The Cathedral during the Centuries
Surely outstanding in Spoleto is the Annunciation Church, that is also the Cathedral. A building so powerful in its beauty that will impress all those who take the staircase that suddenly opens up among the alleys. But, please do not trust the first impression: this, in fact, is not only a unique setting, but also and especially a place where the tracks of Time can be detected.
The building of this cathedral actually covered whole eras, starting from the last period in the Lombard domination, between the eighth and the ninth centuries. The church is later recorded, in 956, as Santa Maria al Vescovo, “Saint Mary by the Bishop('s palace).” And not by chance so, since precisely in this area on the edge the town walls, Spoleto's religious nucleus had developed – including the bishop's palace, but also the relics of Saint Primiano and the Church of the Holy Angel.
Just since 1069, however, can we identify Saint Mary's Church with the Cathedral, that is, “the mother church of the Spoleto Bishop's territory,” as the respective document puts it.
Such old origins are connected with many historical events. While visiting this building, one can sense the efforts the community undertook in order to make this sacred place more and more precious. Architectural volumes were modified in the 12th century so as to build a bigger church. After its 1198 consecration by Pope Innocent III (who would become Saint Francis of Assisi's “mentor”), the cathedral was completed in 1216, and now dedicated to Virgin Mary's Assumption
The Divine Signed by a Man's Hand
In 1491 the Renaissance covered walkway was added. It inserts itself onto the Romanesque façade, where a shining mosaic – signed by Master Solsterno, 1207 – shows Christ Blessing, between Virgin Mary and Saint John. Just curiosity: paying closer attention to Jesus, you will notice that in his right hand, the blessing one, the tips of thumb and ring finger touch each other. The gesture came from Byzantine art, and was rich in symbolic meanings.
In the mosaic the artist's name and the date are included, a detail that was absolutely not common at that time. Here Man signs his work as he wishes that his name may last in time. One more work, inside the cathedral, was dated and signed: the Crucifixion painted by Alberto Sotio in 1187. It was painted on parchment, then glued on a modeled panel. This work is unique for many reasons. Among others, it is one of the oldest examples of a painted Crucifixion; and precisely, it is among the very infrequent 12th century works that display the artist's name and the date.
More works in the cathedral would be carried on in the following centuries. In the late 14th century, Bishop Galardo commissioned the embellishment of the inside walls with a set of frescoes, now lost, with Episodes from the Old and New Testaments, beside episodes from the lives of some saints referring to Spoleto.
The big architectural upsetting, however, took place in the years 1638-44 by decision of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597 - 1679), nephew to Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), who in his turn had been the Archbishop of Spoleto from 1608 to 1617. The 17th century changes, carried out by an architect from Florence, Luigi Arrigucci (1575 - 1647), would completely hide the Romanesque structure. They only saved the enchanting floor in the central nave, in Cosmatesque motifs made by pieces of porphyry, serpentino (green marble), and stone.
Walking With the Renaissance
Already in the 15th century the church had been re-decorated and updated according to the artistic trends of that period. They commissioned a famous, much requested artist from Florence, Filippo Lippi (1406 - 1469). He would work in the apse section between May 1467 and his death, in October 1469. The apse is frescoed with episodes from the life of Virgin Mary, to whom the church is dedicated. The cycle comprises four main scenes: the Annunciation, Christ's Nativity, the Dormitio Virginis (Mary's death, but literally her “sleep”), and her Crowning in Glory. Standing in the middle, the observer will feel embraced by those paintings on all sides, and transported into a different space thanks to both the colors in the scenes and the way in which they are structured.
Lippi's remains were buried right inside the cathedral, so that the artist and his work will be bound forever. The Lord of Florence, Lawrence the Magnificent, had a sepulchral monument built to honor him. The painter's son, Filippino Lippi – who had already started his own career as an artist – designed his father's tomb. And finally, Filippo Lippi's memory was celebrated in verse by Agnolo Poliziano.
Bishop Eroli's chapel in the cathedral's rightward nave was frescoed in 1497 by an Umbrian artist, Bernardino di Betto, mostly known by his nickname: Pinturicchio, the “Little Painter.” He had come back to his homeland after working in the Papal Apartments in Vatican. In the vault, God the Father is “portrayed.” On the wall, a group with Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus, between Saint John the Baptist and Saint Leonard, is surrounded by a sweet lake landscape. But, what may look like a plain, sober picture at first sight, actually hides many interesting details – to be found out carefully, and personally.
Two Noteworthy Objects
Inside Spoleto's cathedral, it will also be worth having a look at 1. The Santissima Icona, an icon with the picture of Virgin Mary, a gift by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to the town as a peace sign in 1185, and 2. The Chapel of Relics, built in the area of the ancient Church of Saint Primiano. Here, in one of the 16th century closets decorated with Prophets and Sibyls, a letter hand-written by Saint Francis of Assisi is kept.
Piazza del Duomo, 2, 06049 Spoleto PG
Guided Tours Schedule
1 March - 31 October
Monday - Saturday:
10:30 - 18:00
Sundays and holidays:
12:30 - 18:00
1 November - 28 February
Monday - Saturday:
10:30 - 17:00
Sundays and holidays:
12:30 - 17:00