Little Known Masterpiece in Asciano

Little Known Masterpiece in Asciano
20 October 2016 0 Comment

Asciano has a remarkable history that stretches back to the Etruscans, and making a stop here “off the beaten track” in Tuscany is well worth the effort.

A 5th century BC Etruscan necropolis has been excavated nearby and remains of Roman baths, with a fine mosaic pavement, were found within the town in 1898. During the medieval period its location and its production of excellent olive oil made it a site of contention between Siena and Florence: the Battle of Montaperti was fought nearby on September 4, 1260. The village was purchased by the Sienese in 1285 and was surrounded by walls in 1351, portions of which survive today.

If you can drag yourself away from the tourist rat-race of crowds and shops selling pretty much the same thing in places like Pienza, Montepulciano, Cortona and San Gimignano, a visit to Asciano reveals a Tuscany I remember forty years ago before mass tourism! The congeniality of the locals will have you smiling and slowing your pace just a little and the cooking smells wafting out into the small streets will have you looking for place to stay for lunch.

And while you are enjoying the simple life in a “real” Tuscan village visit the Museo Civico Archeologico e d’Arte Sacra in Palazzo Corboli which is very easy to find in this small town. It is here you will discover a little known masterpiece. A divine work telling the story of The Birth of the Virgin by the Master of the Osservanza; this work portrays in a stunning visual narrative the unsung story of Anne who gave birth to Mary. It is the sort of painting that grows into your space and captures your attention whether you have a real love of art or not. Your eyes meander through the piece picking out new details painted with such skill you find yourself doing another “round” just in case you have missed something.

The lower central panel shows the baby Mary in the arms of a wet nurse some say; such love portrayed in the face looking at the child is the love of a mother. I don't see a wet nurse; I see the mother Anne holding her newly born daughter which is far removed from the iconographic, sterile religious symbolism of the day, used to tell the story of the life of Christ and his mother. There has been much discussion as to the artist of this great work and is often described as the Master of Osservanza, an Italian painter of the Sienese School active around 1430 to 1450. The game is afoot; do we know who the artist is that created this sublime work?

There are a group of paintings that stylistically appear to be by the same hand as the piece in Asciano. These works include the Predella of the Osservanza Altarpiece (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena), the Predella of St. Bartholomew (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena), Scenes of the Passion (of which examples exist in the Vatican Museums, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Fogg Art Museum), the Resurrection (Detroit Institute of Arts), and Scenes from the Life of St. Anthony Abbot (original panels from this tabernacle can be found in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Museum and the Museum Wiesbaden in Germany). In addition many historians believe the full-length painting of “St. Anthony the Abbot” in the Louvre is a panel from a larger altarpiece by the same master who did the work in Asciano.

Research carried out in 2010 by Maria Falcone in Siena has revealed the name of the Master to be Sano di Pietro. Falcone found a document that described an altarpiece by the “Master of Osservanza” for a church in Asciano (just outside Siena), which at the time was under the bishopric of Arezzo. The priest of the church in Asciano did not pay the painter who complained to the city government of Siena who made an appeal on behalf of the artist to the bishop in Arezzo to force the priest from his district to pay the artist. The artist’s name was included on that document as Sano di Pietro. Has the mystery been solved?

Museo Civico Archeologico e d’Arte Sacra Palazzo Corboli in Asciano

November through to the end of February – opening hours

Saturday and Sunday and holidays

Mornings from 10.00 until 13.00

Afternoons from 15.00 until 18.00

April through to the end of October – opening hours

Open every day

Mornings from 10.00 until 13.00

Afternoons from 15.00 until 19.00

July and August – opening hours

Open every day

Mornings from 10.00 until 13.00

Afternoons from 17.00 until 22.00

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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