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A Tale of Two (or More) Frescoes

I bought a house recently. It's the parish house in a 15th-century church complex in Perugia, and its history is one reason I couldn't walk away from it. (The photo at left is my view of the cloister from my kitchen window.) When the then-current owners showed me a brick dated 1452 embedded in one wall, they probably had no idea that the deal was clinched right then. (The earliest mention of the church is 1163; restorations were done in the mid-1400s.)

Anyway, the previous owners have kids, and they'd adorned their bedroom wall with stickers. After living here for about 6 weeks, I decided the stickers had to go. And when they went, so did the paint beneath. Patches of blue and brown, on further careful investigation, turned out to be fresco.

Yesterday I told Francesco, the president of our borgo (neighborhood), what I'd found. He shrugged in a "yeah, duh" kind of way, pointing out that I live in a former convent, so what did I expect? Then, after saying that foreigners always get excited about this stuff, but to Italians it's meh, he said, "Come, I will show you something," and off we went down the street to an oratorio (a small chapel) that's not open to the public. Talk about frescoes! These are in the grotesque style (like those in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, for example) and are from the 1500s.

When I mentioned to Francesco that he seemed awfully eager to share these "ordinary" frescoes, he admitted that, like me, he loves history and anything old, the older the better. (In fact, he's restoring a house from, if I remember correctly, the 1300s.) So I think we're going to get along.

Now I'm wandering around my house wondering what other secrets it may hold. Another Francesco—Perugia is close to Assisi, so in this area Francescos abound—told me that behind the famous organ in the church there is a door to my house, and the parish priest used to enter the church that way. Whaaaat? In a long hallway that runs along the back of my house is a small utility closet, with a step down and a rather hollow-sounding back wall. Now I know that the niche where my brooms and dustpans live cozies up to the back of an organ made by Michele Buti in the mid-1600s. (Note the medallion in the photo below, which is a copy of a Rafaello. The original is in the National Gallery in D.C.)

Eager for more information, I trotted down the street to my neighborhood key-and-shoe guy, who can do just about anything and, if he can't, knows someone who can. He connected me with an art conservator who specializes in fresco, who is coming to see my walls next month. And it turns out that one of my neighbors is an art historian, so she'll take a look as well. Who knows, maybe the whole house is frescoed. There's only one way to find out.


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