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For the Convenience of the Inhabitants

S. Maria Nuova

[image ALT: A 2‑story church. It is a three-quarters view of the church of S. Maria Nuova in Ficulle, Umbria (central Italy).]
[image ALT: A 2‑story church. It is a three-quarters view of the church of S. Maria Nuova in Ficulle, Umbria (central Italy).]

S. Maria Nuova, exterior and interior.

Ficulle was born as a little castle keeping watch over the surrounding territory, whose inhabitants, however, were still by and large scattered over several square miles of farmland and hills. Church authorities thus saw no reason to say Mass near this castle, but found it more useful to serve their flock by building a rural parish church (in Italian, a pieve) some distance away, dedicated to Mary — so that the oldest church in Ficulle is not in the center of town where we are standing now, but on the outskirts to the south: for information and photos, see its own page, of course.

Eventually though, a small town grew up around the castle, and after a few centuries of trekking the half-mile to church every Sunday in heat and bad weather, it was decided to put an end to the inconvenience, and in 1606 the church we see here was founded as S. Maria Nuova or "the new St. Mary's", a dependency of "the old St. Mary's", now S. Maria Vecchia. An inscription in the sacristy states that it was built in comodum populi: bad Latin, but meaning that it was for the convenience of the inhabitants living within the walls; and that it was consecrated in 1610. S. Maria Nuova did not come of age until the mid‑18c, when it became a collegiate church in its own right, no longer subordinate to the Pieve.

S. Maria Nuova is a product of late-Renaissance Mannerism, if considerably more sober than most Mannerist churches: for which we may thank either the architect, who seems to have been mindful of rural simplicity, or more likely, the budget available. At any rate, the church is commonly attributed to Ippolito Scalza (1532‑1617), a sculptor and architect from Orvieto, which after all is only 23 km away.

[image ALT: It is the baptismal font in the church of S. Maria Nuova in Ficulle, Umbria (central Italy).]

The baptismal font, in good polychrome faux-marbre (and see close‑up of the door: the Baptism of Christ, of course).

The plan of the church is as standard as they come: a nave and two side aisles, each ending in a chapel.

In the left aisle, after the baptismal font, the altar of St. Joseph with the statue of the saint in papier mâché; the apsidal chapel, dedicated to the Holy Sacrament was decorated by Francesco Scalza, Ippolito's son: a very minor artist known mostly for his mosaic work.

Halfway down the right aisle, the altar of the Rosary, above which a statue of the Virgin is surrounded by the Mysteries of the Rosary; the apsidal chapel was formerly dedicated to St. Carlo Borromeo, but since 1880 is the Chapel of the Relics.

The nave is uncluttered, marked only by a pulpit in colored stucco and the massive painted wooden choir loft over the entrance wall. Of the late‑16c organ, originally from the church of S. Agostino in Orvieto, only the loft remains.

The main altar is dated 1793; behind it, an austerely attractive 18c wooden choir, above which a large canvas represents the Madonna and "the Saints that were venerated until the late 17c as the patrons of the town"; it is flanked by four oval paintings, two of which can be seen above, if from a distance, representing St. Margaret of Cortona, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Teresa of Avila, and a military martyr who, according to the panel in the church, is to be identified, no reason given, with "either St. Expeditus or St. George". The asymmetry of this foursome — the first lived in the 13c, the next two were 16c contemporaries, and the last, whichever of the two he was, is a legendary hero of Late Antiquity — and the peculiarly straightforward identification someone has made of him with George (safe enough) or the completely mythical Expeditus, with no distinguishing iconography, when there are a dozen others to choose from, make me particularly regret that I wasn't able to examine this part of the church from close up and see for myself.

Beneath the altar, the body of "a female martyr from the Catacombs of S. Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome, who was given the name of St. Victoria, in view of the local veneration with which she is attended."

Guidebook Errors

Each of the two most widely available Italian guidebooks to Umbria makes its own strange mistake in connection with S. Maria Nuova; don't trust everything you read.

The Guida DeAgostini, a good guide overall, puts the church a fianco della chiesa di Santa Maria Vecchia, "right next to S. Maria Vecchia" — which would have been quite pointless; it's not the only time though that the DeAgostini articles betray the fact that the writers haven't actually been to the places they describe.

But even the excellent Touring Club Italiano guide to Umbria — their series of little red books in fine print on the regions of Italy are the benchmark other guides fall short of — even the TCI puts its foot in it, calling our church "S. Vittoria". The mistake is understandable, in view of the body under the main altar, but S. Vittoria is another church altogether.

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Page updated: 12 Jun 12