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Italy earthquake. When an earthquake strikes a place like central Italy, you don't just stand to lose buildings—you lose a window on the past.

The little-known treasures of the Apennines

In 1977, the first Territory Manual of the Umbria Region was issued, an ambitious project that aimed at describing the tangible and intangible heritage of the entire region. It was dedicated to the Valnerina [valley of the Nera river]. The same area of Italy is again back in the limelight these days due to the violent earthquake that destroyed it.

That volume described a huge amount of little-known material. But just flipping through the pages it was evident some had a surprising quality.

Back then, Giovanni Previtali was studying his “Umbria to the left of the Tiber.” He started from the openings on the smaller Roberto Longhi’s topics. He summed up unknown critical figures like the Master of Santa Caterina Gualino or the Master of the Visso Cross. Enrico Castelnuovo and Carlo Ginzburg, on the Einaudi treatise in art history, studied the relationship between center and periphery and took the Valnerina as an example of a bridge and laboratory region for a specific and unique artistic language.

There was then a particular enthusiasm in studying the valleys at the foot of Monte Vettore, rich in an extraordinary heritage in terms of quantity and sometimes quality. Today this is likely to be no more. The collapse of the San Benedetto Basilica in Norcia is the most telling sign of a disaster that could have unimaginable dimensions. One wonders whether the altarpieces of the church will be recoverable, or even the Filippo Napoletano or the little Michelangelo Carducci, the Mannerist painter son of the Roman experience and last heir to a dynasty of Norcia artists, the Sparapane, who worked there at least since mid-fifteenth century.

Will the Christ by Giovanni Teutonico, recently praised in a beautiful monograph by Sara Cavatorti and preserved in the Santa Maria Argentea church, the Duquesnoy marbles, the altarpiece of the Pomarancio, be ever recoverable?

The list could be endless really. All that part of Italy that goes from Spoleto up the Nera river until to the Marche region, and beyond the Monte Vettore goes towards the sea following the Salaria and Flaminia roads, is a substantially homogeneous area culturally speaking. Since the 12th century, a peculiar language and identity were synthesized. Starting from Alberto Sotio, the superficial linearism of the Romanesque paintings that seem to descend from the Burgundian sculptures, stands as one of the highest summits of the art in Italy and creates a pocket of resistance to the innovations spreading from Tuscany, like Giunta Pisano in Assisi. This endures until the arrival of Cimabue and Giotto in the San Francesco Basilica itself. The fourteenth century opens with the new artists who reject those innovations and see the space and the narrative but who are also looking for emotions and a meaningful dialogue with the viewer, so that there are huge frescoed with thunderous representations of Christ’s death. And there is also the San Salvatore in Campi church in Norcia, a poetically beautiful church, with a double aisle lined with frescoes that had even preserved partitions and a jetty that described the setting of the medieval church. Wednesday night it was totally gutted.

When Roberto Longhi thought about the Umbria Renaissance, he was referring in particular to the fifteenth century works in these valleys, where Bartolomeo di Tommaso, born in Foligno but adopted by Ancona, built a style somewhere between the beauty of Gentile da Fabriano and the top attractions of the “painting of light.” The famous document of 1442 is representative of the whole XV century. It was published by a tireless and refined researcher Romano Cordella, who described the same painter of Foligno at the head of a brigade, which included Nicola di Ulisse from Siena, Andrea de Litio, Lorenzo di Luca Alemanno and Giambono Corrado. This brigade was committed to decorate the Sant’Agostino church, and was also active at St. Scolastica. It is the beginning of a new story that in the twenties, Van Marle started calling Norcia Style and today is at risk of disappearing almost in its entirety. In parallel, in the deepest Marche, the parable of a delicate and often moving painter, Paolo da Visso, was fulfilled, perhaps a student of Bartolomeo di Tommaso himself, who decorated the collegiate church of his town. Today, it’s the center of a town down to its knees, completely at risk of collapse.

During the same years, on the other side of the Apennines in Camerino, the extraordinary experience of the painters flourishes at the Da Varano court. Giovanni Boccati and Giovanni Angelo d’Antonio bring to the heart of the Marche the perspective techniques learnt in Florence and Padua. Frescoes, altarpieces and tables are now in danger. They are the alternative to the great advances of Carlo Crivelli’s polyptych. Similarly Luca di Paolo from Matelica and Lorenzo d’Alessandro from San Severino, testify in the museums and churches of the city the most beautiful and last propagation of the great Gothic wave that exemplifies an alternative pure Appennini Renaissance.

The conditions of the small and wonderful Madonna di Carpineto should be checked. There, a Camerino-born pupil of Donatello, Battista di Barnaba, left a terracotta relief that only recently had been discovered, studied and restored.

A trip between the Marche and Umbria in search of works of art can also be impressive for external appearances. It is fortunate event that the two Valentin de Boulogne paintings usually held at Santa Maria in Via in Camerino have temporarily migrated to the Metropolitan Museum for the wonderful solo exhibition of this French caravaggista, but the conditions of the Giacinto Gimignani altarpiece in the same church need to be determined. The same applies to the two wooden Crucifixes by Benedetto da Maiano in Ancarano di Norcia and Todiano of Preci, two tiny castles of Val Castoriana, a very remote valley on the Nera river that unexpectedly hosts a long series of Florentine works. The two sculptures are in the company of Francesco Furini, Giovanni del Biondo, Francesco di Simone Ferrucci and many more.

In 1979, the earth shook; it happened again in 1997 and all this heritage was rediscovered and saved somehow. Today, it is the greatest resource of this large geographical area and keeping it safe means not only protecting the past, but also and especially guaranteeing a future.

Alessandro Delpriori is an art historian and mayor of Matelica, Italy, which was affected by the earthquake.

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