Category Archives: Umbrian Art

In the Gallery with the Artist Elvio Marchionni

Elvio Marchionni, detail

Elvio Marchionni: Detail of Mother and Child

The small Umbrian hill town of Spello has produced two remarkable artists. The first was Bernadino di Betto, better known as Pinturicchio (“little painter”), one of the great painters of the Renaissance. The second was Maestro Elvio Marchionni. Elvio Marchionni attended the Art Institute of Bernadino di Betto in Perugia, where he explored medieval painting techniques, the classics and the past masters. His palette is one of subdued colours, and many of his works resemble frescoes ravaged by the effects of time. He has exhibited all over Italy, including at the Venice Biennale of Sacred Arts, as well as in Paris, Madrid, Germany and the US. I spoke to him about his work and his inspiration.

Do you come from an artistic background?  No, I come from a family of farmers. My parents had no real concept of what art meant.

When did you realise that you wanted to be an artist?  Ever since I can remember. I have always drawn, even as a very small child of two or three.

Which artists do you most admire? Michelangelo is for me the greatest of all artists, better even than Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael, although I respect them both. I particularly admire Michelangelo’s drawings. In terms of modern artists, I was very inspired by the work of Alberto Burri, the Italian abstract artist. He reduced his colour palette and incorporated textures in his work, using sacking, iron, wood and plastic. He would also scar and burn areas of his canvas to add layers of interest.  Without Burri, I would not have developed my own textural techniques.

What artistic techniques do you use?  I like to use different textures in my work. For example, I use the crumbling plaster walls of old buildings to extract colour and texture. I take layers of gauze which I stick to the walls. When the layers are dry I pull them off, and traces of the pale colours and plaster remain on the material. I then use this as my canvas. The paintings produced in this way are known as strappi, from the Italian word strappare meaning to tear off or extract. For me, the canvasses contain memories of the past and of colours that have changed through time.

Elvio Marchionni with silk screen print frame

Elvio Marchionni with silk screen print frame showing the image.

I also use the serigraph or silk screen process. After creating an image, the silk is stretched across a frame and treated with a gel that is sensitive to light. A single colour is forced through the fine mesh of the silk material. When it is placed under a strong light, the image is fixed. Additional colours are added separately, drying well between each coat. It is a very long process.

Do you see yourself as following in the tradition of the great Renaissance artists?  No, not specifically. I love Renaissance art, but my art comes from using all of the artistic knowledge that I have from both the past and the present. I continue to learn every day. My favourite colours are those you see in the ancient frescoes, although some of their shades have changed over time. For example, the Madonna was usually depicted dressed in a deep blue, but this would originally have been much lighter. As the blue pigment was very expensive, artists diluted it to make it go further. The dilution agents slowly evaporated, resulting in a darker colour.

So you paint every day?  A good musician plays his instrument every day. It is the same for an artist. It is not enough to say you will only paint when you are inspired: you must practice, practice, practice to improve your art. Even now, when I am talking to you, you will see that my hands are never still; I always have a board or sketch pad close by. Sketching helps me to concentrate.

Elvio Marchionni - Sketches

Elvio Marchionni – Sketches

Do you ever paint outdoors?  Rarely now. When I was a young boy I often painted in the fields and mountains, but now I prefer to paint in the studio. That does not mean that I do not get inspiration from the landscape, because I do.

I understand you were born in Spello.  Yes, during the War, in 1944. In fact it was during an air raid. It was such a confusing time that my mother wasn’t sure whether I was born on the 16th or 17th of January. She settled on the 17th.

And you still live in Spello?  Yes, I love this town deeply and I still live in the centre. I also have a house close by on the mountain. I know the mountains so well, and enjoy walking on the slopes, picking wild asparagus and herbs and hunting for truffles.

When you are away from Spello, where do you like to visit?  I am happy to be in Spello even when I am not working! If I do go away, it tends to be to places that remind me of my home town, with mountains and olive groves. I love Puglia; when I go there I like to stay in a small village. The area is very beautiful. I also love to eat the fresh fish.

Many of your paintings have a religious theme – why is that?  Well, I myself am an atheist, but I consider myself to be a friend of the Church. Many of my works are in churches and therefore depict religious themes.

You paint women often, and these women have the most beautiful, serene expressions. Yes, I love women! I like to paint them looking serene, calm and beautiful.

The depiction of a mother and child is a theme you return to frequently.  I have painted the Madonna and Child frequently but also many other works showing a mother and child. My aim always is to portray them for any generation; an eternal mother and child relationship if you like.

You recently produced a beautiful painting of Pope Francis. How did that come about?  It was a commission from a consortium of Umbrian banks. I actually went to the Vatican to present it to the Pope personally. I think he was pleased with it! The Pope took his name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi, so I included the Saint and the basilica built in his name in the background. I also produced 500 serigraph copies – one of which hangs in my house – and a regional newspaper printed 50,000 posters of my portrait.

Portrait of Pope Francis and Saint Francis by Elvio Marchionni

Portrait of Pope Francis and Saint Francis by Elvio Marchionni

The Marchionni Foundation (Fondazione Marchionni) was recently inaugurated in Spello, in the former church of Saint Michael the Archangel. Why did you set up this organisation and what is it intended to do? The Foundation aims to encourage people – particularly, but not exclusively, children – to produce art and to grow as artists. It is about creativity and experimentation, allowing people to try out different techniques and materials. As well as trying to ensure that our rich artistic traditions are perpetuated, the Foundation will also manage my body of work. It is difficult for me to lay the responsibility for this on my family; through the Foundation my work can be managed independently.

Can you teach anybody to draw? I don’t teach people to draw. Through my Foundation, I put myself at the disposal of both adults and children when they are trying to solve problems with their art. Children know what they want to draw, even at a very early age. What might look like scribbles to us is something definitive in a child’s mind. Sometimes art lessons in schools drive children down particular routes. I want to undo this sort of teaching; children are able to express themselves through their paintings and they should be free to do this without necessarily having to conform to accepted art forms. I think that anyone can draw or paint to some degree, but without natural talent and training it is not possible to be a true artist.

Elvio Marchionni at work

Elvio Marchionni at work

Aside from art, what interests you? Women, children and cooking. I am told I am a pretty good cook! Also, as I mentioned earlier, being at one with nature in the fields and mountains.

What are you currently working on? I am producing a series of eleven pieces for the Baptistry of Folignio Cathedral.

From Maestro Marchionni’s house we crossed the street to the former church of Saint Michael the Archangel, home of the Foundation. Here I saw the work in progress for Folignio Cathedral and an exhibition of childrens’ art from the most recent junior workshop. We then strolled up the street to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore to see one of his works, a Madonna and Child. We walked around the Renaissance Baglioni Chapel with its rich paintings and decoration by Pinturicchio completed around 1501: perhaps his finest works. We admired the two pale paintings by Perugino from 1521. Finally, we visited the Chapel of the Sacrament where Elvio Marchionni’s four panels decorate the splendid 16th century tabernacle. Today’s artist is justifiably proud of his work, that of the local Renaissance masters and of his town.

Of what are you most proud? Every day when I wake up I feel good to be alive. I am proud that I succeeded in becoming what I always wanted to be. I also love freedom; I am a free spirit.

Painting by Elvio Marchionni

Painting by Elvio Marchionni

With sincere thanks to Maestro Elvio Marchionni for his time and his generosity of spirit. Thanks also to Francesca Carbonini for her patience and help with translation.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brick House

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Citta della Pieve sits in a lovely situation overlooking the Chiana Valley on the Tuscan border. Since there was little local stone in this area, buildings were constructed in red brick.

Citta della Pieve: tumbling houses

Citta della Pieve: tumbling houses

Citta Della Pieve - church, detail

The bricks were made from clay dug from the nearby hills. The excavations can still be clearly seen just beyond the town walls.

Citta della Pieve: view of the brick field

Citta della Pieve: view of the brick field

Perugino: self portrait

Perugino: self portrait

Citta della Pieve is best known as the birthplace of the great Renaissance painter Pietro Vanucci, known as Perugino, who was not only well respected in his own right but also for his young apprentice, Raphael.

Perugino was inspired by the landscape and his paintings often include idealised backdrops of Lake Trasimeno and the surrounding countryside. He left several works of art in his native city, the best of which is the Adoration of the Magi.

In 1504, an assembly of lay brothers known as the Brotherhood of the Disciplined or the Whites (because of the robes they wore), asked Perugino to decorate the altar of their private chapel, the Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi.

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi - Robes of the Whites

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi – Robes of the Whites

Perugino was happy to accept the commission, but there was the small matter of payment to settle. In 1835, during drainage work, 2 letters from Perugino to the Brotherhood regarding his fee were found inside a tin tube buried at the bottom of the frescoed wall. Both letters have been reproduced in marble and hang on the Oratory walls. In the one shown below, Perugino asks for 200 ducats, but says that being a villager he would accept half of that sum, one quarter of which was to be paid immediately and the rest in instalments over the following three years.

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Perugino's letter

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Perugino’s letter

The Brothers agreed to his terms less a further 25 ducats discount in exchange for a mule to carry him and his materials from Perugia to Citta della Pieve. Even then, the Brothers failed to pay the final 25 ducats, and Perugino was forced to accept ownership of a house in lieu of that instalment.

Haggling, credit and default are clearly not confined to current times!

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Adoration of the Magi, Perugino, 1504

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Adoration of the Magi, Perugino, 1504

It took Perugino just one month to complete this exquisite fresco – one of his largest works. Note the backdrop, with Lake Trasimeno and the mountains as seen from Citta della Pieve, and the line of elegant Renaissance figures waiting to pay their respects to the infant. The detail of Mary and Jesus below illustrates the quality of the work and the glorious colours.

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Detail - Adoration of the Magi, Perugino, 1504

Citta della Pieve: Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Detail – Adoration of the Magi, Perugino, 1504

Perugino was one of the last great masters of this elegant style, where harmony and beauty are key. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were, at this point, painting visions of a contemporary and troubled world. Raphael, enchanted by the new style, left the workshop of Perugino in 1504, the year the Adoration of the Magi was painted.

In the main square – the Piazza del Plebiscito – is the house that belonged to Perugino’s family.

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito

The Cathedral of Saints Gervasio and Protasio is also in the main square. It was built on the site of the old pieve, or parish church, for which the town is named. It is constructed with both sandstone and brick and there are some decorative elements going back to the 9th and 10th centuries. The church underwent many transformations and became a cathedral only in 1600.

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito - Cathedral of Saints Gervasio and Protasio

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito – Cathedral of Saints Gervasio and Protasio

I am sadly unable to describe either the interior or its (reputedly) wonderful paintings as it was closed for renovation.

An ancient tower stands at one end of the cathedral, possibly part of a former civic building.

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito

Opposite the cathedral is the Palazzo della Corgna, the most important mansion in Citta della Pieve. It was built in the 16th century by Pope Julius III for his nephew, Ascanio della Corgna, who ruled as governor on behalf of the Pope. Its plain facade belies its interior with its monumental staircases, frescoed walls and rooms on a grand scale.

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito

Citta Della Pieve: Piazza del Plebiscito, Palazzo della Corgna

Citta della Pieve is known for its narrow streets and alleyways. The wider, curved streets were said to advantage knights on horseback and the alleyways the peasants armed with bows and arrows. So, in times of conflict, the horsemen could dodge the arrows shot by the peasants and the peasants could defend themselves in the maze of alleys, many of which are too narrow for horses. A tall tale perhaps, but you can really picture it when you are walking through the town.

Citta della Pieve

Citta della Pieve, street

Citta della Pieve, alleyway

Citta della Pieve, street

Vicolo Baciadonne is reputed to be the narrowest street in Italy; it is just 80cm (31 inches) wide.

Citta della Pieve, Vicolo Bachiadonne - narrowest street in Italy

Citta della Pieve, Vicolo Bachiadonne – narrowest street in Italy

Here mio marito demonstrates that it is better to visit before a large lunch!

Citta della Pieve, Vicolo Bachiadonne - narrowest street in Italy

Citta della Pieve, Vicolo Bachiadonne – narrowest street in Italy

One of the unusual things about Citta della Pieve is that the shops, restaurants and bars do not have signs outside. So you look for chairs and tables to indicate a cafe, or just peek into windows to see what is inside. It does have the benefit of uncluttered streets. – a rare thing indeed.

Citta della Pieve

Citta della Pieve

This is a great town to stroll around. Its elegant buildings, picturesque streets and beautiful views – not to mention its many bars and restaurants – ensure an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable visit.

Citta Della Pieve - church

Citta della Pieve, street

Citta della Pieve, street

Citta della Pieve, street

Another Brick in the Wall

Perugia. Palazzo dei Priori, Merchants' Guild Hall: detail

Perugia: the largest city in Umbria and its capital. City of contrasts, city of mystery, city of violence, city of art and culture, city of chocolate. To understand Perugia, past and present, it is important to understand a little of its fascinating history and how it has shaped today’s bustling Perugia. It is a complex, bloody history, so it is difficult to do it justice here, but I will try to pick out some highlights.

Originally occupied by the Umbrians, the site was settled by the Etruscans in around the 5th century BC. The old city, built on a hill overlooking the Tiber valley, still retains visible remains of the Etruscan period, such as Porta Marzia which incorporated a fine Etruscan arch into the city walls.

Perugia. Porta Marzia -Etruscan archway

Perugia. Porta Marzia -Etruscan archway

Conquered by Rome in 309 BC, the Perugians staged several revolts, culminating in the city being burned down when the funeral pyre of an Etruscan who had refused to capitulate got out of hand. Rebuilt by Augustus, there is little recorded of the city in the Dark Ages and beyond, other than its incursions into its neighbouring towns – Assisi, Spello and Folignio for example – all of which were subjugated.

In the 13th to 15th centuries, Perugia was embellished with some of the magnificent buildings that can still be seen today. In theory the city was part of the papal state but the popes found it difficult to control Perugia with its influential nobles and merchants. Pope Benedict XI visited the city and was given – by a nun so it is rumoured – poisoned figs. He was just one of 4 popes to die in Perugia: 3 of poison and one of overeating!

Tales of skulduggery abound. The nobles, merchants and commoners continued to vie for dominance and the popes, Milan and Naples all joined in at various points. Then along came the wonderfully named Braccio Fortebraccio – “Arm Strongarm” who conquered all of Umbria and had ambitions to unify Italy until he too was disposed of by a Perugian.

The feud between 2 noble clans – the Oddi and the Baglioni – grew increasingly violent and bloody. A pitched battle in the main square left 130 dead and revenge killings that the Mafia would have been proud of followed, until the murder of a papal legate gave Pope Paul III a reason to visit Perugia and exercise papal control once again. He raised the tax on salt, so the Perugians revolted again in the Salt Wars, only to be crushed by huge papal forces. Umbrians do not, even today, put salt in their bread as a protest against this provocation.

The Baglioni family gathered the Perugians together in the main square and vowed to protect them from the papal forces. It is said that a painting of Jesus was taken out of the cathedral to help the people. It has never been returned inside the cathedral as the Perugians feel they have still not had justice for the wrongs they suffered.

Perugia Cathedral, showing the painting of Jesus over the entrance.

Perugia Cathedral, showing the painting of Jesus over the entrance.

A deal was struck between the Pope and the Baglionis in which the Pope agreed not to destroy the city. He soon reneged on this deal however, and in 1543, as a further act of repression agains the Perugians, the Pope ordered the building of a huge fortress, the Rocca Paolina. In order to make way for the fortress, monasteries and churches and more than 100 houses – notably the properties belonging to the Baglioni family – were destroyed. The tall towers of the Baglioni family, symbols of their power, were demolished to form the foundations of the Rocca.

Rocca Paolina by Giuseppe Rossi

Rocca Paolina by Giuseppe Rossi

When Perugia gained independence in the 1800s, its citizens demolished the fortress brick by brick. Today little of it remains, other than the Porta Marzia  and the rather spooky remains of Via Baglioni, perfectly preserved medieval streets beneath Perugia.

Via Baglioni - medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Via Baglioni – medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Walking through the underground streets feels very strange.

Via Baglioni - medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Via Baglioni – medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

These are the very places where the medieval nobles lived, ate and slept. Was that an echo of a voice from the distant past? The ring of a sword being drawn? In these silent streets, it is not difficult to imagine.

Via Baglioni - medieval street buried beneath the Rocca

Piazza IV Novembre lies at the centre of Perugia. The most well-preserved and attractive square we have seen to date, it has, at its centre, the Fontana Maggiore, a magnificent 13th century fountain which is one of the best Romanesque monuments in Italy. Designed by a monk, Fra Bevignate, and created by father and son Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, the waters of the aqueduct converged here.

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia

The lower basin is in white marble, decorated with panels showing agricultural scenes and biblical episodes.

Perugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore detail. Piazza IV NovembrePerugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore - detail. Piazza IV NovembrePerugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore. - panel, Piazza IV Novembre

The second basin is in pink marble and portrays mythical and biblical characters. At its base are multiple spouts in the form of animals.

Perugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore detail. Piazza IV Novembre

Perugia, Umbria. Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre

At the top is a bronze bowl with nymphs supporting an amphora from which the water pours.

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre

Fontana Maggiore. Piazza IV Novembre

The Cathedral of San Lorenzo faces onto the square. Constructed between 1345 and 1490 and remodelled over the centuries, its facade remains unfinished. The lower facade is decorated with pink and white marble.

Perugia, Umbria. Palazzo dei Priori & Cathedral

The beautiful exterior pulpit is from the 15th century, and it was from this spot that Saint Bernadino of Sienna preached to large crowds in the 1420s.

Cathedral, exterior detail

The interior is Gothic in style and is light and cool. Its most important treasure is in the Cappella del Sant’Anello where, in a gold casket, a ring said to be the Virgin’s betrothal ring, is kept under lock and key.

The Virgin's ring. San Lorenzo Cathedral, Perugia.

The Virgin’s ring. San Lorenzo Cathedral

San Lorenzo Cathedral, Sacristy

San Lorenzo Cathedral, Sacristy

Facing the cathedral is the Palazzo dei Priori, built in stages between the 13th to 15th centuries, and designed to hold Perugia’s administrative offices when it was a flourishing city. Note the castellations and the shapely windows.

Palazzo dei Priori, Perugia

Palazzo dei Priori, Perugia

Annunciation by Perugino

Annunciation by Perugino

The Palazzo’s interior is most impressive. It now houses several attractions of note. The National Gallery of Umbria features works of art from the 13th to 19th centuries, organised chronologically and well laid out and labelled.

The art is almost exclusively religious art; by the end you have seen enough Madonna and Child paintings. But there are some remarkable works by significant artists such as Perugino, Pinturicchio, Fra Angelico. My favourite was a small Annunciation by Perugino.

Also within the Palazzo is Il Collegio della Mercanzia, home of the Merchants’ Guild from 1390 and almost unaltered since that date. The quality of the woodwork was so crisp and clear that it could have been carved yesterday.

Perugia, Umbria. Palazzo dei Priori, Merchants' Guild Hall

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Perugia, Umbria. Palazzo dei Priori, Merchants' Guild Hall

imagesFinally, we visited the Collegio del Cambio where the money-changers operated. It was used as a counting house and the tiny scales and coins are on view. There is a series of frescoes by Perugino covering its walls which is considered to be one of the most significant examples of Italian Renaissance art. Perugino also included a self-portrait, left.

The attached chapel of Saint John the Baptist contains additional frescoes.

Palazzo dei Priori. Chapel of St John the Baptist, fresco detail

Palazzo dei Priori. Chapel of St John the Baptist, fresco detail

There are so many interesting things to see just walking around Perugia. The backstreets seem virtually unchanged from medieval times, drainpipes excepted.

Perugia, Umbria. Backstreets

There are magnificent buildings and signs of the past everywhere.

Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, seat of the judiciary. Justice, detail

Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, seat of the judiciary. Justice, detail

Pharmacy sign - founded 1592

Pharmacy sign – founded 1592

Perugia’s hilltop position allows some far-reaching views over the Tiber valley. These shots were taken from Piazza Italia.

Perugia, Umbria. Piazza Italia view

Perugia, Umbria. Piazza Italia view

The University of Perugia was founded in 1308 and still attracts large numbers of students, as does its reputed Language School.  Perugia is a cultural city; it hosts a chocolate festival and Europe’s top jazz festival annually and has several theatres.

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Despite its history of conflict and conquest, modern Perugia is vibrant and colourful, forward-looking and proud of its past.

Horse's head in the bed...?

Watch out for the horse’s head…

My Kind of Town

In a previous post (Red Red Wine) I wrote about the Sagrantino di Montefalco wine and the erstwhile pleasure of our visit to the Arnaldo Caprai winery set in the verdant Umbrian countryside. At the centre of the Sagrantino wine region sits the small town of Montefalco, perched high on a hill and enclosed within medieval walls.

Porta Sant'Agostino, Montefalco

Porta Sant’Agostino, Montefalco

The walls are pierced by 5 gates, and from each gate a narrow road winds upwards to the main square, Piazza del Comune, at the summit of the town. The Piazza is almost perfectly circular, and around its perimeter stand a number of grand buildings. The Palazzo Comunale dates from the 13th to 14th centuries, although it was restored in the 19th century. It is an imposing building with beautiful, crisp brickwork.

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Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Palazzo Comunale

Tall, thin and elegant, the former church of San Filippo Neri, built in the 18th century, is now a theatre.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Former church of San Filipo Neri, now a theatre

The tiny Oratorio di Santa Maria was used to hold public meetings during the Renaissance. It has some original frescoes and copies of other key paintings held in Montefalco’s museum and churches. Just as well, since the “no photos, even without flash” policy is common.

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Detail from a painting in Montefalco’s museum, reproduced in the Oratorio di Santa Maria.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. Oratorio di Santa Maria

Leaving the square, we visited the church of Saint Francis and the attached monastery which now form part of a small museum which is renowned throughout the region. The museum houses a number of interesting paintings, largely by Umbrian artists including Francesco Melanzio from Montefalco. There are also some artefacts – ceramics, wooden statues, glass from Murano for example – and the ancient cellars of the Friars Minor of Montefalco, containing an enormous wine press!

The highlight of the museum is the former church itself. Built as a Franciscan church in the early 14th century, it houses a cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. In terms of their subject matter, these frescoes are considered second only to those in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, is best known for his wonderful frescoes in the Medici Palace in Florence. So, important art for a small town. The detail below shows Saint Francis giving his sermon to the birds.

BenozzoGozzoli1

There is also a Nativity fresco by Perugino as well as various paintings by Umbrian artists of the 15th century. It was well worth a visit.

Continuing down the street, we reached a lovely piazza with extensive views across the Umbrian valley, vineyards, olive groves and mountains. You can appreciate why Montefalco is known as the “Balcony of Umbria”.

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The photo below shows Spello in the distance, perched on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Montefalco. View from Montefalco showing Spello

This photo shows Spello and Monte Subasio, the mountain we drove over (!!! See earlier post Stairway to Heaven) to Assisi which is just out of shot to the left of the picture. 

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And here is Assisi….

Montefalco. View from Montefalco, showing Assisi

You could still see snow on the highest peaks.

Montefalco. View from Montefalco showing snow-topped mountains

Everywhere you turned in Montefalco could have been a scene from the film “A Room with a View.”

Montefalco.

Montefalco.

Montefalco.

Everywhere you looked there was something of beauty, like this detail of a painting on one of the old buildings.

Montefalco. Detail of wall painting

And a more modern poster advertising an exhibition.

Montefalco. Via Ringhiera. Poster

After all of that culture and fresh air, there was nothing else for it but to head for lunch in the main square. L’Alchimista had come highly recommended, and its tables were filling up fast.

Montefalco. Lunch at L'Alchimista

We started with zucchini flowers, stuffed with ricotta cheese. Not only did this look divine, it tasted heavenly too. It was, without doubt, the best dish I have eaten during our entire stay – and that is saying something!

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I followed up with carpaccio of veal with goat’s cheese and truffle….

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….whilst mio marito settled on tortellini stuffed with porcetta and truffle with fresh peas and broad beans….

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….all washed down – inevitably – with a glass of Sagrantino di Montefalco.

Montefalco. Lunch at L'Alchimista

It was the most perfect lunch: local produce, zinging with flavours, beautifully prepared and presented.

Just as we left, the local Harley Davidson Hills (as in hill towns) Angels arrived, the distinctive throaty thrum of their engines preceding them by a short handlebar.

Montefalco. Piazza del Comune. L'Alchemista Restaurant

Sailing

I love water. Seas, lakes, rivers. I even drink the stuff. Umbria is landlocked, so there is no possibility of trips to the seaside, but it does boast 2 lakes: Lake Trasimeno and Lake Piediluco.

Lake Trasimeno, Umbria

Lake Trasimeno, Umbria

Lord Byron described Lake Trasimeno as “a silvery veil” and Goethe as “an unforgettable vision“. It is the 4th largest lake in Italy, covering an area of around 126 square kilometres (48 square miles) with a perimeter of around 60 kilometres (37 miles). It has none of the glamour of Lake Garda, and is all the better for it; quiet and peaceful, blue and green, green and blue, surrounded by low hills peppered with castles, villages, towers and churches.

We decided to spend 2 days at Lake Trasimeno and found a quirky B&B In Castiglione del Lago, the principal town on the western shore. It is a charming little town, surrounded by ancient walls breached by imposing gates.

Gate, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Gate, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Gate, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Gate, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Castiglione del Lago is built on a rocky promontory, giving expansive views of the Lake. Because of its strategic position, the town was fortified first by the Etruscans and then by the Romans, and was fought over, destroyed and rebuilt throughout the centuries. Today it is a small town unspoilt by excessive tourism, full of friendly people.

Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Building detail. Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Building detail. Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

The shops are full of local products, including the many-coloured beans which looked so very attractive.

Local products. Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Local products. Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

We couldn’t resist capturing these two chatting ceramic figures sitting on a window ledge.

Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Dominating the town is the Rocca del Leone (Lion Fortress), completed in 1247 by Frederick II. It is built to a pentangle design with 4 corner towers and, unusually, a triangular keep.

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

It is one of the finest examples of military architecture in Umbria, and in the 16th century was considered to be one of the most impregnable fortresses in Italy.

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

Rocca del Leone, Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno

From the fortress, a narrow covered passageway inside the wall leads to the Palazzo della Corgna, an imposing palace built for the della Corgna family. An earlier building on this site was owned by the Baglioni family who hosted Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci there.

Passageway between the fortress and the Palazzo della Corgna.

Passageway between the fortress and the Palazzo della Corgna.

Fresco, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

Fresco, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

The 16th century palazzo is remarkable for its extensive, well-preserved and brightly coloured frescoes, attributed to Pomerancio and unknown others. The subjects include scenes from the Aeneid, the military exploits of the founder of the dynasty, Ascanio della Corgna and depictions of the seasons.

Frescoes, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

Frescoes, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

Frescoes, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

Frescoes, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

Frescoes, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

Frescoes, Palazzo della Corgna, Castiglione del Lago

In early May, Castiglione del Lago hosts the “Colour the Skies” festival with light aircraft, hot air balloons and kites. The palazzo housed a display of some of the kites from former years.

Kites, Palazzo del Corgna

Kites, Palazzo del Corgna

There are 3 islands in the middle of the lake: Isola Minore, Isola Polvese and Isola Maggiore. Isola Minore is privately owned whilst Isola Polvese is a wildlife sanctuary. We took the local ferry to Isola Maggiore – a lovely trip taking about 30 minutes.

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

The shore was fringed with weeping willows.

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

There are few inhabitants on the island and most make their living by fishing or tourism. We strolled around the quiet streets. The sun blazed down – I had to buy a hat!

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Saint Francis of Assisi was said to have come to this island to fast and pray, and there is a worn chapel built on the site where he supposedly knelt on arrival.

Old churches perched on worn steps.

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Breathtaking lake views were all around us.

Vie from Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

View from Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Wooden piles at the boat jetty seemed to be “walking” into the water!

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

There were surprisingly few pleasure craft on the water. The Lake is fairly shallow and marshy in some areas which may explain the lack of activity. This little speedboat was collecting diners for a lakeside restaurant.

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno - view of Castiglione del Lago

Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno – view of Castiglione del Lago

As the sun began to cool, we sat on the shore with a well-deserved drink watching the water shimmer and dapple in the light. It was heavenly.

All too soon the ferry arrived and we were homeward bound. Castiglione del Lago looked wonderful as we returned to its encircling walls. Day one was drawing to a close.

View of Castiglione del Lago from boat to Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

View of Castiglione del Lago from the boat from Isola Maggiore, Lake Trasimeno

Blah, blah, blah

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In previous posts I have written about some of the artists of Spello and Umbria. These artists have one thing in common: they are all dead. Unsurprising, of course, as they painted largely in the medieval and Renaissance periods. You may think, therefore, that living artists have nothing to contribute, and maybe cannot compare with the sheer genius of those who have gone before. But there is an artist born in Spello in 1944 and still living and working here who creates works of art so beautiful that perhaps he really does bear comparison to past masters. The artist in question is Elvio Marchionni.

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Elvio Marchionni attended the Art Institute of Bernadino di Betto of Perugia (the “little painter”, Pinturicchio), where he explored medieval painting techniques, the classics and the great past masters. His palette is one of subdued colours, and many of his works resemble frescoes destroyed by the effects of time. He has exhibited all over Italy, including at the Venice Biennale of Sacred Arts, as well as in Paris, Madrid, Germany and the US.

His works can be seen in nearby Foligno, both in the Cathedral and in the apse of the church at Scopoli. In Spello there is a painting by Elvio Marchionni in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and another of St Veronica on the facade of one of the buildings in the main street.

Spello town

We had seen numerous posters around town advertising an event on behalf of the Marchionni Foundation at the former church of Saint Michael Archangel. We were not entirely sure what the event entailed, but we had seen canvasses being prepared and chairs being set out, so not wanting to miss anything we decided to go along.

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The little church was full; all around were hung lovely art works, large and small. There were TV cameras and interviewers, photographers and local dignitaries. We managed to find seats and sat back to observe proceedings. We had thought that there might be a few words said about Signor Marchionni, then we would have a chance to view the paintings.

Well, the dignitaries stood up one by one and talked, and talked and talked…..An hour later they were still going strong, emphasising their points with lots of arm-waving and rousing finales.

We have been a bit smug about using our Italian and were proud of the fact that we can understand at least part of the conversations around us. But we came back to earth with a huge bump that evening when we could only extract something along the following lines. “Blah, blah Caravaggio. Blah, blah Perugino. British Museum, blah, blah. Pinturicchio blah, blah. Maestro Elvio Marchionni, blah, blah.” I exaggerate for effect, but not by much.

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At last, the artist himself stood up to speak. He is a quietly spoken man who clearly prefers to let his art do the talking. He is passionate about art and equally passionate about sharing his knowledge with others, particularly young people. Encouraging tourists, school children and artists alike to understand the creative process and how works of art are produced is part of the Foundation’s plan.

With an allusion to the past, through his Foundation he is also aiming to recreate the relationship between the artist and his disciples, moving from theory to practice, learning the trade, inspiring each other, exchanging ideas and creativity.

We never did get to see all of the beautiful art works on display, but judge for yourself from the small selection included here how stunning they are. Elvio Marchionni, you are an inspiration.

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Endless Art

Spello may be a tiny town, but it houses some of the very finest art works in this region. Those who come here for the day head straight to the fine church of Santa Maria Maggiore where Spello’s art jewels are to be found.

The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The church was completed in 1285, but its crumbling facade was reconstructed in the 17th century, using the original materials. It stands in a small square paved with medieval cistern covers. The 2 large fluted columns in marble which you can see at the foot of the bell tower are the remains of an earlier, Roman structure; the church was built on an important Roman road that ran through this area.

Inside, there is a single, wide nave and seven altars. The light filters through the many windows, highlighting the rich stucco decoration, paintings and sculptures. But it is the Baglioni Chapel that, rightly, commands attention. The decoration was commissioned by Troilo Baglioni who was the Prior of Santa Maria Maggiore in the 16th century. The artist was Bernadino de Betto, more commonly known by his nickname Pinturicchio – “little painter”. This nickname referred to his short stature, not to his artistic talent.

Pinturrichio joined the Perugia painters guild around 1481, the same year in which he collaborated with the artist Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino, on some frescoes for the walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome. Pinturrichio also decorated the (Papal) Borgia apartments and a produced a fresco series for the library of Siena cathedral. He painted the Baglioni Chapel in 1500 to 1501. His work is highly decorative with superb attention to detail, particularly in his figures. Like other artists of his age, the women are depicted as graceful and serene and the landscapes have depth and an air of peace. Pinturrichio is said to have influenced other Umbrian artists such as Raphael, who was apprenticed to Perugino.

The Dispute in the Temple by Pinturrichio, Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The Dispute in the Temple by Pinturrichio, Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Baglione can be seen at the far left of this picture dressed in his black habit, standing next to his treasurer in a blue robe holding a bag of money.

Annunciation (detail showing self-portrait of Pinturrichio, by Pinturrichio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Annunciation (detail showing self-portrait of Pinturrichio, by Pinturrichio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Adoration of the Child (detail) by Pinturicchio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Adoration of the Child (detail) by Pinturicchio. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

The floor of the Chapel is made of small, glazed majolica tiles dated 1566 from nearby Deruta, showing winged horses, birds and plant motifs.

Also represented in the church is Perugino, whose 2 works here date from around 1521.

Pieta with St John and Mary Magdalene by Perugino. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Pieta with St John and Mary Magdalene by Perugino. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello

Madonna and Child with St Catherine and St Biagio

Madonna and Child with St Catherine and St Biagio

I have mentioned before that we are staying in part of the ex-nunnery of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare). The church houses an oil painting from this house which was formerly a panel used to partition the closed-order nuns from the public. This painting, from around 1700, is attributed to Carlo Lamperelli, who was born in Spello. Unfortunately I have struggled to find a good photograph of this painting which, even in the flesh, is rather dark and unclear.

Panel from Santa Chiara by Carlo Lamperelli. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello.

Panel from Santa Chiara by Carlo Lamperelli. Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello.

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is a treasure house. The Baglioni Chapel is a masterpiece. I don’t mind paying my 2 Euros to light up these frescoes as I fully understand the need to protect them from excessive light. However, an opaque glass panel has been constructed across the front of the Chapel, restricting visitors from seeing the frescoes without paying, and since there is not always someone on hand to pay your money to, I saw many visitors leave the church without having had the chance to view these masterpieces. Aside from that, the glass barrier is extremely ugly and it ruins the lines of the church. Remove this monstrosity, powers that be. Charge us to light the frescoes like other churches do, with pay and display lighting!