Spoleto’s cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta or Duomo can certainly be counted among the city’s many highlights. The current Duomo was built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century and replaced an earlier cathedral which seems to date from the eighth or ninth century. This earlier cathedral, known as the Santa Maria del Vescovato, is in any case mentioned in documents from 956 and 1067. It was part of a complex that was most likely destroyed when the emperor Frederick Barbarossa captured and sacked Spoleto in 1155. The emperor was embroiled in a bitter conflict with the Papacy, first with Pope Adrianus IV (1154-1159) and then with his successor Alexander III (1159-1181). This story is told in more detail elsewhere. Peace was made in Venice in 1177 and it was probably around that time that construction of the new Duomo of Spoleto began.
History of the Duomo
The new cathedral was built in the Romanesque style. An information panel near the building claims it was “modelled on Roman examples, particularly Santa Maria in Trastevere”. Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) is said to have consecrated an altar in the Duomo shortly after the start of his pontificate. As one of his first acts as pope, Innocentius had forced Conrad of Urslingen (died 1202), the Duke of Spoleto and a former henchman of Frederick Barbarossa, to cede Spoleto to the Papal States (see Assisi: Rocca Maggiore). It was probably shortly after 1198 that the pope consecrated the aforementioned altar, but the cathedral had not yet been completed at that time. The famous mosaic by Doctor Solsternus on the facade (see below) mentions the year 1207 and it seems likely that it was Innocentius’ successor Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) who consecrated the new cathedral as a whole in about 1216. The campanile is also thirteenth century. While an excellent example of the Umbrian-Romanesque style, the Duomo also had a few Gothic features: note the three pointed arches of the upper part of the facade.
Important changes were made to the cathedral in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. At the time the Diocese of Spoleto was governed by three members of the Eroli family, who served as consecutive bishops of the city: Berardo Eroli (1448-1474), Costantino Eroli (1474-1500) and Francesco Eroli (1500-1540). Among the modifications that they ordered were the Renaissance loggia of the facade, which was added between 1491 and 1504, and a series of chapels that were named the Eroli chapels after them. During Berardo Eroli’s pontificate, the noted painted Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469) came to Spoleto to execute his fresco cycle about the Life of the Virgin in the apse of the cathedral. Costantino Eroli for his part commissioned the equally famous painter Pinturicchio (1454-1513) to fresco one of the Eroli chapels.
The interior of the Duomo was remodelled extensively in the seventeenth century. Two members of the Barberini family seem to have been the driving force behind this project. One was Maffeo Barberini, who was elected Pope Urbanus VIII in 1623. He had been bishop of Spoleto from 1608 until 1617. The other was his nephew cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679). Much work was probably done between 1638 and 1644, but the project was possibly only completed in about 1680, which is a year after cardinal Barberini had died. The result was a Baroque interior for the Duomo. Part of the project was the addition of a dome to the cathedral, which can only be seen from afar (see the image above).
The interior was given a second makeover in the eighteenth century. This time it was bishop Francesco Maria Locatelli (1772-1811) who took the lead. The architect in charge was a youthful Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839). Between 1785 and 1792 he worked on the Duomo and especially on the side chapels, which were given a Neo-classicist look. As a result of all this remodelling, the current Duomo is an intriguing mixture of styles.
The facade of the cathedral is world famous as the backdrop for the annual Festival dei Due Mondi, the summer festival of Spoleto which is held each year in June and July. The facade consists of three levels. The lower register is covered by the Renaissance loggia already mentioned above. It is composed of five arcades with Corinthian columns and has a pulpit on either side. The middle register has five rose windows, but the ones on the far left and right are blind. The one in the middle is by far the most impressive of the five. It is held by two little men (telamons) and features intricate Cosmatesque decorations. In the four corners are the symbols of the four evangelists, a man for Matthew, an eagle for John, an ox for Luke and a lion for Mark. These are very neatly carved. The middle rose window has a diameter of about four metres.
The upper part of the facade features three more rose windows and three pointed arches, one of which contains a large mosaic in the Byzantine style. It probably represents a Deesis, an image of Christ flanked by the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist with their hands raised in supplication (‘Deesis’ means ‘supplication’ or ‘prayer’). Christ is in the centre, sitting on his throne and giving his blessing with his right hand. In his left hand is an opened book and the text on the pages reads EGO SVM LVX MVNDI, “I am the light of the world”. These are words taken from the Gospel of John (John 8:12: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.“”). We have seen the words before, for instance in the apse mosaic in the Duomo of Pisa.
Christ is flanked by the Virgin Mary (SCA MARIA) on the left and Saint John (SCS IOHS) on the right. Saint John looks nothing like Saint John the Baptist, who is usually depicted with a beard and wearing a camel hair tunic. In fact, he looks a lot more like the young Saint John the Evangelist. It should be noted that the mosaic was restored several times, and that in 1927 the head of Saint John was replaced. It is not clear whether the new head is a faithful copy of the old one.
The text in black in the lower part of the mosaic reads:
HEC EST PICTURA QUAM FECIT SAT PLACITURA, DOCTOR SOLSTERNUS HAC SUMMUS IN ARTE MODERNUS
It identifies the maker as one Doctor Solsternus, who boasts that he is “supremely modern in this art”. In spite of this immodest claim, we do not have a clue who Doctor Solsternus was: this is his only known work. The white text below the black text mentions the year 1207 and the names of three of his operarii or co-workers.
The interior of the Duomo is an interesting fusion of old and new elements. Among the older parts is the splendid Cosmatesque floor in the nave. Although it is damaged – and roped off to protect it from further damage – at least it is original.
Also old and original is the Byzantine icon of the Virgin dating from the eleventh or twelfth century in the Cappella della Santissima Icone, which can be found at the end of right aisle. The icon was donated by Frederick Barbarossa to the bishop of Spoleto in 1185, thirty years after the emperor had sacked the city. Perhaps this was the emperor’s personal way of saying he was sorry. The reconciliation attempt probably worked, because the icon is held in high regard and the chapel it is in is truly splendid. Its interior dates from 1623-1626 and the statues in it are attributed to the sculptor Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654). Apparently some still believe that the icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist himself. This is a silly tradition of course, but it is widespread in Italy and we have seen plenty of examples in Roman churches as well (see for instance Rome: Santa Maria Maggiore).
The cathedral possesses a very interesting crucifix by the twelfth century painter Alberto Sozio (or Sotio). Nothing is known about his life, but he must have been active in Spoleto and environs. Sozio painted a triumphant Christ on parchment, which was subsequently fixed to a wooden crucifix. The painter actually signed his work by adding his name just below the foot of the cross (click here for a close-up). This is probably one of the earliest examples of an artist signing his work. Sozio also added the year in which he made the crucifix: MCLXXXVII or 1187. The crucifix was originally in the small church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo elsewhere in Spoleto.
One of the most prized possessions of the Duomo is an authentic handwritten letter by none other than Saint Franciscus of Assisi (ca. 1181/82-1226). It can be found in the Cappella delle Reliquie, the chapel of the relics. The letter was written in 1222 and addressed to Brother Leo (died ca. 1270), one of Franciscus’ earliest followers. It was donated to the cathedral by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), who as Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti had served as archbishop of Spoleto from 1827 until 1832. The contents of the letter are, by the way, not that interesting. Franciscus gives Leo “one word of advice so that it will not be necessary for you to come to see me”. The simple advice is to do what Leo believes is most pleasing to God. In other words, his own goodwill and conscience must be his guide. So the letter itself is hardly spectacular, but the fact that it was handwritten by one of the most important saints in the history of Christianity is quite unique. Here history truly becomes tangible.
A good example of the complex architectural history of the cathedral is the fourteenth century Cappella di Sant’Anna between the left transept and the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento at the end of left aisle. The cathedral of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had been built in the shape of a Latin cross and in the fourteenth century two pentagonal chapels had been added to the transept. These were provided with frescoes, which were painted over in 1597. The chapel at the end of the right transept, dedicated to Saint Catherine, was demolished during the remodelling that took place in the seventeenth century, while the Cappella di Sant’Anna was reduced in size. It was closed to the public when I visited the Duomo in September of 2018, but I was nevertheless able to take a few pictures of the interior. What is interesting about the chapel is that the removal of the sixteenth century frescoes in the late nineteenth century led to the rediscovery of the older medieval frescoes.
Included in this post is a picture of a niche which contained an altar dedicated to Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419). He was a Dominican friar who was canonised in 1455, which means that the frescoes were painted after that time. In fact, the damaged fresco of Saint Paul with a sword mentions the year 1477 (see the image above). The main fresco on the back wall features a Madonna and Child seated on a magnificent throne. They are flanked by Pope Urbanus V (1362-1370) on the left and Saint Jerome on the right. We also see a kneeling donor. A most interesting little detail is that the pope is holding an icon featuring Saints Peter and Paul.
Frescoes by Pinturicchio can be found in the chapel off the right aisle, built by order of bishop Costantino Eroli and dedicated to Saint Leonard. The frescoes were painted in 1497 and have been attributed to the painter from Perugia since the middle of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately their state of preservation is rather poor, partly as a result of the damp climate in the chapel. Nevertheless, Pinturicchio’s fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Leonard is very much worth our attention.
Life of the Virgin – Filippo Lippi
The final works of art to be discussed in this post are the brilliant apse frescoes by Fra Filippo Lippi, the Carmelite friar who excelled in painting. Lippi had presumably been summoned to Spoleto by Bishop Berardo Eroli, already mentioned above, and Giorgio Vasari claims that Florentine ruler Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464) had used his influence to persuade the artist to accept the assignment. Lippi started painting his frescoes about the Life of the Virgin in September of 1467, but he regretfully died before they could be finished, on 8 October 1469. His assistant and fellow Carmelite Fra Diamante (ca. 1430-1498) and his apprentice Pier Matteo d’Amelia (ca. 1445-1508) had to complete the work. Some sources assert that his son Filippino Lippi (1457-1504) was involved as well, which seems a little unlikely, as young Filippino was just twelve years old at the time.
The cycle consists of four separate frescoes. Our attention is immediately drawn towards the conch of the apse, which has a very colourful depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin (see above). The event takes place against the background of a blazing sun and has many angels and saints in attendance. On the left we see a collection of male prophets led by Adam and including figures such as Daniel and Elijah (the men all have captions, so they are easy to identify). On the right are female prophets led by Eve and including the Tiburtine Sibyl, Rachel and Esther. The top part of the fresco is unfortunately a little damaged, but the work appears to be in mint condition overall.
Less colourful, but certainly as interesting is the scene of the Dormition of the Virgin on the central apse wall (see below). The Virgin is lying in state, with the apostles on her left and a group of men and angels on the right. On closer inspection we discover that Filippo Lippi painted a self-portrait here: he is the man dressed in the black and white habit of a Carmelite friar. One of the men standing to his left is Fra Diamante, while the young man with the red cap has been identified as Pier Matteo d’Amelia. The angel with the blue wings is Lippi’s son Filippino. On the left, the rather corpulent apostle reading from a book of psalms is Antonio Pierozzi, who served as archbishop of Florence from 1446 until his death in 1459. Although Antonio is depicted with a halo here, he was not actually canonised until 1523. The pope responsible for the canonisation was Adrianus VI (1522-1523), the only Dutch pope in history (see Rome: Santa Maria dell’Anima).
One gets the impression that the fresco of the Dormition was still incomplete when Lippi died in 1469. Just take a look at the centre of the work: here we still see the vague contours of what would have been the Assumption of the Virgin, i.e. her being taken up to heaven by angels. We also see a kneeling figure in a red cloak, who must be Saint Thomas, to whom the Virgin presents her girdle (the iconography is known as the Madonna della Cintola; see Arezzo: San Francesco). It is possible that the Assumption and Saint Thomas were only added later, when Lippi was dead and the plaster had already dried. The addition would have been painted a secco, which is much less durable than buon fresco.
To the right of the Dormition is a fresco of the Nativity, featuring the Christ child, the Virgin Mary, Joseph and of course the donkey and the ox. Much more interesting is the scene of the Annunciation on the left, if only because the face of the Virgin is said to be a portrait of Lucrezia Buti. She was a nun from Florence who served as a model for Lippi. The painter fell in love with her and then basically abducted her. Their union was consummated, and in 1457 a son named Filippino – ‘little Filippo’ – was born. He was tutored by Sandro Botticelli and became an accomplished painter himself; see for instance his works in the Brancacci Chapel and the church of Santa Maria Novella, both in Florence.
Fra Filippo Lippi was 57 years old when he died, with Giorgio Vasari – always fond of a little gossip – claiming he had been poisoned and suggesting that Lucrezia’s relatives were responsible. There is, however, not shred of evidence for this accusation. The painter was buried in the Duomo of Spoleto, but the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici, nicknamed The Magnificent, later tried to have him repatriated and buried in the Duomo of Florence. The citizens of Spoleto, however, refused to hand over the body. Lorenzo then instructed Lippi’s son Filippo to have a marble tomb erected for his father, to be placed in the Duomo of Spoleto to house the remains of the famous painter. The tomb has survived and can nowadays be found in the right transept. It was made by an unknown sculptor and provided with an inscription in Latin by the poet Angelo Poliziano (1454-1494).
Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides, as well as the website of the Duomo and the article about the cathedral on Italian Wikipedia. Particularly useful was the Key to Umbria website.
 The first archbishop was created in 1821.
 See Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 189 and p. 240.
 It is not clear where the painter’s mortal remains have gone.