Step Into the Medieval Ages in Bevagna
When you wander the backstreets of Bevagna and pass this delightful small courtyard…
…look out for this sign – and do head to the Roman theater and medieval house:
A few years ago, a group of six bevanati decided to plunge into the town’s medieval history, creating an association, Compagnia delle Arti. Just above a corridor of the 1st-c. A.D. Roman amphitheater, a medieval house in need of restoration seemed the perfect site for a faithful recreation of una casa medioevale of the late 13th-century.
First challenge: how to reproduce the decor of a medieval home? What was it like? What objects were used in daily life in the Middle Ages?
The group researched extensively, consulting illuminated medieval manuscripts and closely observing medieval frescoes.
Some splendid ones were not far away: those of Giotto and Pietro Lorenzetti in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.
Both Claudia and Filippo – impassioned hosts when visiting the medieval house – explain to visitors that individual forks were absent on the medieval table with just one used to fork meats onto plates. Note the “Last Supper” fresco (1310- 1319) of Siense master Pietro Lorenzetti in the Lower Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi – and the presence of knives but the absence of forks:
Spoons join a single knife – and forks are missing here, too – on the table setting in the late 13th-c. fresco, “The Death of the Knight of Celano” in Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis in the Upper Basilica:
Lamb might be the main dish in the Lorenzetti fresco in the Lower Church, fish perhaps in the fresco in the San Francesco cycle in the Upper Church.
Here in the kitchen of Bevagna’s medieval house, la Casa di Cecco, the fork used at table to stab meats – or a roasted fish – sits on the fireplace mantel, between the copper cooking posts and the huge butcher knife:
And you’ll note, too, the absence of glasses in the medieval kitchen of Bevagna – and the paucity of glasses on the tables in both frescoes above: as explained to those of us visiting the medieval house, glass was costly and highly prized in the Middle Ages.
Even at Papal banquets, one prized glass might be passed among a dozen guests. You can see only one glass on the table in the dining room of the Bevagna medieval house, even though la casa di Cecco is the home of a wealthy merchant:
The hand-blown glasses were often the color of gold, representing wealth.
Another sign of wealth on this table? The salt. The salt flats of central Italy were Papal property and the tax on salt was high. And salt was essential for the transformation of the principal meat available to all – pork – into prosciutto, capocollo, salami, sausages and pancetta (bacon) – for consumption all year. Salt was used, too, in some dyes and in tanning.
The value of costly salt is evident linguistically: “salary” derives from the Latin word for salt, “sal” (“sale” in Italian).
Note also the colors of the maiolica dishes used in the Middle Ages: greens (copper) and black (manganese) – with blues, reds, oranges, appear in maiolica decoration centuries later.
The credenza (cupboard) near the banquet table of the merchant’s house had two locks and the keys were kept by the mercante – or entrusted to the oldest woman in the household if he were away – as inside were the foods ready for service to guests.
The loom was in the same room…
…a symbol of wisdom of culture and a place that united the household as all gathered around, chatting while the loom whirled and busy hands flew…
The wall behind is painted: a sign of wealth, an imitation of the rich tapestries which adorned the walls of the nobles’ palaces, Papal residences (The stone vaulted ceiling above this room dates to the 1st-2nd c. A.D. for this casa di Cecco was built into the ruins of the Roman theater of ancient Mevania – Bevagna).
Near the loom was the lectern with hand-made paper and quill pen for the merchant’s accounts, the color of wealth, gold, painted on the wall behind:
Knowing that the Assisi frescoes had inspired many details in the decor of this house, I recently asked Claudia if that lectern had been inspired by that one holding the prayer book in the late 13th-c Basilica di San Francesco fresco of the “The Crib Scene of Greccio.” She replied, “Certamente!”
(Photo thanks to Angela and Derek Hearst):
The wall of the adjacent room is painted, too: in mauve (for red tones were the color of nobility). In this photo below, note Casa di Cecco expert, Filippo, as he shares medieval lore with three of my tour guests. Behind Filippo hang beeswax candles – the first object guests will see as they enter the merchant’s house and a demonstration of his wealth, for the common people would have had candles of pig lye:
Beds were small, for as Filippo told us, those in the household slept in a sitting position for better breathing: Windows were sealed in the colder seasons by closing them in with cloth curtains dipped in wax and the fireplace was not far from the bed. Medieval ambiences were small to keep in the heat in icy winters.
The bed of Bevagna’s medieval house was certainly inspired by the late 13th-century frescoes in Assisi’s Basilica Superiore di San Francesco – as you can see in this one of the “Prophetic Dream of Pope Innocent III”…
And Filippo explained to us that the drapery around the bed aided in keeping in the heat. The merchant’s family slept together in the bed, servants on the floor between the bed and the fireplace.
On another visit with tour guests, Derek and Angela, Claudia of the Compagnia delle Arti (on the right) showed us the cradle near the bed (on the right) where the baby slept.
Baby girls slept in the one bed with their parents but the baby boys slept in cradles – to assure no danger of accidental crushing of the heir of the family if sleeping with his parents:
Just opposite the bed, the small nook where cooking took place is tucked into a corner opposite the fireplace with spices, onions, and garlic dangling from the beams:
…and in that kitchen, there’s yet another sign of wealth: spices….
Spices were imported, purchased – not grown in your garden or in vases in on your loggia or terrace.
If the ceramics which surround the spices entice, drop into the gift shop near the entrance before you leave: you can see there a lovely array of medieval objects. You might wish to choose one as a memento of the medieval hidden treasures of Bevagna:
Click here to read about – and see! – Bevagna’s medieval festival the Mercato delle Gaite
Read about the joys of living the Gaite for visitors
Read more about the Gaite
Read about the splendor of Bevagna’s frescoed theater
Click here to read about the medieval house and other Bevagna treasures
Read about a Bevagna visit with guests in our Assisi apartments
Click here to read about – and see – Bevagna’s esteemed tailor – and other gems
(Mille grazie, Angela and Derek for the above photo, too…and for good times together in Bevagna).