An extraordinary surprise amidst the Lombardy moors: Castelseprio

Monastic complex of Torba

The Lombard Pre-Alps conceal some as yet little-known gems. I am referring, for example, to the Lombard complex of Torba and Castelseprio. On the slopes of a small hill covered by dense vegetation, just a few kilometers from Varese, stands the monastic complex of Torba – today managed by the FAI – which features a tower with frescoes from the Longobard era. A path, half-hidden by the vegetation, connects the monastery with the hilltop where the foundations of a fortified town, also dating from the Longobard era, were discovered.

In the small church nearby, Santa Maria Foris Portas, there is another surprise: in 1944, a cycle of wall paintings dating from before the year 1000 was discovered beneath a later pictorial decoration.

Santa Maria Foris Portas, Castelseprio

Since then, the frescoes have not ceased to provoke questions and discussion, not only regarding the identity of the author – still completely unknown – but also about the date, oscillating between the 6th and the 10th centuries. However, there is one thing that all critics agree on: this is a cycle of the highest quality, executed with a freshness and spontaneity that leaves one astounded. The symbols and stylizations of Byzantine painting are still completely absent from the walls of Castelseprio. The anonymous master paints in a fast, cursive style, with rapid brushstrokes that sketch out the figures without ever using outlines. The figures move lightly and quickly, and the story, taken from the apocryphal gospels, flows rapidly, not without humorous details. The extraordinary quality of this artist is unparalleled in early medieval painting, which is why he was thought to have been an artist still steeped in classical culture.

Joseph’s dream, Santa Maria Foris Portas, Castelseprio

Yes, because the references that come to mind are the frescoes of Pompeii or the Fayum plates, works executed many centuries earlier which our painter certainly could not have known. Yet there must be a thread linking this great artist to ancient painting.

Whoever succeeds in unraveling it will have solved one of the most complicated puzzles in the history of art. For the moment, we are content to admire this cycle of mural paintings, a treasure hidden amidst the Lombardy moors, as close as it is still mysterious.