Montefalco welcomes home early Renaissance masterpiece
MONTEFALCO -- Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, called it “a miracle in azure and gold” when the Madonna della Cintola by Benozzo Gozzoli was unveiled in the San Francesco Museum at Montefalco (Umbria). The loan of the newly restored 15th century masterpiece from the Vatican collection to its original home town after an exile lasting 167 years was greeted with great enthusiasm, not only by the local citizens, but also by well-known art historians and critics Vittorio Sgarbi and Philippe Daverio, who attended the welcoming ceremony.
“Our Lady of the Girdle” was commissioned in 1450 for the main altar of the nearby church of San Fortunato, but found its ideal setting in the ex-monastery Museum of St. Francis, next to the choir chapel which Gozzoli had covered with frescoes recounting the life of the Poverello (Poor Man) of Assisi.
The precious altarpiece left Montefalco in 1848, when the community donated it to Pope Pius IX, as thanks for giving the town official city status. Since then it has been part of the Vatican Pinacoteca collection. The initiative to put the painting on exhibit in Montefalco is a typical example of the kind of unpublicized collaboration that often exists in Italy between local governments and businesses. The restoration was commissioned by the town with the support of the Savings Bank of Foligno, Foligno Lions Club and the Montefalco Wine consortium. It cost a total €60,000, half of which was donated by the leading Montefalco Sagrantino wine producer, Marco Caprai.
The painting shows a rosy-cheeked Madonna seated in a floral bower, surrounded by angels. The background is covered in gold leaf and her robe is a dazzling sky blue. She is holding out her girdle to a kneeling Doubting Thomas as proof of her Assumption into heaven. The story was a popular medieval legend and a relic of the Sacred Girdle is still kept in Prato Cathedral (Tuscany) and exhibited to the faithful five times every year.
The St. Francis cycle in the Montefalco church-museum was Gozzoli’s first independent work after his apprenticeship with Fra Angelico and it miraculously survived the disastrous Umbrian earthquake of 1997. The twenty episodes depicted cover the apse. Gozzoli inserted portraits of other famous historical figures among the illustrious Franciscan friars gracing the medallions above the choir. He has Giotto painting a Madonna and Child, Dante with his Divine Comedy in his hand, and Petrarch with his book of poems. Apart from the apse, he also frescoed the chapel in the left nave showing St. Jerome with his lion offering its paw with dog-like submission.
The entire church, however, is a dazzling riot of illustrations by minor artists, covering the walls, pillars, rib vaults, naves and ceiling panels, while an acclaimed Perugino “Nativity” occupies the right side of the counter façade.
Benozzo di Lesa di Sandro (to give Gozzoli his full name – Gozzoli was probably a nickname alluding to a presumed goitre condition) went on to work for the Medici family in Florence. For them he painted his most famous work, depicting the fabled “Journey of Magi”. He put various members of the Medici clan among the triumphant crowd hastening to Bethlehem, as well as himself. His self-portrait is easily recognized because he put his name around the rim of his cap.
In a career that spanned just under fifty years, the indefatigable maestro produced a huge number of complex works covering vast areas of walls in various churches and religious houses in Florence, Pisa and San Gimignano. He became wealthy and famous and also found the time to produce “many” children (some chroniclers put the number at seven, with the youngest born when he was approaching sixty) and his tender portrayal of children is one of his characteristics.
He died, perhaps in a plague epidemic, in 1497, at the good age of 76.
La Madonna della Cintola will be on exhibit at Montefalco until the end of April 2016. Open every day 10.30-18.00. It is also possible to book a group visit outside these hours.