The church of San Francesco in Montefalco was built between 1335 and 1338. A monastery was constructed next to it. More than five centuries of Franciscan presence in the town were ended in 1863 when the complex was transferred to the municipality, which in 1895 established the civic museum here. At present the museum comprises a number of rooms with paintings (the pinacoteca), the former church and its works of art, and a basement with a limited number of archaeological finds. The undisputed highlight of the museum is the fresco cycle that the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli made for the apse of the church. I will dedicate a separate post to this Franciscan cycle. This post will focus on the other art in the museum, which includes work by… Benozzo Gozzoli!
The pinacoteca has a fairly modest collection of paintings, but among these paintings are several interesting works. Many of these come from churches in and around Montefalco. As an admirer of late medieval painting I especially appreciated the works from the fifteenth century. A colourful Coronation of the Virgin with a traditional golden background is attributed to the relatively unknown Umbrian painter Cristoforo di Jacopo da Foligno. The saints kneeling on either side of Christ and the Virgin are Saints John the Baptist (on the left) and Severus (on the right). The latter is not bishop Severus of Ravenna, nor his colleague bishop Severus of Naples, but a far less famous local saint who has a role in the stories about Saint Fortunatus (see below). The panel painting was originally in the church of Sant’Agostino elsewhere in Montefalco.
One of the best and most intriguing works in the museum collection is a panel painting featuring three saints that was made by Antoniazzo Romano (1430-1508). His real name was Antonio Aquili and he was obviously from Rome. The painting with the three saints used to be in the church of Sant’Illuminata in Montefalco, but it is rather likely that it had originally been painted for the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. The latter church has a Cappella Costa, which is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. A restoration of the panel led to interesting discoveries. The woman in the centre, Saint Illuminata according to the caption, was originally the aforementioned Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This was demonstrated by the breaking wheel, Catherine’s attribute, that the restoration brought to light. And it was not just Catherine who turned out to be painted over: the saint on the right suffered the same fate. We now see Saint Nicholas of Tolentino, an Augustinian monk, but the original painting probably featured Saint Antonius of Padova. Only the saint on the left, Vincentius of Zaragoza, is completely original. Both Antonius and Vincentius have a clear connection with Portugal, and especially Lisbon. It is conceivable that after the Portuguese cardinal Costa, who had been archbishop of Lisbon, had died, no one was interested in the panel anymore. After a few adjustments Antoniazzo Romano was able to sell it to a church in Montefalco.
The gallery has another work that has a link with the Santa Maria del Popolo, i.e. a copy of the Madonna del Popolo from that church. Tradition dictates that the original was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, but this is of course just pious nonsense. In reality we are looking at a Byzantine icon that dates from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century. The copy in the museum dates from about 1470 and, like Antoniazzo Romano’s work, came from the church of Sant’Illuminata, although it was probably made for the Santa Maria del Popolo. The museum attributes the (unsigned) copy to Melozzo da Forli (ca. 1438-1494), but admittedly the painting may just as well be the work of an anonymous assistant in this painter’s studio. Even Antoniazzo Romano himself is sometimes suggested as the maker. This is not odd at all, as we have a fresco in the Pantheon in Rome that may have been painted by either of the two masters. Melozzo also happened to be Antoniazzo Romano’s assistant when he worked in the church of Santi Apostoli in the Eternal City.
The pinacoteca furthermore possesses a number of works by Francesco Melanzio (ca. 1465-1526). As he was from Montefalco, he simply must be mentioned in this post. Melanzio provided several churches and monasteries in and around the town with works of art. In this post I will discuss a canvas made in 1498, which came from the church of San Fortunato just outside Montefalco. The painting is actually a banner that was used during processions. It is rich in detail. The Madonna and Child take up a central position. They are flanked by six male saints. On the left these are Saints Antonius of Padova, Bernardinus of Siena and Franciscus of Assisi, all Franciscan saints. This is hardly surprising, as the church and monastery of San Fortunato were administered by Franciscans. On the right is the man who gave the complex its name, Saint Fortunatus, a priest who died around the year 400. He is holding a scale model of Montefalco. Next to him are Saint Louis of Toulouse and the aforementioned Severus. Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297) had close ties to the Franciscans as well. The background of the canvas is splendid. We see cities, water and ships.
Church of San Francesco
From the last room of the pinacoteca we enter the Cappella dell’Assunta of the church of San Francesco. This chapel was decorated by Giovanni di Corraduccio from Foligno and his assistants. Their frescoes date from the first half of the fifteenth century. Especially the colourful frescoes of the vault are well worth a closer inspection. What we see here are four couples of evangelists and church fathers. If we start at the top and view the frescoes clockwise we see Saint Luke the Evangelist (recognisable by his ox) with Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Mark the Evangelist (with a lion) and Saint Jerome, Saint Matthew the Evangelist (with a man or angel) and Saint Ambrose, and finally Saint John the Evangelist (with an eagle) and Saint Augustine. Surrounding the evangelists and church fathers are several prophets.
Next in the church is a beautiful crucifix that is attributed to the mysterious Maestro Espressionista di Santa Chiara. He has also left works in other Franciscan churches and we have previously encountered him in the church of San Francesco in Gubbio and of course in the church of Santa Chiara in Assisi. The Maestro is often, but tentatively, equated to Palmerino di Guido. Not much is known about Palmerino’s life, but he may very well have been one of Giotto’s assistants when the great Florentine master decorated the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. The painter Guido or Guiduccio Palmerucci may have been his son, but even that is up for debate. The crucifix in Montefalco dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. It comes from a church outside Montefalco, the now demolished Santi Filippo e Giacomo. The monks of San Francesco took it with them when they moved to their recently completed new church. The way the Suffering Christ has been painted is impressive. We can see Saint Franciscus kneeling at his bleeding feet. The Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and (above the crucified Christ) Christ the Saviour have also been depicted.
The Cappella di San Bernardino da Siena is dedicated to the Franciscan Saint Bernardinus of Siena (1380-1444), whom we have already seen on Francesco Melanzio’s canvas. The frescoes in the chapel date from 1461 – which is eleven years after Bernardinus was canonised – and they were made by Jacopo Vincioli di Spoleto, who is seen as a follower of Benozzo Gozzoli. Although the frescoes are interesting, it is immediately clear that Jacopo was at best half as talented as Gozzoli. As regards details, shapes and colours, Jacopo Vincioli’s work is evidently of inferior quality. On the vault we see Saint Jerome with his lion. Originally all four church fathers had been painted on the vault (as they still are in the Cappella dell’Assunta), but only the image of Jerome has been preserved. Below Jerome Jacopo Vincioli painted a Crucifixion with three kneeling figures: the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Fortunatus.
The frescoes of the lower register are all about Saint Bernardinus. The ‘altarpiece’ featuring the saint is actually fake; it is a fresco painted on the back wall (an idea that was probably copied from Benozzo Gozzoli, see below). To the left of the ‘altarpiece’ we see the saint having a meeting with Pope Celestinus V, who by the way died in 1296, 84 years before Bernardinus was born. It follows that the meeting is not really a meeting, but an apparition that is said to have taken place in 1444 when Bernardinus was on his way to L’Aquila, where Celestinus had been buried. This pope is most famous for resigning in 1294, an act that was not repeated until Pope Benedictus XVI’s resignation in 2013. The fresco to the right of the ‘altarpiece’ shows Bernardinus performing two miraculous healings.
The church of San Francesco has an extra nave on the right side in which we find the chapels that have been discussed above. On the left the building only has a couple of niches, but that does not mean that this side does not feature any interesting art. On the contrary, here we for instance find a nice fresco by Tiberio d’Assisi (ca. 1470-1524) that dates from 1510. The name of the painter and the year of completion are explicitly mentioned in the text in the lower part of the fresco. There we also read who commissioned the fresco: OPVS FECIT FIERI FAMILIA AGVSTI DE MONTE FALCO, ‘the Agusti family from Montefalco had this work made’. The niche is dedicated to Saint Andrew; he has been painted to the left of the Madonna and Child and can be seen holding a large cross and a bundle of fish. Like his brother Saint Peter, Saint Andrew was a fisherman from Bethsaida on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The saint on the right is Giovanni di Fidanza (ca. 1221-1274), who is perhaps better known as Saint Bonaventura. He was the seventh Minister General of the Franciscans and wrote the Legenda Maior, the ‘official’ biography of Saint Franciscus of Assisi. In fact, the book he is holding may very well be the Legenda.
A fresco dating from 1503 and depicting the Nativity, to be found in a niche in the counter-façade, can also be counted among the highlights of the church. It was painted by Pietro Vannucci, alternatively known as Perugino (ca. 1446-1523). Above the Nativity scene Perugino painted God the Father and an Annunciation in two parts. The colours of the frescoes are all remarkably fresh and bright.
When we visited the Complesso Museale di San Francesco in 2018, an impressive polyptych attributed to the Maestro di Fossa had been set up on the high altar. We have previously seen some of the Maestro’s work in Spoleto. The polyptych dates from 1336 and features ten extremely detailed scenes from the life of Christ. Unfortunately there is fair chance that the work will longer be there if you visit the museum in 2021: it was part of a temporary exhibition and will have been returned to the Vatican, which is the owner.
Fortunately I took a picture of the polyptych, which will be part of this post for decades to come:
Frescoes in the Cappella di San Girolamo
After completing his Franciscan cycle in the apse in 1452, Benozzo Gozzoli also frescoed the walls and vault of the Cappella di San Girolamo. This chapel, dedicated to Saint Jerome, was obviously provided with frescoes about the life of this saint. On the left side of the back wall we see how Jerome leaves the city of Rome. On the ground lies the red cardinal’s hat that is often the saint’s attribute. The hat is an anachronistic element, for in his own time – Saint Jerome lived from ca. 347 until 420 – no such hat existed. On the right the saint removes a thorn from the paw of a lion. The startled monk on the right is a very nice detail, but on the whole Benozzo’s frescoes in the Cappella di San Girolamo are less impressive than those in the apse. It is clear that the painter put his heart and soul into creating the latter. By contrast, the former are dutiful at best.
It should, however, be noted that the chapel does have one original tour de force: between the two aforementioned frescoes about Saint Jerome there is a fake – i.e. painted – polyptych. The Madonna and Child in the centre are flanked by Saints Antonius of Padova and Jerome on the left and by Saints John the Baptist and Louis of Toulouse on the right. Inside the cusps we see an adult Christ and the four church fathers, including Jerome of course. The fake altarpiece even has a predella, which features the local Saint Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308) on the far right. Benozzo Gozzoli signed his work in the chapel on the edge of the polyptych: OPVS BENOZII DE FLORENZIA. Above the polyptych we see a Crucifixion with Saints Dominicus and Franciscus (on the left) and Romuald and Sylvester (on the right). The former two need no further introduction, but the latter two perhaps do. Romuald (ca. 951-1027) was the founder of the Camaldolese Order, a branch of the Benedictines. Sylvester is not the pope who lived during the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great, but Silvestro Guzzolini (ca. 1177-1267). He founded another branch of the Benedictines, the Sylvestrines. It follows that the four men in the scene were all founders of monastic orders.
A work by Benozzo Gozzoli that is not in the museum, but should really have been there, is his Madonna della Cintola, the Madonna of the Belt. This altarpiece made in 1450 originally stood in the aforementioned church of San Fortunato in Montefalco, but was gifted to Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) in 1848. It can now be found in the pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums. Since I will not be writing about Rome anytime soon, I will include the altarpiece in this post. According to tradition the Virgin Mary presented Saint Thomas the Apostle with her belt upon her Assumption. This is the central scene of the panel painting. The three saints on the left are Franciscus, Fortunatus and Antonius. On the right we see Louis of Toulouse, Severus and Bernardinus, so there cannot be any doubt that the church of San Fortunato was also administered by Franciscans. The predella features six scenes from the life of the Virgin, starting with her birth and ending with the dormition.
This post is chiefly based on information (captions and a brochure) from the Complesso Museale di San Francesco in Montefalco. Additional information came from the excellent Key to Umbria website, especially these three articles.