The Tales of the Camera
Pinta (painted room) in the Rocca of Spoleto (Italy)
(ill. 1) are pictorial interpretations of Provencal or Breton
tales which stimulate a powerful evocative raction. Personally
I was quite fascinated by them. Notwithstanding the fact
that we have become well acquainted with icons through the
Media, these paintings in the Camera Pinta still make a
strong impact on the visitor. As for me, never before, watching
a work of art, had I experienced such an emotion. While
I was taking in all this, it came to my mind an episode
that had occurred many years ago in a small Italian country
1 - The "Rocca di Spoleto"
The Second World War had finally ended, leaving behind nothing
but ruins. In that village there were no cinemas, no TV,
and the local people were not getting any sort of intellectual
stimulation from the world outside.
My family and I were spending our summer vacations in that
forlorn place. I had my books to keep me company; one of
them was a large picture book with many colorful illustrations
as well as some reproductions of ancient miniatures. I remember
how pleased were some of the village people when I showed
them the these pictures and what simple words they used
to show their admiration. continue...
It is just the memory of their reaction that made me wonder
what would have been the reaction of some humble people
living in the XIV century had they been confronted with
the paintings of the Camera Pinta . I
tried to picture myself in a similar situation. Certainly
in those days I would have received a different impact than
one I was receiving today. It would need a thorough and
scientific research on the subject to come to any conclusion.
Infortunately I have no instruments to help me apart from
the icons which are the starting point, as one can learn
from Cennino Cennini , and from may thime-makers of thr
XIII century as well as from the poets of Dolce
Stil Novo . It is too vague a nd useless an exercise
to try to imagine the emotional reaction of any person in
front of a work of arte profana . I can only
make an attempt to achive some kind of result.
Arte profana is the extraordinary clue which Camera
Pinta contains, since it offers one of the few
examples of such paintings, int that period, in central
These paintings present something original and give us the
opportunity to understand the value of an answer to a new
form of art. Something different from the holy pictures
to be found everywhere in churches, chapels, street-corners-niches,
and religious communities.
I have no intention to offer here a scholarly essay concerning
the paintings in the Rocca of Spoleto, but only to give
an idea of the state of mind of those people a state
of mind which I call the Archeology of emotion.
Why the word archeology? Because in order to
find traces of the past one must dig, an dig a lot. Now
if we consider the emotional layers that have buried the
emotions of a man from the XIII or XIV century , if we think
of all the social, political economic changes,, the scientific
discoveries and their technical applications that have changed
the way of seeing oue world since then, we must agree that
in order to partially interpret their feelings we must remove
a great deal of the layers.
In order to make it easier to understand this idea I am
going to introduce a virtual situation which well portrays
the historical reality of that social environment.
Suppose that in 1410 one of my ancestors from Umbria had
an urgent matter to deal with in Rome, at a time of the
year not ideal for travelling lets say in the
month of November.
This gentleman was neither a nobleman nor a wealthy citizen.
He was not even a doctor, only a good surgeon. In other
words he was de chirurgia peritus , that is
a professional man skilled in the art of removing kidney
stones. Doctors were called Phisici and obtained their degrees
at the Universities of Padova, Bologna, Paris. Their profession
was only theoretical, in fact they had only a vague knowledge
of human anatomy, a science they achieved in later years.
They were expert philosophers and used doctrinal principles
to treat their patients.
Cola had studied and worked at the Abbey of St. Eutizio
which housed the famous School of Surgery of Preci, well
known in Europe. He used to travel on horseback and dressed
simply usinf a black cloak against the cold. His journey
has an inerest for uas regarding thwe colours and the shapes
that he was looking at during his riding trip.
Okra, and grey were the colors of the rocks and the mud.
The tree leaves had turned a rusty color, the sky above
was blue with white and grey clouds. The grazing fields
were a pale-green color in the sun, a deeper green in the
shade. He would have to wait for Spring to see red, yellow
orange blue colors. However, every time he arrived to a
small town surrounded by its walls, a wonderful sight was
expecting him. Every simple Italian town, small or large,
had a church, in fact, more than a church, and often a cathedral,
some of them of enormous size compared to the inhabitants
small dwellings. Those churches were all decorated with
frescos and pictures of saints, and in addition were endowed
with precious tabernacles and urns containing holy relics.
All these interiors had very rich decorations in gold, enamel
and other precious materials. Nowadays it is difficult for
us to imagine the emotions of people living in the XIV century
who only knew the colors of nature and above all,, had hardly
ever seen pictures of human shapes other than in paintings
of holy subjects.
At this point we must try to identify ourselves with our
At the end of the first day of the journey he has arrived,
at dark, at the doors of the town which are about to be
closed. He is tired. But, before heading for the inn where
he will find food and a bed, he will first offer your thanks
to the Virgin Mary and her Saint for having protected him
against the dangers of the road. The church is open and
its beautiful interior makes him feel he has arrived in
Heaven. The sun is about to set and its light falls upon
the high windows decorated with legendary scenes. At first
he is unable to distinguish the outline of the figures which
will tell him their stories. Immediately he will take in
the colors: red blue emerald green
reflected on columns and aisles, but most of all he will
be impressed by the golden decorations of the altar. The
colors he had seen during the day had been so monotonous
that he had not even noticed them. Now these colors are
so bright and exciting he almost feel intoxicated. Soon
he become aware of the paintings. He doesnt need any
explanation to understand what they represent. The instruments
of torture of martyrs are there; an animal next to a human
shape which represents a Saint.
In all the towns ho crosses he will find frescoes, bas-reliefs,
goldsmiths shops. Everything is connected with religious
themes. Religion filled peoples life at every section
of the day: Morning, Noon and Vesperus. The latter marked
the end of work and called for the evening prayers. In those
days there were no means of communication between places.
People received news from travelers. Merchant, artists,
soldiers were the only source of information apart from
the town-cries. News were rather scant. Popular culture
was confined to the Holy Readings in church; to the various
stories handed-down from fathers to sons; to popular songs;
to the poems and legends which ballad-singers went reciting
from one village to the other. In order to change reality
into fantasy you needed a different mental effort from ours.
Usually people lived a short life, mainly because of lack
of hygienic precautions and uncontrolled spreading of germs
and diseases. In a state of ignorance like that it was normal
to have recourse to superstition. They believed in magic
and easily perceived anything that was fantastic ad supernatural.
To reach Rome our traveler has chosen a route along the
ancient Flaminia way. From Preci he goes to Norcia from
there to Triponzo, he then crosses over Forca di Cerro and
reaches Spoleto. From Spoleto through Narni, Otricoli, Civita
Castellana he will finally arrive in Rome.
But let us go back to our traveler who has arrived at Spoleto
where he decides to pay a visit to a relative. a
curator rei familiaris (in other words a butler) This way
Cola has an opportunity to visit the Rocca when the owner
is away. This relative feels that his own status is far
superior to Colas and accompanies him with a certain
degree of haughtiness through the many rooms and halls of
the Manor. Then, to make a final impression n on his visitor
takes him up a great staircase to Loggia on the first floor.
Once there, he pulls a key out of his belt and opens a door,
all the time giving Cola a triumphant and ironic look, and
enters the master-bedroom, the room which we know today
as Camera Pinta. Cola follows him and
stands their totally flabbergast. He cannot understand the
meanings of those pictures that do not represent any Bible
or New Testament stories, nor those of any Saint of his
knowledge. But he is totally fascinated. The novelty of
these paintingsis a great surprise and hi starts looking
at them one after the other. Taddeo cannot explain exactly
what those stories represent, however he knows for sure
that they are a homage to Love and are inspired by Amore
Cortese . In point of fact there were many tales and
songs brought into Italy by singers coming from beyond the
Alps, and taken up and elaborated by Italian Story tellers.
These works were highly enjoyed by the nobles unlike the
plebs who preferred to listen to the deeds of the Carolingian
cycle and the King Arthurs Round Table epics. But
because of Colas cultural background he much appreciated
the heroic Saga Longobarda as applied to Italian ears, and
the fantastic legend of the Sibillini Mountains, where he
His happiness to find himself in that room stems also from
the fact that in those days only the rich could enter the
mansions of the rich, and only the noblemen had access to
other noble folks castles. The scenes he is looking
at are worlds apart from those violent and coarse representations.
These are full of grace and sadness. Cola finds a comparison
with the elegance of the miniatures he had admired in the
Abbey of St. Eutizio, with their details of flowers, herbs,
birds; and he wonders too whether it is right to paint scenes
that are so distant from the prevalent religious principles.
However he continues looking at these wonderful pictures.
On the left wall he sees some beautifully dressed ladies
who are listening to the music, almost certainly trobadours
music. These troubadours used to travel from town to town
reciting their legends and fairly tales and playing attractive
music. A sort of entertainment that had popularized through
the centuries le poems of chivalry. It was quite clear,
in those paintings, that the enchanting tales of those musicians
were received with great pleasure by those ladies.
On the next painting a
knight is resting on a meadow. His helmet is at his side while
he seems lost in his dreams (ill. 2). A fountain is at the
centre of the scene and it is quite possible that he has been
drinking its water, while his white horse, beautifully harnessed
with a precious red saddle is grazing on the grass. In the
background a few deer are also grazing. A man, probably his
squire or else the knight as he sees himself in his dream,
is offering a gift to his beloved lady
know those painted tales but knows the symbolism they represent,
whose meaning escapes us today, and he can attempt to give
them his own interpretation. The resting knight has just returned
from the Holy Land or else from a tournament. He has drunk
some water from the fountain of love which awakens his passion
for a beautiful girl who is waiting for him in her castle
in a far away land. The knight will have to cover a great
distance to reach her, a much longer journey than the one
Cola is taking. Perhaps the white horse that no doubt has
also drunk at the same fountain will take his rider to his
destination with the speed of lightning
is the most prominent element and one can see it again in
other paintings; it is the essential source of love.
2 - Knights rest
Underneath, on a larger
frame, Cola watches a violent fight between several men, or
maybe a fight between two groups of armed men. (ill. 4) There
is an oval arena not unlike the Colosseum where many fighters
are engaged in a tournament, watched from above by noble ladies
and gentlemen. There are also a few children engaged in their
own games and Cola is pleased that the painter had chosen
to portray both the games of carefree innocent children and
those of wicked adults. In many towns in those days you could
witness similar performances. All this he can easily appreciate.
What hi is at a loss to grasp is their link whit love. However,
he must move on because there is more to admire.
3 - Seated girl
Cola is deeply moved by one of the scenes of the Cycle he
is watching. In a corner of the Camera Pinta by an arch he
notes a girl seated on the grass making a garland of leaves
(ill. 3). She looks pensive. Cola is moved because she reminds
him of a girl he had once seen on a field by the walls of
Norcia, also wearing a similar garland, and had fallen in
love with. On this fresco you can see the walls of a city
and a castle. Cola does not notice that those buildings are
lacking in perspective because he doesnt know it yet.
The perfect perspective is just taking shape in Florence thanks
to some brilliant artists of the moment.
Cola is not a naïve man. He knows that in order to survive
one had to accept the hard, brutal reality of life, the tough
social limitations. The difference between reality and the
milieu of the chivalry. Between the behaviour of the greedy,
brutal land owners and the moral ideals of chivalry. A loyal
knight should be the advocate of justice in the name of God,
the champion of wisdom and heroism. But Cola knows he violence,
and the deceptions of the higher classes, and despises them.
But in that room reality becomes the black
shadow of a horse. What is the meaning of all that? Cola used
to see armed men carrying shields and spears
just like the ones painted
on the wall. Norcia had its own armed force. But what a difference
between the real soldiers and the ones painted in that room.
A horse had weight and substance, but the shadow of a horse
in without weight. It is only a black silhouette which he
had once tried to draw around the edge with a piece of charcoal.
Only that black decoration was his own creation, his horse
had looked like a fairy horse and although it stayed forever
on the wall it would fly above the trees and take him to an
unknown country where there was ho hunger or violence. Likewise
the soldiers on the wall were of the same nature as the black
horse: no connection with real soldiers. This way, Cola could
imagine all kinds of heroic deeds that fascinated and enchanted
him. Obviously the colours were brighter in those days than
they appear today, and lent these figures a kind of vibration
and expression such as Cola had never seen elsewhere.
4 - Tournament
We must now consider Colas
intellectual background. At the beginning of the XV century
Italian painters and sculptors were developing a realistic
way of art which we call arte italiana.
On the same period another aesthetic tendency was popular
in Europe: the international gothic art. These two stemmed
from a determination to overcome the schemes of Bizantine
Art, but the two schools were following different paths. While
the Italian Art School was trying to give volume and realism
to the figure, the Gothic Art was not particularly interested
in realism as such as in decorative elegance. It was more
interested in enchanted worlds, in human figures drawn with
graceful sinuosity and sumptuous decorations. In one word
Gothic Art wanted to describe life in a refined way. In those
days in some Italian regions like the Marche, for example,
the stile cortese was well accepted while
in Florence the Renaissance Revolution had already begun.
5 - Detail of "Camera pinta"
There is another consideration to be done about Colas
forma mentis. His concept of distance and of mystery. In this
time America had not been discovered, nor had Australia and
parts of Africa. As for Asia, even though Marco Polo had produced
a detailed account of his famous journey, it still remained
a legendary an fabulous country. From those unknown worlds
any kind of natural phenomena such as flying snakes, mermaids,
striped horses, etc. could be believable and real. This explains
why Cola can see an enchanted world beyond the
paintings on the wall as a natural reaction which couldnt
have today. All the same we cannot help being fascinated even
now. (ill. 5)
It is time to leave Cola to continue his journey. Once he
reaches Rome he will admire more paintings, mosaics and ancient
works of art, all of which have contributed to the birth and
development of Italian Art.
But lets come back to our time. Lets ignore here
anthropological culture questions and consider only the chance
of visiting this singular Room, this rare document which is
the Camera Pinta .
Above all it is a rare exemplar of art for an elite that knew
how to appreciate the new literature art and music.
And after that, comparing the infinite number of sacred images
found in all Italian churches, museums and galleries , it
is a rare statement of secular art of that period.
Traduzione a cura di Francesca Wagner Piero Angelucci - firstname.lastname@example.org