The Masterpiece at Your Feet

June 27, 2014 / Art & Archaeology
Spoleto, Umbria

This is the second installment in our mini-series of notes on Church floors!


When you enter Spoleto’s majestic Duomo (also known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta), your eyes are immediately and inevitably drawn upward. Most of this cathedral’s treasures are in its soaring heights: the intricate rose windows, the imposing cupola, the rich “Life of the Virgin” frescoes by Florentine master Fra Filippo Lippi. But while you are gazing above, perhaps the most precious and spectacular of the Duomo’s artworks is literally at your feet.

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Look down and you will discover an elaborate patchwork of geometric mosaics worked in a style called Cosmatesque after the Cosmati family in Rome. The Cosmati worked for four generations in the 13th century perfecting the of opus sectile — or cut work — technique, in which inlays of delicate triangles and rectangles of colored stone and glass mosaics are set into stone matrices or encrusted onto stone bases. The resulting work alternates bands and blocks of intricate mosaic with contrasting bands, guilloches (a repetitive architectural pattern), and simple geometric shapes of unadorned white marble.

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This unique flooring is one of the only remnants of the Duomo’s original Romanesque interior; the inside of the church was redone in the first half of the 1600s and most of its former architectural lines lost. The Cosmati pavement covering the central nave and some of the altar luckily survived this unfortunate “restoration”, and is one of my favorite things to photograph (unfortunately the immense size of the church and the rows of pews covering much of the central nave makes it hard to capture the scale).

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The next time you stop in to Spoleto’s Duomo, take in the sights above. But don’t forget to turn your gaze downward and admire the masterpiece below.

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Rebecca Winke

by Rebecca Winke

Owner of Brigolante Apartments, a restored 16th century stone farmhouse / guesthouse in the heart of Umbria near Assisi, and blogger of life in Umbria. For tips and insider information about visiting Umbria, download her Umbria Slow App and see her writings on her personal website!

10 Responses to “The Masterpiece at Your Feet”

  1. We just got back from our Arts Sojourn “Essential Umbria” 2014. I love these floors. Your photos are fabulous and give the best view of the designs. Can’t imagine that anyone could go there and miss them. Guess everyone is looking up. Nice article. Did you take the photos?

    Reply
  2. Shirley Coppock

    Amazing…Your Marvelous Photography is another step in helping to preserve this wonderful history. Thanks for Sharing.

    Reply
  3. Marcia Bailey

    Wonderful to see these beautiful floors again. Wondering if someone will be writing about the floors in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata in Otranto? In Italy, it seems, no matter whether one looks up or down there is beauty.

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  4. Anne Barrowclough

    Lovely photos – UK readers might be interested to know that the floors in front of the High Altar at Westminster Abbey were created by Roman workers in the Cosmati style. So if you can’t get to Italy, perhaps a trip into London would suffice in the meantime!

    Reply
  5. I took photos at the San Vitale in Ravenna, and I thought those mosaic marble walls and floors were the most perfect I had seen. Here at Spoleto’s Duomo the floor designs are a bit more elaborate. The San Vitale was built in the 5th Century AD and had high frescoes from the Old Testament, which you usually do not see in subsequent years in the Duomo.

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  6. Anna Mangus

    I always love your articles Ms. Winke, and once again you did not disappoint! Thanks!

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  7. Janet Eidem

    This is a feast for eyes. I can’t get enough of the stonework underfoot in so many places. Thank you for choosing to write about this Duomo. I shall put it on my list for our next trip to beloved Umbria.

    Reply
  8. James Keane

    We were fortunate enough to spend a few days in Siena during the few weeks per year that the fabulous floor mosaics are uncovered. We were used to getting dizzy, craning our necks to see a fresco’d ceiling in a duomo. In Siena, we got the same feeling from looking down. They were spectacular.

    Reply

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