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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8

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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 p177  Chapter IX
The Madonna del Popolo di Monte­falco

[image ALT: A painting of a young woman, veiled and holding a baby in her left arm. It is the Madonna del Popolo in Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

Santa Maria del Popolo: from the tempera in the style of Melozzo in San Francesco of Monte­falco
(Photo. Min. Istruzione)

Amongst the Byzantine pictures of the Madonna, one of the most celebrated is the one in Sta. Maria del Popolo in Rome; it is said to be painted by St. Luke and to have been saved from a Saracenic invasion in Byzantium; it was transferred from the Lateran to its present position by Gregory IX in 1235.

The Virgin is holding the Child on her left arm, while the right one is raised in admiration.

Her head is slightly bent and covered with a blue and gold mantle; her nose is thin and long, her mouth small and round, her eyes very large and with an expression of astonishment. Jesus is completely clothed. He wears a brown tunic girdled, above a little shirt which is tied at the neck, and over all a red mantle, with straight lines in gold, imitating mosaic. His left hand is resting with tenderness on that of His mother; the right is raised in benediction.

It is a matter of great difficulty to examine this picture and the one in Sta. Maria Maggiore. Placed very high, over the altars and behind ornaments and doors and glasses, it is even difficult to approach, much more so to inspect them, although there is not the trouble that existed some years ago in obtaining permission. It is but rarely and only for solemn occasions that the pictures are uncovered, or carried in procession.

How is it, then, that so many copies exist of the picture  p178 of Sta. Maria del Popolo, when we know of the great difficulties of access?

The fact is this: nearly all the copies are indirect; that is to say are copies of copies, sometimes of the third or fourth hand.

The rare replicas from the original were made by special concession to important personages; for example to Alessandro Sforza of Pesaro in 1470 and to Christina of Sweden in 1655, and it is probably this latter that is still kept in Sta. Maria del Popolo and is shown to those who wish to photograph and recopy it!

There are antique reproductions of this Madonna (I know one at Bari, two at Orvieto, one at Ravenna, Bologna, Siena, etc.) which maintain to a great extent the Byzantine characteristics because the date at which they were painted was nearer to the original. But in later days, when we reach the Renaissance and pass beyond it, the copies by their technicalities reveal in various ways the masters of the schools which executed them.

The sixteenth-century copy of Sta. Maria del Popolo is painted in oils on rough canvas, with quick brush-work, and like all pictures of that day, has lost its colour. The mosaic-like stripes on the dress of the Child are actually unnatural. In Florence, and in San Francesco d'Amelia there are two Umbrian copies with characteristics of the Peruginesque School. The former is attributed to Pintoricchio and, to my mind, is from a copy made by him; for we must remember that he worked for several years in  p179 Sta. Maria del Popolo (1488‑1491 and 1508‑1509) and was under the orders of eminent men, such as Cardinal della Rovere, several Bishops and finally of Julius II. It is almost certain that during these years, Pintoricchio must have made a copy of this famous Madonna; but more interesting is emphatically the copy to be seen now in the church of San Francesco in Monte­falco.

. . . . . . . . . .

I have passed two hours in the cool half light of the quiet church, thus avoiding the brilliant summer sun which blazes over the hills and vales of Umbria.

I have walked round the lonely walls of Monte­falco and have seen the hallowed summits of Monteluco and of Subasio, and the cities on the hills in a sheen of dazzling light.

I have heard the noontide bells from far and near; they reach me as a murmur from Monte Pennino.

The church of San Francesco, although no longer used for religious services, is full of a sacred atmosphere from the frescoes still remaining there. Benozzo has painted the apse in a pleasant narrative manner rich in details, but reminding us once more of his inferiority to his master Fra Angelico. There are also works by Perugino and by some of his pupils; two of whom, Melanzio and Fra Agnolo, were natives of Monte­falco. These are pleasing though feeble painters, and in the peace of the old church they also murmur a prayer of gentleness.

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

Madonna and saints:
from the painting by Francesco Melanzio
in the church of Santa Illuminata
at Monte­falco

(Photo. Alinari)

At last I see the copy of the 'Madonna del Popolo',  p180 hanging on a pillar at the end of the nave: I have it taken down that I may examine it more closely.

It is in 'weak tempera', that is to say so weak as to be transparent, like a water-colour, through using colours much diluted on a very fine canvas called 'renso', a certain stuff made only in Reims.

The few artists who work in this way, wishing to avoid the running of the liquid colour on the fine lawn, prepare the canvas with a thin paste of isinglass, which leaves a delicate sheen almost like silk. In an old recipe of the time we read: 'Take the bones of a pike and of any other large fish, and dry them; then pound them in a mortar of bronze, and then put this said powder into a new pipkin, with so much water as you think sufficient, and boil it all until it is well liquefied . . . Then lift it from the fire, strain it through a linen cloth, and let it become cold'.

I do not believe that this species of water-colour is older than the middle of the fifteenth century, and it was not used in many districts. It is essentially from Venetia and Emilia, and the best example remaining is that of 'The Dead Christ', painted by Mantegna between 1457 and 1459, now in the Brera. Francesco del Cossa and Lorenzo Costa made use of this medium in Bologna, and many of the Romagna painters between Faenza and Forlì used it, for example Leonardo Scaletti, in his picture of 'Galeotto Manfredi kneeling before San Bernardino', which is in the Faenza  p181 Gallery. There too is a Pietà, in this same method, said to be by Melozzo da Forlì. Possibly these two were used as standards, for which the lightness of the canvas would be suitable, but this weak tempera was not exclusively used for standards, nor were they all painted in this manner. Many more are painted in strong tempera, and in later years in oils, as those in Umbria. Sometimes oils were used also on 'renso', but then it was gummed on to a wood panel.

The technique of the Monte­falco picture is the same as those at Faenza; this would not be sufficient argument regiment to stamp it 'romagnolo' were it not that its character is borne out by other signs.

The Virgin is the type that Melozzo usually painted, and which was followed by his pupils: a long oval face, fine high eyebrows, straight nose, relatively narrow at the base where there is a slight curve; the arched upper lip much wider than the under one, but less bowed.

To recognize the clear-cut style of tracing the essential lines, and the affinity of that face with the type of Melozzo and his followers, one must be accustomed to study the painters of Romagna of the second half of the fourteenth century.

Now let us see whether there exists a reproduction of the Madonna del Popolo, which may have served as a model for these later copies.

Alessandro Sforza, Lord of Pesaro, ordered Antonazzo, a Roman,​a to make him a copy of the Byzantine Madonna  p182 in Sta. Maria Maggiore and the following epigram was written for this work:

Ad Mariam Maiorem. Virginis est Romae quam Lucas pinxit imago tam sancta: errorem quis putet esse suam hanc? Antonatius pictor romanus ab illa duxit. Alexander Sfortia solvit opus.

(To St. Mary Major. There is in Rome a very holy picture of the Virgin painted by Luke, who could ever err in maintaining that it is really by him? Antonazzo of Rome copied it. Alexander Sforza paid for the work.)

But this same Sforza had also a copy of the Madonna del Popolo made for him by Melozzo da Forlì; and for this latter a more elegant epigram was composed:

Ad Mariam de Populo. Hanc divus Lucas vivo de Verginis ore pinxerat: haec propria est Virginis effigies. Sfortia Alexander iussit, Melotius ipsam effinxit, Lucas diceret esse suam.

(To St. Mary of the People. St. Luke had taken an original portrait of the Virgin. This is a sure effigy of the Virgin. Alexander Sforza ordered it: Melozzo copied it. Luke would say that it is his.)

It is sometimes believed that such copies were executed in 1461, when Sforza was passing through Rome, after having fought with Piccenino at San Fabiano, but Constantinoº Corvisieri and Okkonen both consider this uncertain, and I myself feel convinced that the picture is of an earlier date than either Melozzo or Antonazzo.

The name of the latter appears for the first time three  p183 years later on a picture in Rieti, and the first positive news of Melozzo in Rome is a considerable time afterwards. And inasmuch as Alessandro Sforza had more connection with Rome when Paul II made him General of the Pontifical Troops in 1469, I believe that it was in that year, or the succeeding one, that he had these copies painted. There is therefore no doubt that Melozzo da Forlì copied the Madonna del Popolo, and I feel equally certain that the one in Monte­falco belongs to the group of his school, and that judging by the grand simplicity of line, it is probably of the last part of the fifteenth century. Perhaps some one may find the name of the master, when they see the infinite charm of the picture and the lofty pure beauty of the Madonna, but speaking for myself, I cannot venture!

Thayer's Note:

a This should be Antonazzo Romano (now usually Antoniazzo), the well-known painter recorded to have made a replica of the icon. The translation mistake is one of many signs thruout the book that together are evidence the translator was not an art expert nor an independent scholar.

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