San Michele fresco collection

The fresco collection of Gemona del Friuli:
frescoes saved from the earthquake

The former church of San Michele, now home to the fresco collection

The “Affrescoteca” containing the fresco collection of Gemona del Friuli stands on the site of the former church of San Michele. The church was built within the city walls in 1447, and consecrated three years later. It was demolished in 1884 - 1885 and rebuilt outside the city walls. The 1976 earthquake completely destroyed the church, and the Superintendency rebuilt it between 1985 and 1987 in the form of an empty volume standing beside the historic Porta Udine city gate. 

The former church of San Michele now contains the frescoes salvaged from two churches destroyed by the 1976 earthquake which were not rebuilt: Santa Maria delle Grazie and San Giovanni in Brolo. It also contains a “Madonna and Child” that was originally located on the façade of the Hospital of San Michele.

The frescoes salvaged from the Convent of the Beata Vergine delle Grazie

The fresco cycle from the convent of the Beata Vergine delle Grazie, dated between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, includes:

  • Episode of the life of Saint Eligius. Holy martyr, first half of the fourteenth century
  • Cavalcade of the Three Kings
  • Marriage of the Virgin
  • Voyage to Bethlehem
  • Nativity
  • Adoration of the Three Kings
  • Circumcision
  • Flight to Egypt and meeting with Saint Cecilia
  • Figure on the threshold of a building
  • Madonna with Child and Saint
  • Preliminary sketch for the Lamentation over the dead Christ
  • Lamentation over the dead Christ

It was historian Valentino Baldissera, who was the first to mention the fresco cycle, commenting thus (1889, p.14):
“1622: Hoc integrum opus factum est ex uniformi jugalium voto: inscription featuring the coat of arms of the Passavolante family with another unknown coat of arms in one of the painted lunettes in the cloister belonging to the sacristy. [I believe the reference must be to the frescoes which some unfortunate painter coloured on that side; equally unsuccessful ones appear beside the church], a negative opinion shared by Giuliani (1942, p.79). 

Art historian Alberto Rizzi, in his publications about the finding of segments of wall paintings following the 1976 earthquake, announces the recovery of “frescoes in popular style dating from 1622, representing Stories of the Virgin. About half of the scenes formerly covered over with plaster were spontaneously uncovered after the earthquake of September 1976 and became visible once the ruins had been removed from the site in the Spring of 1977, admitting that, of these frescoes, “only the scenes that were complete were detached, sacrificing those which survived only in fragmentary form”. (Alberto Rizzi, 1979, pp. 57-59).

According to the testimony of  Guido Clonfero (1974, p.140), they were already visible prior to the terrible event”. In the north-east wing of the former cloister are votive frescos dated 1622, depicting, from left to right: The Circumcision of Jesus, The Adoration of the Three Kings, The Flight to Egypt, The Nativity, and two combined coats of arms of the Passavolante family, with the following words: HOC INTEGRU(M) OPUS FACTU(M) EST EX UNIFORMI JUGALIU(M) VOTO. 1622. 

According to Beatrice di Colloredo Toppani: “The cycle is of interest for its delicious folk idiom, with plenty of inventiveness, offering precious historical testimony of a devotional figurative tradition that aimed to express the Sacred Scriptures in terms that would be comprehensible to the faithful from all walks of life“. (DI COLLOREDO TOPPANI 1983, P.49).

The writer’s definition would appear accurate, if we consider the cycle illustrating the  Stories of the Virgin as a sort of “magnificent” votive offering commissioned on the occasion of the wedding uniting the Passavolante family with another unidentified noble house.

One of the documents found by  Innocenzo Giuliani (1942, p. 127) notes that the situation of the monastery of the Beata Vergine delle Grazie was not ideal in the year 1622. In that very year, when the institution belonged once again to the Franciscan order, the guardian friar, Father Onofrio da Venezia, elected by the monastery of San Francesco Grande in Padua, sent his Community a request for economic aid. The friar explicitly explains that the monastery’s debts amount to more than 3000 lire, only 10 litres of wine are left in their cellar, they have no firewood for the winter and they need at least 250 gold pieces to dress the seven persons, including both monks and lay brothers, who were living in the monastery at the time. It may be possible that the families who commissioned the frescoes helped to support the religious community at this difficult time.

[Text translated from “Opere ad affresco nella ex Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo” (“Frescoes in the former church of San Michele Arcangelo”, an extract from the volume “Il museo di Gemona”, edited by Franca Merluzzi.]

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Valentino Baldissera


San Michele fresco collection