Tag Archives: Santa Maria Maggiore

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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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!