Spoleto’s Duomo: That Magnificent Backdrop
I remembering seeing as a child, the televised operetta, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” by Giancarlo Menotti Many years later, all in our family were enthralled by a New York City Ballet performance in Spoleto’s 1st c- A.D. Roman amphitheater, thanks to Menotti: the ballet was one of many performances that year in Spoleto’s Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds), an annual music and opera festival held each year in late June and early July.
Founded by Menotti in 1958, the festival is a tribute to various art forms and features, a vast array of concerts, opera, dance, drama, visual arts, and roundtable discussions on a variety of topics with performances by artists from all over the world including famous names such as Pavarotti, Rudolph Nureyev, Carla Fracci, Al Pacino and Vittorio Gassman.
And what settings for the events. The twelfth-century cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin – il Duomo di Spoleto – backdrops concerts:
Spoleto and that cathedral are well-known sites now for many an Italian family: the fans of the Italian television series, “Don Matteo”:The origins of this church “are lost in the mists of time” as poetically indicated in a note on the cathedral (author unknown).
A document in the Cathedral archivio affirms that the Bishopric and a previous church, called “Santa Maria del Vescovado” (Saint Mary of the Bishopric) were already in existence by 956. Renovated in the 12th century after Frederick Barbarossa’s savage sack of Spoleto, the Cathedral was consecrated by Pope Innocent III in 1198.
A gift of the penitent, remorseful Barbarbarossa is a Cathedral treasure: the icon in a side chapel which he gave to the town in 1185 as an apology:
The facade of the Duomo is a showpiece of various architectural styles, a product of several phases. A 15th-century Renaissance loggia built by architect and sculptor from Milan, Ambrogio di Antonio Barocci and his workshop graces the lower level.
Two pulpits at either end of the loggia overlook the piazza facing the Duomo:
The magnificent sculptural decoration on the frame of the late 13th-century main door, known as the “Porta Paradisi,” is one of Umbria’s most outstanding examples of Romanesque classicism.
Above the architrave of the door runs a cornicione (cornice), salvaged from a Roman edifice:
The sculptured vines, branches, floral motifs, and animali fantastici (animals of fantasy) in the reliefs are alive with a vigorous plasticity:
Five late 12th-century rose windows crown the upper part of the facade:The central rosone, sits in a square frame surrounded by sculpted symbols of the Four Evangelists. Under that central rose window, two telamones – the male version of the caryatid – flanking three columns heft the rose window:
Above the rose window is a sculpted cornice bordering the fine mosaic made (and signed) by the mosaicist Solsterno (perhaps from Rome?) in 1207:
Pope Urban VIII, the Barberini Pope who had been Archbishop of Spoleto in the early 17th-century…
… had immediately indicated his wish to restore and reinforce the Romanesque church (of a basilica plan). After he moved on to Rome as Pope, his desired wish was brought to termination by his nephew, Francesco Barberini whom Urban VIII had ordained Cardinal..
The drastic alteration of the cathedral’s interior, eliminating the the Romanesque interior,
…. created a Latin cross classical plan comprised of a nave and two side aisles of six bays each and after the reconstruction had been completed, precious altars were added and new structures designed by Valadier in the late 18th century.
Although somewhat modified, the floor of the nave, fortunately, is still basicallyRomanesque Cosmatesque of stone, porphyry ad serpentine inlays:
The apse over the altar – which backdrops Cosmatesque floor splendor – hosts magnificent frescoes of the Florentine painter, Fra Lippo Lippi, who depicted episodes from the life of the Virgin – for this cathedral dedicated to her.
The fresco at the top in the semi-dome depicts the Coronation of the Virgin:
On the Virgin’s right (the left for the viewer), not saints but Old Testament figures kneel, all males…
…and the women (also Old Testament personages) are on the Virgin’s left:
Angels in a variety of poses and some holding floral tributes to the Virgin, are above the Old Testament figures.
Above them, a bearded and crowned God the Father, hand raised in blessing, gently places a crown on the bowed head of an elegant Blessed Virgin in exquisite Renaissance textiles, a sunburst behind the two, a rainbow arched over them:
The Annunciation is below on the left, set in a lovely Spoleto Renaissance villa courtyard with a stretch of the nearby Roman road of 220 B.C., the Via Flaminia, twisting up the hill behind the Angel Gabriel bearing a lily symbol of purity. As God the Father blesses, the Holy Spirit swoops down towards the timid young Virgin
In the central scene, the Dormitio Virginis (Death of the Virgin), the Apostles are gathered in prayer to the left of the deceased Virgin Mary, the Via Appia stretching out up the hill behind them.
Fra Lippo Lippi (the Domenican friar in black and white) is at the foot of the deathbed; his son, Filippino Lippi, is the angel bearing a glass candelabra in front of him. Don Diamante (in black) and Pier Matteo D’Amelia, in a red hat – both collaborators of Lippi – join the group.
The Spoleto fresco cycle (1467-1469) is a glorious gran finale tribute to Fra Lippo Lippi who died in Spoleto on October 8th or 10th in 1469 and is buried in the Duomo
The Florentine artist’s tomb and funerary monument, sculpted by Ambrogio Barocci (who had created the portico of the cathedral( is in the right transept of the cathedral:
In a nearby chapel is another artistic treasure of the cathedral: the Christus Triumphans painted wooden crucifix of Alberto Sotio, painter and miniaturist, of 1187
Across the nave in the left transept, a venerated site is certainly the Cappella delle Reliquie, (Reliquary Chapel) adorned with splendid late 16th-century wood inlay and paintings of sybild and prophets.
On a wall in a glass case is an autographed letter written in 1222 on parchment of goatskin by St.Francis of Assisi for one of his beloved followers, Brother Leo.
Spoleto’s cathedral has backdropped concerts, operas and even Italian TV serials. And don’t miss the wonders inside.
Read about – and see! – the filming of “Don Matteo” with Spoleto as background.