We have always wondered why a statue by Andrea Mantegna, or rather the only extraordinary work of sculptural art known of the great Lombard artist born but active in Padua, ended up in Irsina in Basilicata.
Irsina, the city of Mantegna in Basilicata
We wanted to find out by visiting this Lucanian town overlooking the Bradano Valley, inserted in Borghi Più Belli d’Italia since 2018 and recently chosen as the permanent residence by many families from northern Europe, America and New Zealand. So much so that it became the “home and workshop” of the Maori artist Joseph Rickit, who has lived in Irsina for several years and has opened a residence for artists here.
Undeniable is the beauty of this village where it is nice to get lost among noble palaces and churches in the maze of alleys, streets and squares of the historic center, which has served as a scenic backdrop to several films including “Del perduto amore” with the direction of Michele Placido and “Prova a volare” with Riccardo Scamarcio and Ennio Fantastichini, directed by Lorenzo Cicconi Massi.
But you could think of making a feature film starring Irsina and its long history, evidenced by the numerous archaeological finds. The town was called Montepeloso from the Middle Ages until February 6, 1895, when it was renamed Irsina. Besieged and destroyed by the Saracens, it was rebuilt by Prince John II of Salerno and subsequently disputed between the Byzantines and the Normans. The first Norman count of Montepeloso, one of the twelve baronies that belonged to the County of Puglia, was Tristan, a knight following the Altavilla family in the Vulture territory.
And it strikes us that the second lord of the city, in 1068, was Goffredo, nephew of Roberto il Guiscardo and count of Conversano, our city.
Centuries later it passed under the dominion of the Angevins and then of the Orsini Del Balzo to which the Aragonese succeeded. In 1586 it was bought by the rich Genoese Grimaldi family and finally passed to the Riario Sforza, who were the last feudal lords of Montepeloso.
This historical route has left considerable traces in the urban fabric starting from the convent of San Francesco, among the oldest in the region, built on the remains of the Norman castle, remodeled by Federico II. Next to it stands the 12th century church, but restored several times to take on its current Baroque appearance. The interior, with a nave and side chapels, preserves a wooden crucifix from the 17th century, a seventeenth-century statue of San Vito and frescoes discovered during the works following the 1980 earthquake which testify that before the Baroque transformation the church was entirely frescoed.
But the real wonder is underground: the crypt entirely frescoed by works of the Giotto school built around 1370 that have kept bright and brilliant colors. We visited it accompanied by Mr. Antonio Romaniello and it is accessed from a different entrance than the original one. During the works several skeletons were discovered found in surprising positions: embraced and with clear signs of terror on the face as can be seen in the photographic reproductions hung on the walls. Mysterious and all to investigate the reasons that would have led to this obvious fear. There are those who speak of earthquakes, but also of live buried subjects … We would like to know more.
Much is known about the frescoes, commissioned by the Del Balzo and made by unknown authors helped by local workers. The crypt, used as an ossuary in the following centuries, was rediscovered in 1901 by the local historian Michele Janora.
In the center of the barrel vault stands the “Pantocreator”, that is the eternal Father, while next to the scenes of the life of Jesus and the Virgin and the Franciscan saints St. Francis, St. Clare and St. Anthony, there are the doctors of the Church and the dynastic characters of the Del Balzo family, including the commissioners Margherita Del Balzo, Duchess of Taranto and Antonia Del Balzo, future queen of Trinacria.
But one of the most interesting elements of the entire pictorial cycle is the reference to the apocryphal Gospels with the representation of the amputation of the hand of the devil “disguised” as a pious woman in order to steal the soul of the Madonna before her assumption into heaven.
Imposing is the Cathedral dedicated of Santa Maria Assunta, built in the 13th century and rebuilt in 1777, with a baroque facade and mullioned bell tower in Gothic style.
During the visit, Mr. Vito Grazio Petrillo guides us. In addition to illustrating the wonders kept inside, he “seasoned” the story with narrations of life that made everything much more compelling. He told us that in the crypt, dug in the rock called puddinga or conglomerate of Irsina and to which we access through a dark staircase, he played as a child because it served as an oratory where the children of the time spent the afternoon when it was too cold to play at open.
In ancient times this was the main church and on its floor there is the “rose of the templars” or “flower of life” which is illuminated every year during the summer solstice by a powerful ray of sunshine.
The “treasures” of the cathedral are surprising: from the baptismal font in red marble to the paintings of the 18th century Neapolitan school including those by Andrea Miglionico, up to the Crucifix of the Donatello school, above the high altar, with the particularity of the beardless face and hair made in tow.
But the most precious element is the magnificent marble statue of Saint Euphemia attributed to Mantegna by Clara Gelao, director of the provincial Pinacoteca of Bari, with the support of some critics including Vittorio Sgarbi. For other critics, however, including Giovanni Agosti who curated Mantegna’s exhibition in the Louvre, the work is to be attributed to Pietro Lombardo.
The debate is still open, but the most accredited thesis is the first thanks to a poem from 1592 that tells the story of how thanks to a certain Roberto De Mabilia arrived in a country in the Lucanian hinterland masterpieces of Venetian art. It is “Vita divae Euphemiae Virginis et Martiris” written by the archdeacon of Montepeloso Pasquale Verrone which attests the arrival in Irsina of the splendid statue in stone of Nanto, town located near the Berici Mountains in Veneto, in 1454.
In the same year arrived the Madonna and Child also adorned the cathedral, attributed by Gelao to Nicolò Pizzolo from the circle of Mantegna, together with the relics of the arm of the martyr, kept in a precious reliquary, the Crucifix of the Donatellian school, the baptismal font in red breccia of Verona and a column called Santa Croce with the name Mabilia and the above date carved on the capital.
But who was Mabilia? Mr. Petrillo tells us that he was an Irsinese prelate transferred to Padua where he became rector of San Daniele and wealthy notary and that, on the occasion of the appointment of Irsina as bishopric ordered with papal bull in 1452, he commissioned and brought these works to his country.
Among which the one that most kidnaps is the statue of Santa Eufemia whose face with a penetrating gaze changes its appearance depending on the light and movement and which can be appreciated in all its beauty thanks to the mechanism that allows it to rotate on itself.
The statue, 172 centimeters high and 350 kilos heavy, depicts the saint with one hand in the lion’s jaws, symbolizing the martyrdom suffered in 304 AD, while with the other it supports a triple mount with a castle to indicate the ancient Montepeloso. Looking at it, one is enchanted and does not find it hard to believe that they come from all over to admire it.
To conclude our visit we take advantage of Mr. Petrillo’s availability to visit the bottini, long tunnels built in the Middle Ages to channel the water that still flows pure and very transparent from the subsoil and which then reaches the eighteenth-century fountain with thirteen mouths.
We did not have time, however, to visit the Janora Museum where more than 300 exhibits are exhibited that tell Irsina from prehistory to Hellenistic civilization. One more reason to return and to look again at the magnificent belvedere with Irsi Mount and the Basento valley in front, stopping to taste the delights at km 0 of Trattoria Nugent (Piazza Garibaldi, Nugent courtyard, 6 – + 39 328 7768591) obtained in the courtyard of the homonymous palace built on the ruins of a medieval castle.