Umbrian Frescos Reborn

Eight kilometers outside Spoleto, along the old road to Todi, lies the ancient Pieve di San Brizio, a diminuitive parish church dedicated to a Syrian-Christian who took refuge in the city to avoid Roman persecution, sometime in the third century. San Brizio would later serve as the first bishop of Spoleto; many believe the pieve to have been built atop his oratory. Within the church is a rare suite of frescos—some of the finest known examples of Renaissance Umbrian painting—that only recently came to light during a restoration carried out in the wake of the 1997 earthquake. Built on a basilica plan with three naves, the Pieve di San Brizio assumed its present form sometime in the mid-twelfth century. However, numerous Paleochristian elements were incorporated into the church, including two altar frontals, masonry blocks with Roman carvings—no doubt spoils from an ancient building—a fragment of an ancient cross embedded in the façade, and a sarcophagus found in the crypt, all of which date to the sixth century a.d. Over time, a number of modifications were made to the sanctuary. The exterior of the pieve’s tripartite apse was fortified and incorporated into the town wall during the Guelf-Ghibelline struggles of the fourteenth century, which pitted supporters of the papacy against those of the Holy Roman Emperor. A 38-meter-tall campanile was added sometime in the fifteenth century. As in the church, Roman elements were incorporated into the bell tower, including a sarcophagus frontal thought to have some connection to the saint, which was embedded in its base. The graceful portal, or pietra caciolfa, was added in 1541; an inscription above it reads, Aediles sumptibus Operae, mdxli.

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