Anonymous: Who painted the frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria foris portas in Castelseprio? Was it a Byzantine artist or is it possible to consider this as the beginning of “Italian Art”?

“Castelseprio” is the modern name of the ancient town of Sibrium, founded as a fortified settlement in the 4th or 5th century. The town was initially very powerful, controlling a vast territory extending from Lake Lugano to the periphery of Milan. The fortunes of the town changed abruptly around 1000, when it collided with the increasingly powerful cities of Milan and Como. The Milanese attacked the city several times, and eventually conquered it in 1287. They destroyed every non-religious building in the city, and issued a decree forbidding new settlements in the area. For this reason, Castelseprio’s artistic treasures remained all but unknown until 1944, when an impressive cycle of frescoes was discovered in the small, and apparently modest, church of Santa Maria foris portas.

The frescoes have been at the center of scholarly debate since the time of their discovery. First of all, the subject and theological significance of the cycle is unclear: its main focus may be either the life of Christ, or the life of the Virgin, and each possibility has different implications for the interpretation of the building in its cultural context. Secondly, dating the church has proved nearly impossible. Just one fact is undisputed: the church’s frescoes predate the 10th century, as an inscription on the plaster on which they are painted mentions Arderico, Archbishop of Milan in 936–48. Nevertheless, historians have suggested dates ranging from the 5th to the 10th century. Consequently, no agreement has been reached on the frescoes’ patronage (which might have been Byzantine or Longobard) or authorship. As is usual with artworks of the high middle ages, the artwork is not signed, and the name of the team of artists who realized it is not preserved in any known document. Stylistically, the artists could have been Byzantine painters who settled in Italy, as suggested in the 1940s by the frescoes’ discoverer Gian Piero Bognetti, or Greek artists, or even locals.

In conclusion, it is very difficult to answer your question. Whilst some evidence suggests that the frescoes’ painters were from Byzantium, other features are comparable to late Hellenistic and Roman artworks. Certainly, the frescoes constitute a link between the Classical and Byzantine painting. Whether this can be considered as “Italian Art” really depends on one’s definition of “Italian,” with the caveat that the country we know now was separated in several different kingdoms in the high Middle Ages, and did not become a unified political entity until 1861.

References: Marco Carminati. “Castelseprio.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.; Paolo G. Nobili. “Tra tardoantico e X secolo, gli scenari attorno agli affreschi di Castelseprio. Uno status quaestionis storiograficoPorphyra, 7:11 (2010).

Santa Maria foris portas, Castelseprio Archeological Park, Varese, Italy

The dream of Joseph, fresco, Santa Maria foris portas, Castelseprio Archeological Park, Varese, Italy

The Journey to Bethlehem, fresco, Santa Maria foris portas, Castelseprio Archeological Park, Varese, Italy

The Presentation to the Temple, fresco, Santa Maria foris portas, Castelseprio Archeological Park, Varese, Italy

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