The Fresco that Survived
di Alessandra Vittori
Known by most as the town of the steel, as a working town, almost completely destroyed by the bombings, Terni still hides in itself a small treasure. The Universal Judgement, by Bartolomeo di Tommaso painter from Foligno and precursor to the Umbrian Renaissance, survived to the devastation of the Second World War. To jealously guard it, there are the walls of the Cappella Paradisi which opens at the end of the right nave of the Church of Saint Francis.
The cycle currently visible, is perhaps the most important pictorial witness of the Fifteenth century, yet its critical history began late. Indeed, the local historians could not speak about it until the Nineteenth century because the conventual monks, to whom the Church belonged, used that room as a warehouse for the convent’s wood and walled up the archway. The frescoes came to light again only in 1861, thanks to the work of the architect Benedetto Faustini.
A Controversial Attribution
Before the problem of the attribution, the critics faced the one of the controversial iconography. At first all the critics talked about illustration of the Divine Comedy. Actually, in 1872, Marino Guardabassi read in it «the deep concepts of Alighieri», and this reading seemed to be comforted by the attribution to Bartolomeo di Tommaso because the first printing production of the Dante’s Poem has been made in the town of Foligno.
In 1977 and 1978, Bruno Toscano and Pietro Adorno took care of the iconographic study, which having failed to find timely correspondence with the Dantesque Terzines, directed their research to another road which refers to the social and religious climate that the city lived in the mid-Fourteenth century and to the ties of the painter with the Franciscan Order and with Giacomo della Marca, travelling preacher. San Giacomo was certainly in Terni in 1444 and often preached in the Church of San Francesco against the vices he had observed. Terni, therefore lived under the spiritual guidance of this friar who one year later brought his oratory also to Foligno, profoundly influencing Bartolomeo di Tommaso.
It should be also considered that who commissioned the work in 1449 was Monaldo Parisi, a figure particularly linked to the Observance and the reform statutes that were wanted by San Giacomo.
Actually, the Last Judgement is a constant in the preaching of the friar, and one of the Sermones Dominicales, the De Judicio Extremo, seems to correspond step by step to the paintings of Bartolomeo di Tommaso, as if the painter had faithfully followed it by transforming the images into words. Thus Giacomo della Marca turns out to be the inspirational main source of the painter.
The decoration of the Paradisi Chapel lies in an imposing and terrible Universal Judgment. It begins in the entrance soffit with six quadrilobate frames framing the busts of the prophets who announced the return of Christ: Jeremiah, Daniel, Malachi, Isaiah, Jonah, and Abdia. Inside the Chapel, above the entrance arc, you will find two additional figures of semi lying prophets inserted in a woody and rocky landscape, the only naturalistic note of the fresco. The other walls are horizontally framed by a painted frame that divides them in half.
The action winds from left to right starting from the lower register where the space is divided into caves and a capital sin is assigned to each cave. Only five of those caves remain and in each of them there is an angel leaning forward his arms to the souls to lift them and point them upward.
In the upper register we find the figure of Christ with the red banner, darting figures are leaning towards the Christ.
Also in the central wall we find again the figure of the Son of God represented as Christ Judge in the Mandorla, sourrounded by the Baptist, by a Virgin with curiously oriental features, and three groups of angels and Patriarchs.
St. Peter opens the door of Paradise surrounded by the 12 apostles, Paul and Barnaba. Below the Archangel Michele, around him are the figures of the Chosen ones, among them a magistrate with the red cap is identified as Giovanni Paradisi, founder of the principals whose coat of arms is seen at the feet of the Archangel.
The wall on the right, however, is more damaged due to the fall of plaster. We can see the representation of the sinning souls falling to the hell pulled down by chains to the neck and violently struck by the angels that bring them into the spells. In the lower register a gigantic Satan stands framed by rings of fire. Some demons beside Satan give him the souls that he grasps and mauls. Fire springs are raining everywhere.
Bibliographic references: P. Mostarda in Arte e territorio. Interventi di restauro, Terni, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Terni e Narni, 2001
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