The church of San Michele (St. Michael), also known as St. Michelone, is a marvellous example of adaptation of a Romanesque building to the environment, standing in the heart of the hilly district of Cambianica: the basement level façade has no openings and the only portal is located on the north side.
The church features a noticeable trapezoidal floor plan in order to adapt to the available space, and stands at the crossing between the ancient routes that connected the lake to the hilly small villages of Vigolo and Parzanica. It was certainly built in various phases: the façade and west elevation refer to a first building with not properly aligned broken stone walls bound by abundant strong mortar; the need to increase the space for celebrants, potential instability issues or the intention to adapt the building to new Romanesque architectural designs led to the reconstruction of the apse in the mid 13th Century. Here, the rows of rough hewn and square ashlars are laid in perfect order; the three pillar strips that intersperse the conch appear perfectly bound by solid blocks to the wall and prominent arch crown supported by massive corbels. The small bell tower which gave access to the church and rectory and the portal on the north side also date back to this same phase. The north side was also restructured quite significantly in later years. The apse was covered by a rubble infill roof, according to the widespread practice in the Alpine and Pre-alpine area, which can still be observed in Bergamo, for example in the abbey of Vallalta or churches of Val Calepio (San Giorgio (St. George) in Credaro, San Giovanni (St. John) in Cividino, Sant’Alessandro (St. Alexander) in Villongo, etc.). The lowered arch windows of the façade are identical to those present in the Iseo Arsenal Palace, dating back therefore to the late 13th Century- mid 14th Century; the window on the north wall was finally opened in the 16th Century. Originally, the nave was probably covered by a gable roof as indicated by the difference in the right upper façade wall, lacking the ancient plaster; the roof was perhaps modified when adapting the buildings to the south and the consequent destruction of the bell tower. In addition to its elegant architectural layout, the church is famous for its indoor and outdoor paintings realised in a single session around 1366, the date indicated on the code shown by the Christ Pantocrator depicted at the centre of the apse.
On the outside, St. Michael weighing souls is visible above the portal, inside an articulate panel frame, among the works of the Our Lady of the Milk and St. Christopher; the fragmented image of St. George defeating the dragon and freeing the princess can be seen on the right. Inside, the apsidal conch houses the Christ Pantocrator surrounded by the tetramorph; in the lancet windows, again inside a single frame, you can see the Crucifixion in the centre, St. Lucy and the Madonna and Child on the left, while the adornment on the right was destroyed when the niches for holy oils were built.
The identity of St. Michael’s wings on the portal and the St. Luke and St. Mark symbols in the apse allow us to attribute the decoration work to the same artist: the so called Maestro di Cambianica, recently identified as Johannes de Volpino from a notary deed of 1389, featuring a painter registered in this name. The work of the Maestro artist from Cambianica falls within a widespread phenomenon consisting in the popular diffusion and promotion of new Giotto techniques: this style is characterised by a comprehensible and immediate language, with features reduced to simple strokes of the brush, bright colours and accentuated lines, fairly distant from the more advanced expressions of the Lombard artistic culture in the 60s-80s of the 14th Century; it then went on to be vastly diffused in a large area between Trentino, Val Camonica (Camonica valley) and the plain between rivers Oglio and Adige.
For more information:
San Michele in Cambianica: un gioiello romanico, Sarnico (Bg) 2005.
Il Romanico nel Bergamasco a cura dell’Antenna Europea del Romanico (2. Valle Calepio, 4. Val Cavallina e Dintorni), Almenno S.B. (Bg), s.d.
LORENZI M., PELLEGRINI A., Sulle tracce del romanico in provincia di Bergamo tra storia, architettura e paesaggio, Bergamo 2003.
Itinerari dell’anno mille. Chiese romaniche nel Bergamasco, a cura di P. Capellini, G. M. Labaa, Bergamo 2000, pp. 153-158.
FORESTI G., San Michele di Cambianica, un gioiello romanico, in Johannes de Volpino. Un caso nel Trecento pittorico nel solco dell’Oglio e dell’Adige, a cura di G. Maculotti, A. Zaina, Sarezzo (Bs) 2012, pp. 51-58.