Manfredino di Alberto's San Michele, a bridge between Liguria and Tuscany in the Middle Ages

The Museo di Sant'Agostino in Genoa holds an important detached fresco by Manfredino d'Alberto, a St. Michael, a fragment of a fresco decoration (only one other piece survives) that helped spread Cimabue's ideas in Liguria.

There is an important piece of Cimabuesque culture enclosed within the walls of the Museum of St. Augustine in Genoa. A detached fresco. The inscription at the base bears the name “Magister Manfredinus”: it is a singular St. Michael painted in 1292 by Manfredino d’Alberto, a painter documented between 1274 and 1293 (or 1305 according to more recent studies), a native of Pistoia and for that reason also known as Manfredino da Pistoia. It is one of the only two surviving pieces of the fresco decoration that Manfredino executed in the Romanesque church of San Michele di Fassolo in Genoa, which fell into ruin as early as the eighteenth century and was finally demolished the following century to make way for the Piazza Principe station (fortunately, however, what could be saved of Manfredino’s frescoes was saved: it was 1849). The other piece that survives is a Supper in the House of Simon, but the cycle was larger and included at least one other Gospel scene, as well as a Battle of the Rebel Angels.

We know little about this artist, but many scholars who have dealt with his production have agreed that he was a painter who had the opportunity to frequent the building site of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and to study carefully the works of Cimabue. Pietro Toesca even thought that Manfredino had collaborated with Cimabue in Umbria. Others, however, think that Manfredino saw Cimabue’s works in Florence. In any case, his Cimabuesque training is certain, as established as early as 1972 by Pier Paolo Donati, who that year signed a pioneering essay on Manfredino d’Alberto. And the San Michele, a signed work, constitutes the basis for any research on this original painter, who in the early 1990s had left his native Pistoia to move to Genoa, precisely to attend to the San Michele frescoes, which could be said to have been completed in May 1292. What pushed him away from Pistoia was probably a shortage of commissions. The artist would later remain in the city: he is attested there also in 1293, and from the documents we can imagine that he was intent on remaining there, since that year he took care to entrust his son Obertino to a master armor-maker, Ton da Firenze, as an apprentice.

Manfredino d'Alberto, San Michele arcangelo (1292; affresco staccato, 87 x 54 cm; Genova, Museo di Sant'Agostino)
Manfredino d’Alberto, Saint Michael the Archangel (1292; detached fresco, 87 x 54 cm; Genoa, Museo di Sant’Agostino)

The image Manfredino rendered on the walls of San Michele is one of the most elegant to be found in Italy in the latter part of the 13th century. The archangel, tall, slender, with a proud and noble bearing, is caught in the act of piercing the devil with his spear: the figure of the antagonist has not survived the nineteenth-century tear; we see only the wing in the lower part of the composition. With his other hand, Saint Michael holds the scales with which he weighs the merits of souls (we see one on the plate as he prays toward the saint) and holds the fate of the universe in balance. He wears a pink tunic with gilded friezes, where precious gems find their place: along the edging we see alveoli that in ancient times housed relief inserts, probably of tablet or other material, which was meant to make these details of the robe more realistic. The draperies are underscored by the chrysographies typical of thirteenth-century Tuscan art: these highly refined golden flashes follow the course of the folds especially where the robe wraps around the archangel’s legs, making his bodily evidence concrete. A flap of the robe flutters on the left: together with the outstretched wings, studied on the real wings of a bird, the detail helps to provide the relative with the illusion of movement.

Manfredino’s Saint Michael is one of the pinnacles of medieval Genoese painting: it testifies to the arrival in Liguria of the innovations that had been elaborated in Tuscany, and it is a testament to the precise desire of Genoese patrons to update local art. But it also shows how Cimabuesque culture took root in Pistoia, thanks precisely to the intermediary of Manfredino, who allowed the renewal to reach the city: the link with the Florentine master, which in the city is substantiated in works such as the decoration of the apse of San Bartolomeo in Pantano, restores Manfredino’s “role as the most important native artist during the second half of the thirteenth century,” Angelo Tartuferi wrote in the catalog of the seminal exhibition Medioevo a Pistoia, the first dedicated to the artistic vicissitudes of the city, which was for centuries an indispensable crossroads of artists, between the 11th and 14th centuries. And again according to Tartuferi, the beautiful view of the city that appears in the Supper in the House of Simon (which is astonishing in its naturalism: one need only look at the figure of Magdalene throwing herself with transport at Christ’s feet, another figure that is palpably affected by the reflections of Cimabue’s art, or that piece, one might say with great hazard, of still life ahead of the letter represented by the crockery and dishes on the table) “constitutes the most important element in keeping open the question of whether Manfredino was part of Cimabue’s team of helpers on the building site of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.” That view has all the characteristics to appear as a vivid reminder of what Manfredino may have seen in Assisi. But it is in general the whole setting of Manfredino’s two passages that is reminiscent of the Assisi works: “it does not require many arguments nor too many comparisons,” Donati wrote, “to establish that the Genoese paintings are close to the frescoes of the Assisi transept and that they punctually refer to those, from the architecture in the background, which of the cities painted in the sails forget only the roof embrici, to the faces constructed by opposing to the ancient schemes a will to find in the new signs a sincere meaning.” Of Cimabue d’Assisi, Manfredino takes up the colors alongside, although in the St. Michael of the Museum of St. Augustine the judgment is vitiated by the degradation that the fresco has undergone: thus, exactly as in the Assisi frescoes, here too the skin of the archangel appears to us greenish, due to the effects of oxidation.

Manfredino d’Alberto was thus a bridge between Tuscany and Liguria, and his contribution was decisive for the renewal of the arts in and around Genoa. Proof of this is also, Clario Di Fabio, author of one of the most in-depth studies of Manfredino’s Genoese works, has rightly pointed out, the formation “of that protagonist who was the so-called Maestro di Santa Maria di Castello,” the author of notable works in the first half of the fourteenth century, whose roots are rooted in the experiences of the painter from Pistoia. A further symbol of a time when artists traveled frequently, exchanged ideas, and spread models.