The Renaissance art in Puglia and Basilicata is much less known than the heavily touristed and much studied sites in central Italy. Life-sized painted sculptures, many carved out of local stone, inhabit rough-walled cave churches and elaborate classically inspired mausolea. An elegantly attired angel hacks repeatedly at a cowering dragon, a saint looks unperturbed as her fingers sink into a lion’s mouth, a mother grins toothily as she cuddles her baby, and shepherds blow into bagpipes while stone sheep graze nearby. Artists placed holy narratives in spaces like the rocky landscape around them, and dressed sacred personages in local dress, while at the same time harkening back to an ancient past shrouded in myth and mystery. The art is both distinctively local and cosmopolitan, drawing upon influences from around the Adriatic and beyond.
This database offers high-resolution images of and information about over 100 objects. The information and photographs can be used freely for research, teaching, and publication.
Claire Litt (ABD, Queen’s University) and Una D’Elia (professor, Queen’s University) created this database. If you have any questions or comments or would like to contribute information or photographs to this database, please contact Una D’Elia (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This interactive map of all of the sculptures in the database, created by Claire Litt, is colour-coded by material.
Renaissance Polychrome Sculpture in Other Regions
This database is a part of a larger project to offer information about and high-resolution images of Renaissance polychrome sculpture in different regions of Italy, one of which is already published:
A database on Sicily is in progress, and other regions will follow.
Because this database and those for the other regions of Italy include thousands of high-resolution photographs for research and publication, and because entries for each object synthesize previous scholarship, including conservation reports, making this information available to English-speaking audiences, the database can be used in undergraduate and graduate courses, and the students can publish their research in the form of online virtual exhibitions. For more information on using these databases for teaching, please contact Una D'Elia (email@example.com). Students in undergraduate and graduate classes at Queen’s have used these databases to create exhibitions:
The raised polyptych altar in the presbytery of Chiesa Matrice, Noci, is attributed to Nuzzo Barba. It was commissioned by Giulio Antonio Acquaviva and his consort Caterina del Balzo Orsini in the late 15th-century. Made of local materials, the framework is wood and stone and the niches feature stone statues of saints. At the centre is the Madonna (adorned with a later metal crown) adoring Baby Jesus, with her hands raised in prayer position over her child on her lap. On the left are St. Anthony of Padua, St. Roche, St. Dominic (a later papier mâché replacement of the lost stone original) and St. Peter. On the right are St. Sebastian, St. James (according to scholars), St. Paul, and St. Vitus. Scholars, including the expert on Pugliese sculpture Prof. Clara Gelao, identify the figure on the right on the upper level as St. James, but do not comment on the fact that this figure is nude, except for a draped cloth, and has the stigmata, which makes this look like an image of Christ. (James is generally shown in the dress of a pilgrim, with a staff and hat, as well as a seashell badge.) A sculpture of Christ would be appropriate for an altarpiece commissioned by a confraternity dedicated to the eucharist, but it would be odd to have such a sculpture put in a more marginal position, so the figure is puzzling. Below the sculpture of the Madonna, two children hold back curtains of a baldachin to reveal the eucharistic chalice and wafer (an echo of the raising of the sacrament that occurs when mass is celebrated on the altar below). Below that is a relief of the brothers of the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament, their identities piously obscured by hoods, who kneel, carrying a crucifix and a banner with another image of the eucharist. Some also have prayer beads, and so this image echoes the kinds of devotions (both individual prayers and group rituals) that were performed before this altar. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
This nativity scene by Stefano da Putignano shows Mary and Joseph, almost life-sized, in traditional mantles that are similar to verions of the same subjects made by Stefano earlier in his career. Mary, Joseph, and additional figures and animals are arranged almost symmetrically around the Baby Jesus, giving the scene the solemnity of a ritual (though the arrangement could differ from that used originally). Originally located in a chapel on the site of the current sacristy, the sculptures were damaged in ca. 1700 when they were moved to the chapel of St. Michael the Archangel. An unpainted stucco statue of St. Michael remains above the creche. An inscription on the base of the platform upon which Jesus is placed reveals both Stefano's name and the date of the sculptural group's creation, 1530. Another inscription identifies the patron, Turco Galeone, a member of the local nobility. In comparison to Stefano's other nativity scenes, such as the one in the Cathedral of Polignano, this nativity scene still has the grotto and some of the smaller scale shepherds and magi, and so is well-preserved, but many figures seem to be missing, and most of the surviving sculptures have been crudely reset and repainted. The standing baby angel just above the ox and ass plays a curved wind instrument that Gelao identifies as a serpent (serpentone in Italian), which scholars think originated in the sixteenth-century in France. If so, this would be a very early representation of the musical instrument, a topical reference in an otherwise timeless image. The grotto itself is unusually made from a single piece of limestone, rather than being assembled from many rocks. The rough grotto and magi, arranged in horizontal bands, are very similar to those seen in other well-preserved Pugliese creches, such as at those in the Cathedral Altamura, S.Maria degli Angeli at Cassano Murge, the Chiesa Matrice in Putignano, and others. This church was built on the site of a cave with a painting of the Madonna. In the rocky landscape of this region, in which whole towns were built in and on top of caves, including Grottaglie, the image of the Nativity in a cave would be intensely familiar, tethering this event from long ago and far away to the very earth of Puglia and Basilicata.Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Stefano da Putignano's sculpture of St. Michael the Archangel is located in the Sanctuary of Monte Laureto, near Putignano, a church set in a rough-walled cave in the mountainside (now beneath a hospital, accessible through the Putignano Pro Loco). This cave church on a mountain echoes the major Pugliese pilgrimage destination, the Santuario dell'Arcangelo Michele, Gargano. Cave chapels are fairly common in this part of Puglia and neighboring Basilicata, a region in which the landscape is punctuated by caves and underground corridors, with sometimes spectacular stalagtites, stalagmites, and other rock formations. Having a church in a rough cave is both a matter of local pride and also harkening back to ancient times and therefore the early Church. Indeed a longstanding local tradition held that this cave was originally a temple of Apollo, later converted into a Christian church. This is unlikely, as there are no documents for a place of worship in this cave until the fourteenth century, but the legend suggests the kind of associations the site would have held as a local antiquity, seeming in its structure to reach back to time immemorial. One story even asserted that the sculpture of St. Michael was originally an image of Apollo! The sculpture of St. Michael, made around 1506, gazes down with a calm expression that contrasts with his raised sword, which is ready to strike down upon the demon at his feet. Stefano has sculpted the angel in a realistic 16th-century cuirass, with minute beading along the edge, and outfitted him with a matching shield, both with a raised sunburst pattern. The fine original polychromy, partially preserved, brings the angel's face to almost glowing life, his beauty in contrast to the demon, a monstrous dragon-like composite with bat wings. (The dark coloring of the demon, contrasting with the pale, blonde angel, reflects the racist associations with dark skin prevalent in the period.) The angel has already cut great gashes into the demon, who cowers below. The helmet, chain, and wings were added at a later date. The statue has undergone restoration. The niche, with its carved pilasters, was likely made by Stefano da Putignano in 1521, when the niche on the other side of the church was created to house a Stefano da Putignano sculpture of St. Sebastian (now in the Collegiata di San Pietro, Putignano). These niches form a kind of classical procenium, in contrast to the rough form of the cave. Two of the scenes in this niche (second from the top on each pilaster) show stories of the Arcangel Michael, but the others are full of composite monsters and what appear to be obscene sexual acts, perhaps meant to expand upon the sins that the angel is conquering. In the spandrels above the arch, two male figures squat, their legs splayed to display their genitals. The nice has suffered over time -- one scene is missing, and the polychromy is only partly preserved. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Stefano da Putignano's sculpture of St. Peter is in a stone niche, also by his hand. St. Peter is shown seated, which has led scholars to suggest that it was based on the bronze statue of St. Peter by Arnolfo di Cambio, located in St. Peter's Basilica (which Stefano could have perhaps seen if he went on pilgrimage to Rome). The stiff frontality of the Stefano's figure is similar, even though his work was made 200 years later. The archaism here suggests the regal dignity of Peter and evokes time-worn authority. Unlike Arnolfo, however, Putignano shows St. Peter holding a book open to a passage from his first letter (ch. V: 8-9) in his left hand, and the two keys given to him by Christ in his right hand. The stylized rendering of the folds of his tunic and swirls of his beard are typical of Stefano da Putignano's work. The wrinkled face with its direct gaze and gnarled hands have nevertheless a startling naturalism. The later wooden throne was removed in the restoration undertaken in 2000-2004, which made the inscription on the base more legible, though the interpretation is still debated. Along with the date, 1502, the inscription presumably identifies the patron of the work, Vito Fanelli De Venera, likely a local man, as the names Fanelli and De Venera are both common in Putignano. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Stefano da Putignano's sculpture of St. Michael, created in 1538, is his last known work. The sculpture was moved to its present location, in a 17th-century altar decorated with paintings of the saint, after the chapel of St. Michael was destroyed in the 16th-century (possibly damaging the statue in the process, though accounts conflict). The sculpture was not painted until over a century later in 1641, possibly because Stefano died before he could oversee the completion of the work. Unlike Stefano's sculpture of St. Michael in the cave church of Monte Laureto in Putignano, in which the saint appears less immediately occupied with his task at hand, this sculpture shows St. Michael in the very moment of striking down upon the dragon. His arms, which come out and away from the body, indicate that he has engaged the muscles in his body. The ample drapery, swept back and off his shoulders, captures a sense of his swift movement. Such changes to sculptural form are demonstrative of the maturity of style that defined the end of Putignano's career. In this late work Stefano also seems to imitate the caryatides of the Nuzzo Barbo tomb in Conversano. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.