September 29th, 1843. The Cathedral of Atri would well repay the trouble of a visit to an architect: it is one of the most perfect Italian Gothic buildings I have seen in the Abruzzi, and its interior remains unchanged, a rare circumstance. (..) There was, however, little time for examination, nor could I either procure any drawing of the town, or visit the celebrated Latomie, or caves near it; owing to the heavy rain which continued to fall, and which obliged us to hasten homewards, as the rivers which take their rise in these mountains often become so suddenly swollen, as to render all progress impossible.
Edward Lear - Illustrated Excursions in Italy - 1846
It is very difficult to visit a town of Abruzzo without learning that its monuments were greatly damaged by an earthquake. This did not occur at Atri which is situated in a relatively low seismic risk area.
Mutignano (Stat.) Hence a diligence in 1 hr. reaches Atri, a picturesque hillset city, with a cathedral of 1252, having a portal adorned with sculptures, of 1288, by Maestro Raymondo di Podio.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Cities of Southern Italy and Sicily - 1891
1252 is the year of the creation of the diocese of Penne and Atri which prompted the inhabitants of Atri to begin the construction of a proper cathedral on the site of an existing church which in turn stood on a Roman bath establishment. The Cathedral was completed by ca 1284; its portals were added in 1288-1305.
(left) Facade; (right) rose window with twelve sectors (twelve being the number of the months, the hours of the day, the Apostles, the gates of New Jerusalem, etc.) - see those of S. Zeno (Verona) and S. Pietro (Tuscania)
A series of inscriptions indicates that the portals were made by Raimondo and Rainaldo, two sculptors of whom we do not have other records; the inscriptions suggest that Raimondo came from Poggio (It. small hill), probably a nearby location, and Rainaldo from Atri itself. The rose window is coeval to the portals. but there are no inscriptions stating its date and sculptor.
The very rich decoration of the Cathedral was perhaps promoted by the Angevin Kings of Naples, because Atri had supported them when they were at war with the heirs of Emperor Frederick II.
Central southern portal and the two lions at its sides
The inscription says: "ANNO D(OMINI) MC/CLXXXVIII/Q(UI) PORTAM SCUL/PSIT RAY(MUNDU)S IN/ARTE REFULXIT" (in 1288 the portal was sculpted by Raimondo whose art shone). The two lions were taken from an earlier building. It is interesting to note that the inscription praises the excellence of Raimondo's work, something which was pretty unusual at the time.
Eastern southern portal and detail of its decoration
The inscription says: ANNO D(OMIN)I MCCCII T(EM)P(O)R(E) SA/CRE D(OMIN)I B(ER)NARDI P(RE)SULIS P(RO)CU/RANTE MAG(IST)RO LEONAR/DO H(EC) PO(R)TA FACTA E(ST) P(ER)/MAG(IST)R(UM) RAYM(UNDUM) D(E) PODIO (in 1302 at the time of Bishop Bernardo and under the supervision of Mastro Leonardo, this portal was made by Mastro Raimondo di Poggio). The design is very similar to that of the 1288 portal, but the decoration is much richer.
Western southern portal and detail of its decoration
The inscription says: ANNIS ADIECTIS QUI/NIS SUB MILLE TRECE(N)TIS/EST OPIFEX OPERIS/RAYNALDUS NO(M)I(N)E CIVIS/ PRESULE BERNARDO CU/RA(N)TE TAMEN LEONARDO (in 1305 this portal was made by Rainaldo - named after the town - at the time of Bishop Bernardo and Mastro Leonardo). The portal was added because the Cathedral was granted the privilege of having a Porta Santa (Holy Door), similar to those which in the basilicas of Rome (e.g. at S. Pietro) are open only during a Jubilee Year and grant special indulgences. The Holy Door of Atri is open only on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
Statues on the façade (left) and on S. Reparata (centre); (right) cloister in the back of the Cathedral
The Cathedral was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, but in 1352 the municipal authorities of Atri declared Saint Reparata, a rather obscure IIIrd century martyr from Caesarea, patroness of the town, most likely to celebrate a pact of friendship with Florence, where the saint was already the patroness (to her was dedicated the medieval cathedral which was replaced by S. Maria del Fiore). She is portrayed holding the City of Atri and she is surrounded by the inscription "Pietate resurgam Adria iam Reparate opibus" (May Atri flourish again by the intercession of Reparata). At the time the Bishop of Atri and Penne was Marco Ardinghelli, a Dominican monk from Florence.
The Cathedral has one of the few bell towers of Abruzzo which have withstood the impact of the earthquakes. With a height of 54 m. / 177 f. it is the tallest of the region. Its construction began at the same time as that of the Cathedral. Its elegant spire was designed in 1502 by Antonio da Lodi, a Lombard architect who was involved also in the construction of the bell tower of the Cathedral of Teramo. A smaller replica was built at the side of S. Agostino, a church near the Cathedral.
In 1954-1964 the Cathedral was closed for a thorough redesign of its interior which was aimed at highlighting its XIIIth century structure and at investigating the Roman remains under its floor (mosaics were found under the main altar). Some chapels were pulled down to unearth the original walls which retained many frescoes. Also the XIIIth century slender columns and the later octagonal pilasters had paintings, similar to what can be noticed at S. Maria in Aracoeli.
Rear side of the altar with an elaborate decoration
The altar is made up of white marble which was carefully carved in order to fill the resulting slits with a red stucco. It is signed "Raulino me fecit" and it is dated 1223, thus it was not made for the Cathedral. What strikes is that the decoration does not seem to hide any religious symbols or images and to be merely aimed at pleasing the eye, unlike the large majority of the works of art of the time, exception made for some Cosmati floors and screens, e.g. at Civita Castellana.
(left) Renaissance arch by Paolo de Garviis from Cappella Acquaviva; (right) 1. Madonna adoring the Child (1465) by Andrea De Litio; 2. Our Lady of Loreto (ca 1460); 3. St. Catherine (second half of the XVth century)
The cathedral has a beautiful font and altar, executed 15 03 1506, by the Milanese sculptor Paolo de Garviis. The altar was due to the fulfilment of a vow made by Isabella Piccolomini, in the hope of securing the freedom of her husband, Matteo III. Acquaviva, who had been imprisoned for four years in a horrible underground dungeon by the Spaniards for having taken part in the conspiracy of the forty barons against Alfonso of Arragon. Hare
The Gothic Cathedral, with its frescoes and a 15th cent, painting of the Madonna adoring the Child, rests on extensive foundations of ancient origin, perhaps those of a temple. These substructures were adorned to some extent with painting in the Middle Ages, and the whole building is to be restored at the cost of the State.
Karl Baedeker - Italy; handbook for travellers - 1900
The meeting of the three living and the three dead (XIIIth century) - see a similar fresco at Montefiascone and other frescoes depicting the Triumph of Death (a skeleton riding a horse) at Subiaco (Sacro Speco) and Palermo (Palazzo Sclafani)
The meeting of the three living and the three dead shows an occasional meeting of three
carefree very relevant men (normally three kings or a priest, a nobleman and a member
or the upper-middle class) who enjoy life in their adulthood. These three men,
apparently not acquainted with pain, go hunting and, on turning a curve or reaching a
crossroads marked by a landmark, come up against three dead whose corpses are rotten
and eaten by maggots. In some versions the dead ones regain consciousness for a
moment to warn the living ones, we once were as you are, as we are so shall you be. (..) This meeting is found in French literature
and bibliography. (..) Since it is not a doctrinal subject, but an allegorical
one linked to the sapiential literature, the ways to express it are very heterogeneous,
sometimes including the terms kings to stand for the living. (..) The frescoes of the cathedral of Atri, carried out towards 1260, are a perfect iconographic model for the Italian way to depict the meeting in the XIIIth century. (..) In Atri, the living are distributed on the right wall. The first living is a priest dressed in alb and a Franciscan brown habit. The second one is an armed man with a sword, wrapped up in a cloak and a rich cap, who declares to be a nobleman. The third one is young man likely to be a member of the middle-upper class, with uncovered head, gloves in his hands and a sword strapped on his waist. To the right of the composition, a crowd of men and a horse represent the entourage which goes with them.
Herbert Gonzales Zymla - 2013, Revista Digital de Iconografía Medieval
A partially readable inscription above the fresco says: Nox (?) quae liquescit gloria sublimis mundi.. (The night vanishes: the glory of the world...) a likely reference to the triumph of Death over Life. Apart from its religious significance the fresco is interesting for its depiction of XIIIth century clothes and attires.
(left) Choir Chapel; (right) portraits of saints: Leonard, Sebastian and Pope Sylvester I
The Apse is covered with paintings in fresco, the date of which, as far as the little experience I have of such matters goes, may be the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and the whole of the walls have been similarly adorned, though age and damp have obliterated the greater part. Lear
The apse of the cathedral, one of the most perfect Gothic buildings in the Abruzzi, is covered with frescos of the 15th centy. on the walls and roof of the choir - the history of the Virgin on the walls, the Evangelists and Virtues on the roof. They are by different hands, only one whose name is known, Luca d'Atri.
Murray - A Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy - 1853
The Cathedral retains the largest cycle of frescoes in the whole region, thanks to the limited impact of earthquakes on Atri. Cycles of frescoes decorated many other churches of Abruzzo, but only parts of them can still be seen, e.g. at SS. Giovanni Battista ed Evangelista of Celano where they are very similar to those at Atri. Today the frescoes of the Choir Chapel are attributed to Andrea de Litio, a painter who initially worked with Maestro del Trittico di Beffi and settled at Atri in 1460.
Choir Chapel: scenes from the Life of Mary by Andrea de Litio (ca 1460): (above) Joachim and Anne (the parents of Mary) meet at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem; (below-left) The Visitation; (below-centre) The Nativity; (below-right) The Adoration of the Magi
Not all the scenes of the Life of Mary were based on episodes narrated in one of the Four Gospels, e.g. that of Joachim and Anne. They were devoted to each other, but were deeply unhappy as they were childless, which they took as a sign that they were rejected by God. An angel informed Anne that she will conceive, while at the same time he asked her to meet her husband at the city gate in Jerusalem. On meeting, Anne threw herself into the arms of her husband. This narrative was tolerated by the church and it appears in most cycles of the Life of the Virgin in art.
Overall Andrea de Litio was acquainted with most features of Renaissance painting, but he was still influenced by the International Gothic style which privileged a decorative, fable-like depiction of events. You may wish to compare his frescoes with those of Piero della Francesca who decorated the choir chapel of S. Domenico at Arezzo in the same period.
Vault of the Choir Chapel by Andrea de Litio: The Evangelists and the Doctors of the Church (ca 1480 - clockwise): Jerome and Matthew; John and Augustine; Luke and Ambrose; Mark and Gregory the Great
Unlike the other three Evangelists, St. Luke is not portrayed while writing his Gospel, but while painting a madonna. The tradition that St. Luke painted a portrait of the Virgin Mary developed in the VIIIth century during the Iconoclast Controversy to support the opinion that the worship of sacred images was acceptable. A number of images of the Virgin Mary in Rome are attributed to St. Luke, e.g. at S. Maria del Popolo and at S. Maria del Rosario. Luke is the patron saint of the guild of the Roman painters (and sculptors and architects).
S. Reparata: small wood replica of the Baldaquin of S. Pietro; (right) XVIIIth century altar
A curious Baldacchino of carved-wood is also worthy of notice. Lear
The canopy stood over the main altar. It was relocated to S. Reparata to make easier the view of the frescoes.
Return to page one which covers the town of Atri.
Introductory page to this section
Borgocollefegato and the Cicolano
Chieti - Roman memories
L'Aquila - the Vale
L'Aquila - Historical outline
L'Aquila - S. Maria di Collemaggio
L'Aquila - S. Bernardino
L'Aquila - Other churches
L'Aquila - Other monuments
Leonessa - The Town
Leonessa - The Churches
Luco and Trasacco
S. Benedetto dei Marsi and Pescina
XVIIIth century Sulmona
Sulmona: Easter Day Ceremony (La Madonna che scappa - The Fleeing Madonna)
Appendix - Other excerpts and illustrations from Lear's book covering minor towns and sites