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from issue no. 11 - 2005

The road to Assisi paved with tenderness

A volume has come out to make known to the public the exceptional finds made in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome. They are frescoes by an unknown painter of the late thirteenth century. The spectacular images are very moving. And seem to confirm the hypothesis that it was craftsmen from Rome who initiated the revolutionary work in the Upper Basilica of Assisi

by Giuseppe Frangi

On these pages, some details of the Madonna with Child between John the Baptist 
and Saint John the Evangelist, chapel of Saint Pasqual Baylon, church of Santa Maria 
in Aracoeli, Rome; the Madonna with Child

On these pages, some details of the Madonna with Child between John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, chapel of Saint Pasqual Baylon, church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome; the Madonna with Child

Five years ago the discovery of these frescoes in the furthest chapel of the right aisle of the basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli made headlines. The chapel was dedicated to Saint Pasqual Baylon, a Catalan canonized by Alexander VIII in 1690 and then decorated in the late seventeenth century. Sample restoration of the side walls revealed the remains of frescoes from the late thirteenth century. But the real surprise awaiting the restorers was on the back wall: when the altarpiece dedicated to the saint painted by Vincenzo Vittoria was removed, a fresco with the Madonna and Child appeared, still in very good condition. At the sides, under the layer of plaster, the outlines of haloes in relief could clearly be seen. Today, five years after that discovery and two after the conclusion of the restoration, the cycle of the Baylon chapel has been spectacularly “vivisectioned” (thanks to a series of remarkable photos) in a volume edited by the leading figure in the find, Tommaso Strinati (Tommaso Strinati, Aracoeli. Gli affreschi ritrovati, Skira 2005, euro 60,00).
But before looking at the images one needs to take a step backwards. The importance of the frescoes, in fact, lies in the artistic context to which they belong. A context fundamental for the development of the history of Italian art: that crucial period between Cimabue’s time in Rome (1272) and the beginning of the work on the Upper Basilica in Assisi (from 1297 onwards). Precisely in those years came the extraordinary flowering of fresco and mosaic in late thirteenth-century Rome, with three figures who tower over the others: Iacopo Torriti, Filippo Rusuti and Pietro Cavallini.
They composed what is known as the Roman School, within which, according to Federico Zeri and Bruno Zanardi, the new painting abandoned the Byzantine style and was to find its definitive flowering in the Florentine painter Giotto.
To this intricate and intriguing period belong the frescoes of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, datable to around the early nineties of that century and attributable to the circle of Pietro Cavallini. Up to this point one might conclude that this is one of the many pieces that make up the grandiose jigsaw of thirteenth-century Rome. But not so: the studies presented by Strinati in the recently published volume show that the cycle in Santa Maria in Aracoeli is a confirmation of a thesis of fundamental importance but much debated by the critics: and that is that the frescoes in the Upper Basilica of Assisi, traditionally attributed to Giotto, should be re-attributed to the Roman School, with the young Florentine genius still only one of the leads, though in accelerating rise. In short, Rome and not Florence was the “driving force” of the new art, not least because of the fact that the greatest of the Florentines, Arnolfo da Cambio, architect and sculptor, had worked in Rome for at least thirty years, making his mark on all the most important projects, from Saint Paul’s to Santa Cecilia, from Saint Peter’s to Santa Maria in Aracoeli itself. In 1296 Arnolfo was called back to Florence to start work on the project of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and within a few years Florence was to gain the ascendancy. What was the importance of his long stay in Rome? Arnolfo had shaped a different Gothic idiom, one capable of metabolizing the realism and the sense of rationality of classical Rome; an idiom that had freed itself of the keyed-up and sometimes obscure Gothic of northern tradition. As Richard Krautheimer has said, Arnolfo gave a lot to Rome, but he also took a great deal from it.
Saint John the Baptist

Saint John the Baptist

So it was that in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli conceived by the Florentine architect, where yet again the “Roman” Gothic stretches its wide arches, luminous and welcoming; in the church that Innocent IV had taken from the Benedictines in 1249 and entrusted to the Franciscans; in the church that already contained in the curve of the apse a fresco by the great Cavallini, now lost but praised by Vasari; so it was that in this church, crucial in so many ways in the Rome of those years, a noble Roman family, whose name is not known, had its own chapel dedicated to the two Saint Johns.
In fact the two haloes that caught the eye of the restorers under the coat of plaster, belonged to John the Baptist and to John the Evangelist, painted respectively left and right of the Madonna and Child. Whereas of the large frescoes that covered the two side walls all that could be recovered were the upper registers and slight traces of the sinopia behind the seventeenth-century altars: a few clues, but enough to decipher the two subjects. On the left there was originally the Banquet of Herod (of which only the very fine architectural elements of the palace remain); on the right instead there was the Vision of Saint John the Evangelist, a subject taken from the Legenda aurea of Jacopo da Varagine and referring to the Evangelist’s final days in Ephesus (and here the fine group of Christ with the two angels and other apostles who appeared to John have survived).
It is a matter of a few fragments of fresco, but still in the full blaze of their colors; and the view of the little shrine in the scene with the Evangelist is enough to let one understand that we are looking at the work of painters who have abandoned the two-dimensional charm of Byzantine painting. And this was a novelty, as Strinati underlines: «In the Roman works of Cavallini there is still no intention of representing a real space but rather of enriching the tale with elements of scenery. The Judgement of Santa Cecilia is in a sky-blue and intangible space. Here instead a concrete sense of space comes out». There is no need to say that the parallels with Assisi are manifold: the same arrangement of the frescoes between two twisting pillars; the same notion of framing the scene with three colored bands; the same method of cutting the buildings against the blue background of the sky, giving them an emergence clamorous for the period.
above, Saint John the Evangelist

above, Saint John the Evangelist

But those must have been years in which the pace repeatedly quickened. Thus, those who seemed to be ahead in painting architecture, were paradoxically behind in the painting of the nevertheless stupendous figures in the central scene of the chapel. The hub of the cycle is in fact here; here the artist (or team of artists, as Strinati suggests) reached a peak of intensity and calm. Mary’s face is not far removed from the Byzantine prototypes; her eyes and brows are surrounded by curved lines drawn with a sure hand, following the model perfected over the centuries. Her gaze, caught sidelong, passes with discretion over the spectator, but holds back from involvement. How different, and in this case more novel, the Madonna frescoed by Cavallini in The Last Judgment in Santa Cecilia: her face has become irregular, as if there were no longer any fear of the imperfection of the contingent; the eyes seem to escape the sublime linearism of Byzantine painting; and the deep shadow on the right side speaks to us of reality, of physical substance, of a time no longer stationary.
And yet, going back to the Aracoeli, and looking closely at the gaze, we discover that the brushstrokes, thickly put on in the narrow and continuous lines proper to thirteenth-century painting, vibrate delicately with life. More than brushstrokes they seem caresses that the painter has placed on the beloved face of Mary, especially where he has made use of sage-green coloring to indicate the delicate shadows: it seems that talent and emotion have combined perfectly. Those same brushstrokes, fluid and unbroken, on the body of the Child have a more physical substance; they really seem on the threshold of becoming body, and not merely of representing it.
In the background a fine yellow veil gives emphasis to its elegant embroidery: Solomon’s knots alternating with four petals set like spokes, a motif identical to the one we find several times in Assisi, for example on the catafalque of Saint Francis in the scene of Saint Clare’s weeping over his body. Another small but unquestionable sign of the double link between Assisi and Rome.

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