Monday, September 10, 2012

The Private Oratory of Our Lady of Sorrows in an Italian Village

[This article is a guest article by a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. Other details are also being kept private for a variety of understandable and sensible reasons. As such, those of you who may happen to know where this is and whose family it is associated with are respectfully asked to maintain this family's privacy and confidentiality. Thank you. - SRT]

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The photographs included in this piece show a private chapel in a small Italian village. This chapel is quite typical of its sort in the area, where almost every village has one. The local noble families would build a chapel near or in their house but with access from the exterior, for their use and devotion, but also for the use of the local population, especially if the parish church was not near.

The building of a chapel was an act of exemplary piety and devotion, in this case to Our Lady of Sorrows, but it also had a strong social and nobiliary impact. The possession of a chapel was one of the principal elements of the vita more nobilium, as permission by the local bishop was granted only to members of the nobility.

This chapel was built in 1756 by Giulio Maurizio Frattini and Stefano B. The two families had intermarried and the two founders were cousins, and the chapel faces their houses.

It is a building of some architectural pretension, which holds about 70 faithful.

The altar and altar rails are in marble; the altar is of the kind that became fashionable in Piedmont and Lombardy by the second quarter of the XVIII c., replacing the XVII c. gilt wood or frescoed masonry altars. Its style is late baroque, with rococo elements such as the cartouche on the altar front, but with many earlier baroque elements, such as the use of black marble, which was also a foil to the different coloured marble inlays. These altars were made by marble sculptors from Viggiù, near Varese, where fine coloured marble quarries were active since the middle ages. The sculptors had model books with altars, altar rails, door cases, mantel pieces etc. which were shown to patrons for their choice. It is not unusual to find the same designs adapted or reproduced on different altars in the area.

The altar step and balustrade were carved locally in a red marble (marmo o breccia rossa di Gozzano) from a small quarry nearby. The rails were made some years after the altar.

The niche over the altar houses a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows in carved, painted and gilt wood, of particularly high quality of design and execution; the surround of the niche is a rather poor replacement, commissioned in the 1920s by the writer’s great grandfather and replaces an earlier one, while the window and glass is XVIII c. The painted decorations in the chapel were redone in 1952, on the occasion of a family wedding.

Four fine paintings decorate the walls: two scenes from the Passion, the Scourging of Christ (XVII c.) and the Coronation with thorns (a copy after van Dyck), S. Mary Magdalen (XVII c.) and the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the Cross (by a local XVIII c. master, G.B. Cantalupi); besides other six small paintings. The series of paintings show the Saints whose relics are present in the chapel and whose feasts were celebrated.

Almost all the original vestments and liturgical objects have survived since the 1750s., including an XVIII c. altar cloth, edged with lace made to fit the altar.

The vestments have a certain historical interest, as the provenance bears a relationship to the history of the two families. In the area, most member of gentry families emigrated for business reasons in other parts of Italy, such as Rome, Florence, and even Spain. The members of the local gentry would then send back gifts to the churches of their village, often quite splendid ones, such as vestments, reliquaries, silver, paintings, etc.

The earliest vestment is a white flowered chasuble, bearing the silver embroidered initials of the two founders, circa 1756; slightly later is a beautiful yellow watered silk Roman chasuble, dated 1760, with the initials of G.M. Frattini in an elegant baroque cartouche.

Also Roman and of the same date is a green chasuble, with the B. arms, and in pristine condition: green was rarely used!

Another white chasuble of exquisite silver brocaded and flowered lampas is of local cut, whereas a late XVIII c. white chasuble in striped silk lampas is Tuscan.

Also of local make is a curiosity, a chasuble “di tutti i colori” (of all colours), made with in striped material in green, red, and white stripes: this was used on every occasion in which the different liturgical colours were called for. So on red days, the chasuble was red with white and green stripes, on white days it was white with red and green stripes, etc. The actual material was linen and not silk, hot pressed so that a damask pattern was impressed and it looked like silk; the braid was not silver or gold, but just silk. This one was used most of the time (and its very worn condition shows it!) so to save the extremely expensive and valuable other silk vestments. The black chasuble which is recorded in the original inventories must have been worn out by very frequent use, and is replaced by an early XIX c. one of local cut. A violet chasuble of local cut was given in 1927 and has the B. arms on it.

Note that vestments were made with the same materials as ladies and gentlemen's dresses, in fact quite often vestments were made with the valuable materials of elegant garments. Fine fabrics were so costly that it was unthinkable to discard them. Only some damasks were woven specifically for vestments, but never had any religious symbolism in the design. The B. family also has a late XVII – early XVIII c. chasuble in rich Lyon flowered brocade of typical Spanish cut, traditionally believed to be a wedding dress of an ancestress (wedding dresses started to be white only in the XIX c.), evidently commissioned by an ancestor who had been in Barcellona.

The sacristy has a large number of altar cloths and altar linens, some rather fine. It also has surplices of the local, very ample cut, including a mid XIX c. one, very short, completely done in filet without any linen.

The presence of Roman and Tuscan vestments is due to the emigration to Rome and Tuscany of members of the Frattini and B. families. The son of Giulio Maurizio Frattini, Antonio, was an important member of the courts of Clemens XIV and Pius VI. Antonio Frattini was Maestro di Casa Segreto (Master of the Private Household) and Maestro dei Sacri Palazzi Apostolici (Master of the Apostolic Palaces) under Pius VI, a position inherited by his eldest son, which superintended to both the immediate household of the Pope, and the administration of the Papal palaces. Antonio Frattini was also the receiver of the Papal taxes and customs. A close friend of St. Paul of the Cross and instrumental for the birth of the Passionists, Pius VI created both he and his son Palatine Counts and knights of the Golden Spur. His son Mons. Candido Maria, archbishop in partibus of Philippi, was Vicegerent of Rome, and was imprisoned while following Pius VII in exile. Antonio Frattini obtained a great number of indulgences for the chapel from both Popes, in fact far more than the parish church has.

More interesting to American readers is Giuseppe B., donor of the Tuscan chasuble, a wealthy merchant and banker in Pisa, and a friend of the Tuscan aristocrat Filippo Mazzei (1730 + 1816). Mazzei, a friend of Franklin and Jefferson, was greatly involved in the American Revolution and emigrated to Virginia. He convinced Giuseppe B. to commerce with America and to send Tuscan goods, including olive and fruit trees, to America, but at the worst possible moment: the beginning of the Revolutionary War. The result was that G. B.’s ships were seized by the British and he was very nearly ruined. Other members of the B. family were in Rome in the XVIII c.

The two Roman silver reliquaries, with relics of the Holy Cross, the B.V., S. Mary Magdalen and other Saints, and the altar cards all come from Rome, and are in the Roman rococo style; the provenance of the altar cards was confirmed during restoration, when peeling away the superimposed texts the last one was found to be printed in Rome. These altar cards have been copied for the Trinità in Rome by a local wood sculptor.

The set of gilt wood candlesticks and portapalme have been carved by the same sculptor, copying the original ones of which just one or two had survived. The “palme” or bouquets of silk flowers have been redone according to XVIII – XIX c. models.

The feasts of the B.V. and specially that of the “Madonna di Settembre” was celebrated with all the possible splendour by the B. family, with a sung mass with musicians and fireworks before, after, and up to the XIX c. even during Mass, at the Gloria, Elevation, etc.. The bells pealed, the façade of the chapel and of the house were decorated with red damask hangings and torches. A reception was offered to all and sundry in the house and gardens.

This was very typical of the local nobility and the year was punctuated with the feasts and receptions in the different villages, in which every family tried to outdo the others. Nowadays only one family celebrates the feast of their chapel with a reception.

Perhaps the more frequently celebrated Masses were requiem ones. For the principal requiem Mass of the B. family, once a year, a tiny catafalque with coats of arms was erected in the chapel. At the end of the Mass, the head of the family or the eldest member present would stand at the door, and distribute to all present a small sack of salt, tied with black ribbons. This was a ceremonial survival of a very ancient medieval custom, alms giving in memory of the dead and as thanks for prayers for the deceased. Well into the XIX c. this was a very practical form of charity, as salt was expensive for poor families: it was kept in special containers and called “the salt of the dead”, and prayers would be said when used. Also distributed to the local poor were lentils, beans, and grain, sometimes at the door of the deceased’s house. The distribution of salt and lentils was typical of aristocratic funerals and requiem Masses.

Of interest to readers might be that the late Abbé Quoex has celebrated Mass in this chapel many times, when guest of the B. family and while completing his study of the Ritus Vercellensis.

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