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A Cardinal's Treasure Box in Rural Umbria

The Church of S. Salvatore in Usigni

[image ALT: A 2‑story rectangular building, of plastered stone, the upper story inset, both stories with shallow-sloping tiled roofs. A small square belfry, with a large arch on each face, also roofed with tile, projects one further story above the main roof. It is a side view, from the west, of the church of S. Salvatore of Usigni in the comune of Poggiodomo, Umbria (central Italy).]

S. Salvatore from the W.

[image ALT: The façade of a small 2‑story rectangular building, of plastered stone. It has a single door surmounted by a plain curved pediment, and the second story is relieved by a blank rectangular niche. A pediment crowns the whole. It is the façade of the church of S. Salvatore of Usigni in the comune of Poggiodomo, Umbria (central Italy).]

The bland-looking church you see here is due entirely to Fausto Cardinal Poli. He built it, he furnished it, and in this remote place it has remained substantially what he made it in the 1640s.

Poli's rise to the cardinalate was a reward for the years he spent as private secretary to Pope Urban VIII: more explicitly, for his skill and taste in ferreting out or commissioning works of art for that connoisseur; 350 years later, the impression one gets is that was his main function. At any rate, true to character, even on his own account he was drawn to amassing objets d'art, many of which he gave to the churches of his native area; thus S. Salvatore is said to be beauti­fully decorated with Baroque stuccoes and frescoes by Guidobaldo Abatini, a man now obscure but among the finest artists in those fields,​a and Salvi Castellucci, a painter of less renown but of solid worth and in fair demand at the time. The church is also the repository of a very fine collection of reliquaries, altar paraments (worked in leather for durability) and liturgical vestments.

The attentive reader will have noticed me writing "is said to be" beauti­fully decorated . . . and in the photo to the right, the firmly locked door: I regret that on my sole pass thru Usigni to date, the church was closed; I haven't seen the interior, have no photos of its treasures for you, and we'll just keep on looking at the box, learning what we can.

[image ALT: A plain curved stone pediment, in which a small stone escutcheon has been inserted. It is the pediment over the door of the church of S. Salvatore in the village of Usigni in the comune of Poggiodomo, Umbria (central Italy).]

The pediment over the door, despite Poli's coat of arms, is as modest as these things get.

[image ALT: A contorted Baroque escutcheon in stone, bearing two trees on a ground of three stylized hills, and a roundel bearing three bees issuing from the top of the shield. The shield itself is surmounted by a scallop shell. It is the coat of arms of Fausto Cardinal Poli over the door of the church of S. Salvatore of Usigni in the comune of Poggiodomo, Umbria (central Italy).]

The arms of Fausto Cardinal Poli (1581‑1653).

I like to think of Poli as a modest man, and maybe he was: after all, success­ful secretaries, like accompanists, learn to be self-effacing; it's part of the job.

I remember the first time I saw the inscription on the façade of St. Peter's in Rome, a schoolboy of 17, expecting with the ideals of youth to read at the very heart of Christendom some edifying verse, but with just enough Latin to read the simple boast that was in fact there: In honor of the prince of the apostles Paul V Borghese (his family name squarely in the center over the door), supreme pontiff, in 1612, Year 7 of his reign.

Nothing like that here. The inscription (photo) is literally centered on Christ, reading Per virtutem Crucis salva nos Christe salvator qui salvasti Petrum in mari: By the virtue of the Cross, save us, Christ our savior who saved Peter on the sea. Fausto Poli's escutcheon, none too big, is tucked away beneath it, with no inscription of its own and even somewhat obscured by the pediment.

I've been unable to discover the reason, in this firmly landlocked area, for the specific reference to saving Peter on the sea. I have a suspicion, but only that, quite unsupported by any evidence, that Fausto Poli or someone close to him, possibly the Pope himself (Peter), had had a close brush with disaster on the sea.

Even within the actual shield of the cardinal's arms, there is modesty: above the two trees (on the stylized hills that one sees in so many Italian coats of arms, that most of the time merely represent the family's origin in some hilly place), the topmost heraldic charge is three bees: the badge of the Barberini — not the cardinal's own family, but the Pope his master's.


a An Umbrian artist (1600‑1656), from Città di Castello, prominent in the decoration of a number of churches in Rome, including St. Peter's; he is mentioned nine times in Filippo Titi's 18c catalogue of artists having worked in Rome (see Titi's index). His name is also spelled Guido Ubaldo Abbatini.

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Page updated: 6 Jul 23