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S. Maria di Piazza

[image ALT: It is the façade of the church of S. Maria di Piazza in Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

As we stand on the attractive main square of Monte­falco, we can turn our backs on the Town Hall that dominates that piazza. Now few photographers do so, but Roberto Piperno, in his wonderful site on central Italy, gives us the view we need, captioned "Main Square": and we see to our right a rather ordinary-looking house — but with a Romanesque terracotta doorway (19c actually!), our only tipoff that there's a little chapel to explore. It's dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it's situated on the edge of the piazza, and so it's simply called Oratorio di S. Maria di Piazza: the Oratory of St. Mary on the Square.

[image ALT: A long rectangular room, lined with wooden bulletin boards bearing photographs; a bit of a vaulted brick ceiling can be made out. At the end of the room, a frescoed niche. It is the interior of the chapel of S. Maria di Piazza in Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

Standing right inside the doorway, we take in almost the entire chapel. Not visible, since at the very entrance of course, the medieval holy water stoup.

This little church is referred to in documents of the early 13c as S. Maria de platea, this last word being the ancestor of modern Italian piazza. Conveniently located, it served as a town hall. In the 16c it was transferred to the Confraternita del Sacramento, who gave it more or less the shape it has today.

As we can see, today S. Maria di Piazza is once again being used for secular purposes, in season at least, as a tourist information booth. We don't lose anything behind those panels and their photographs, though: just a curious expanse of green and red faux-masonry, very likely 19c, the chapel having been reworked again at that time, or early 20c. The gem of the building is clearly the apsidal fresco:

[image ALT: A large niche in an interior wall, elaborately painted with depictions of the Virgin Mary and Child, angels, saints, and other figures. It is a fresco by Melanzio in the chapel of S. Maria di Piazza in Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

In the center, the Virgin and Child enthroned and flanked by angels, then saints; above her, God the Father, in a mandorla, holding the orb and surrounded by seraphim (close‑up); between the two, a narrow blue band bears the Ave Maria in gold letters; and the composition was completed in the most traditional way: by an Annunciation over the arch, of which there only remain the barest of traces.

To Mary's right, Pope St. Gregory I; to her left, now obliterated except for a pretty fragment of the landscape background, St. Jerome, or so we are told by the Accademia di Monte­falco: both Doctors of the Church. We would therefore expect the saints on the outer jambs of the composition to be the remaining two Doctors of the Church, but they are not: rather, the co‑patrons of Monte­falco, St. Fortunatus — identifiable by his chasuble since he was a priest — and St. Severus, a soldier, whose stories are well told at Key to Umbria. (It may be noted that William Mercer identifies the priest in the golden chasuble as St. Fortunatus as well, which would presumably make the missing saint on the other side St. Severus: a solution that makes me happier than the Accademia's.)

The central composition — The Queen of Heaven ❦ Rejoice! ❦ Alleluia — is delicately beautiful and the palette is lovely (close‑up); but it's not topnotch. The proportions are odd (just how does the Virgin's mantle come to be so wide?), as is the perspective (her throne is unsettling); and then notice the tassels of the cushion: what exactly do they hang from?

You won't find me quibbling the inscription, on the other hand. No, it's not quite right — in ❦ Regina ❦ celi ❦ lectare ❦ allelvia ❦ we should properly read cæli and lætare: but the two departures from good Latin are a phonetic variant and a hypercorrection respectively, both common mistakes. We hired a painter, not a grammarian.

[image ALT: A fresco of the Virgin Mother and Child in the chapel of S. Maria di Piazza in Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

[image ALT: A detail of a painting in which a richly chasubled priest, in the act of celebrating Mass, kneels before an altar. The man is Pope St. Gregory the Great, and he is depicted as part of a fresco in the chapel of S. Maria di Piazza in Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

To the Virgin's right, Pope St. Gregory the Great celebrates Mass against a background evoking ancient Rome.

The artist signed his work with apparent discretion, and then again maybe not: Fr Angelvs Melativs de Mōtefalco pinsit (again, properly, pinxit) — Francesco Angelo Melanzio of Monte­falco painted his signature on that grand triumphal arch.

Such was the flowering of Renaissance Italy that Melanzio is considered a very minor painter — but can you or I paint this well? — and only in his home town of Monte­falco can works of his be seen: the author of "Monte­falco in Umbria" (AJAH 8:226‑230) and his editor cover those paintings in some depth and with an appreciation just as warmly matched today by his native city; here again, Key to Umbria has a good, useful page.

[image ALT: An imposing Renaissance building seen thru a dark trefoil-arched doorway some distance away. It is a view of the Town Hall of Montefalco in Umbria (central Italy), from just inside the chapel of S. Maria di Piazza.]

Now, having seen our little chapel, we stand just inside the doorway, turn around and take in the Town Hall — angling our view up just a bit to avoid the cars, of course.

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Page updated: 16 Jul 11