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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts
Vol. 8 (1893), pp226‑230.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p226  Correspondence.

Monte­falco in Umbria.

Favourably placed on the summit of a commanding eminence Monte­falco has established the right to be entitled the Ringhiera Umbra, or, as we should say, the Balcony of Umbria. It is girdled with a continuous circle of cities, all of which are familiar by their names to every lover of Italian mediaeval art. Perugia, Assisi, Spello, Foligno, Trevi, Spoleto, Bevagna are at your feet.​a Behind them looms a never-ending range of rugged mountains covered with sparkling snow. Some days the vast valley is choked with a filmy vapour, out of which rise the pale forms of the underlying cities like seaports washed by the rising tide. Here and there a lofty hill in the middle distance, oak and olive crowned, emerges as an island from the waters. Above the mist level Monte­falco towers bathed in dazzling sunlight, and its glittering walls, and Campanili are seen painted on the glowing expanse of the intensely deep blue sky. Uncared for in evil times treasures of art still exist inherited from the best period of Italian excellence.

Long ago the Provincial Deputation of Fine Arts declared "that the Church of San Francesco of Monte­falco was superior in the beauty of its frescoes to all the churches of Umbria, except that of San Francesco of Assisi": but it did nothing to preserve these for future ages.

In the choir of this church are Benozzo Gozzoli's great frescoes depicting the life of San Francesco, very erroneously described and confused by Milanesi, in his note to Vasari's life of the painter, with the frescoes by the same master in a side chapel dedicated to San Girolamo. From the portraits in this choir have often been borrowed for imitation in modern times the features of Giotto, Dante, and Petrarca, under which triad are written these inscriptions, "Pictorum eximius Jottus fundamentum et lux." "Theologus Dantes nullius dogmatis expers." "Laureatus Petrarca omnium virtutum monarca." The date of these frescoes is 1452, and in the monastery of San Fortunato, the patron saint of this city, is another dated 1450, showing the period of Benozzo Gozzoli's residence here. Besides this church there are Sant' Illuminata, San Leonardo, Sant' Agostino, and others with less claims to notice.

One of the best pictures by Benozzo Gozzoli is in San Giovanni Laterano at Rome, sent as a gift to Pope Pius IX in exchange for the barren honor granted by him of styling Monte­falco a full-fledged City.  p227 Perugino, Spagna, Tiberio d'Assisi, Fra Angelico, Mezastris of Foligno are well represented here, but Monte­falco had its own special art-genius Francesco Melanzio, and nowhere else can he be studied. Melanzio was a pupil of Perugino, and the Madonnas he painted possess a grace and beauty truly Raphaelesque. I will name the one in the Chapel of the Piazza as transcendent, but there are many others little inferior. Two in the small picture gallery show a great contrast and demand much faith that they are from the same hand. Both are signed and dated by him, but his progress between the five years marked on them 1487 and 1492 is almost incredible.

I have a copy of a letter dated 16th Dec., 1878, from the Director of the Dresden Art Gallery, L. Gruner, addressed to the excellent syndic Signor Loreti, which manifests his interest in Melanzio's work. He regrets his scanty knowledge of this painter, and quotes the only reference he can discover, which is in Mezzanotte's Life of Perugino published at Perugia in 1836, naming him as "Vannucci's scholar," and the probable date of his death about 1525. This statement is confirmed in a Latin MS in the possession of the Marchese Francesco degli Abati in 1796. Melanzio painted all, or nearly all, the Church of Santa Illuminata. The second chapel to the left as you enter, with a Presepio in the centre, and on the sides the Flight into Egypt, and Adoration of the Magi, is a gem of the choicest art.

Professor Adamo Rossi, late architect of Perugia, sedulously attempted to trace this artist's career, and the results were intended to appear in the Archivio Storico dell' Arte. I do not know if his death in March, 1891, interrupted his intention. It is authenticated that he completed a Maestà, or wayside shrine in 1487: that he had a dispute which was settled by arbitration on 26th Feb., 1499: that on the 12th Nov., 1512, he made a payment on behalf of his wife, Maria Antonia di Pierantonio di Jacopo: that on the 24th May, 1514, he began to paint the Chapel of Santa Chiaretta in the Church of Sant' Agostino: that on the 7th Sept., 1515, he signed his name with date upon a picture over the high altar in the Church of San Leonardo: that in 1515 he signed the fresco on the third altar of the Church of Sant' Illuminata: that on the 21st Jany., 1516, he gave a receipt in his wife's name for fifty florins bequeathed to her by an aunt, Silvestra of Spoleto: that in Feb., 1517, he contracted with Bonifazio di Cuppis to paint and gild a picture and chapel in Santa Illuminata. All these notices are extracted from original notarial documents, signed and dated, which I need not further particularize.

On the 6th of May, 1888, the Communal Council of Monte­falco decreed to raise a monument to the memory of its illustrious painter in his native city.

 p228  Half the frescoes in Monte­falco are obliterated by dense layers of abominable whitewash; and would that I could truly speak well of the preservation of those which remain; but I am glad to say that the Minister of Public Instruction has since my visit sent an inspector to report on the Church of San Francesco, which is now inscribed on the list of Italian National Monuments. Moreover, its condition is infinitely superior to that of the Church of Sant' Illuminata, where the frescoes of Melanzio are crumbling off the damp walls for want of a trifling expenditure. Strange it is, but literally true, that in Monte­falco are slowly perishing the noblest works of pictorial art, which in a London salesroom would be coveted and purchased for sums of money, a fraction whereof would pay for their safe-keeping in situ.

I am no believer in ineffectual word-analysis of pictures; they must be seen — and a drive of two hours​b from the railway station at Foligno is not far to go for a glimpse of the artistic beauties Monte­falco richly owns, until time and longer neglect shall fade them out of sight for ever.

Rough and uncouth as the Umbrian peasant roundabout here is, still as he walks the lovely country lanes in his dirty white smock, he carries within his innermost soul a dull consciousness, which lightens up with an encouraging word, that his Monte­falco contains a mine of treasure which he ought to be proud of. His life and his habitation are hard and squalid, but acorn-gathering, and the despoiling of olive trees, have not quite killed the knowledge that his churches are made sacred by something bright. His voice and dialect are strident and repellent, but his "Buon passeggio" grumbled forth surlily as you encounter him is as sincere as the never-failing courteous "Buon giorno a lei" of his Tuscan neighbour; whilst underneath the Umbrian husk there is the virtue of hard labour, and its fruits are in the smiling landscape surrounding you on every side.

The Falcon which a pretty legend records to have fallen in at the open window of a room where the elders sat in council on the choice of a name to give their city when rebuilt was long a bird of doubtful omen; for in after times Monte­falco bitterly groaned under the tyrannies of the Trinci family (lords of Foligno); and the ruin wrought by Martelli of the Black Bands instigated by the fierce Baglioni of Perugia; besides the dread pestilence that twice, in 1464 and 1529, devastated it; until at last it passed beneath a milder sway, and is now a place for few ambitions save peaceful ones.

William Mercer.

Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, 1892.

 p229  Note to the above. — I would add to the interesting letter of Mr. Mercer a line regarding the inscriptions on these frescoes at Monte­falco, merely for the convenience of readers, regretting that there was no time to ask it of Mr. Mercer's more competent hand.

At S. Francesco, on the S. wall near the door, is the signature of Tiberio d'Assisi, showing that he worked here in 1510: A. D. M.CCCCCX. Tiberius de Asisio pinxit. At S. Fortunato we find the same signature, the only difference being that the date is two years later, 1512. These frescoes are in the chapel of S. Francesco. Monte­falco is perhaps the best place to study Benozzo Gozzoli. One of his two frescoes at S. Fortunato has the inscription [Opus] Benotii de Florentia, MCCCCL. At S. Francesco, Gozzoli's name as the painter of the choir is thus given on the right-hand pilaster: In nomine sanctissime Trinitatis hanc cappellam pinxit Benotius Florentinus sub annis Domini millesimo quadringentesimo quinquagesimo secundo; qualis sit pictor prefatus inspice lector. In the vault and on the walls of the right aisle are frescoes by Gozzoli, signed and dated as follows in the sixth vault, which is the chapel of S. Jerome: Constructa atque depicta est hec cappella ad honorem gloriosi Hyeronimi, M.CCCC.LII die primo novembris, while in the frieze of the cornice is the signature: Opus Benotii de Florentia.

It should be noticed that there are works by the schools of Cimabue and Giotto at S. Francesco.

I would add also a few words to Mr. Mercer's very appreciative notice of Francesco Melanzio, a native of Monte­falco, and none of whose signed works appear elsewhere in Umbria, to my knowledge. Mr. Mercer repeats Mezzanotti's statement that the date of Melanzio's death is about 1525. Unless the inscription in the apse of S. Fortunato has been tampered which he is shown to have been still painting in the year 1528. This inscription reads, according to Guardabassi (Mon. dell' Umbria): Franciscus M. de Monte­falco pinxit M.CCCCC.XXVIII, and the subject of this charming painting is the Virgin enthroned holding the Child with three saints on each side. His signature on the painting in S. Leonardo is: Franciscus Mel. Mont. Falc. pinxit anno Domini millesimo quingentesimo decimo quinto, die septima septembris. The subject of this tempera painting on canvas is the Virgin and Child enthroned: on the throne are four angels crowning the Virgin, while four angels are singing above the throne: on each side are four saints in three rows. In the church of S. Maria Melanzio painted in fresco the niche behind the high altar. His signature, which is not dated, reads: Franciscus Melantius de Monte­falco pinsit. The subject is: above, God the Father in a glory of angels, blessing; below, the Virgin and Child, enthroned, with two angels, while on the left S. Fortunatus is saying mass. At S. Illuminata, where there are such  p230 beautiful works by this artist, the first niche on the right contains the inscription: Anno Domini Millesimo quingentesimo XV Franciscus Melantius P. It is a question whether the frescoes in the next niche, dated 1505, and those in the last niche on the right, dated 1509, may not be earlier works by Melanzio.

Finally it is interesting to note that side by side with the works of the Florentine, Perugian and native schools, there are examples of the schools of Gubbio (e.g., S. Francesco in third vault) and Foligno (Ch. of Turrita), so that we can obtain in Monte­falco a good view of several sides of the development of Italian painting from 1450 to 1525.


Thayer's Notes:

a A very misleading expression. The altitudes of these places are, respectively, 493, 505, 313, 233, 424, 386, and 207 meters above sea-level, while that of Monte­falco is 473 meters: so that only Spello, Foligno, Trevi, Spoleto, and Bevagna might be said to be "at your feet". About Foligno and Bevagna on the plain below I have no argument, nor even much about Spello, whose hill, rising from the wide east Umbrian valley, is a small, cozy affair. More accurately, though, Spoleto's rocca, at 453 meters, puts it pretty much at the same level as Monte­falco — and Trevi is strikingly situated on a steep hill of its own that rises across the same valley from Monte­falco and affords a far more extensive view of central Umbria.

b Our article was written before automobiles were commonplace: the 12‑kilometer drive from Foligno train station now takes just 20 minutes. Two hours is the time it takes to cover the distance on foot, which hasn't changed, of course: it's an instructive walk.

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Page updated: 14 Jul 11