Discovering masterpieces is an exciting adventure in Italy and in the small village of Castiglion Fiorentino in the south, east corner of Tuscany, there are stunning masterpieces to be found.
The reliquary bust of St. Ursula (Sant’Orsola) on display in the art gallery at Castiglion is one such masterpiece; stunning in its design and execution with a mesmerizing presence that must be seen to be believed. Recently dated to the 3rd decade of the XIV century and not as previously thought by a French artist most historians believe the workmanship of this exquisite piece comes from what is called the High Rhine. However the superb opaque enamels that decorate the base of the bust are considered the work from a Parisian studio; the French at the time were considered the masters of this technique.
The bust is made of silver with a gold coloured gilt finish minutely worked to give the impression of expensive cloth covering the shoulders of the saint. A silver crown beautifully designed with an abundance of semi-precious stones, coloured glass and enamels imbues the piece with the importance given to Saint Ursula. A unique feature of this work which makes it stand apart from the many impressive reliquaries one can see in Italy is the painting of the neck and her face to convey an even greater sense of realism, quite unlike anything this writer has seen before in the world of the goldsmith (Oreficeria). Achieved by covering the silver with a series of layers of dense and very opaque gesso (not unlike how painters prepared their canvases) and then with the skill of a painter of the period, completed the piece by painting the most sensitive skin tones with perfect lip colouring and eyes that are penetrating but compassionate.
Who was Saint Ursula?
According to the Golden Legend written by Jacobus de Varagine, Ursula was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of the King of Brittany King Dionotus, who set sail to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica, along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens. After a miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pan-European pilgrimage. She headed for Rome with her followers and persuaded the Pope Cyriacus (unknown in the pontifical records, though from late 384 there was a Pope Siricius), and Sulpicius, bishop of Ravenna, to join them. After setting out for Cologne, which was being besieged by Huns, all the virgins were beheaded in a massacre. The Huns’ leader fatally shot Ursula with a bow and arrow in about 383 (the date varies).
In Cologne in Germany, commemoration of virgin saints who ended their life in martyrdom for Christ is remembered by the devout on the same site where afterwards the city’s basilica was built, which is dedicated to the memory of the innocent Ursula who is looked on as their leader.
A Traveller’s Delight – good food at a good price!
Perfect Traveller will be writing more about the treasures of Castiglion Fiorentino and as with any small Italian village that has not sold its soul to mass tourism one can still enjoy delicious local cooking and here look no further than La Sfizieria, which looks like a café and take way joint, which I guess it is. However there are some tables on the inside and I would encourage you to enter and sit down and wait until you are told the plates of the day; they are all delicious and very well priced.
Museums of Castiglion Fiorentino – Closed on Monday
La Sfiziera – Corso Italia, 52-54 – Closed on Sunday