Ottaviano Nelli the rough

Antonio Carnevale

Here is an introduction to Ottaviano Nelli, the late Gothic painter from Gubbio who was famous for his rough mix of sacred and vulgar

Ottaviano Nelli was arguably the most important artist active in Gubbio and surroundings at the turn of the 14th century. He was born around 1370 and was perhaps a descendant of the painter Mello da Gubbio, although conclusive evidence of this lineage is yet to be found. Art historians have deduced the possible year of his birth from his political activity. In 1400, Nelli was a consul of the St. Pietro district of Gubbio, a position reserved only to people aged over 30. In that period, Nelli also worked in Perugia, where together with two colleagues he painted the coat of arms of the new lord of the city, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, a job reserved to the relevant.

His Style

The exhibition Oro e colore nel cuore dell’Appennino. Ottaviano Nelli e il ‘400 a Gubbio, with its important catalog (Silvana Editoriale, 2021, edited by Andrea De Marchi and Maria Rita Silvestrelli), stems from centuries of research, starting with 18th century scholars such as Rinaldo Reposati, Annibale Mariotti and Sebastiano Ranghiasci, but also 19th century historians such as Luigi Bonfatti and Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle, and the more contemporary Adolfo Venturi, Roberto Longhi, Renato Roli and Francesco Santi. Lastly, the scholarly work of Ettore Sannipoli, Fabrizio Cece and Francesco Mariucci represents the most recent art historical effort into Nelli’s universe.

Madonna del Belvedere - Nelli
Ottaviano di Martino Nelli (Gubbio, ca 1370 – 1448-49), “Madonna del Belvedere”, 1403, fresco, 188 x 250 cm, Church of Santa Maria Nuova, Gubbio, Italy

Critics especially appreciate Ottaviano Nelli’s ability to mix levels and registers, combining cultured themes with vernacular ones in the same pictures; from the finest Madonnas to the most grotesque figures, from heavenly themes to the most vernacular. In his most important work, the Madonna del Belvedere, frescoed by Nelli for the church of Santa Maria Nuova in Gubbio in 1403, the Virgin has an ethereal purity, while vulgar, licentious scenes adorne the twisted columns adorning the sacred image. It is as though Nelli wanted to bring heavenly things down to earth, making them more accessible to mortal eyes with blunt expressiveness. Precisely this preference of his made him popular within and without his workshop.

Madonna del Belvedere dettaglio - Nelli
Ottaviano di Martino Nelli (Gubbio, ca 1370 – 1448-49), “Madonna del Belvedere” (detail), 1403, fresco, 188 x 250 cm, Church of Santa Maria Nuova, Gubbio, Italy

His context and later reception

Ottaviano Nelli’s career brought him to work in the cities of Gubbio, Fano, Perugia. Città di Castello, Foligno, Urbino, Pietralunga, Costacciaro, Rimini. Protected from the Montefeltro family, although he was never named a court painter, Nelli was commissioned by other important aristocrats too: the Trincis from Foligno and Malatestas from Fano. Merchants and notaries also turned to his services, as well as different clerical orders. Although his Polittico of Pietralunga, a painting on wood now conserved at the National Gallery of Umbria, might be the best culprit to understand his style, Nelli was mostly recognised as a fresco painter. His artistic talent emerged in his frescoes, whose importance is not unlike that of masters from his area like Salimbeni and Gentile da Fabriano.

Ottaviano Nelli, Polyptych of Pietralunga, 1403, Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia.

However, Nelli was forgotten for centuries. He came back to art historical life only in the 19th century as part of the rediscovery of the so-called primitives. Back then, Adolfo Venturi praised his painting as “coarse, shapeless, slovenly, sometimes barbaric.” Others noted his “vulgarity,” his “rustic and peasant substance.” Later, Roberto Longhi compared Nelli’s vernacular themes to the best Bolognese painters and miniaturists of the 14th century, but he also spoke of Nelli’s “easy and colorful narration, of a naturalistic taste that is all too hasty and asymptomatic.” He seems to be above all an artist with a wide range of interests, the holder of an expressive strength, which could even make his pictures contrasted and disharmonious as in the Adoration of the Magi of the Franciscan polyptych now at the Worcester Art Museum (Massachusetts). The invention of the camels coming out of the rocky ravines is straightforward and amusing, like the sheep on their left, which look like plastic figurines in a cheap nativity scene.

Ottaviano Nelli according to Andrea De Marchi

A few of Ottaviano Nelli’s works are now conserved in museums, both in Italy and abroad. The so called Polittico francescano is spread between the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon, the Vatican Museums, the Fondazione Roberto Longhi in Florence and the Worcester Art Museum. However, the lands where Ottaviano Nelli operated during his life still hosts many of his works, precisely in the locations for which they were conceived – for example, the church of Santa Maria Nuova in Gubbio, besides the famous Madonna del Belvedere.

Nelli - Crocifissione
Ottaviano di Martino Nelli (Gubbio, ca 1370 – 1448-49), “Crucifixion”, fresco, Church of Santa Maria Nuova, Gubbio, Italy

This work, writes De Marchi in a florilegium of adjectives, metaphors and similes, “surprises us for the tragic and solemn register with which the mourning is sung, with high and vibrated notes as in the procession eugubina of the Holy Friday, to the gloomy tolling of the battistrangole. The Virgin, dressed in purple, extends both arms and calls us with her eyes. The left hand is an exercise of literal neo-Giottism, with the fingers offset and foreshortened that assay the space and emerge in the light with fingertips. John’s hands crisscross heartbreakingly with unprecedented vigor. What kind of unexpected Nelli is this? And yet, together with the Madonna of the Belvedere and the Madonna of the Piaggiola, this Calvary is perhaps one of his absolute summits, albeit misunderstood.”

“The milky flesh is delicate and kneaded,” De Marchi continues, “the features are gentle, the forehead wrinkled as in St. John the Evangelist and St. Anthony the Abbot of the Madonna del Belvedere. The veil under the maphorion ripples nervously, betraying a similar linear capriccio, disciplined however by the superior desire to concentrate the drama. The folds of the cloths fall wide and serious and then suddenly they stretch in the air, like cleavers, to accompany the powerful rhetoric of the gestures, which is no longer the simply emotionally bare of the Umbrian Calvaries of the 14th century, but it has treasured the neo-Giottism and the surface naturalism of the painting from Veneto and Lombardy. The olivastre flesh of the dead Christ reminds of those from the Lombardy oratories of the late Trecento (…).”

Ottaviano di Martino Nelli (Gubbio, ca 1370 – 1448-49), frescos, church of Fraternita dei Laici in Gubbio, Gubbio, Italy

Maturity: The Stories of the Virgin and Augustine in Gubbio

Like all great artists, Ottaviano Nelli was able to update his aesthetic throughout his life. He evolved, moving consciously from one stylistic register to another. In the church of San Francesco and its convent – so large as to be nicknamed “one hundred cells” – Nelli frescoed the left apse of the church with the Stories of the Virgin, originally divided into 17 scenes. The cycle came back to light only in 1940, after a restoration campaign. In this cycle, according to De Marchi, Nelli “is no longer the one of the barrel vaults of the Apennine oratories, lined with colorful tabelloni, mixing iconic and narrative like in the Piaggiola at Fossato di Vico. Nor is he the creator of spectacular and sumptuous devotional panels at the service of emerging characters, like in his San Domenico and Santa Maria Nuova, or the exquisite author of intimate and precious anconettes. With the Stories of the Virgin, Nelli becomes the king of rhetoricians, an extrovert and a bit talkative affabulatore.”

Moreover, the importance of the vast complex of frescoes in the church of Sant’Agostino in Gubbio is comparable to that by Benozzo Gozzoli in San Gimignano. Its iconographic program is powerfully rich. The subjects are taken from Augustine’s Confessions, from Possidio’s Vita Sancti Aurelii Augustini and from two fourteenth-century texts, the Trattato sull’origine e sviluppo dei frati eremiti by Enrico di Friemar and the Liber Vitasfratrum by Giordano di Sassonia (De Marchi). What catches the eye of the contemporary observer here are the portraits – or crypto-portraits, as some have defined them. The artist recounts, step by step, the life of Augustine, from his childhood, to his conversion, to his public life, up to his death and the funeral. Nelli’s skill for rendering faces reach their peak in the depiction of the mourner’s faces, portraying the physiognomies of the most prominent of his contemporaries, but also in giving them psychological definition.

Chiesa di Sant'Agostino - Nelli
Ottaviano di Martino Nelli (Gubbio, ca 1370 – 1448-49), “Stories of Sant’Agostino”, fresco, church of Sant’Agostino in Gubbio, Gubbio, Italy

Santa Maria della Piaggiola

There is a small oratory in the village of Fossato di Vico called Santa Maria della Piaggiola. It hides artworks rich in stories and symbols. They are some of Ottaviano Nelli’s masterpieces. The central figure is Christ, who majestically shows an open book inscribed in gold. His figure is densely carnal yet combined with a sacred aura, which reminds of Lombard and Venetian paintings, such as the Christ in the Baptistery of Padua painted by Giusto de ‘Menabuoi. In Fossato di Vico, the Christ and Crucifixion are the greatest parts of Nelli’s frescoes, although unfortunately the second one is partially destroyed. 

Ottaviano di Martino Nelli (Gubbio, ca 1370 – 1448-49), frescos, church of San Secondo in Gubbio, Gubbio, Italy

These and several other works have come back to attention thanks to new investigations and restorations. Others are waiting to be rediscovered and returned to splendor, such as the paintings in the church of San Domenico in Foligno. Thus, in recent years, critics have offered more than one occasion to rediscover this artist. Ottaviano Nelli has emerged not only as an acute chronicler of his own time precisely thanks to the roughness that some have disliked, but also as an authoritative interpreter of European Gothic in Italy (the adjective “international” is now anachronistic).

November 30, 2021