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.
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).