Medieval castles are generally dark and forbidding places that look as if they were built to prove the proposition that ‘form follows function’: the function was to be impregnable, and their high walls, crenelated and machicolated battlements, and slits for firing arrows instead of windows suggest that everything was subordinated to that dour defensive purpose. Castles are gloomy, intimidating buildings that sink the spirits. They were meant to intimidate and depress the population, and they succeeded. They still do.
But we may have the wrong idea about castles. Recent research suggests that, in Italy at least, far from being solidly monochrome blocks, they may have been a riot of colour. The town of Vignola, south west of Bologna, has an impressive castle that was rebuilt in the early 15th century. From a distance, it conforms to type: sheer walls unrelieved by windows; dark, looming towers; and an outline that sends the message ‘abandon hope, all who enter here’.
Get closer, however, and you see remains of brightly coloured fresco painted on the outside walls. ‘Originally, the whole of the castle would have been covered in fresco paintings,’ explains Bruno Zanardi, a professor of art restoration and history of art at the University of Urbino. Prof. Zanardi has just finished restoring some of the remains, both inside the castle and on its outside walls.
You have to look hard to locate the fragments that have survived nearly 600 years of being deluged by rain and burnt by the sun, but the splashes of faded colour can be found, usually high up. And to see them is a shock. What, you ask yourself, are reds, greens, yellows and blues doing on the walls of a castle?
‘They decorated it all,’ says Prof. Zanardi. ‘And they proclaimed the identity of the owners — the ones that we’ve found seem often to involve parts of their coats of arms. But the fragments that survive on the outside walls are too small to allow us to work out what most of the images would have been.’
Inside the castle, the fresco decoration from the 15th century has survived to a much greater extent. There are whole rooms covered with paintings. One of the rooms is decorated with the coat of arms of the man who rebuilt the castle in the first decade of the 15th century: Uguccione Contrari, the close friend of, and military adviser to, Niccolo III d’Este, the notorious count of Ferrara, who was married at 13, contracted venereal disease at 15, and was alleged to have had 800 lovers. Niccolo married his second wife when he was 34. She was half his age, and in love with one of his illegitimate sons: the two of them conducted an illicit love affair. When Niccolo found out, he had them both beheaded.
Uguccione Contrari seems to have had a less tempestuous love life. He was a deeply religious man, a follower of Joachim of Fiore, a 12th-century mystic who thought history unfolded in three periods, each of which represented one person of the Trinity. Uguccione had one room inside the castle covered with images of three interlocking rings, each of a different colour. The three rings have the unusual property that removing one of them means the other two are revealed as separate from each other. What do the interlocking rings mean? They may signify the interdependence of faith, hope and charity. Or perhaps they represent the Trinity. No one really knows.
Until Prof. Zanardi’s restoration was completed last year, it was thought that much of the fresco decoration that survives inside the castle was the result of an early 20th-century ‘restoration’ that actually involved fabricating frescos and then making them look old to persuade people that they were authentically medieval. In 1907, the then owner of the castle, Prince Boncompagni Ludovisi, peeled off, in a few of the castle’s rooms, the covering that had been placed on the walls — it was sometimes wallpaper, sometimes a layer of limewash. He claimed that he found 15th-century frescos underneath, which he then simply ‘restored’. The restoration work wasn’t completed until 1933. But by then, no one was sure what was original and what had been created by the restoration. It was known that in one of the rooms Ludovisi had built a new chimney in the medieval style: he put his own coat of arms on that. But how much else had he added?
Prof. Zanardi has been able to answer that question definitively. The original frescos were largely undamaged by Ludovisi’s team of restorers. And by carefully examining the techniques of fresco painting used, Prof. Zanardi was also able to show that the team of artists that decorated these rooms was also responsible for what is unquestionably the jewel of Vignola castle’s paintings: the frescos in the small Contrari chapel on the first floor, see detail of angel opposite.
These pictures are stunning. They were probably painted around 1420. They depict Pentecost, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Christ’s descent into Limbo, and the Assumption of the Virgin. The level of technical competence is outstandingly high: gestures and expressions are conveyed with exactitude and power, and the compositions have a simplicity and dignity only very rarely achieved in the first half of the 15th century.
But no one knows who painted them. The artist responsible has been completely forgotten. The history of art in 15th-century Italy has been dominated by Florence and the Florentine renaissance, thanks in large part to the fact that our primary source is The Lives of the Artists, by the Tuscan Giorgio Vasari. The aim of Vasari’s work was to demonstrate the superiority of Tuscan artists over all others — and he tended to diminish the achievements of painters who weren’t from his own region. Vasari was prepared to acknowledge that there were one or two competent artists in Venice, but his history left out almost entirely the remarkable achievements of 15th-century artists in cities such as Ferrara and Bologna, with the result that the works of artists such as Cosme Tura, Francesco Cossa and Ercole di Roberto are known to very few — although they were great painters, the equals of Tuscan contemporaries such as Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lipi, and Sandro Botticelli. The pictures in the chapel of the castle at Vignola are a glorious testament to the fact that Vasari was wrong: artists from Tuscany were not the only ones capable of creating wonders in 15th-century Italy. It is just that we very rarely notice those painted by anyone else.
There are plenty of other rooms in the castle that have yet to be investigated. There is a real possibility that many of them have 15th-century paintings underneath the whitewash or wallpaper that still covers them. The treasures waiting to be discovered may be astonishing. Vignola Castle has already changed our view of what medieval castles looked like. That alone makes it worth visiting. But the glorious paintings of the Contrari Chapel elevate it to the level of essential art.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013