HISTORY – Madonna del Parto
The Madonna del Parto (Pregnant Madonna) and Monterchi share one history which, according to tradition, started in 1459 when Piero della Francesca came back to Monterchi to pay homage to his mother, a native of the small village.
We still do not know whom Piero had received the order of the fresco from, but according to recent studies, it can be dated back to between 1450 and 1465. It was painted in the chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana (Saint Mary of Momentana), also called Santa Maria in Silvis (Saint Mary in the Woods), on the hillside of Montione (which comes from Latin Mons Iunonis, Juno’s Hill), a site known since ancient times, as it was linked to the pagan cults of fertility.
Piero painted the Madonna del Parto on the wall opposite the entrance, on a smaller fresco dating back to the 14th century, made by an unknown local painter. It showed a Madonna with Child, recently named The Breast-Feeding Madonna, which was discovered in 1911 by the restorer Domenico Fiscali when the Royal Cultural Heritage department ordered the Madonna del Parto to be moved from the wall in order to be restored and preserved.
In 1785 the municipality of Monterchi decided to build the new cemetery at the Momentana site, after being granted Bishop Costaguti’s consent: he gave them everything inside the chapel, provided that they could afford maintenance costs and the building of a new altar.
Then two thirds of the church length were demolished, while the rest was adapted to give it the shape of a chapel.
The chapel in Monterchi’s cemetery was seriously damaged by two terrible earthquakes, in 1789 and on 26th April 1917, which was particularly destructive. Nevertheless the Madonna del Parto has been able to remain intact into this new millennium. After the second earthquake the fresco was detached and temporarily entrusted to the Marianis’ family’s keeping.
In 1919 it was temporarily moved to the Sansepolcro Picture Gallery, but in 1922 it was taken back to Monterchi’s cemetery chapel.
In the Spring of 1944, the Government decided to gather the main Italian masterpieces in safe places in order to preserve them from bomb attacks and German loot. The Madonna del Parto was one of them. According to that plan, two important Florentine scholars, Mario Salmi and Ugo Procacci, were sent to Monterchi to supervise the place where the fresco was to be taken, but they were mistaken for two Germans disguised as Italian professors. As a consequence, a group of women, believing in their duty to defend the Madonna, started to sound the church bells in order to call a big and menacing crowd of peasants and farmers armed with clubs and hoes. The incident was referred to by Pietro Calamandrei in an article published in the magazine “Il Ponte” (The Bridge).
In order to preserve the fresco from any possible damage caused by the war, the Podestà (Major) of Monterchi made an alcove where it was to be enclosed by a brick wall.
In 1950 the restorer Dino Dini was put in charge of a first conservative restoration.
Between 1955 and 1956 the chapel’s original East-West orientation was changed to face North-South, thanks to some important reconstruction works, as the closing of the old 18th-century entrance and the opening of a new one on the southern side.
As a consequence, the Madonna del Parto was moved from the East wall onto the North one. Hence the remains of the old church were destroyed and the fresco was set in a different position from the one it used to have, which means it is far from the original light source where Piero della Francesca had painted the fresco.
At the beginning of the 1990s, on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of Piero della Francesca’s death, the expert restorer Guido Botticelli was put in charge of a new necessary conservative restoration by the Cultural Heritage department in Arezzo.