La Deposizione, La Chiesa Dell’Annunziata, Cossignano
The descent from the cross, The Church of the Annunciation, Cossignano
One of the great delights of visiting central Italy is the chance finding of outstanding public art work. Despite the world economic recession hitting Italy harder than most and despite Italy’s own well published economic problems, small communities have managed to find the funds to continue to restore their local treasures. While national sites such as Pompeii have suffered from underfunding and are only now getting the cash they desperately need, small communities in Le Marche have bucked the trend and a number of local churches and other buildings have been slowly and carefully restored, to reveal in some cases quite outstanding works from the renaissance, medieval and roman periods. Art lovers visiting the southern Marche will be delighted to find many hidden treasures painstakingly restored and displayed in ideal conditions, very much as they were originally intended. That these stunning works are accessible in their original context and can be viewed without the distraction of hordes of selfie-stick tourists is of course another not to be undervalued bonus.
One of the finest local examples of “recovered” great art, is a mid-renaissance fresco in the recently restored Church of the Annunciation in Cossignano, just around the corner from Castello de Marte, Fabio’s restaurant. The church is normally closed to protect the works inside but the local comune (town hall) have the key and are more than happy to show off the church to those interested. The restoration uncovered many stunning frescos painted on the walls of the nave and while these are well worth a visit in their own right, the outstanding treasure of the church is the Deposition, or descent from the cross, painted onto the wall in a niche to the right of the altar.
The work is impressive for a number of reasons and on a variety of levels. The first thing that strikes the viewer is the very “modern” composition with the figures articulated to create strong graphical elements that guide the eye from the top of the painting where Joseph of Arimathea leans over the cross-bar in the top left of the painting and uses a length of linen to lower Christ to Nicodemus on the right. The pale figure of the lifeless Christ leans from top right to centre left guiding our eye to Mary Magdalene who supports his legs and feet. We have been brought to the drama of the scene at the bottom of the work where Mary has swooned and collapsed and is being attended by two pious women. Following the prostrate figure of Mary from left to right we find at her feet a tiny incongruous figure of a praying monk, a portrait of the Franciscan friar who commissioned the work. Back into the painting we move from the toy monk up to the figure of John the Evangelist who kisses the dead left hand of Christ, thus leading us back into the central subject of the painting. There are two other strong compositional elements worthy of note, the top right to bottom left diagonal trough the arms of the figure over the cross bar down to the kiss of John the evangelist. Diagonals are used by artist to create the illusion of movement and dynamism as we link a strong diagonal with something unstable or falling (in the same way horizontal and vertical lines are used to create the feeling of stability as we unconsciously link them with stable forms such as the landscape and trees buildings etc.) The third device that the painter uses to add complexity and interest to the scene are the two ladders that enable Joseph and Nicodemus to clamber up and lower the body down. To help emphasise depth in the picture plane one ladder goes behind the crossbeam and one stays in front, but the most striking aspect is that while painted parallel they are angled slightly to balance the effect of the strong right to left diagonal of the body of Christ, mentioned above. Picture if you can, the ladders painted vertically, see how less engaging and interesting and more static the composition becomes?.
While all renaissance painting uses compositional elements to a greater or lesser degree to hold and guide the eye of the viewer, the remarkable aspect of this work is the use of flat colour, shapes and strong contrasts as the key techniques used to manage and create such a lively and dynamic composition. The four main colours, black, white, red and ochre are rendered fairly flat so as to create strong contrasting shapes (shape being 2D as opposed to form 3D) that serve to heighten the general effect of vibrant movement and prevent the reversed “S” of the composition from becoming too prominent.
The painting is assessed to be circa 1530 by which time the leading painters of the renaissance such as Raphael have developed techniques that more realistically model figures and create more authentic depth to the picture plane. It is important to note though that realistic three dimensional modelling and perspective were not adopted by all painters; styles and fashions varied across the separate city states that made up Italy during the renaissance. And we are fortunate that this was the case as otherwise we would not be able to marvel at the design of this delightful and sophisticated painting.
If this were in a church in Florence it would be in all the guidebooks and draw the crowds, as it is we are lucky to have it pretty much to ourselves!
The authorship of the painting is in doubt with experts, Art historian Giuseppe Crocetti suggests Giacomo Bonfini from the nearby village Patrignone, Bonfini was responsible for the frescos in the church of Santa Maria de Viminatu, Patrignone as well as the frescoed nativity scene in the neighbouring village of Pochia, both can be viewed for comparison. Art historian Daniela Ferriani author of Pinacoteca Civica: Ascoli Piceno suggest that the work is by a follower of delle’Amatriceche Cola, aka Nicola Filotesio, and thinks too that this might be Giacomo Bonfine. Walter Scotucci author of a book on the renaissance painter Vincenzo Pagani assigns it to an anonymous painter working in the style of Pagani. Vincenzo Pagani created the frescoes in the former church of Misricordia, Tortoreto. There is a very impressive virtual tour of this church here http://www.italiavirtualtour.it/dettaglio.php?id=97713, well worth a look. It is interesting to note that the depiction of Christ’s descent from the cross in this series of frescos bears a remarkably strong resemblance to Cossignano version. The depiction here though is far less sophisticated and it is hard to believe they were done by the same hand; it is equally hard not to believe that one painter “borrowed” heavily from the other, though we may never know who borrowed from whom.