A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. The Book of Revelation
Last week end I visited the fortified town of Montagnana which is situated near Padua, and close to the provinces of Vicenza and Verona. The town was founded probably during the Roman era but it had its greatest development in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The most important monuments of the town are the walls, the Rocca degli Alberi and the castle of San Zeno. The early medieval fortifications, supposedly strengthened in the tenth century in defense of the raids of the Hungarians, consisted almost exclusively of berms, fences, ditches and barriers thorny plants. Montagnana is mentioned as castrum in a document of 996. Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), who took and burned Montagnana in 1242, provided the town with appropriate fortifications. The mastio, the highest fortified tower of the castle of San Zeno is attributed to him. The walls, which we can see today, constitute one of the most distinguished and best preserved medieval military architecture in Europe. Except the complex of Castel San Zeno and part of walls to the east and west which are older, the most of the walls dates from the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Carrara, lords of Padua, wanted to expand and strengthen what was a vital place in order to secure the border of the State of Padua and counter the expansionist of Verona and the Scala family, which dominated the nearby Legnago. Around the walls ran a wide moat flooded with water from the river Frassino. The fortress, during that time, was impregnable and, in fact, until the advent of cannons (XVI century), was never conquered militarily.
The Duomo of Mantagnana, built between 1431 and 1502, is Gothic with Renaissance additions and it is oriented to the cardinal points, in such a way that at noon the sunlight hit the two balls of white stone on the facade. But it’s inside the Mantagnana Cathedral that we find an unexpected wonder. On the nothern wall inside a niche the Chapel of the Madonna of the Rosary shows froscoes depicting an astronomical sky with constellations.
The entire chapel is decorated with frescoes. The frescoes are the work of an unknown author and seem to date back to the late XV century. Since their artistic value seems rather modest, it’s not the artistic quality to attract our interest rather the subject of painting, especially that particular astrological sky that occupies the entire semi-dome. The first level shows five pairs of angels in half figure among garlands of leaves. Above this belt there is an architectural composition: four painted niches, and one in the middle, carved in stone, which houses the statue of the Madonna, which is flanked by two musician angels. In the other four niches painted, full-length, four saints: a young deacon saint, St. Sebastian, St. Rocco and St. Anthony. Above and in between the niches, there are the symbols of the evangelists: the eagle of St. John and the ox of Saint Luke are placed on either side of the central golden canopy. The symbols of the Evangelists are followed, at the end of the apse, by two Tritons. Above the niches other figures of saints: St. Anthony of Padua, a bishop (perhaps S. Fidenzio), a pope, St. Peter with the keys, St. Paul with the sword and the book, a bearded man with a book and a friar with a strange pendant, finally, a bishop (perhaps S. Zeno). Then looking up in the semi-dome, once occupied by a blue sky, dotted with gold star, we see the figure of the Sun and the Moon, conjuncted as in a solar eclipse and some constellations.
The Sun and the Moon, the Leo and the Virgo
We see here the zodiacal constellations of Leo and Virgo. The three bands are the center, the ecliptic, and the borders of the zodiac belt. The winged Virgo holds in her hand ears of corn where the stars Spica is located. The Sun and the Moon are together in the constellation of Leo, conjuncted as in a partial solar eclipse. Orion
In the left corner we see the constellation of Pegasus and the old constellation of Argo Navis, the Argo ship, subdivided in 1752 by the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille into three different asterisms: Carina, Puppis and Vela. An interpretation of the fresco suggests that the astrological scene was inspired by the words of the Book of Revelation. Since the chapel was originally dedicate to the Annunciation of Mary, as the dove depicted in the niche, where the Virgin statue stands, let us suppose, the Sun could be a symbol of Christ and the Moon a symbol of Mary. Therefore the conjunction could be seen as the mystery of incarnation. Another conjecture is that the fresco can be an actual picture of a astronomical event occured in the late XV century. If we look for a solar eclipse in the constellation of Leo during the Cathedral works we find some possible dates. One of those is the 29th of July 1478.
During the second half of the XV century Galeotto Marzio from Narni lived in Montagnana. Galeotto Marzio was a humanist, philosopher, physician, astrologer, magician and so it’s not very difficult to suppose he was the ispirer of the astrological subject of the fresco: a subject he knew very well.