Category Archives: Umbrian churches

All Shook Up

Detail, Pillar of Hercules, Foligno

Detail, Pillar of Hercules, Foligno

Five minutes by train from Spello is the sprawling town of Foligno. We had visited before but left disappointed, firstly because it was cold and drizzly and few places look good in the rain and secondly because it was still undergoing repairs after the 1997 earthquake. On a warm, sunny day with a cloudless blue sky, we decided Foligno was worth another look.

Foligno, Cathedral

Foligno, Cathedral, Piazza Grande

The cathedral of San Feliciano was begun in 1133. The highlight is the pink marble facade in Piazza della Repubblica but it is stunning from all angles. The square, badly damaged in the earthquake, was once again buzzing with life. Unusually flat in contrast to the surrounding hill towns, Foligno’s streets are full of bicycles.

Foligno Cathedral

Foligno Cathedral, Piazza della Repubblica

The main cathedral entrance is guarded by the sweetest looking lions imaginable. Note the shiny ear, presumably from years of gentle stroking!

Lovely Lion, Foligno Cathedral

Lovely Lion, Foligno Cathedral

The sweeping stone staircase displays the arms of a bishop, complete with mitre and crozier….

Bishop's Arms, Foligno Cathedral

Bishop’s Arms, Foligno Cathedral

The interior is a neo-classical in style, dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These alterations were carried out by Guiseppe Piermarini – of whom more later – who removed earlier modifications. Unfortunately this work obscures the wonderful rose window which is barely visible from inside. Statues peek out from behind tall white columns….

Foligno Cathedral

Foligno Cathedral

There was one work of art we particularly wanted to see: Elvio Marchionni’s paintings in the Chapel of the Sacrament. I had the pleasure of interviewing the artist last year and the works in this cathedral did not disappoint.

Elvio Marchionni, Foligno Cathedral Chapel

Elvio Marchionni, Detail, Foligno Cathedral Chapel

Outside of the old town centre, many of Foligno’s buildings are modern, but there are some wonderful large houses that caught my eye. Here a young girl stands motionless framed by a magnificent window….

Foligno

Foligno

Pastel coloured walls and fine details are everywhere….

Detail, Foligno

Detail, Foligno

….and a contrast between old and new is reflected in this modern glass building….

Reflected Glory, Foligno

Reflected Glory, Foligno

I mentioned Giuseppe Piermarini earlier and promised to return to him. Born in Foligno in 1734 and later apprenticed in Rome, Piermarini was the greatest neo-classical architect of his day. He is best remembered for designing the La Scala theatre which opened in 1778 in Milan. Here in Foligno the theatre bears his name; it is not as well known but is an architectural gem in its own right.

Piermarini Theatre, Foligno

Piermarini Theatre, Foligno

Turning down a quiet street in search of coffee, we stepped into the Piazza Piermarini with its bronze statue of Hercules supporting a tall obelisk.

Pillar of Hercules, Foligno

Pillar of Hercules, Foligno

This monument is dedicated to Piermarini and its fine details show plans and pictures of some of his works, including La Scala. It also details many tiny turtles as the successful contemporary sculptor, Ivan Thiemer, often uses turtles in his works. Turtles have a symbolism in many cultures associated with longevity, happiness, silence and even magic.

Detail, Pillar of Hercules, Foligno

Detail, Pillar of Hercules, Foligno

In revisiting Foligno we found the old centre revitalised after its repairs and discovered an architectural genius, a son of Foligno who was entirely unknown to us previously but whose name lives on in his splendid works.

Courtyard, Foligno

Courtyard, Foligno

 

 

 

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If You Ever Come Back.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

I’ve no idea how we missed the bus stop. Almost all of our fellow passengers got off, but for some reason we stayed on. As the bus took a sharp, uphill turn we saw a fleeting glimpse of the Basilica of Saint Francis; we pulled away. Several hairpin bends and delicious views later, we reached the end of the road, literally. There was a sign opposite the bus stop pointing out the pedestrian route to the centre of the town via a Roman tunnel. Into the depths we descended through the Roman remains of Assisi. Suddenly, daylight, big skies, church towers and domes!

Assisi

Assisi Cathedral: Saint Rufino

The Duomo of Saint Rufino is thought to date from the 8th century, although it was rebuilt in the 11th century when it was consecrated as the cathedral of Assisi. It is an enormous structure with a beautiful green dome and evidence of repairs due to age and earthquakes.

Assisi: Church of Saint Clare

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Clare

Although Saint Francis of Assisi is the town’s most celebrated former resident, his contemporary, Saint Clare, is also honoured here. The Basilica of Saint Clare was constructed in the 13th century. It has a pretty, striped facade, using pink stone from Mount Subasio, on whose lower slopes Assisi lies. The church has a large, square bell tower and, from above, wonderful views of the Umbrian countryside.

Assisi

Assisi

Still we descended the steep streets, with picturesque views to right and left.

Assisi

Assisi

Through arches and bridges we saw changing vistas of mountains and trees, crops and clouds.

Assisi

Assisi

Tall medieval buildings seemed to dwarf their Lilliputian residents.

Assisi: Torre del Popolo

Assisi: Torre del Popolo

Approaching the town centre, the 13th century Torre del Popolo towered above the ancient square, the Piazza del Comune. The beautifully situated 16th century fountain in the same square is guarded by 3 rather tame looking lions.

AssisiAssisi: Three Lions Fountain

Assisi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO describes the town as “an outstanding example of a type of architectural ensemble that has significantly influenced the development of art and architecture.” That is quite an accolade, but one that is well deserved, not least because of the Basilica of Saint Francis.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

In front of the Basilica there is a striking bronze statue by the sculpture and artist Proietti Norberto, a native of nearby Spello. The statue is known as the Return of Saint Francis or the Pilgrim of Peace. The Franciscan movement preaches a universal message of peace and tolerance, a message sadly lacking in our troubled times.

"Return of Saint Francis" by Norberto

“Return of Saint Francis” by Norberto

Looking down into the lower plaza, the panoramic views extend across the Umbrian plain. You might just make out the blue dome of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli: I have written about this unusual church, containing the cell in which Saint Francis was said to have died and his first chapel, in an earlier post.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

The plain facade of the Basilica of Saint Francis does not prepare the visitor for its remarkable decorative interior with frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti amongst others. Both the lower and upper churches are crammed with remarkable art.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

This unique treasure house, somewhat ironically built in honour of a man who cast aside riches and dedicated himself to the poor, is surely worth a visit.

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

Assisi: Basilica of Saint Francis

On our previous visit we had concentrated largely on the Basilica and found it rather overwhelming and a little distasteful. But we were glad we had returned; through missing our bus stop we had seen a whole new side to Assisi with its winding streets and quiet squares. We also had a chance to enjoy once again the mesmerising religious art of this historic town.

Assisi

Assisi

 

The Eagle Has Landed

Todi: Palazzo dei Priori, Bronze Eagle

Todi: Palazzo dei Priori, Bronze Eagle

Legend has it that the construction of Todi had already begun on the banks of the River Tiber, when an eagle descended and snatched a tablecloth from a local family. The eagle dropped the tablecloth higher up the mountain slopes, and since this was considered to be a good omen, building work was moved to the higher site. The eagle remains the symbol of Todi to this day; this wonderful bronze example in the main piazza dates from 1339.

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Todi’s position, overlooking the east bank of the River Tiber, affords it wonderful views. Indeed, the undulating landscape could come straight out of a Renaissance painting.

We arrived in the town’s main car park and – oh joy! – there was a funicular to whisk us up to the centre. On exiting the funicular, there was a viewing point with a spectacular panorama of Todi.

Todi: panorama

Todi: panorama

Todi: panorama

Todi: panorama

Todi’s walls are medieval, Roman and Etruscan. The Romans levelled out the town’s two hilltops to make way for a forum. Todi’s main square grew up on the remains of the forum so, compared to other Umbrian hill towns, it is very large. This magnificent square – Piazza del Popolo – has, unsurprisingly, provided the location for several films; it is truly reminiscent of a film set.

Todi: Piazza del Popolo

Todi: Piazza del Popolo

The square contains at least 4 magnificent buildings. The cathedral was founded in the 12th century, possibly on the site of a Roman temple, but it was not completed for several hundred years.

Todi: Cathedral

Todi: Cathedral

The sweeping flight of steps is 18th century, the door, the choir and the rose window date from the 16th century but it all comes together to create a harmonious building.

Todi: Cathedral

Todi: Cathedral

Todi: Cathedral, door panel detail

Todi: Cathedral, door panel detail

The rose window is particularly delicate, with beautiful pink and white marble decoration and fine carving.

Todi: Cathedral, Rose Window

Todi: Cathedral, Rose Window

The interior view of the rose window shows its brightly coloured glass and the wonderful frescoes filling the entire wall.

Todi: Cathedral, internal view of Rose Window

Todi: Cathedral, internal view of Rose Window

A largely plain interior sets off the frescoes and gives the cathedral a feeling of space and light.

Todi: Cathedral

Todi: Cathedral

Opposite the cathedral is the Palazzo dei Priori, built in the 13th and 14th centuries and home to the town’s rulers through the years. Spot the eagle mounted on the facade!

Todi: Palazzo dei Priori

Todi: Palazzo dei Priori

Next to the Palazzo dei Priori is the Palazzo del Popolo, complete with swallowtail crenellations. (If I remember one thing from this trip, it will be how to recognise swallowtail crenellations and fluted merlons!) The Palazzo del Popolo is one of Italy’s oldest administrative buildings, begun in the 13th century, but heavily restored in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo

The external staircase is supported by an attractive porticoed space used for public meetings.

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo

The Palazzo del Popolo continues around the corner into Piazza Garibaldi.

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo, Piazza Garibaldi facade

Todi: Piazza Garibaldi

Adjoining Palazzo del Popolo, and sharing its huge entrance staircase, is the Palazzo del Capitano. It has a grandiose facade with attractive mullioned windows, and now houses the art gallery and museum.

Why do the Italians insist on putting modern signage in front of historic buildings? It drives me crazy….

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo

Todi: Palazzo del Popolo

Leaving the main square, Todi’s labyrinthine streets have lots to offer at every turn. In Corso Cavour where medieval spice sellers once traded, is the fountain known as Fonte Rua or Fonte Cesia, after the bishop that had it built.

Todi: Fonte Cesia

Todi: Fonte Cesia

A little further on is the Porta Marzia, a medieval gate constructed from salvaged materials. This lovely statue sits just above the gate, making eternal music.

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Then up and up we climbed to Todi’s highest point, where a large public park provides a peaceful retreat. It was very peaceful when we visited as it was cool and threatening to rain…

Todi: Public Park

Todi: Steps to Public Park

Close to the park is the most unusual Franciscan church of San Fortunato. It is a huge edifice, standing at the top of an impressive flight of steps.

Todi: San Fortunato church

Todi: San Fortunato church

The interior is Gothic, airy, bright and simple. It is unusual, in that this style of church – a Gothic hall church, where the side aisles are equal in height to the nave – is rarely seen in Italy.

Todi: San Fortunato church.

Todi: San Fortunato church.

Todi: San Fortunato church, fresco

Todi: San Fortunato church, fresco

In the crypt is the tomb of Todi’s most well-known citizen: Jacopone da Todi who died in 1306. A Franciscan poet and mystic, after the death of his wife he led a simple existence, devoted to God. He was considered extreme in his views and was even accused of heresy, but he is still remembered for his religious poetry.

The other eminent Todi citizen was Pope Martin, later martyred and made a saint. This sculpture is in the cathedral.

Todi: Cathedral, sculpture dedicated to Pope Martin, Pope, martyr, saint

Todi: Cathedral, sculpture dedicated to Pope Martin, Pope, martyr, saint

In my last post, I opened the door to our apartment in Spello so that you could look in. But prior to coming to Italy, Todi had been our original destination and we had signed a contract to stay in the tower set into the town walls pictured below. No sooner was the ink dry than the owner asked us to cancel the contract due to a legal issue with a sitting tenant. So we just had to go and see where we might have spent 3 months…..

Todi: The Tower

Todi: The Tower

It looked like a nice place, but it was in a car park and next to the ring road, so lady luck was bounteous on the day that the contract fell through and we found our Spello home from home.

Steps away from the tower is the striking church of Santa Maria della Consolazione. Standing just outside the city walls, it is a Renaissance masterpiece. It has been attributed to Bramante, one of the architects of St Peter’s basilica in Rome: you can see the similarities. But there is no documentary evidence to confirm this link; it is more probable that the architect of Todi’s church may have used some of Bramante’s drawings.

The church was built to house and protect the venerated painting of Santa Maria della Consolazione. This is a tiny and – in my view – unremarkable fresco. The church’s interior is plain and elegant, with grand statues of the apostles forming the major decoration. The great dome is set above a balcony to which brave souls can climb and admire the views. The silhouette can be seen from some distance.

Todi: Santa Maria della Consolazione

Todi: Santa Maria della Consolazione

The weather was poor, the lunch was the worst we have eaten in Italy, but Todi’s attractions are many so our memories of the day – other than the food and the weather – are good ones.

Big Rock Candy Mountains

When I think of Orvieto I think of its wonderful white wines, light, easy to drink, with a delicate bouquet. Orvieto Classico is the superior variety, containing a higher proportion of the grechetto grape. This wine has been in demand since Roman times, and in the Middle Ages it was known as the “wine of the Popes”. Luckily there is plenty available for us lesser mortals to savour.

A visit to Orvieto had been on the cards for some time, and with the sun shining there was no excuse not to head for this ancient city.

Orvieto

Orvieto

Nothing prepared us for our first view of the city, perched on a tufa butte, the soft volcanic stone forming the platform on which the city stands. We parked in the Piazza del Popolo, its central location (arrived at more by accident than design) being perfect for exploring. The Palazzo del Popolo dominates the square, an impressive example of late 13th century civic architecture. It was built from the local tufa stone, with a bell tower and fluted merlons. No, I didn’t know what a fluted merlon was either, but it is the fancy bit on the castellations – how very decorative!

Orvieto, Palazzo del Popolo

Orvieto, Palazzo del Popolo

At close quarters, the Palazzo del Popolo has more decorative features. This detail looks like piped icing…..

Orvieto, Palazzo del Popolo

Orvieto, Palazzo del Popolo

…..and this lovely chequered design….

Orvieto, Palazzo del Popolo

Orvieto, Palazzo del Popolo

From the same square we could also see the 12th century Torre del Moro (Tower of the Moor) which is 137 feet high and has a 14th century bell that is still in working order.

Orvieto, Torre del Moro

Orvieto, Torre del Moro

Orvieto’s greatest attraction is its cathedral. Founded in 1290, it was 300 years and over 30 different architects later before the magnificent edifice was completed. It was designed to celebrate the Miracle of Bolsena and to accommodate its prized relic.

In 1263, a German priest stopped at Bolsena, near Orvieto, en route to Rome. Although he was devout, he struggled to believe that the Eucharist was the body and blood of Christ. Whilst celebrating mass at Bolsena, it was said that drops of blood seeped from the host onto a linen cloth. This cloth is still exhibited in Orvieto cathedral. As a result of this “miracle”, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of Corpus Christi.

Orvieto: olive wood carving celebrating the Miracle of Bolsena

Orvieto: olive wood carving celebrating the Miracle of Bolsena

The cathedral is approached via narrow, winding streets. The first sight is truly breathtaking.

Orvieto: Cathedral approach

Orvieto: Cathedral approach

The facade is dazzling, with its mosaics glinting in the sun, detailed carvings and wonderful statues.

Orvieto: Cathedral facade

Orvieto: Cathedral facade

Orvieto: Cathedral facade, Madonna and Child

Orvieto: Cathedral facade, Madonna and Child

Orvieto: Cathedral facade, carving detail.

Orvieto: Cathedral facade, carving detail.

The cathedral’s sides are striped in white travertine and black basalt. The facade is typically Umbrian, narrow but delicate, soaring into infinity.

Orvieto: Cathedral

Orvieto: Cathedral

On closer inspection you can see the myriad colours incorporated into the design. The workmanship is exquisite.

Orvieto: Cathedral facade, detail

Orvieto: Cathedral facade, detail

A side view shows the huge bronze statues of bulls, lions and griffins leaping out of the facade.

Orvieto: Cathedral facade

Orvieto: Cathedral facade

The interior is surprisingly simple, cool and airy.

Orvieto: Cathedral interior

Orvieto: Cathedral interior

The sparse use of colour makes it even more effective where it is used.

Orvieto: Cathedral interior

Orvieto: Cathedral interior

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio

There is a chapel dedicated to the Miracle of Bolsena – a rather dingy place, with the blood-stained linen cloth as it centrepiece. But it is the Capella della Madonna di San Brizio (Chapel of Our Lady of Saint Brizio) that rightly draws the attention. It is a masterpiece of the Renaissance, with frescoes narrating the themes of the Last Judgement by Luca Signorelli and Fra Angelico.

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio

It is said that Michelangelo drew inspiration from these frescoes for his paintings in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. It is not difficult to see why.

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio. Last Judgement, detail.

Orvieto Cathedral, Capella della Madonna di San Brizio. Last Judgement, detail.

The cathedral dominates the square, but the Palazzo Papale (Popes’ Palace) which combines 3 14th century buildings commissioned by 3 popes and later combined into one complex, is also of interest.

Orvieto Cathedral square, Palazzo Papale

Orvieto Cathedral square, Palazzo Papale

You can sit and watch the world go by at a cafe whilst marvelling at the cathedral.

Orvieto Cathedral square

Orvieto Cathedral square

The streets of the old city retain their medieval buildings and picturesque alleyways.

Orvieto, street view

Orvieto, street view

Orvieto, street view

Orvieto, street view

Turn a corner and you find an ancient church – Sant’Andrea was built on the site of a Roman temple and is one of Orvieto’s oldest buildings. Its 12-sided bell tower dominates the church.

Orvieto: Church of Sant'Andrea

Orvieto: Church of Sant’Andrea

The elevated position of Orvieto means that it offers great views from its walls.

Orvieto, view from walls

Orvieto, view from walls

Orvieto, view from walls showing the medieval Abbey of Saints Severino & Martin

Orvieto, view from walls showing the medieval Abbey of Saints Severino & Martin

Orvieto is not, however, preserved in aspic. It is very much a living place, with bustling shops and people enjoying their city. We stopped to watch some energetic street dancing.

Orvieto: Street dancing

Orvieto: Street dancing

And there is humour too: irreverent perhaps, but amusing nevertheless.

Orvieto: street art

Orvieto: street art

There is much more to Orvieto than we were able to see in a day: underground caves, Etruscan tombs and museums. All of the right ingredients to prompt a return visit.

Orvieto: Cathedral door - bronze angel detail

Orvieto: Cathedral door – bronze angel detail

A Different Corner

I wrote about our visit to Assisi in an earlier post (Stairway to Heaven). From Assisi, high on its mountain slopes, you can look down onto the flat plain below and see a huge dome, standing out amongst the insignificant buildings that surround it.

View from Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

View from Assisi: Santa Maria degli Angeli

Why was there such an enormous church so close to Assisi? What was its significance? This called for a visit to investigate, so we headed to the small town of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Saint Mary of the Angels) and the church of the same name.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

This church revealed a story that had me wondering why so many pilgrims and tourists visit Assisi in their droves, bypassing the place with the strongest links to the life – and death – of Saint Francis. I have a hunch that many of them don’t even know of its existence, based only on speculation and crowd density during our visits: Assisi: thousands of people versus Santa Maria degli Angeli: maybe a hundred.

Saint Francis came from Assisi at a time when the plains below the town were heavily forested. In the forest was a tiny chapel from the 10th or 11th century. This chapel was given to Francis by the Benedictines, and it was here that Francis founded his Order of Friars Minor in 1209. The chapel – known as the Porziuncola – still exists in its original location. And the church was built on top; the chapel is directly under the dome!

The Porziuncola Chapel: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

The Porziuncola Chapel: Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi.

The name Porziuncola means “gift”, and derives from the story that Jesus gave Francis the gift of forgiveness, known as the Pardon of Assisi, at this spot.The exterior frescoes, illustrating the Pardon, are a 15th century addition, but the chapel’s structure has apparently not been significantly modified since the 13th century when Francis and his followers were based there.

Just out of view behind the Porziuncola is a small cell, formerly part of the infirmary of the convent on this site where Francis died in October 1226. It is known as the Capella del Transito (Transit Chapel). Inside the cell are a statue of Francis in white, glazed terracotta by Andrea della Robbia from 1490, and a glass case containing what pertains to be the cord from Francis’ robe with its 3 knots representing the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Santa Maria degli Angeli is the seventh largest Christian church in the world. It was begun in 1569 and was substantially completed in 1667 when the dome was added. Following the devastating earthquake of 1832, the church underwent some remodelling, particularly of the facade.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi

Even for the non-believers amongst us, this place has a wonderful, spiritual feel to it. Its credentials – birthplace of the Franciscan Order and the place where Francis died – qualify this church for much more attention than it seems to receive.

St Francis of Assisi, attributed to Cimabue

St Francis of Assisi, attributed to Cimabue