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The 50 reliefs of the lower basin


The lower basin is composed of 50 individual marble reliefs set in 25 field plains. Each field, containing two relief panels, is separated from the next by a group of three-in-one serpentine columns. The two panels of each field are in turn divided by a single column (see close-up). Thus each field plain constitutes a diptych. The viewing of the diptychs should begin on the side of Palazzo vescovile (see Orientation photo) with the relief portraying the original sin and the expulsion from Earthly Paradise, and proceed counterclockwise.

Although the Lower Basin should be considered as one unit, it is obviously composed of three parts that take place in time after the Creation of man: the transgression of our first parents and their expulsion from Eden (Diptych 1), the manual labor performed by the farmer during each month of the year (Diptychs 8-19), and the intellectual labor under the tutorial guidance of the seven Liberal Arts and Philosophy (Diptychs 21-24) as a consequence of the Fall. A consideration about the whole Lower Basin sculptural program can be formulated as follows. In 1244, 32 years before the construction of Perugia Fontana Maggiore, Vincent of Beauvais (c.1190-1264) completed his great encyclopedia called Speculum maius which became well known and was extremely influential in its own day. In this encyclopedia Vincent wrote something equivalent to:

Manual labor delivers man from the necessities to which since the Fall his body is subject, while Instruction delivers him from the ignorance which has weighed down his soul.
(Speculum doctrinale, I, ix).

So both the Labors of the Months and the Labor of Learning relate directly to the original Sin and the consequential expulsion from Eden. This is what gives a unity to the Lower Basin, and this was what Fra' Bevignate of Cingoli had in mind when he conceived its sculptural theme.

(Click on the image to see a larger view)

     Diptych 1- Adam and Eve
In the first relief we see Adam and Eve with the Serpent and the giving of the forbidden fruit to Adam.

The second relief portrays the scene of the Expulsion from Earthly Paradise, which also implies God's punishment—"to work the ground from which he [Adam] had been taken" (Genesis 3, 23)

The following six diptychs are inspired by political and moral history.

     Diptych 2- Samson / Delilah
Samson and the Lion, the nazir liberator of Israel from the Philistines. Here Samson shows his powerful strength by overcoming that of a lion.

Samson fell in love with Delilah who was a Philistine, and this was his fall. She betrayed him, and when he slept with his head in Delilah's lap (as shown here) she had his hair shaven off. And with his hair also his superhuman strength was gone...

Diptych 3- Lion (grown / cub)    
The lion, sitting peacefully, seems to look at the Man beating the cub.The writing on top says A grown lion will obey you if you beat it as a cub. A moral maxim, perhaps, also of political importance.

     Diptych 4- David / Goliah
Here David is in the act of throwing a stone with his sling against Goliah who falls to the ground.

Diptych 5- Romulus / Remus    
Romulus and Remus are portrayed in this diptych with hunting falcons awaiting for a sign of augur where Rome should be founded

     Diptych 6- SheWolf / Rhea Silvia
According to legend the
SheWolf nursed the twins, Romulus and Remus,
after the presumed mother,Rhea Silvia, was condemned
to die and the children thrown into the Tibe

Diptych 7- Wolf-Crane / Wolf-Lamb   
The Wolf and the Crane.One of Aesop's fables. The wolf allows the crane to take a bone out of his mouth. But he tells her to watch out because next time they meet he will devour her.
The Wolf and the Lamb. Another Aesop's fable. The script here says When the wolf ate the lamb without cause.
The political meaning is evident in both sides, and it was relevant then as it is now

The Labors of the Months.

The following twelve diptychs represent the months of the year. Each portrays in a very realistic way the typical work, or pleasure, for that particular period. Althouh each of the 12 diptychs portrays, on the left, the "master" and, on the right either his "wife" (uxor) or his "partner farmer" (socius), a basic schema of the "Labors of the Months" can be outlined as follows: January seats around the fire; February goes fishing; March prunes a vine; April has a flower in his hand; May rides a horse with a flower in his hand; June reaps the wheat and July threshes it; August picks fruits from a tree; September stamps grapes in a vat and October pours wine into a cask; November ploughs the fields, December quarters a pig. The above outline exemplifies the standard works that the farmer does during the months of the year; and it reflects quite well the Fontana Maggiore reliefs of the months. It should be added that exactly the same thematic outline is valid also for the representation of the "Labors of the Months" elsewhere, and in particular for those in the cathedrals of Lucca and of Pisa (see note below). In the Fontana Maggiore of Perugia, the zodiacal sign of each month is portrayed in the left panel, normally either on its right or its left corner.

It is interesting to note that the representation of the months can be found already in Roman tessellated decorations and in Early Christian calendars. In the East, for instance, we find a mosaic floor in the Thebes Archaeological Museum that bears allegories of the months of the year (see detail) and that goes back to the second half of the 6th century. In the West it is said that the first known manuscript illustrating the iconography of the "Labors of the Months" is Beda's De rerum natura, dated 818 and preserved in Munich. The theme of the labors of the months is present in France, at Amiens (see detail), Autun, Chartres (see detail) and Vézelay. In Italy it becomes a codified topic in art during the 11th and 12th centuries. Just to mention central and northern Italy, we find this theme in the cathedrals of Lucca, Pisa, Genoa and Ferrara (now restored and kept in its museum: see detail), as well as in Santa Maria ad Cryptas (near Fossa, a village just some 4 miles from L'Aquila), in the Oratorio of San Pellegrino in Bominaco (about 15 miles from L'Aquila: see detail), in Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo (see detail), in the Baptistery of Parma (see detail) and in San Zeno at Verona (see detail), and elsewhere.

The topic success, at least in the beginning, was probably in part due to the basic symbolic meaning of the representation—work as a consequence of the original sin and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Earthly Paradise.(See Diptych 1). Three months of work during the year are necessary to accomplish the production of must (pruning the vines in March, stamping the grapes in September, pouring the must into vats in October), and likewise to bring about the production of grain (ploughing the fields and sowing the seeds in November, reaping the wheat in June, threshing, hulling and storing the wheat in July). Now, since to produce bread and wine takes so many months of the year, it has been suggested that the Labors of the Months allude to the mystery of the Eucharist. Thus, according to this view, the fruits of the annual labor, being concentrated on bread and on wine, would be an allegory of the body and the blood of Christ. But it must be remembered that the portrayal of the labor of of each month is based on concrete agricultural realities, with the final purpose of producing the necessities for the sustenance of the human being. In addition, the zodiac signs paired with farming labor represent the cycles of the agricultural and celestial year. Therefore these images can be seen to symbolize man's work for the need of his body, as set in the ineluctability of time. Thus in entering the churches where these Labors of the Months are displayed, or in standing on the square of Fontana Maggiore in Perugia, the onlooker saw the progress of seasons, the celestial influences, and the endless cycle of planting, harvesting, and the winter survival that marked the course of Everyman's life. This is perhaps why, in January, at the beginning of the new cycle the farmer and his wife rejoice and feast, in front of the fireplace. (See Diptych 6 - January).



     Diptych 8- January
The diptych here is really null in the sense that the fireplace physically serves to unite the two scenes into one. Husband and wife are warming in front of the fire and are feasting.
Aquarius is sculpted on the top right corner of the first panel

Diptych 9- February    
February. Not being possible to work in the fields during the month of February, the farmer dedicates his activity to fishing.
On the right panel his socius, or associate, is in the act of taking home or somewhere else the basket full of fish.
The sign of Pisces is on the top right corner

     Diptych 10- March
March. During this month, the farmer begins his work in the fields. In the left panel the barerfoot farmer tries to remove a thorn from his left foot. On the right his socius prunes a grape vine. Aries, the sign of the month, appear again on the panel top right.

Diptych 11- April    

April. During this month Nature is full of blooms and flowers. In this diptych both man and wife carry branches, flowers and garlands to celebrate the new life. This is the only panel in which the sign of the month, Taurus, is not placed either on the right or left panel top, but at two thirds hight.

     Diptych 12 - May
May. This is the month of love. And here, perhaps, we have a scene to this effect. The falcon, held by the woman with her right hand, is the symbol of the hunt. But the man here is hunting the woman and wants to conquer her by offering the roses he carries in his right hand. On the other hand the woman--riding side saddle--seems to invite him by turning her head towards him. The symbol of the month, Gemini, is on the panel top right.

Diptych 13 - June    
June. This is a month of intensive work in the fields. Here, specifically, the farmer on the left panel is reaping wheat. His socius on the other hand is intent on mowing hay. (Notice the shape of his scythe's handle--it is the normal handle shape found today in Anglo Saxon countries). June's month symbol,the Cancer, is placed on the top left.

     Diptych 14 - July
Farmer and Socius.
In this diptych both the farmer a his socius are working in the threshing-floor. The first is threshing wheat with a flail, the second hulling the threshed grain with a paddle. (This was a common operation before the invention and use of mechanical means). The zodiacal sign of Leo is represented on top right of the first panel. It is surrounded by the sun to signify the period--from July 3 to August 11--called dies caniculares, or "dog days"

Diptych 15 - August    
Husband and wife. In this diptych both farmer husband and his wife are picking fruits from a tree. It looks like a fig tree, although the season for figs is really September-October. The diptych can strictly be considered as only one scene. As in January where we have the fireplace that unites the two panels, so here we have the tree that serves as union of the two parts. The zodiacal sign of Virgo is shown on the top left of the first panel.

     Diptych 16 - September
The farmer and his Socius.
This diptych represents the crushing of grapes. The farmer on the left is stamping the grapes with his bare feet in a large vat, while his socius helper brings him more grapes in a small cask carried over his shoulders. The zodiacal sign of Libra is visible at the top right of the first panel.

Diptych 17 - October    
The farmer and his Socius. This diptych, in a way, can be considered as a continuation of the one we just saw. Here the farmer is pouring the must into a wooden barrel which, very realistically, is resting on two short beams. The must will ferment in the barrel and eventually will become wine. In the panel to the right, the helper fixes the barrel by tightening the hoops or bands that hold the barrel staves tight. The zodiacal sign of Scorpio is sculpted on top right.

     Diptych 18 - November
The farmer and the Socius.
The oxen are in the act of pulling the plough while the farmer is holding the plough's handles. It is November, precisely the month for doing such a chore. In the second panel the Socius with his right hand is scattering the wheat seeds on the freshly plowed field. The zodiacal sign of the Sagittarius is amply visible on the left panel top right

Diptych 19 - December    
December is the typical month when pigs are slaughtered and their meat preserved in various ways to be used during the coming year. Here, after the pig has been killed, the farmer skins and dresses it out in accordance to ancient practice. Subsequently his Socius, in the right panel, is carrying the dressed animal to a place where salting and curing will take place. The scene is made more realistic by the portrayal of the hungry dog who is trying to get "a piece of the ...action". The zodiacal sign of Capricorn can be seen in the left panel top left.

(Here the cycle of the months ends).

Considering the following diptych 20, which with its Lion and Griffin represent the City of Perugia, a question comes to mind. Why did Fra' Bevignate decide to place the symbol of Perugia at the end of the Labors of the Months cycle and at the beginning of the cycle depicting the Liberal Arts? In other words, what was the reason for locating the City symbol at that very juncture? Well, it could be assumed that it was placed there as a dividing mark, or separator, between the representation of "manual work" (the Labors of the Months) and "intellectual work" (the seven Liberal Arts). But it would be difficult to accept such an assumption. First, it would be counterproductive for the City to underwrite a division of its citizens into two classes. Also, manual labor and knowledge were given places of equal honor by the church in their depiction on many church portals, and equal honor was also reflected by the lines of Vincent of Beauvais quoted above.

Well, on one level the diptych could be simply considered as a moment of rest for the onlooker in his tour around the Fountain. But, perhaps more cogently, it can be better understood as representing a symbol that Perugia is able to guarantee to any citizen the possibility of pursuing the study of Liberal Arts. It is said that the Perugia City Council opened a public Studium in 1285. But in fact, already in the previous decade the Council had committed itself to providing the city with higher education. There is documentary evidence for such a commitment in the City Council archives, which some scholars cite as proof of an earlier date for the establishment of the Studium. And the earlier date is 1276, two years before the construction of the Fountain was completed. (It is to be noted that 1276 is also the date on the University of Perugia banner). In this case, the Diptych with the lion and the griffin wants to approve and celebrate the founding of the Studium, and becomes the City sponsoring seal under which the study of Liberal Arts is guaranteed. As such, the diptych becomes an integral part of the Liberal Arts cycle.

The Labor of Learning

The panels that follow portray the seven Liberal Arts. Based on the type of studies that were pursued in the Classical world, the Seven Liberal Arts became codified in late antiquity by such writers as Varro and Martianus Capella. In medieval times, the Seven Liberal Arts offered a canonical way of depicting the realm of higher learning. The Liberal Arts were divided into the trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric) and the quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy). To these Philosophy, the Qeen and Nourisher of the Liberal Arts, is added and the result is four additional complete diptychs.


Diptych 20 - The Lion and the Griffin

The lion and the griffin are the symbols of Perugia. The lion is symbolic for his strenght. The griffin is a fabled animal usually having the head and the wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, as it is the one here. The griffin has long been the emblem of Perugia; and both were placed on the north façade of Palazzo dei Priori, precisely overlooking the Fontana Maggiore.

Diptych 21 - Grammar / Dialectics

Grammar, the woman, is teaching the child and the child appears eager to learn. This panel represents the very first steps in the formal learning process which is the transmission of knowledge. Dialectic is the art or practice of logical discussion as employed in investigating the truth or fallacy of a theory or opinion. Here the figure seems to handle and scrutinize the threads of hemp to find the desired solution for the argument.

Diptych 22 - Rhetoric / Arithmetic
Rhetoric is the art of reading, writing and speaking , for the purpose of teaching and/or influencing the thought and conduct of one's hearers. Here Rhetoric is portrayed in the act of teaching, majestically seated in her superiority, holding an open book and a rod. The pupil is standing and listening passively, with folded arms. Arithmetic is the art or method of computing with figures. In this panel Arithmetic teaches the pupil how to compute using fingers, a common practice used mostly everywhere. In contrast to the left panel, in this panel there is interaction between teacher and pupil.

Diptych 23 - Geometry / Music
Geometry is the art or science that deals with deduction of the properties, measurement and relationship of points, lines, figures ect. in space. In this panel Geometry is all absorbed in measuring with her pair of compasses, the symbolic instrument of the art. Music. The art of sound which expresses ideas and emotion through the elements of rhythm, harmony etc. In this panel Music is portrayed in the act of striking one or more of the five bells in front of her. The five bells represent the pentatonic scale, a scale having five tones to an octave (as the five black keys on a piano octave).

Diptych 24 - Astronomy / Philosophy
Astronomy. The art or science that deals with the universe beyond earth's atmosphere. She is portrayed here with the astrolabe, the instrument symbol of Astronomy used for taking the altitude of the sun or stars and for solving other problems in astronomy. Philosophy is seated on the trone, symbol of regal power. With her right hand she holds the scepter, or rod as an emblem of imperial power. On the palm of her left hand she has in firm control the globe, again as a symbol of power over the planet.

The following diptych, which is the last of the lower basin, may be called the diptych of the artists signature.

Diptych 25 - The Two Eagles
The two Eagles. On top of the right panel there is an inscription which reads, "...of the good Giovanni [Pisano], sculptor of this work". There was also writing on top of the left panel, but has been totally erased. We may assume that the two eagles represent both father and son. In any case this diptych closes the Pisanos' works around the fountain lower basin.

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