We were walking down the via Zamboni, beneath Bologna’s distinctive porticos, looking for a spritz. In the piazza ahead of us students were gathering in the late afternoon sun, sitting on the warm paving. Distracted by a small sign we made a detour through a dark doorway and found ourselves in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, attached to the Convent of S. Giacomo Maggiore. An art class sat silently sketching in the cool vaulted space.
Five frescoes stretch along each lateral wall, representing scenes from the life of Saint Cecilia. They were commissioned by Giovanni II Bentivoglio, ‘regent’ (or tyrant) of Bologna from 1463 until he was kicked out by the pope in 1506 (portrait by Ercole de’ Roberti, c.1480). They were painted in 1505-6, possibly in response to the recent earthquakes that devastated Bologna and the neighbouring church of S. Giacomo in 1504-5.
Three of the top court artists of Bologna – Francesco Raibolini (Il Francia), Lorenzo Costa and Amico Aspertini – are known for certain to have worked on specific frescoes, while the attribution of other frescoes are less certain, perhaps undertaken by many hands or by minor artists.
Il Francia completed the first scene in the fresco cycle. He began as a goldsmith and took up painting in 1494 when he was already middle aged, working in collaboration with Lorenzo Costa and influenced by the latter’s style. In the ‘Marriage of Saint Cecilia’ to Valeriano he captures the moment when the ring is being placed on the bride’s finger. The wedding party – five men on the right, five women on the left – stand under a Bolognese portico, one of the defining architectural features of the city. Beyond is a hilly landscape with a log cabin, perhaps the location of the subsequent wedding feast. But Cecilia turns her head away – perhaps from timidity, but most likely because she is in spiritual turmoil, having already made a vow of chastity to God and is being given in marriage against her will.
Lorenzo Costa was born in Ferrara, moving to Bologna in his early twenties where he enjoyed the patronage of Bentivoglio, completing the Bentivoglio Altarpiece in San Giacomo Maggiore (1483); like Il Francia he later moved to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. In the second scene, Costa portrays the ‘Conversion of Valeriano’ to Christianity. Valeriano kneels in front of Pope Urbano who is seated in open countryside; between them stands an old man robed in white holding open a book from which he reads (we learn from the Life of Saint Cecilia) “One God, one faith, one baptism. Do you believe in all of this?” To which Valeriano, his gaze turned in open-mouthed awe towards the gold lettering, is said to have replied “No other exists”.
The third scene, the ‘Baptism of Valeriano’, is loosely attributed to ‘Amigo Aspertini and others’, as are the fourth, seventh and eighth. Amico Aspertini was born in Bologna and studied under Il Francia and Lorenzo Costa, among others. He travelled to Rome and Florence as a young man and was influenced by Pinturicchio and Filippino Lippi, developing an eclectic proto-Mannerist style. He worked with the two older Bolognese artists on the Santa Cecilia frescos, later producing work for the Basilica of San Petronio, including a Pieta.
The Baptism is again set within an open countryside of green hills and distant towns – a constant backdrop that gives the cycle continuity. Valeriano kneels by a small puddle of water while Pope Urbano pours water from a bowl over his head. Three other priests are in attendance, while two pages in contemporary dress stand behind Valeriano holding his clothes. As in many of the scenes, there are secondary figures in the distance, here indicated by the page, possibly Cecilia with a woman and a dog.
In the fourth scene Valeriano and Cecilia are crowned with flowers by an angel who stands between them, wings open against a lozenge of light. Two secondary narratives take place behind this group; to the left the couple are seen with Valeriano’s brother Tiburzio who is converted to Christianity and is then seen on the right – the very small nude figure – being baptised before a crowd of people.
Aspertini has solo attribution for the fifth scene, the ‘Martyrdom of Saints Valerian and Tiburzio’, and for the sixth, depicting their Burial. These compositions are notably busier, with less demarcation between foreground and background narrative. Aspertini captures the grisly, dramatic moment in which the first brother has just been decapitated, blood still spurting from his neck, while the executioner swings his sword for the second blow. A diverse crowd surrounds the spectacle, representing all the ages of man from babyhood to old age; high up in the sky two angels hover, one with the soul of the dead man, the other waiting to catch the second.
In the Burial scene, one of the brothers is laid out on the ground surrounded by antique relics while just beyond the other is being lifted into a carved stone sarcophagus, his head held gently in place by an accompanying female figure. To the left Saint Cecilia, in a bright red cloak, grieves, her hand covering her face. The dark cavern of the tomb contrasts with the luminous coastal landscape to the top left.
The Trial of Saint Cecilia and her Martyrdom (seventh and eighth) are again less definitely attributed. In the former, the Roman prefect sits on the steps of a pagan altar, pointing at Cecilia, the central figure of the composition, calm and radiant. The scene captures the moment at which he forces her to sacrifice to the gods behind him and she answers “Your power is like a bag of wind that, when pierced by a needle, will collapse” – and thus signs her death warrant.
The Martyrdom depicts Cecilia in a cauldron-like bath of boiling water – which to her felt cool – and behind her an executioner wielding a sword with which he thrice, unsuccessfully, tried to behead her. Balancing these tiers of figures on the right are the judges, the most important seated on a high stepped throne.
Lorenzo Costa’s ‘Alms of Saint Cecilia’ (ninth) shows the wounded Cecilia distributing all her worldly goods to the poor, accompanied by Pope Urbano. A barefooted man kneels in front of her, a women with a naked child to the other side. Behind them on the left stand a group of gentlemen, well-dressed in the contemporary fashion; by this means the poor at Cecilia’s feet come to symbolise ‘Poverty’ in general, inviting the contemporary spectator to follow Cecilia’s benevolent example.
The tenth and final scene depicting the Burial of Saint Cecilia is by Il Francia, completing the cycle as he started it, with a well-balanced groups of figures to right and left supporting the Saint, praying and crying, as she is lowered into her tomb. Cecilia appears as if in peaceful sleep, while directly above her at the top of the painting an angel holds a little figure symbolising the Saint’s soul, which has flown up to the skies.
Saint Cecilia is today remembered as the patron saint of music, yet this connection is not presented in the fresco cycle. Musical references first appear almost a decade later in Raphael’s ‘Saint Cecilia Altarpiece’ (right, and included in the current National Gallery exhibition) which reached Bologna in 1515 on its way to S. Giovanni in Monte and is full of instruments. The musical association may come from a passage in the ‘Passion of Saint Cecilia’ describing how, during her wedding celebrations, she sang to God in her heart to keep her immaculate; this in turn was adapted and used in antiphons and vespers in memory of Saint Cecilia.