San Daniele del Friuli and the Frescoes of Pellegrino at Sant' Antonio Abate

Birgit Stegbauer


San Daniele del Friuli is a small picturesque town on a hill in the western moraine region of the river Tagliamento. It is famous for its raw ham - the San Daniele Prosciutto. Let this prosciutto melt on your tongue with a glass of wine from Friuli and let your eyes marvel at the frescoes of Pellegrino in the church Sant' Antonio Abate which has the best Renaissance frescoes Friuli can offer.


The church belonged to the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony, a lay congregation, that built up a network of churches with affiliated hospitals. These were meant to give medical as well as spiritual assistance to travelers and those in need throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. San Daniele's Sant' Antonio Abate church was first mentioned in 1308, but was so badly damaged by the 1348 earthquake that its demolition was considered. Finally, the church was restored as a simple hall-church with an open roof truss.


The church is situated unimposingly in a side street of the historical center of San Daniele. It does not stand out in proportion or position from the row of buildings that surround it, except for its exquisite choice of material. Light-coloured stone from Istria, was carved most elegantly: a stepped columned doorway with a tympanum relief with the figures of St. Anthony, St. John the Baptist and St. Anthony of Padua is surmounted by God the Father plus a rose window with the Virgin and Child. Work on the façade was completed in 1370.


Frescoes, done in the second half of the 14th century, embellished the interior of this house of God. However, they didn't meet the approval of the congregation, which in 1497 commissioned Martino da Udine, also called Pellegrino, with new frescoes, to be painted over the existing ones. Pellegrino (1467-1547), who trained as a painter at Udine, had by then already succeeded in making his name as a painter in the wider Udine area. In addition, he had family ties to San Daniele where his wife came from and an uncle was a priest. It all might have all added up to his recommendation for this commission.


Pellegrino complied with the task in several stages, differing so much in style that only the skilled eye may be able to distinguish them and witness the stylistic evolution of Pellegrino within a single art complex. In 1497 he decorated the apse with a fulminant crucifixion, surmounted in the vaults by personifications of God the Father and the four Evangelists. Given their richness in detail, these frescoes almost appear reminiscent of the late Gothic style.


In 1513-1514 he extended the imagery with church fathers and prophets illustrated in the vaults of the presbytery and on the rest of the right wall of the presbytery he depicted a miracle: the legend of St. Anthony and the resurrection of the drowned infant. Pellegrino, who by then had just returned from several years in service at the court of the Este family at Ferrara, is here much more reduced and severe in his style; he has learnt to adopt the classical ideals of the High Renaissance.


The frescoes painted in 1522, in contrast, are influenced by the style of the "Sfumato". At that time, Pellegrino framed the crucifixion to the left with the feet-washing of Jesus and with temptations of St. Anthony in the steady vaults above. He adorned the right side of the crucifixion with a descent into hell. Furthermore, he decorated the wall of the triumphal arc with scenes from the childhood of Jesus, plus with saints and angels, including parts of the walls of the nave.


Parts of the older frescoes that were not painted over by Pellegrino are preserved on the left wall of the nave. Unfortunately all frescoes suffered severe damage during the earthquake of 1976, obvious in the numerous voids.


The drive from Villach to San Daniele del Friuli takes about an hour.

Former Church of Sant' Antonio Abate, Via Garibaldi, 33038 San Daniele del Friuli (UD)

Details regarding the Prosciutto Festival and further places of interest at San Daniele (in German and Italian) are available here.




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