Discovering the Museo del Capitolo
The very special setting of the Museo del Capitolo (Chapter Museum), embedded in the Saint Lawrence “Island” makes it a place worth discovering together with the many artifacts it houses. It would be possible to draft a story about each of those objects, from paintings to manuscripts – so, let us listen to what Time has to tell.
The Rooms in the Museum
Many reasons may recommend a visit to the Museo del Capitolo of Perugia , that is, the museum linked with the Capitolo, the “Chapter” (priestly community) of the Cathedral. First of all, an opportunity to admire some fascinating buildings and spaces. The museum rooms have a story of their own: already in the Middle Ages – when houses were “tower-houses” – they were, in fact, home to the “canons,” the priests of the Cathedral community. And, they also were Papal residences, and the rooms in which the very first students presented their theses at Perugia University, founded in 1308. This very old story may not be easy to grasp while moving in the current rooms, that have been modified more than once during the centuries. Yet, by paying a little attention, the different layers will surface and become obvious.
A second, and stronger reason to enter the space of these old rectories is to sense the inner connection between places, and time, and works of art. Many of the objects that “welcome” the visitors show, from the beginning, their relationship with sacred rites, with liturgy. For whole centuries, they have been the symbols of shared feelings, the icons of salvation, a cause of amazement and emotion.
Bonfigli and Signorelli: The Masters' Works
Benedetto Bonfigli's “Gonfalone”
Among the examples of the deep link between art and people's culture in Perugia are the gonfaloni, standards to be carried in processions. They were created in an epoch when the deadly plagues that periodically hit the population were often interpreted as divine punishments. So, these artifacts were religious paintings to be carried in procession and displayed in public areas to receive the people's prayers. Painters were commissioned who were capable of catching the widespread feelings, like fear, supplication, trust. Benedetto Bonfigli (1420 - 1496) who painted some of these standards, during a plague in 1476 made the gonfalone for the Church of Saint Fiorenzo – the one now preserved in the Museo del Capitolo. His painting skillfully expressed the supplication of Perugia's inhabitants to God: they can be seen in the lower part of the painting, in a devout attitude, surrounded by the saint and blessed members of the religious Order to which the church belonged. Even if the picture can be readily understood, it hides some details that are the work of a great artist, e.g. the angel in the top left corner, who looks at “us” who look at the painting. His eyes attract the observers into the work of art, making them also a part of the representation.
Luca Signorelli's Altarpiece of Saint Onuphrius
A most precious work in the Museo del Capitolo is the Altarpiece (Pala) of Saint Onuphrius, a masterpiece painted by Luca Signorelli in 1484. It is named after the saintly hermit who can be seen at the foot of the throne of Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus. In this painting, like elsewhere, details betray the artist's great skills. The glass with violets inside, in the foreground; or the crystal Crucifix held by Saint John the Baptist, passed through by a sunbeam, reveal that Signorelli studied the light phenomena thoroughly. As soon as the eye runs the risk of getting lost in details, however, it is immediately caught back and led across the painting by the gaze of the saints around Virgin Mary.
The Influence of Clients on the Works
By making comparisons between works of art, we can learn how much – apart from the personal “alphabet” of each artist – clients might weigh. Bonfigli had made paintings in very important and prestigious places, such as the Chapel of Priors in the Perugia Palace of Priors, but he was now requested a gonfalone with a strong emotional drive. Signorelli was contacted by Jacopo Vagnucci, a distinguished personage in the Catholic Church, imbued with humanistic culture; he would place the altarpiece in an aristocratic setting, namely his private chapel inside Saint Lawrence's Cathedral in Perugia.
The Papal Chair
Some objects in the Museo del Capitolo are unusual, or perhaps will not easily catch the visitors' attention. For example, the faldistorium: a folding chair, with no backrest and no armrests, whose shape comes from the chairs used by Roman generals in the encampments. In a Christian context, the faldistorium would be reserved to the “Church General,” the Pope.
Two elements will help us understand the importance of such an artifact. Firstly, it dates back to the late 13th century / early 14th century; and second, it was (and is) in Perugia. In a time span of about a century, in fact, between 1216 and 1305, Perugia hosted five Conclaves. Unlike nowadays, the Popes were not only elected in Rome, but in other towns too. This Papal chair is made in ebony, a kind of wood that comes from extra-European countries, and is a really hard, long-lasting material. Employing this precious wood was, therefore, both a sign of wealth and a “warranty of duration” – that promoted its use in a very prestigious context as the Papal Court was. Each square inch is decorated by either etching or carving; in the flourishing of those drawings some curled-up dogs and a little exotic monkey can be made out.
A Manuscript from the Holy Land
The passing centuries, like a net thrown in the sea of history, caught other precious things – for example, the manuscripts, that are an extraordinary treasure. More than 40 of them are kept in the Museo del Capitolo, covering the time span between the sixth and the 16th centuries. The vicissitudes of some of these texts still remain a mystery, while we are certain, about others, that they were written expressly for Saint Lawrence's Cathedral.
We do know where the most famous manuscript in the museum comes from, namely the ancient city of Acre in the Holy Land, though we have no idea about the journey that brought it all the way up to our Cathedral. It is a Missal, a book containing the texts, songs, prayers that Catholic priests proclaim during the Mass; it dates back to the 13th century. Written on parchment, the text includes some miniatures and capital letters of a high quality. The writing style can be ascribed to an amanuensis with a French cultural background; while the miniatures look like the work of two artists familiar with the Western pictorial tradition, with a strong influence from Venice. So, this manuscript tells a fascinating story, only apparently far from us: it builds a bridge between the two opposite coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, that has always been a hub for cultural exchanges.
Piazza IV Novembre, 06121 Perugia PG
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