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On the Same Wall, Two Views of Death


[image ALT: Some fragmentary paintings on a wall, in which there are also two vertical inscriptions of different sizes, but about 1 meter tall. It is a group of frescoes and tombstones in the church of Pieve S. Maria in Valfabbrica, Umbria (central Italy).]

We see here a superimposition of two periods several hundred years apart, with very different ways of expressing their shared concern with death. As almost always, the old has lost out to the new: the damage to the frescoes is in part due to the modern tombstones.

Age before beauty; the inscription on the right reads:


[image ALT: A stone plaque inscribed with 10 lines of capital letters; reversed torches decorate the sides of it. It is the tombstone of an old woman in the church of Pieve S. Maria in Valfabbrica, Umbria (central Italy).]


QUI GIACE
PIERA MICHELI
MORTA IL 15 AGOSTO 1876
IN ETÀ DI SESSANT' ANNI
FU MATRE AMOROSA
E VERSO I POVERI PIA
IL F.LIO GIUSEPPE
LA NUORA LETIZIA BOSCHETTI
INCONSOLABILI
QUI MESTI FECERO.

Here lies Piera Micheli, who died on August 15, 1876 at the age of sixty. She was a loving mother and pious to the poor. Her son Giuseppe and her daughter-in‑law Letizia Boschetti, inconsolable, who in sadness had this made.

And on the left:


[image ALT: A stone plaque inscribed with 17 lines of capital letters, and surmounted by a small painted portrait in a roundel of laurel leaves. It is the tombstone of a little girl in the church of Pieve S. Maria in Valfabbrica, Umbria (central Italy).]

BELLA
E INNOCENTE
COME UN ANGIOLETTA
CRESCEVA
LA SETTENNE FANCIULLA
GISELLA MICHELI
DEI GENITORI DELIZIA
MA SPENTA AIHMȺ PER MORTE
NEL DI 11 FEBBRAJO 1877
COME FIORE DAL NEMBO RECISO
FA ETERNA
LA LORO AMBASCIA
E RIDICA AI POSTERI
IL DOLENTE CASO
QUESTA AL MATERNO
E PATERNO AFFETTO
VOTIVA TOMBA

Beautiful and innocent, like a little angel, she was a growing seven-year‑old girl: Gisella Micheli, the delight of her parents, lost alas to death on the 11th of February 1877, like a flower cut off by heaven. This tomb, consecrated to the love of her mother and father, immortalizes their anguish and retells to posterity the painful event.

It was a bad year for the Micheli family; the grandmother first, then the little girl. They cut their tombs, with the Renaissance motif of the reversed torches that ultimately go back to the ancient Etruscans, with the Renaissance tondo portrait of the little girl, into a long-replastered wall, under the surface of which these elements of a beautiful (12c) fresco were surely not even suspected until some restoration closer to our own time:

[image ALT: A fragmentary painting of an angel: a large wing is visible, and at the bottom of the photograph, a small naked man standing in something like a bucket. It is a ruined fresco of the archangel Michael in the church of Pieve S. Maria in Valfabbrica, Umbria (central Italy).]

Easily identified by the little man at the bottom of the picture — someone's soul being weighed against his sins — the archangel Michael, executor of God's judgment in the afterlife.


[image ALT: A painting of a shaggy-haired man holding a vertical banner. It is a much damaged fresco of St. John the Baptist in the church of Pieve S. Maria in Valfabbrica, Umbria (central Italy).]
This patriarch with the shaggy hair and beard, who by good fortune was missed by those who cut each tomb, must surely be St. John the Baptist (the Archangel Michael and St. John are a common pairing, see this further beautiful example in Rome); so it's only natural for me to want to read the beginning of his banner, with three lines of dim script, as

SCS IOH BA. . .

but to be honest, I can't make it out for sure, even on my much larger original picture. One thing is certain, though: we're looking at an exceptional work of art, and it's a great pity it's damaged.

Yet over the centuries, both are concerned with death and immortality. Christian, eschatological and severe in the 12c; in the 19c, pagan, man-oriented and sentimental.


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Page updated: 2 Nov 04