“Morning One. Wait then for an entirely bright morning; rise with the sun, and go to Santa Croce, with a good opera-glass in your pocket.”

– John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) in Florence Mornings

The provincial town of Foligno in Umbria is a three-hour journey in a regional train because the line is not on a high-speed track: it is probably the old line to Rome from Florence. Then there is an hour from my little house in the country to Florence railway station. The train timetable is not very convenient and trains not so frequent. Nevertheless, the journey as a pilgrimage had to be made for I had discovered that there is a fresco cycle in the chapel of the immense Palazzo Trinci —  more medieval comics, my favourite pastime!

The palace is immense and for a short time in 1476 the papal court decamped here. Pope Sixtus IV moved here to escape the plague in Rome. The chapel on the other hand, is relatively small and private – only about 20 m².  All four walls were decorated with frescoes between 1421 and 1424, with 16 scenes from the Life of the Virgin. The work is by the bottega, the workshop, of the artist Ottaviano Nelli, from Gubbio. Ottaviano was 50 when he worked at Foligno and had already painted the same cycle in the Franciscan church in his hometown, which is about 80 km from Foligno. In the 15th century artists tended to work within a fairly circumscribed area of their native location, although there are also some instances of well-known artists travelling surprisingly far to complete commissions, all of which, naturally, were for patrons who wanted to endow the church for reasons either of piety, devotion, self-esteem or repentance. Ottaviano in fact, worked also in Florence for four years after his Palazzo Trinci commission.

And so one morning early I set off on the journey to find and see Ottavianos work in Foligno. With occasional blots on the landscape where some industry has arisen around a small town, the view from the train window was the well-known, almost poetic and pastoral countryside of Tuscany and Umbria. Such a journey naturally presents scenes that often remind me of the delicate depiction of the landscape in 15th-century, central Italian painting – a landscape reduced to the simplest elements of its topography with gentle hills, long slopes, streams and fields drawn with a false perspective, with a childlike charm.

Foligno gives the impression of a quietly prosperous town. It had a chequered political history, from free city to Papal state, to part of the Roman Republic, then of the French Empire and then of the Kingdom of Italy. Not known for any cultural or academic heritage it has however the surprising distinction of being the place where the first ever book in Italian was printed – Dante’s Divine Comedy, in 1472.

It’s an easy pleasant walk, mostly through a pedestrian sanctuary, to the Piazza della Repubblica which is surrounded by historic buildings; the cathedral, the City Hall, the Palazzo Orfini and the Palazzo Trinci. In the cavernous courtyard a couple of hundred chairs are set out for concerts and films in the summer evenings. As in all palazzi of the period, living and working accommodation begins on the first floor and here, in the courtyard, is the broad stone staircase.

In such an enormous palace, the chapel, in a corner behind the staircase, seems minute. I enter and it’s like stepping into a jewel box. There, in colours as bright as they were 600 years ago, is Mary doing the familiar things that Mary did; the meeting of her parents, the child Mary entering the convent, her betrothal to Joseph, the Nativity, her presence at the crucifixion and in the end, her Assumption. The simple charm of the composition and execution of the paintings gives me  pleasure once more.

About the author

Michael Barbour is an art guide and lecturer based in Florence. One of his highlight tours focuses on the works of art and sites which best illustrate the changes which took place in the visual arts in Florence in the 1400s and constituted the Renaissance in art. His uniquely crafted tour takes takes 4 to 6 hours at least & requires walking from one end of Florence (Santa Croce) to the other end across the river (the church of the Carmine). For more information contact Michael.Barbour@outlook.it 

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“If you have ever been in the Sistine Chapel and gazed at probably the greatest work of art in the world — the ceiling frescoed by Michelangelo — a pair of binoculars would have served you well. Likewise in the cathedral in Florence over one thousand square metres of painting in the dome is 90 metres above you as you stand on the floor and it is full of interesting colour and detail which only a good pair of binoculars can reveal. And there are many smaller, closer works of art that binoculars will reveal to the enthusiast or keen observer, details which make the painting or sculpture more memorable.

My pocket-sized art binoculars have fed my joy in discovering details for many years and in many places. If you love looking at art and paintings and youve never thought of having a pair of binoculars to hand, a new joy of discovery in the observation of detail awaits you.”

– Michael Barbour


  1. Michael

    Thank you for your kind message, Nicolette. Your plan sounds like a great summer adventure with feasts of saints & frescoes en route in Umbria. Best wishes! Michael

  2. Gillian Scott-Berning

    Evening Michael, It is many years ago that you were at the Don and I was at Local History. I hope to visit Florence with my daughter possibly from the 22nd of September for a couple of days. I would love to join one or two of your tours. I have never been to Florence and would appreciate any suggestions your might have. I look forward to hearing from you. With best wishes, Gillian

  3. Nicolette Hernke

    Thank you Michael for this information. I am going to attempt walking The Way of St. Francis this summer and Foligno is one of our overnight stops. I am a Humanities teacher and one of my walking partners is an English teacher so your insite is very exciting information. Thanks again, Nicolette

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