The Oratory of the Ascension in Pergola: a little-known Renaissance

Detail of the frescoes of the Oratory of the Ascension in Palazzolo.

Pergola, a small town in the Pesaro and Urbino province on the border with the province of Ancona, is famous for the Bronzes of Pergola, an equestrian statuary group made up of two horsemen, two horses and two standing female figures. It is the only surviving gilded bronze sculpture group of archaeological provenance dating from Roman times.

In this Marche town, however, there is another noteworthy place to attract the discerning visitor: the Oratory of the Ascension in Palazzolo, a 15th-century masterpiece by Lorenzo d’Alessandro da San Severino Marche. The long-standing fame of this small chapel located on the road leading to Sassoferrato derives from the fact that it was attributed, for centuries, to the hand of Raphael, until Lionello Venturi, in 1915, in his book A traverso le Marche (Through the Marche), ascribed it to the painter from San Severino. In the unparalleled dynamism of the great Ascension scene, one can appreciate affinities with the innovations of the Tuscan and Umbrian Renaissance and echoes of Urbino and Venice, along with refined late-Gothic touches, especially evident in the frescoes on the right wall, with the Trinity and the Madonna and Child attributed to the Master of Palazzolo. All these allusions, indeed, make the small chapel a showpiece of the artistic culture of inland Marche around the 1480s. The skills and perspectives of Lorenzo d’Alessandro, a sensitive and multifaceted artist who was also a connoisseur of music and an accomplished lute player, reveal here the unsuspected riches concealed in the recesses of Italian art history, a world away from the great masters and the big cities.

The Oratory of the Ascension in Palazzolo with frescoes by Lorenzo d’Alessandro da San Severino Marche. Images: FAI Fondo Ambiente Italiano – I luoghi del cuore.

The Ascension, which dominates the space of the Oratory with its dynamic grandeur, depicts the final event of Christ’s earthly life among the apostles and the Virgin Mary. At the sides two young blond-haired saints are depicted in the 15th-century robes of elegant pages, extolling the Community: on the left is St Secundus, Protector of Pergola holding a model of the town, on the right, St Sebastian with an arrow and dagger, defending against calamity and tragic events. On the ribs of the vaulted ceiling were painted the four evangelists, two of whom are still visible, also by Lorenzo d’Alessandro.

The bare feet of the apostles are especially striking. They are at eye level, almost like the famous feet of the pilgrims in Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto, kneeling as the wayfarers who once passed along the road between Pergola and Sassoferrato must have done. There used to be a saying relating to this splendid example of painted anatomy, associated with the poorest of peasants who, once winter had passed, went barefoot “like the Saints in Palazzolo”. A reminder that we should celebrate the roots of our past, without prejudices or preconceptions.

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FrescosMarcheReligious architectureRenaissance