Spoleto - a tutorial with John Mitchell

John Mitchell is here hot-foot from a conference of Lombard archaeology, art and history at Benevento. Thirty six years since we first collaborated on the excavations of the Beneventan monastery at San Vincenzo al Volturno, Johnny’s appetite for the art of the 8th and 9th centuries is undimmed. Essays are pouring out that argue how Charlemagne was captivated not only by Italy’s ruined Roman buildings but also by its vibrant Lombard art. Ever the master mediator, the Frankish king apparently appropriated not only columns and glass waste to fashion his new palace at Paderborn, then Aachen, but also the graphic contemporary concepts of Lombard (8th-century) art. With majestic irony, these were spun back to Italy as part and parcel of the Carolingian Renaissance. Santa Prassede in Rome is a tribute to this European cultural apogee as is the extraordinary programme of decoration we unearthed at San Vincenzo al Volturno.

San Salvatore at Spoleto

Our excited discussions lead us to drive up to Spoleto to see the finest of all buildings belonging to Italy’s 8th century: the Tempietto di Clitunno. Tucked beside a fountain, it is a monumental oratory and tomb to a Duke of Spoleto, probably dating to the moment Charlemagne enters the political arena. It resembles a Roman temple so closely that even Piranesi was deceived. Its two tympanums are sculptural work of the highest order: a central cross surrounded by plant ornament reminiscent of the great painted tombs of the Lombard age. It reinforces the point that this was a funerary monument. Below, in the T-shaped bowels of the building, Johnny identifies the fragmentary elements of the painted ornamentation: opus sectile, resembling marbling. It is post-classical decoration that he has found in later 8th-century Benevento, and he hoots with delight as he kneels in the gravel to get snaps.

John Mitchell photographing frescoes

His excitement continues as we pause at San Salvatore, an elevated basilica above Spoleto’s modern cemetery, beside the Flaminia as it passes out of the old walled town. Closed as a result of last year’s earthquakes, we nonetheless take pleasure in the same ornamentation over the door lintels. Here was a great funerary chapel designed to impress upon travellers and pilgrims that the Lombard Dukes of Spoleto belonged to an age of giants. In many ways they did.

Tempietto di Clitunno

Such treasures remain in Italy, ever fascinating as, with the aid of new archaeological discoveries, we are able to refine our understanding of the re-birth of post-classical Europe, and, as Johnny says, pay tribute to Lombard cultural renaissance. It is all the more remarkable, I point out, that ordinary Lombards had been catapulted back to a primeval world worthy of the Neolithic. How they must have been awe-struck by these two great dedications to death.

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