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Nov 9, 2014

The elevator to Cavallini's hidden frescoes.

There is another Last Judgement in Rome, less known than the one admired by millions of tourists each year in the Sistine Chapel, but as powerful and grand, painted almost 250 years earlier. To appreciate this masterpiece all you need to do is ring a bell.  Following modifications to the church the fresco is now in the cloistered nun's choir and can be reached only by passing through part of the convent. So ring a bell, follow the nun, a quick ride in the elevator and you are there, facing its vibrant colors in a close-up view.
The fresco was rediscovered in 1900 during some restoration works in Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, one of the most ancient titular churches in Rome. According to Ghiberti and Vasari it is by the Roman painter Pietro Cavallini, a pioneer in visual art in the late Duecento.

Pietro Cavallini worked for most his life in Rome, active also in Naples and possibly in Assisi.  Some scholars in fact attribute to Cavallini the fresco cycle of the Legend of St. Francis traditionally considered by Giotto. Not much is known about Cavallini's training.

The present church of Santa Cecilia was built under the pope Paschal I (817-24) who appears in the mosaic of the apse completed when the pope was still alive. Around 1300 the church was redecorated: a new ciborium by Arnolfo di Cambio was placed above the altar while the nave and the counter façade were frescoed by Cavallini. The precious cycle was largely destroyed when the cardinal Francesco Acquaviva had the interior redesigned in 1725.
Cavallini's Last Judgement  (around 1293) was rediscovered in the beginning of XX century, behind the choir-stalls of the Benedictine nuns. Large sections of the old fresco came to light again: the middle register of the Last Judgment, fragments of the Annunciation on the north wall, and two scenes from the story of Jacob on the south wall.  It is assumed that there were cycles of the Old and New Testament on the walls of the nave.

The monumental enthroned Christ and Apostles, the angels with feathers in graduated colors reveal a new sense of volumes, a blend of Byzantine, Roman and early Christian elements. The idea of portraying the apostles with the symbols of their martyrdom was a novelty derived from a French practice, just inaugurated at the time. The chiaroscuro models those faces who reveal true emotions, beyond the abstract Byzantine manner, inspired by the great pictorial tradition of late antiquity.  A new sense of real!

The discovery of new frescoes by Cavallini in Santa Maria in Aracoeli in 2000 brought about another wave of interest on the artist whose reputation decline was mainly due to Vasari who relegated him to a secondary role, as a pupil of Giotto.  While the innovations of Cavallini might have inspired the younger Giotto instead.

A Smarthistory Video on the frescoes:  http://youtu.be/pwHzN9aV1WY

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