the Virgin was later crowned but recent restoration removed the crown, restoring the statue to its original splendor:
From Preci, too, is the 16th-century sculpture of John the Baptist, “the Precursor” or “Foreunner,” right leg forward as if moving towards us and right arm pointing, probably signifying to note Christ who will come after, called by St. John,”the Lamb of God.”
And the more I saw, the more I realized that Spoleto’s Museo Diocesano housed splendid masterpieces of minuscule Umbria mountain towns, most of them now deserted and with a handful of inhabitants.
Like San Pellegrino di Norcia (population: 56) whose church once hosted the magnificent 16th-century Madonna in gilded red and blue, visibly pregnant:
“Wounded” following the 2016 earthquake devastating Norcia and the Valnerina area, the splendid restore Madonna was unveiled in a ceremony in the Museo Diocesano in January, 2019. At that time, a representative of Umbria’s Assessore della Cultura, said, “The 2016 earthquake wounded deeply but also helped us all to re-discover a sense of solidarity and renewed affection for our artistic patrimony. Thanks to current restoration efforts, we can again stand together stupefied before masterpieces like this one, which we were so used to seeing. We now have the precious opportunity to study once again the splendors.”
And so many splendors to study in Spoleto’s Museo Diocesano. Many more than those mentioned here.
I’ll be heading back again and again.
Click here to read about the splendid Spoleto cathedral
Read about – and see – Spoleto’s splendid Church of Sant’ Eufemia
Read about – and see! – the splendor of Spoleto’s historic library
Read here about Spoleto’s Roman house
Click here to read about – and see!- Spoleto’s 14th-c. Papal fortress
Read about one of Umbria’s most splendid medieval churches – in Spoleto