‘Dark Ages’ Weren’t Dark at All

Colourful frescoes recently uncovered in a church in Pavia prove that medieval art was anything but dark.

The paintings of the church of San Michele in Pavia, a city south of Milan, were rediscovered thanks to a renovation finished before the summer.

Who said the Middle Ages were a dark time? Generally associated with gloominess, recently discovered traces of a distant past show us that medieval Italian art was full of colour and eccentricity.

In Pavia, a city south of Milan, the decorations of the church of San Michele, painted between the late 15th and mid-16th century and covered up in the late 19th century, were brought back to light thanks to a restoration completed before the Summer.

Recently discovered Italian medieval frescos shows a different chromaticism that makes us reevaluate how we view our history.

San Michele Maggiore in Pavia is one of the oldest and most historically rich basilicas in Northern Italy. It has been the site of several coronations of kings of Italy, and since June, thanks to the work of the Associazione Il Bel San Michele Onlus in Pavia, a not-for-profiit association, it has a new and surprising appearance.

Along with the already finished restoration of the décor of the presbytery and that of the south side aisle, the cross vault of the central nave has also been restored. During the process, a portrait of a historical figure was found. Originally, experts thought he was a king crowned in this church, possibly Frederick Barbarossa, but more recent studies reveal that it’s more likely that the fresco is a portrait of Emperor Constantine.

Recent research have shown that the fresco is likely a depiction of Emperor Constantine rather than the king Frederick Barbarossa, who experts once believed was the figure that had been uncovered.

“The restoration and enhancement work was born from the strong desire to be able to hand over to future generations a monument we inherited from our ancestors and, at the same time, ensure that today’s community can enjoy its liturgical and cultural use and learn more about its history,” commented Vittorio Vaccari, president of the Il Bel San Michele Association.

“This is why we have set ourselves the goal of reconfirming this architectural jewel as a religious and cultural reference point for the city, characterised by dozens of civil and religious Romanesque testimonies,” he added.

San Michele Maggiore in Pavia, one of the oldest and most historically rich basilicas in Northern Italy and the site of several coronations of kings of Italy, now has a new and surprising appearance.

The interior appearance of the basilica is completely changed. Visitors will find a very different church from the one they used to admire until recently. It’s impossible not to be amazed by the brilliant colours when admiring the vaults, which have returned to reveal themselves in their original form. A careful whitewash has freed the frescos from the layers of paint that covered them, and the rich chromaticism of the paintings, a characteristic the basilica was famous for in the past, is now visible. 

The colors have resurfaced, and they can also be seen on the church capitals, which are currently undergoing restoration, and on the exterior facade, proving that the Middle Ages were anything but a gloomy period. Contrarily, the art of the time reveals a distinctive chromaticism that compels us to reconsider how we perceive our past.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.