In the mid-15th century, Piero della Francesca (1412-1495) painted the fresco known as "Madonna del parto" in the Church of Santa Maria in Silvis, later renamed Santa Maria Momentana. This was demolished in 1785 by the Monterchi community to build a cemetery, and since then, the fresco has remained in a chapel inside the cemetery, currently owned by the Municipality. The chapel was demolished and rebuilt in 1956. After its restoration in 1992, a debate over the location of the fresco began between the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Municipality of Monterchi, and the Diocese of Arezzo that resulted in a civil dispute before the Court of Florence, which was later abandoned following an agreement. According to the agreement, the Municipality was recognized as the owner of the fresco, and the Diocese gave in exchange to the Municipality the Church of San Benedetto in Monterchi, where the fresco was to be relocated after the transformation of the Church into the Oratory of the Madonna del Parto, thus guaranteeing the devotional function of the work. All contingent on the consent of the Ministry and the Holy See. Despite the favorable opinion of the Superintendence, the Ministry instead bound the fresco by fixing its pertinence to the Church of Santa Maria Momentana (no longer extant) for which the work was created and to the adjacent cemetery. The Ministry held that the Municipality's will was moved by the intent to exploit in an economic-commercial direction the painting, marginalizing its conservation and enhancement function. The Council of State, in a ruling on February 17, 2022, proved the Ministry correct: the Madonna del Parto must be placed in the place where it was created, even though the Church within which it was created no longer exists.
The dispute took place in an entirely public sphere: on the one hand, the Municipality of Monterchi, owner of the fresco, wanted to relocate the fresco from its current location (the former middle school in Monterchi where it was transferred after its restoration in 1992) to the Church of San Benedetto located in front of the school; on the other hand, the Ministry, which bound the fresco, recognizing its special cultural interest according to Article 10, paragraph 1 of the Cultural Heritage Code, establishing its pertinence to the original place.
The recent Council of State ruling did not go into the merits of the technical-discretionary assessments underlying the constraint by the Ministry, which escape the administrative judge's review of legitimacy unless they are unreasonable, disproportionate, inadequate, and illogical. In this case, the judge recognized the reasonableness of the Ministry's decision: the devotional connotation binds the fresco to its place of origin from its creation until 1992 when the work was moved to its current location. Thus, even if the Church where the fresco was created no longer exists, the devotional cult of the work with the original site may well justify a decision to relocate it to the same place, even though other locations could perhaps better enhance it from an "economic-commercial" point of view, for example by making it easier for visitors to access.
The ruling also dwells on the fact that the devotional cult related to the place pre-existed the fresco being traceable to a very ancient water cult to which was substituted the devotion to the motherhood of Mary, already witnessed by a pre-existing fourteenth-century work (resurfaced in 1911) over which Piero della Francesca had applied a layer of plaster and created the masterpiece we can admire today. The judgment concludes that "the identity function of the context and the historical memory linked to it" justify the bond of pertinency, "even if the intervening modifications of the places have suppressed the material link of the fresco with the original church."
The conclusion of the Council of State is sharable: it seems fitting that the Madonna del Parto should return to the site where it was conceived and created, even if it is, in hypothesis, less accessible than in other locations. However, no provision of the Code contemplates the possibility of tying a work to a place (or a city), and the Municipality's property right to decide where to place and how best to enhance the fresco has been severely limited.Santa Maria Momentana
Is the ritual aspect of an artwork important when considering its placement? Can this ritual aspect be incorporated into a new placement when the work is moved from its intended location to another space? Although the question of place might be considered negligible today, given the portability of art objects as market-traded goods sold to private collectors and public museums, it is a vitally important issue. It is an issue that extends beyond Western art to all objects that once had or continue to have ritual value and have been moved from their original locations to spaces such as museums, from Benin bronzes to Native American sacred objects.
In the case of Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto, the significance of the work's place of origin needs to be better known and deserves exploration. The location of the painting was itself symbolic: it was located in a small church inside a cemetery, in the place where life and death, womb and coffin, beginning and end, meet. In our times, this painting is admired for its perfect use of perspective, the cold and mathematically precise positioning of the three figures, and the imperturbable and inscrutable gaze of the Madonna. But the importance of the place where the painting was conceived fits perfectly with its theme as an image about conception. We tend to forget that the original site of the painting, Mons Iunonis, was a sacred place that in antiquity was linked to the pagan cults of fertility and birth: Juno, daughter of Saturn, sister, and wife of Jupiter, was the queen of the gods, divine protector of marriage and birth, and tutelary genius of all women.
The ancient theme of fertility runs through the painting itself and its Christian implications, with the Madonna mysteriously pointing, caressing, and inviting the viewer to see her pregnant womb enclosing the birth of Christ while simultaneously, through her knowing gaze, foreshadowing his death. The curtains surrounding her, held open by the two angels, mimic the implicit opening of her dress. These curtains signal a sacred, silent ritual mystery of birth that harkens back to the work's original location. At the same time, the implication of the curtain's closing when the scene is finished prefigures the end of our appearance on the stage of life. The fertility theme is reinforced by the red pomegranates, ancient symbols of abundance and fertility, painted on the curtains, of something closed that opens, full of seeds, like the womb of the Madonna. Present in paintings such as Lorenzo di Credi's Madonna and Child with Pomegranate in the Samuel H. Kress Collection and Botticelli's Madonna of the Pomegranate in the Uffizi Galleries, the pomegranate was considered in the Renaissance to be a symbol of the fullness of Christ's suffering and resurrection.
In the past, rituals were celebrated around this painting, again linked to its location. Women in labor used to make pilgrimages from the village to the Church to visit the painting and ask the Madonna for protection. The pilgrimage itself, the act of walking from the village to the Church, signals the importance of the labor of reaching this remote, isolated, and silent place as part of the act of the viewer's enjoyment of the painting.
It is this special place that inspired Pier Paolo Pasolini to immortalize the painting in his famous film "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (1963-64), as did Valerio Zurlini in his "The First Night of Stillness" (1972) and Tarkovsky in "Nostalghia" (1983), and it is this place that inspired American poet Jorie Graham in her electrifying 1974 poem, "San Sepolcro." Would the painting have elicited the same fertile effect in these creative souls once moved to a museum? Probably not. As author Juliet Miller writes: "In the 1990s, the fresco was remounted in a special museum in the city, and I wonder if it evokes the same intimate atmosphere in its new home now. I have no desire to revisit it, torn as it was from its maternal home-gremel."
It is an indisputable fact that the relocation of Our Lady of Childbirth to the village and a museum generated tourism and economic growth for the locals. But something ritual and sacred about the original site has been lost in this change of location. Returning Our Lady of Childbirth to the place where she was conceived restores more excellent creative and spiritual value to viewers and art lovers who, rest assured, will not hesitate (and will probably even take pleasure) in continuing to make pilgrimages to see her, commune with her and be inspired by her, as they always have.