Discovering the work of the painter Ottaviano Nelli in North-eastern Umbria
Ottaviano di Martino Melli ( the rarer name, Nelli, established itself in the historiographies of the 18th and 19th centuries), who may have been the grandson of the painter Mello da Gubbio, was trained towards the end of the 14th century through contact with various artistic schools and traditions: from Mello’s work, to that of the neo-Giottesque artists in Perugia, as well as artists from Orvieto, Siena, Lombardy and the Venetian area. He was extremely receptive as an artist and an original interpreter of the Courtly or International Gothic Style which was then in vogue among the Italian and European Courts. However, he also succeeded in popularising his narrative technique by drawing on vernacular culture thus rendering his work pleasing to a large variety of patrons. He was active throughout the first half of the 15th century, working in his native Gubbio but also across a far wider area of Central Italy: from Perugia to Urbino, from Assisi to Foligno, from Fabriano to Città di Castello, from Fano to Rimini; the perfect embodiment of the itinerant artist typical of the late Gothic period.
This was a time of political transformation in which the previous autonomous Comunes were being replaced by Signorias with the consequent replacement of the governing classes in the territories and, therefore, increased opportunities, in particular among the middle-class categories of merchants and craftsmen, for social advancement, since these groups were in the majority among the population and their support for the new Overlords was absolutely essential. In the towns, this led to a new era of increased prosperity and a flourishing of the arts. In 1384, the Signoria of the Montefeltro family was established in Gubbio and very soon afterwards Ottaviano Nelli became their official artist. He also took on some important political rôles in Gubbio under the Montefeltros holding a number of offices such as Consul or even personal adviser to Counts Antonio and Guidantonio.
All kinds of artworks were created in his workshop from wood panels to simple circumstantial decorations but it was in the complicated technique of fresco painting that Ottaviano excelled creating votive images as well as more intricate narrative cycles of sacred or secular paintings.
Thanks to the profusion of Ottaviano Nelli’s works in this area, we are able to follow an itinerary from Gubbio through the historic towns and villages of North-eastern Umbria on a journey to discover works of great artistic value, which, even today, continue to transmit aspects of everyday life between the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Church of Santa Maria Nuova, in Gubbio, contains a number of works by the artist, including a Crucifixion, a Madonna del Latte and, most importantly, his artistic masterpeice, the celebrated Madonna del Belvedere. The latter work dates from 1403 and depicts the Madonna of Humility who is seated on a cushion wearing a crown and surrounded by Angels, Saints and the donors. The painting, so beautiful that it seems like a precious miniature which has been transferred onto the wall, has always attracted great attention and constitutes the visual and devotional fulcrum of the entire church. It emanates a fairy-tale and Courtly atmosphere due to its intricately decorated blue background, the refinement and elegance of the garments enhanced by the diffuse use of gilding and the presence of angel musicians. The fresco was once surrounded by a specially designed pictorial architecture intended to create an illusion of depth and give bring the image of Mary into greater prominence: traces of this remain in the little twisted columns which provide a frame for the scene and are inhabited by curious anthropomorphic figures.
The wealthy client who commissioned the work, Antonio di Mucciolo Angelucci, undoubtedly aspired to Courtly ostentation and fashion. He was a dyer by trade who therefore belonged to the Wool-workers Guild which provided the principal economic engine at that time in Gubbio. He is portrayed in the votive fresco
dressed in mourning by the side of his name Saint, St. Anthony Abbot, while praying for the departed soul of a loved one, maybe for his wife, who is depicted on the opposite side of the painting accompanied by her Guardian Angel.
Ottaviano Nelli also received important commissions in his native town for work in the churches belonging to the Mendicant Orders in which he admirably demonstrated his ability to create large cycles of wall paintings.
In the left apse of The Church of San Francesco is the cycle with Stories from the Life of Mary painted in the second decade of the 15th century. The narrative sequence begins at the top and proceeds from left to right comprising the numbering of the scenes which continue on through the various levels on the wall. The numbering made it easier to read the scenes depicted and was a functional way of appreciating the sacred images which was in use in female religious communities in the 14th and 15th centuries. In fact, the frescoes were more than likely commissioned by a confraternity of devout women, Tertiary Franciscans or a lay sisterhood who used the chapel for worship and who are represented in the scene of the Nativity of Jesus by the kneeling figure in the foreground dressed in a black cloak and white veil. Another significant scene is the one depicting the Nativity of Mary, which offers a real glimpseinto fifteenth-century life showing, in great detail, a room in a private residence just after the baby has been delivered with the serving women busily attending to the new-born child and the mother lying at rest in the bed. An unusual and original invention was the use of the Caryatids at the base of the cycle which seem to be supporting the weight of the scenes above: the only remaining figure is depicted from the rear and is dressed in a houpland with very full sleeves proving how attentive Nelli was to the details of the fashions of his day.
The Church of the Eremitani, lying just outside the city walls in the district of Sant’Agostino, is, perhaps, the place best suited to observe the popular aspect in Nelli’s narrative and expressive style. The frescoes of the Final Judgement on the triumphal arch (for the execution of which Ottaviano Nelli had recourse to the prestigious collaboration of Jacopo Salimbeni, an important painter at that time) were painted around 1420 as were those depicting the Life of St. Augustine located in the choir. These were one of the first and most complete narrations of the Saint’s life, which were destined to have an influence on the Augustinian iconography going forward. Particularly full of character are the scenes depicting Augustine’s sea voyages, as well as those showing towns full of turreted buildings and animated by crowds of people. The cycle also features a highly diversified gallery of distinctive faces and this is especially true in the scenes showing the Death of St. Augustine and the Transfer of the Saint’s Body to Pavia, in which it is possible to discern the faces of contemporary townsfolk of Gubbio including nobles, merchants, ordinary people and also the self-portrait of the artist.
In the Church of San Domenico there is a late cycle of frescoes depicting the Life of St. Peter the Martyr which is not well-known and is still undervalued as it is in need of restoration. Ottaviano Nelli and his workshop carried out this work in 1445 when he was about seventy-five years old. The paintings depict nine episodes from the life of Pietro da Verona, prophet, Doctor of the Church and Dominican martyr who was canonized in Perugia in 1253 and whose veneration was immediately promoted and supported by the Order of Preaching Friars. Nelli’s narration concentrates on the most spectacular events, such as the wonders and miracles performed by the Saint and, of course, the dramatic martyrdom which occupies the central area of the chapel in full sight of the nave, a choice dictated by the devotional character of the work. The scene is set in a minutely described landscape where rural activities are being carried out: particularly striking is the detail of the newly-felled trees which are bleeding sap on the very spot where the martyrdom takes place.
Notable among Ottaviano Nelli’s private commissions was the deoration of Palazzo Beni, the residence of Luca di Giovanni della Serra, the most influential man in Gubbio in the 15th century, Chancellor to Count Guidantonio of Montefeltro and particular favouite of Pope Martin V. Between 1424 and 1425, Nelli frescoed a number of apartments on the first and second floors of the Palazzo. Clearly, it was his patron’s intention to celebrate the position of economic and social well-being that his family had attained, but also to assert his own eminent political rôle by displaying in his private residence the coats-of-arms of the figures of authority who had contributed to his good fortune. Some insignia and numerous heraldic blazons, including those of the Montefeltros and the Colonnas, can be seen in the part of the Palazzo which now houses the Museum of Arts and Crafts. Of considerable note was the cycle of frescoes depicting Allegories of the Vices and Virtues, a secular decoration typical of noble residences of the period of which some visible traces remain in Palazzo Beni. There are also other more complete examples which were detached from their original location in 1898 and have recently been purchased by Gubbio’s Municipal Authority.
Ottaviano Nelli’s paintings are also to be found in certain open-air sites in Gubbio, characteristically these consist of images of the Madonna in edicole (votive street or roadside shrines) typically in the form of a small tabernacle or niche inserted into the external walls of houses or erected at crossroads or alongside country roads. A little-known one is to be found where Via XX Settembre and Via Mastro Giorgio intersect. It consists of a wooden tabernacle containing a fresco of The Crowning of the Virgin placed on the ancient building, which has been identified, as the artist’s house in the district of Sant’Andrea. It is a rare example for the period between the 14th and 15th centuries, of a votive image painted by an artist to adorn his own house. It dates from 1425 and proclaimed the fame and economic and social fortune the artist had achieved in his native town.
The Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints, situated in the so-called Edicola dell’Abbondanza, is more widely known. It is located along the banks of the Camignano Torrent, once the site of Gubbio’s grain storerooms and distribution centre. There is another edicola in Via Dante in an elevated position opposite Porta Sant’Agostino which features an Enthroned Madonna and Child with Angel Musicians. This beautiful painting was commissioned from Ottaviano Nelli by the Confraternità Dei Disciplinati del Crocefisso di Sant’Agostino in about 1430 to adorn the façade of the Ospedale Nuovo which was under the direction of this charitable institution. The Infant Jesus directs his gaze and, more especially, his hand which is raised in blessing, towards the ground under the edicola, transitted by those in need of care and assistance at the hospital. Another extremely beautiful image of the Madonna by the artist, which reveals the influence of the Sienese artistic tradition, is the so-called Maestà della Piaggiola (1405) which in 1624 was inserted into a Baroque frame and placed on the main altar of the Church of Santa Maria della Piaggiola. Originally, the fresco decorated an edicola situated just outside the city walls along the road leading from Porta San Pietro towards the plain below Gubbio, in the direction of Assisi. It probably belonged to the Confraternità dei Putti dei Bianchi which, in all likelihood, was a brotherhood dedicated to the care of children
Our journey of discovery of Ottaviano’s art continues to the West of Gubbio in the Carpina Valley until we reach Pietralunga. In 1403, in this ancient hamlet, the artist signed and dated one of his rare works on wood panel destined for the main altar of the Church of Sant’Agostino but the polyptych, featuring the Enthroned Madonna with Saints Anthony Abbot, Augustine, Paul and Catherine of Alexandria, is now housed in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria. The painting, which is fundamental for a chronological reconstruction of the artist’s work, was created thanks to a bequest on the part of the heirs of Pietro Corsutii according to the inscription on the frame. It was intended for a small monastic community in a very unfrequented place and consists of a rustic version of the International Gothic Style the painter had by then already adopted while residing in the city of Perugia during the Visconti Signoria. The work preserves its original wooden framework
dividing it into five cuspidate sections embellished with an elegant gold background. Particularly noteworthy are the tiny images of saints on the small lateral pillars and also the unusual iconography of the Trinità tricefala (Triple-headed Trinity) in the cusp of the central section.
Ottaviano Nelli was also active in the fortified hamlet of Fossato di Vico entrenched on the slopes of Mount Maggio in the vicinity of a strategic Apennine pass. In 1405, the painter and his workshop were engaged in decorating a small oratory located within the walls called Santa Maria della Piaggiola. Originally, this place of worship had been dedicated to the Holy Cross and had been built at the behest of the hermit, Fra Giovanni Marini, between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th centuries. While, the frescoed decoration was commissioned by a devout woman called Francesca di Bartolomeo, probably a wealthy inhabitant of Fossato. This kind of oratory, consisting of a single nave with a barrel vault, is very common in the southern valleys of Umbria and Abruzzo and requires the prolongation of the pictorial and narrative decoration into the vault. Most of the frescoes deal with the Passion of Christ, notably the large Crucifixion on the rear wall (formerly, Ottaviano Nelli’s signature and the name of the donor appeared underneath it) and there is also a singular example of a Vesperbild (devotional image) in which the cross is placed transversally. The depiction of Saints Onofrio and Anthony Abbot is a clear reference to the anchoretic vocation of Fra Giovanni who founded the oratory. Some of the other frescoes, in particular those with St. James the Great and the Madonna del Latte, may indicate that the oratory also functioned as a significant place of pilgrimage.
Our itinerary now heads northwards to the castle of Costacciaro, another fortified hamlet situated along the Via Flaminia. Ottaviano Nelli owned a house here and must have made frequent visits to the place. In the third decade of the 15th century he frescoed a Crucifixion with Mourners for the Church of San Lorenzo which, unfortunately, is now a mere fragment but which, nevertheless, still testifies to the quality of his art. This period of the painter’s maturity is characterized by the expression of intense emotion and sentiment but also by rapidity of execution meaning that he frequently re-employed previously used iconographic models. In this case, Nelli, who was in great demand and occupied in fulfilling numerous artistic commissions, adopted the model for the Crucifixion he had already completed in 1404 for the Church of Santa Maria Nuova in Gubbio and which he subsequently reproposed with slight variations, in the Piaggiola in Fossato di Vico and in Palazzo Trinci in Foligno.
The monumental Church of San Francesco in Gualdo Tadino houses an unusual work by Nelli, a fresco depicting St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. The work was commissioned, between 1435-1439, by Ludovica di Ser Gaspare di Ser Nicoluccio, who is represented kneeling down at prayer and witnessing the unfolding scene. In conformity with tradition, the miraculous event is shown to take place on a site between a small chapel and a hermitage on the rocky terraced terrain of Mount La Verna. However, Ottaviano Nelli includes some iconographic variants (already proposed by 11th and 12th century painters including Giotto himself and Pietro Lorenzetti) in order to heighten the effect of the narrative. For instance, the family of bears hiding among the rocky caves on the mountain is a realistic detail alluding to the remoteness of the wild natural environment; the falcon roosting in the branches of the tree in the foreground is a reference to St. Bonaventura’s account of the bird of prey which would awaken St. Francis during the night for the devotions of the Divine Office and kept up his song until the break of dawn.
Our itinerary following Nelli’s work in North-eastern Umbria reaches its conclusion in the southern parts of the territory, once under the domination of the Trinci family from Foligno who, in 1424, commissioned one of the major undertakings in Ottaviano’s career: the frescoes of the Life of the Virgin in the chapel of Palazzo Trinci. The painter’s renown and his predominently decorative style would surely have appealed to the taste of his patron, Corrado III Trinci, an ambitious ruler, well-known for his predilection for luxury and ostentation,
who was anxious to emulate his father, Ugolino III, as a patron of the arts. The ample use of gilded wax, applied while hot, in this cycle of frescoes makes it unique among the artist’s works for the splendour of its ornamentation which, in this setting, had to rival with the ostentatious decoration of the adjacent rooms previously carried out by Gentile da Fabriano for Ugolino. The paintings with Scenes from the Life of Mary represent a break with the secular and profane subjects which decorated the Palazzo as they introduce sacred themes. This choice can probably be understood as an attempt on the part of Corrado III to cultivate the goodwill of the Pope and recover to some extent his personal and political credibility. In fact, the dramatic events which enabled him to succeed his elder brother, Niccolò, as overlord of Foligno, had only taken place three years earlier. Contemporary chronicles spoke of Corrado’s covert involvement in the blood-thirsty carnage carried out, in January 1421, in Nocera Umbra, in which the eldest son of Ugolino, Nicolò Trinci and his youngest brother, Bartolomeo, were murdered by the lord of the Castle, Pietro da Rasiglia, to avenge his dishonour at the hands of Nicolò. In effect, some sources relate that the motivation for the killings was the amorous relationship Nicolò enjoyed with Pietro’s wife, Orsolina. As sole survivor, Corrado exacted revenge on the ‘Castellano’ by putting him and all his family to death and mutilating their corpses. These atrocities committed in Nocera so scandalized Pope Martin V that he sent his legate to Foligno to bring a halt to Corrado’s fury by menacing him with excommunication. Safe in his assurance of support from Braccio Fortebraccio and the other overlords in the region, who were mostly related to him, Corrado took no heed of the Pope’s threat. However, after Braccio’s death in 1424 at the Battle of Aquila, the conflict with the Papacy was renewed. Corrado continued his reign until 1441, when he was killed on the orders of the Pope, thus bringing the prestigious Trinci Signoria to a close.