Before he was El Greco

Last week we were invited to join a group visiting a small museum in Castignano, a wine and olive growing town in the hills above Ascoli.

In the old part of the town, high up on a hill, sits a little museum that holds the collection of the retired clergyman, Don Vincenzo. Although it is small, the collection the Don has put together over the course of his life is brilliant. The Don is a voluble and energetic man, and his passion for the maintenance of this collection is quite visible. The first floor features a large collection of very old books, both printed and hand-written.

The treasure of the town is probably this 14C procession piece in worked silver, which encases a 12C crucifix.

But when we was told there was also a work newly attributed to El Greco, we reserved judgment – a lot of small museums in Italy claim to have pieces done by famous artists.  This one, though, might be the real thing.
The piece is a “tabernacle,” a repository placed on the altar to hold articles needed for the Mass.  In big churches these were often of inlaid marble or other precious material.  Smaller churches, though, usually made do with wooden boxes, often painted on the sides by local artists.

This tabernacle is unusual in that it came from Rome, and church records indicate when and where it was made (16th C) and when it was bought.  The paintings on it were of unusually high quality, and even before anyone thought it was done by someone famous it occupied a prominent place.

Recently a visitor from Venice said he thought the bright colors used were those of the Venetian Renaissance.  When he showed it to an art historian in Venice, he thought it might be the work of a young El Greco. Long story short, three El Greco experts have now inspected the work; two think it is definitely an El Greco, the third thought it probably was.  That’s a pretty high level of agreement.

El Greco was born Domenikos Theotokopolous in Crete, then a colony of Venice, and went to Venice to study art.  After a few years, he spent a few years in Rome, before departing for Spain, where he became known as “the Greek” and spent the rest of his life.  The years he spent in Rome correspond to when the tabernacle was done.  We don’t know for sure that he did this kind of painting, but many young artists did, because it was an easy way to make some quick money.

Why do they think it was by El Greco?  The art specialists concentrated on the quality of the work – the figures, especially the faces, are very good, especially since the work was was done free-hand (no first drafts or preliminary sketches).  The figures have elongated bodies, unique to El Greco’s art.  Most interestingly of all, St. Luke the Evangelist (on the right) was shown with a (very small) pen in his left hand, unusual in an era when being left-handed was still thought to be the work of the devil.

This work may not be a masterpiece, but the depictions of the saints are creative and interesting.  In depiction of Jesus being taken down from the cross, for example, an angel with white wings is fighting with a black winged devil for Jesus’ soul.  We know how that turned out.  

The tabernacle sits in a room of 19th an 20th Century Russian icons. The standard style hasn’t changed much over the centuries, and as such must represent the style that Theotokopoulous learned in youth. I think you can see the elongated bodies in the newer icon below, the style of which might have carried forward into El Greco’s work.

19C icon, note the elongated figures

Artists in this era usually didn’t sign their work, but they often found ways to represent themselves in their paintings.  And El Greco was known to be left-handed.  So maybe the depiction of a saint as left-handed was his way of saying “a left hander painted this”?

There has been some national press about this, and the town is hoping to make some money from art tourists when travel becomes possible again.  It’s a big step.  The museum is currently open only by advance appointment, and doesn’t charge admission – there is only a collection box for voluntary contributions.  While they figure out what to do, the town installed a jury-rigged armored door, which the museum director hadn’t figured out how to open yet (we had to enlist the help of the locksmith who was on hand preparing to install a more elaborate system).

Another Quiet Corner of Italy

While travel outside of Italy remains a fraught enterprise, we continue to enjoy travel to lesser known parts of Italy. Last week we visited northern Lazio, a region on Italy’s west coast, about 3 hours drive from our home in Ascoli Piceno. This region is sometimes called Tuscia after its ancient inhabitants, the Etruscans.

Viterbo

Viterbo, a city dating back to the 8th C, is located about 50 miles north of Rome, and its history has long been tied up with that of the Roman Catholic Pope. In the 12th and 13th C, when the city of Rome was at a low ebb, Viterbo was the actual seat of the Papacy for a few decades.

In 1270, Viterbo became the inadvertent site of the first Papal conclave. The enraged citizens, angry that the assembled cardinals who were being fed and housed at the town’s expense had failed to elect a new Pope after two years of not very energetic negotiations, locked the cardinals into their meeting room and fed them on bread and water until a new Pope was chosen. The custom of keeping the cardinals under lock and key while they are electing a new Pope continues to this day (the word “conclave” comes from the Latin “clavus,” or “key”), although these days the cardinals aren’t fed on bread and water.

Papal palace

Viterbo’s other more dubious claim to fame is as the site of a murder: in 1271, two sons of the English knight Simon de Montfort, Guy and Simon the Younger, killed their cousin, Henry of Cornwall, in the church of San Silvestro (today the church of San Gesù) in revenge for the execution of their father. This murder became infamous all over Europe because it occurred not just in church, but during the celebration of the Mass, and the perpetrators were quickly excommunicated. One young murderer died in Tuscany of illness later that year, while the other died some years later in a Sicilian prison. Dante banished the two of them to the river of boiling blood in the 7th circle of Hell, perhaps a more lasting punishment.

I knew about this event from my study of English history. But I had forgotten it had occurred in Viterbo, and certainly wasn’t expecting to find the church next door to my B&B. The church seems rather small for the heinousness of the crime.

Chiesa di San Silvestro

After the papacy left Viterbo, in the latter half of the 13th C, the city became part of the Papal states and faded from historical importance. Today, Viterbo is a charming small city whose design and principal buildings are more medieval than Renaissance.

Piazza S. Pellegrino, Viterbo

Like other cities in the Roman orbit, Viterbo flourished again in the Baroque era, when artists were particularly interested in creating optical effects. We saw a particularly interesting example of this the church of San Giovanni Batista. The artist, working with a mathematician, painted columns as part of a ceiling fresco that looked straight when observed from the center aisle, but seemed to move to the left or right when observed from the side aisles.

This fresco and its optical illusion was not listed in any of our guidebooks. When we entered the church, a caretaker greeted us an offered to show us points of interest. This kind of impromptu guided tour is a dying tradition in Italy, these days found only in smaller, less-visited churches. If you’re visiting Italy and happen to find one of these volunteer guides, be sure to take advantage of their knowledge.

Montefiascone

The town of Montefiascone, not far from Viterbo, is known today primarily for its beautiful views, particularly those of nearby Lake Bolsena.

Lago Bolsena from Montefiascone

But during the Papal period, it was one of the places where those traveling to and from the Papal court would often stop for refreshment or lodging. One papal legate, something of a wine connoisseur, sent his steward on ahead to scout out the local offerings, asking him to note the Latin word Est (essentially, “here it is”) indicating the place with the best wine. The steward decided the white wine of Montefiascone was so good he had to emphasize it, and the name he used to indicate the wine: Est! Est! Est! – is used to this day, complete with exclamation points!

Unfortunately, the Papal legate died only two years later. Apparently, he was a bit too fond of the wine. He is buried in the oldest church in town beneath beautiful frescoes ranging from the 12th to 16th centuries.

Frescoes, S. Flaviano, Montefiascone

Civita di Bagnoregio

The town of Civita di Bagnoregio was founded by Etruscans more than 2500 years ago, and was prosperous through the medieval period. It was the birthplace of St. Bonaventure, a noted early Franciscan.

The town’s site, on a steep hill surrounded by ravines, had always been hard to access. But by the 17th century, landslides and erosion had caused many of the town’s buildings (including the birthplace of St. Bonaventure) to fall off the edge of the cliff, and most of the town moved to more stable ground in its former suburb of Bagnoregio. Today, Civita is like a land island marooned in a sea of canyons. No vehicles are allowed, and it can be reached by tourists today only by a modern pedestrian bridge connecting it to the “mainland”.

Civita di Bagnoregio and its bridge.

Bomarzo

The last stop on our little tour was the town of Bomarzo, where in the 17th century a Roman nobleman with perhaps more money than sense built a sculpture garden. And what sculptures they were! Here were no classical depictions of gods, water nymphs and forest sprites, but giant heads with ferocious teeth, giant turtles, homicidal dragons, and a tuskless elephant trampling an already decapitated Roman soldier. And while there was a fountain guarded by mermaids, the creatures were so large as to be almost feral. The official name of the sculpture park is the Sacro Bosco, the Sacred Wood. But it is much more commonly known as the Parco dei Mostri – Monster Park.

The creator of the garden left no documents explaining his intentions for the park. But he did leave an inscription near the entrance, whose meaning, freely translated, is: “Is this art or a giant joke? You decide.”

The guy was a 16th C troll. Some things never change.