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Delight: in a tiny perfect city in an unfashionable part of Italy, there is a treasure that transports us back to the early Renaissance, an unattainable world, yet inhabited by people we know.

Atri is a perfect Italian hill town. You climb up to it along a snaking road from the valley to a picturesque platform hovering over the Adriatic, ten kilometres away. But it is completely isolated from the ruthless, repetitive, touristic exploitation of the coast. The Abruzzo is almost due east of Rome, and generally thought to be dully exploited, or wild and uncivilized. Yet even in Classical times, the little city was there. The main street, the Corso, follows the Roman Cardo. Over the centuries, it has been added to and changed, but the scale remained -- until our own age, which has sadly seen a fungal cascade of suburbs towards the sea. The town square remains a distillation of ideal Italian life, with cafes, restaurants and a tiny opera house, and on the other side, the little Gothic cathedral with its tough brick walls regularly patterned by putlog holes that are now noisy and white-bearded nesting boxes for pigeons. The marble that was supposed to form the front was always too expensive (and sometimes too unfashionable) to be added.

But the rough walls (and curious opening hours) contain a most unexpected and precious marvel. In the early Renaissance, the diocese asked Andrea Delitio to paint the Life of the Virgin over the choir. Even now, it is awe-inspiring and extremely moving, but to the late fifteenth century largely illiterate congregation, it must have seemed miraculous -- the Gospels brought to life, with they themselves as actors in the stories. Little-known Delitio has been written down by art historians as a late Gothic provincial master. Yet his people are real individuals who look at us over six hundred years with every nuance of character, from grace and dignity to stupidity and concentrated evil. The proto-Renaissance spaces in which they are portrayed extend the Gothic volumes of the cathedral into a magic world that is completely unattainable -- though it has a modern counterpart in the square outside.
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Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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