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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Umbria Santa

Corrado Ricci

Faber & Gwyer
London, n. d. (1926 or 1927)

The text is in the public domain, except for my notes. Black-and‑white photographs are in the public domain; color photographs are © William P. Thayer.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

 p159  Chapter VIII
Vows and Halters

In the 'Story' of St. Nicholas of Tolentino we read of two brothers, Mizolo and Vanni, who were captured while travelling from Osimo to Aquila, and accused of having committed a murder. Taken before the Governor of the city they protested their innocence, but after being cruelly tortured, they declared themselves guilty in order to escape further pain, and they were condemned to the gallows. The two wretched men turned their thoughts and their prayers to St. Nicholas. Vanni was hanged at once; but four days afterwards when Mizolo was led by the executioners towards the same fate, they found the former still alive! Astounded at the miracle, they cut down the victim and allowed both him and his brother to go free.

We see the story depicted in various ways: sometimes St. Nicholas is supporting Vanni on the gallows, sometimes the hangmen are dragging his brother there, only to find Vanni living!

Amongst the thirteenth-century pictures in the Chapel of San Nicola at Tolentino, there is one showing the saint holding the victim by his elbow on the one side and under his arm on the other.

This same idea is shown in a small panel-picture in the Raccolta Spiridon by a Florentine artist of the sixteenth century, the scene taking place between two groups of soldiers, and near a walled city.

The second phase of the story is represented in the  p160 seventeenth century by Giorgio Alberini, a pupil of Montecalvo, in one of the lunettes of the little cloister of Santa Croce at Casal Montferrato; it was removed some years ago from the wall and is now in the municipal gallery.

The gallows from which Vanni is hanging rises on a hill in view of the city. Below is the overturned ladder, and he gazes piteously at his brother, who is thrust forward by two soldiers. St. Nicholas appears amongst the clouds on high.

The paintings of Tolentino and Casale are part of the cycle of the miracles of St. Nicholas, and thus have to do exclusively with the story of the saint; but the small picture described may well have been votive.

This conjecture has indeed some foundation in fact. It is known, for instance, what gave rise to the painting of a certain picture by 'Maestro Ercolese dipintore' (perhaps Ercoli Banci); according to the story of Cherubino Ghirardacci in his History of Bologna in 1505, which I give in his own picturesque words:

'It has happened in these days, that is to say on April 15, Tuesday, that two thieves have been hanged; one sixty years old and one about eighteen, and the execution took place on the usual spot, that is in the cattle market; and the minister of justice ordered that they should be left hanging upon the gallows until the usual hour, when the members of the Company of the Dead came to remove them for burial, and having taken down from the gibbet the old man and having placed him on the bier, they then deposed  p161 the youth, called Pietro Antonio of Bologna. He had been adopted by one who dwelt in the Borgo of San Pietro, and was already a novice of San Jacomo; this one was found alive and of so much vivacity it seemed as though he had been reposing on his bed asleep: but however with the neck injured, because the halter had entered into it, and had almost sawn through the throat.

'The bystanders, marvelling much at this unusual sight, quickly had him carried to the Hospital to care for him; and there came a messenger from the Senate to see, and to hear everything that had happened; and Pietro Antonio said that he had been helped by the glorious saint Nicholas of Tolentino, to whom he had vowed, that if he escaped this opprobrious death, he would vest himself in his habit, and that he being on the gallows, the glorious St. Nicholas supported him by holding the soles of his feet in his hands. This was considered a marvellous miracle in the city, and every one ran to visit him and hear him discourse.

'On Sunday, April 27, the Brothers of San Jacomo came in procession to the Hospital to fetch the above-mentioned Pietro Antonio and to conduct him to San Jacomo, and they pass together with the "Compagnia della Morte" behind San Petronio and before this church, and they go before the palace of the family Antiani, and below the "Madonna del Popolo"; and the condemned man is dressed in white with a black mantle, and with no cap on his head, and with the same halter round his neck with which he was hanged. When he reaches this spot, he falls on his  p162 knees and adores the Queen of Heaven, and wishing to rise, the simple women around tear off some of his clothes in devotional excitement; but being covered with another cape, he arrives at the church of San Jacopo, and there in the presence of all the city, the halter is taken from his neck and laid by him on the altar; and by the reverend prior of that said convent, Master Giovanni de Ripis, he was solemnly dressed in the Carmelite habit and called Brother Nicholas, in honour and reverence of St. Nicholas of Tolentino; and the ceremonies of vesting him being over, the friars meanwhile chanting the Te Deum Laudamus, he was presented by the said Prior to the very holy image of the glorious St. Nicholas, which is behind the choir in the chapel of St. Thomas Apostle and St. Nicholas, now called of the Madonna of Heaven, because when he made his vow he had in his mind this venerated image. Then he placed there his votive offering, his true portrait painted on canvas, and also the same halter with which he was hanged, the which things one may still see to‑day in this said church.

'He lived four years very devoutly, tending the sick; but then, tempted by the devil, he threw away his habit, and giving himself once more to thieving he was taken and hanged with the golden halter to the long balcony of the Podestà, and died for his sins.

'The record of this miracle appears, with all the expenses, in an authentic book of 148 pages, in the Sacristy of these said monks, where are mentioned the sums spent on the  p163 procession, and miracle, and of the votive panel picture, which was made by master Ercolese, painter, and cost in all lire 3 and soldi 11.'

So the rogue reached the end that he deserved, even for his first crime; but it is certain that the 'miracle' of 1505 must have raised an outcry and admiration in many parts of Italy, and above all, in the pious provinces of Umbria and the Marches, where the cult of St. Nicholas of Tolentino was specially widespread and keen.

Professor Robert Schiff of Pisa possesses a panel-picture of the School of Perugino, in which one sees the saint upholding two victims, one fully grown, one young, his hands under their feet. Four figures, clothed in the usual Peruginesque costumes, stand at the sides of the tragic central group and in front of a beauti­ful view of woods and mountains.

[image ALT: missingALT. It is the zzz in Umbria (central Italy).]

St. Nicholas of Tolentino and the innocent victims:
a panel-picture of the early sixteenth century,
in the collection of Professor Schiff, Pisa

Is it possible that this picture bears allusion to the story narrated by Ghirardacci? Though true that St. Nicholas supported only the youth, and left the old man to his fate, it is possible that the story passing by word of mouth became embellished, and popular devotion could not tolerate that the venerated saint should not save both victims.

That some of such pictures are votive is proved by the fact that besides not being in churches or chapels dedicated to St. Nicholas of Tolentino, or (as we shall see) to St. James, one sometimes finds the other saints supporting the hanged man; saints in whose legends such a miracle is not recorded but who were particularly honoured by  p164 such persons who had been in danger of strangulation. In fact, it is thus that the canvas of Ercolese at Bologna is votive. And also at Bologna in the Museum of Santo Stefano, a picture is preserved (of early fourteenth century work, or possibly earlier) in which the figure on the gibbet is upheld by St. Anthony Abbot; and in the Museum of the Louvre there is a little story-picture where St. Jerome in Cardinal's robes supports two victims, this has been attributed to Pesellini, but is of a later date and of the Umbro-Tuscan School. Even St. Catherine is occasionally invoked in similar cases. In the fifteenth century at Fierbois, a chapel existed dedicated to her as patron of prisoners. Amongst the devout, who go to attest their fervour, we find honourable people, as well as beggars and rascals. In any case, nearly all have left their testimony of mercies received in a book kept for the purpose. This book, published by Abbé Bourané, contains the wonder­ful story of a Scotsman called Michael Hamilton.

In his own country he had had a special veneration for St. Catherine; therefore to her he had recourse when he was captured as a thief, and taken to the gallows.

During the night, the priest of the place heard a voice telling him to cut the cord, but he did not hurry to obey the mysterious message. The following day, however, after the Pascal Mass, he sent his servant, who in his turn did not hasten to the place of execution. The servant wounded the unfortunate man in his foot, and he, moving,  p165 revealed the fact that he was still alive; and so he was freed from the halter and given into the care of a nun.

Returning to the pictures already described, we are bound to admit that some are really 'ex voto' ordered by friends or relations hoping for the escape from death of a condemned man, still in prison; or else the picture may be painted for one who may have had the cord round his neck, and his legs for a moment in the air, and who wishes thus to have a perennial remembrance of mercies received.

The fate of these unhappy wretches is also confided to St. Dominic of Calzada; but above all, even before St. Nicholas of Tolentino, to St. James of Compostella, that is to say St. James the Apostle.

Where nowadays, in view of the beauti­ful Sierra de Gredos in Spain, Calzada de Oropeso rises amid fertile cornfields,º long ago there was but a 'forest, savage, rough and stern', a nest of brigands who assaulted the pilgrims on their way to the Sanctuary of St. James of Compostella (Campus stellae). About the middle of the twelfth century, a poor man called Dominic, after having knocked in vain at the door of many convents only to be sent away on account of his wretched clothes and miserable condition, decided to make himself a reed hut near this forest, and soon afterwards he built a little chapel in honour of the Madonna. Then he set to work to level the earth, and to cut boughs and branches so as to make a good road for pilgrims in that fearsome and dangerous solitude, which was called  p166 'Calzada'; because it was supported by ramparts and paving. Thus rendered safe, the place gradually became populated and after the death of Dominic in 1199 the little town was made a bishopric, which was later transferred to Calahorra.

Now we are told that this miracle took place there. A French family, consisting of father, mother and young son, on their way to St. James of Compostella, stopped to rest in an inn at Calzada. The daughter of the hostess fell suddenly in love with the young man, and found a way of letting him know of her momentary passion, making him audacious proposals, which he indignantly refused. The ardent Spaniard then, thinking to revenge herself, hid a silver cup in the cowl of the youth, and afterwards accused him of theft and had him arrested.

The story is clearly founded on that of Joseph and Potiphar's wife; there is also the false accusation of a stolen cup.

However, the young man was brought before the Judge and by him condemned to death, and was then hanged. The parents, in absolute desperation, continued their pilgrimage.

But their son being innocent, St. Dominic of Calzada supported him, invisible to all except himself, and when the parents returned to that place, they found him still alive on the gallows, and heard the reason of the marvel from his own lips. They therefore went to the Judge, in their humble garb of pilgrims, and brought before him while he was dining, they begged mercy for their son.

 p167  'But he has been hanged and has been dead for several days,' said the Judge.

The parents declared that he was alive, the Judge, still incredulous, added in a tone of derision:

'He is alive as the roast cock and hen that you see on this dish!'

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The cock and the hen:
detail from the fresco
by Lo Spagna
at San Giacomo,
near Spoleto

(Photo. Tilli)

The sentence was hardly uttered, when cock and hen sprang up alive and gay and began to crow!

It is hardly necessary to say that the youth was taken down, and with the halter round his neck, was conducted by all with pious excitement for the rest of his journey.

For this miracle St. Dominic of Calzada was represented in popular art with a cock and hen on his shoulders, the pilgrim's staff in his left hand and the halter in his right. He is also to be seen in this manner on a leaden plaque found in the Seine in 1860, which must have been lost by some pilgrim.

. . . . . . . . . .

In France and Italy, this same miracle is by preference attributed to St. James, the saint for whom the pilgrimage was undertaken, and the legend undergoes variations; here is one example: in 1090 some German pilgrims, actually on their way to Compostella, arriving at Toulouse, stopped in an inn. The host, after having made them drunk, hid a silver cup in their baggage. Next day, when they had already started, he ran after them, recalling them and accusing them of theft. Surprised and distressed, they asked for full investigation, but the cup was found  p168 in a box belonging to father and son together. The Judge before whom these presumed thieves were taken, condemned one only to be executed. Then arose a generous and distressing dispute between the two, each wishing to save the other. At last, the son was hanged, and the father in misery continued his pilgrimage. After thirty-six days he returned to the place of execution, to weep and pray at the tomb of his son, but he found him still hanging with the rope, and heard him say: 'Rejoice, instead of sorrowing, father, because I have never been so happy as I am at present. St. James has sustained me with his hand, and comforted me with his celestial sweetness.' The father ran to the city and proclaimed what had happened; the people flocked to the young victim, took him down from the gallows safe and sound, and put in his place the perfidious host.

This story is less attractive than the last one. There is wanting in this one the maiden overcome by passion and denial, from whence come deceit and calumny, and above all there is wanting the pleasant incident of the cock and hen, to which artists were specially attracted.

In the church of St. George at Schlettstad (on the Rhine) there are four episodes of the legend to be seen, executed in the fifteenth century; and in the church of Semur in Burgundy, there is a bas-relief. But in France, the story is by preference treated in stained glass: for example in one window of 1554 in the church of Triel (Seine-et‑Oise), again in a church of Saint Pierre de Roye (Somme),  p169 in Saint Vincent at Rouen, and finally in a window of the Abbey of Fontévrault now in the Vendôme Library. In only one stained glass window in Italy do we find the story of the youth on the gallows, and that is in San Domenico in Perugia, it is attributed to Bartolomeo di Pietro in 1411, and shows French influence.

The other representations in painting and sculpture come later. However, the same miracle modelled in paste is to be found in the sacristy of the Cathedral at Atri, — there are three compartments: the first showing the scene of the execution; the second, the marvel of the risen cock and hen; and the third, the youth hanging but still alive.

Again in the fifteenth century the same subject is frescoed in the church of Cuna (province of Siena) very badly freed from whitewash. In this connection, it may be well to mention here, that thousands of old frescoes were covered with whitewash in olden times for hygienic reasons, during or directly after a severe pestilence, especially that of 1630; it was not done, as so many think, in disparagement of an art gone out of fashion.

The Cuna fresco is in two divisions, in one is the miracle of the cock and hen, in the other the Judge goes with the pilgrims to the place of torture, and finds the youth still alive, without seeing that the saint is upholding him. The fresco is unfortunately ruined, but what remains is sufficient to show that the costumes, especially of the pilgrims, are reproduced with accuracy.

Of the same date and in the Umbro-Marchigiano  p170 style, is the picture in the Vatican gallery; the father and mother kneeling before a young King, crowned, and sitting at table with other figures; then with the parents gazing at the gallows from which hangs their son, sustained by St. James, who here is seen amongst the clouds.

These two scenes are gracefully depicted by Pier Antonio Mesastris in a lunette of the church of the Pellegrini in Assisi. The Judge, with cap, and cape of miniver, is sitting at a richly served table. Near him are two elegant youths, while the parents are standing in front beseeching the surprised judge to go and see the miracle with his own eyes. In the meantime the cock and hen get up in the dish, well covered with feathers! Pages and cavaliers are around, nor is the little monkey missing. In the other scene the parents, still amongst cavaliers, are near their wretched son, whose feet are held by St. James in his left hand. Far away in a mountainous background, rises a walled city with towers and a wide river spanned by a bridge.

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The Miracle of the Innocent Victim:
from the fresco by Pier Antonio Mesastris, in the church of the Pellegrini, Assisi

(Photo. Alinari)

[image ALT: missingALT. It is a fresco in the Oratorio dei Pellegrini in Assisi, Umbria (central Italy).]

Assisi, Oratorio dei Pellegrini: right-hand lunette.

(My own photograph of the same fresco had to be taken obliquely thru a glass partition, a seam of which disfigures the center of it: the actual space of the tiny one-room chapel — not "Church" — remains inaccessible to visitors. For another fresco in it, see my diary, Mar. 23, 2004.)

The lunette, portraying the same subject in the church of San Biagio in Forlì by Marco Palmezzani on a cartoon of Melozzo, has quite a different artistic value. And if the pictorial execution passing from master to scholar​a has become hesitating and hard, the composition is still of a surprising variety and beauty. Indeed, the scene with its spacious architecture, the table almost in the middle and the figures in two planes, those in the lower one to the right kneeling, those to the left upright, seems to  p171 anticipate and prepare the composition of that miracle of painting: Raffael's 'Miracle of Bolsena'.

Surely there must have been some historical reason for representing the miracle of Calzada in San Biagio in Forlì.

The date is between 1492 and 1493. Let us consider what actually happened in Forlì in December, 1491.

The conspiracy that deprived Catarina Sforza of her husband Girolamo Riario, the frightful fury of her revenge, the facile comfort that she found in her secret marriage with Giacomo Feo, are all well-known facts; equally manifest is the desire of the Forlivesi to free themselves from her tyranny and that of her new husband, a yoke so grievous that they embarked on a fresh plot, which was, however, soon discovered. Some of the conspirators were slain, some thrown into prison, some condemned to the gallows. Amongst these last were Giovanni Salombrini and Giovanni Montanari. They were taken with the halter round their necks to the balcony of the Palazzo Pubblico, but while in the act of being executed, the innocence of Montanari was recognized, he having indeed tried to dissuade his companion from the perilous plot. Cobelli writes: 'Zohanne Salombrino went to the gallows, and Zohanne Montanari to the citadel with the halter round his neck that all Forlì could see him.' And the chronicler Andrea Bernardi, called the Novacula, tells us, 'Zohanne Salombrino was hanged. The other Zohanne had the grace of life, and returned to the citadel with the halter round his neck', then was liberated 'because he had not transgressed'.

 p172  Did Giacomo Feo help to obtain this pardon? Was it he who realized the innocence of Montanari? If so, one can see the connection between his name and that of the saint, to whom the Italian version of the legend assigns the miracle! With time this subject ceases to be treated artistically, but already the anecdotal and narrative picture is rare.

However, in addition to the fresco of Alberini already mentioned, we find in the church of San Giorgio at Varzo, near Domodossola, a lunette of the sixteenth century, depicting the same scene, and in the museum at Udine a panel-picture of a later date, a feeble work by a follower of Andrea Schiavone, showing the usual execution in the distance, and the parents hastening to the Judge, who in this case is a Doge, with his Venetian Cap, and seated beside him at the table, is the Dogaressa.

. . . . . . . . . .

Of the fourteen representations in Italy of the above-mentioned miracle, half that number are by Umbrian artists, and the most important of these is in the heart of the province, the Castle of San Giacomo five miles from Spoleto. The artist is Giovanni di Pietro, called Lo Spagna, from the country of his birth; he has left two fine frescoes in the apse of the Castle chapel, recording the miracle of the titular saint of the place. In the first of these, the father and mother, as pilgrims, are humble and supplicating, while the attitude of the judge is full of frank surprise. He is seated in a great chair, before a  p173 table where the cock and hen spring proudly erect; around are grouped soldiers plainly incredulous. In the neighbouring fresco, the parents are near the gibbet, where their son is supported by St. James; the landscape is an open plain, wooded and solitary.

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The Miracle of the Innocent Victim:
from the fresco by lo Spagna, at San Giacomo, near Spoleto

(Photo. Alinari)

[image ALT: missingALT. It is the zzz in Umbria (central Italy).]

The Miracle of the Innocent Victim:
from the fresco by lo Spagna, at San Giacomo, near Spoleto

(Photo. Alinari)

The work is rich in dignity and colour, and pure in the simplicity of composition; broadly painted, particularly in the single figures. It was painted in the last years of the artist's life, between 1526 and 1527, when without breaking faith with the teaching of Perugino, he felt himself attracted to the sure and ample forms of Raffael, whose fellow-student he had been, also helping him in some works in Città della Pieve. Cavalcaselle pronounces him after Raffael, the most important figure of this school. Vasari says his colouring was the best of Perugino's pupils. And we must add that as the colour of Perugino languished, so that of Lo Spagna improved, who from grey tints not very transparent, reached others warm and ple asing, even if more morbid than vigorous. Like Perugino, he had little imagination, but he did not possess his master's lofty ideality of form, nor had he the vivacious decorative spirit of Pintoricchio. Incapable of making original and personal works, he never attempted great flights, but painted always with diligence and love, laborious and prompt, putting into his art the same probity that he showed in his life. He was given the citizen­ship of Spoleto in 1516, and the next year was elected Captain of the Confraternity of St. Luke. He loved Spoleto as his own land and enriched it  p174 with his works and even if he went away, it was only attracted by the dream of Rome.

But Rome, though a city full of allurement, crushed and frightened him. And he returned to the serenity of Umbria.

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Madonna and Saints:
from the painting by lo Spagna
in the Picture Gallery at Spoleto

(Photo. Alinari)

Thayer's Note:

a A translation error, which we have seen before. The Italian (I have not seen it) surely had scolaro: not "scholar", but the pupil of an artist.

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Page updated: 13 Jan 13