Following in Garibaldi’s footsteps, author Tim Parks inadvertently discovers a Renaissance masterpiece in a forgotten Italian village.

I wasn’t expecting an aesthetic experience in Citerna. The tiny medieval borgo, perched on a narrow ridge of the Italian Apennines above the Tiber valley, was simply on my path. 

I was following the route that Italy’s revolutionary hero Garibaldi had taken in 1849.

Garibaldi tried to march 4000 men from Rome to Venice, pursued by French and Austrian armies. When they arrived in Citerna after a twenty-mile climb from Arezzo, the garibaldini had been tired and desperate.

And frankly, after scrambling for eight hours up precipitous paths under a blistering sun, I was too. 

“But you must at least see Donatello’s Terracotta Madonna,” said the padrona of the bar where I collapsed under a sunshade.

It was the village’s one pride and boast. 

The Terracotta Madonna was in San Francesco, a church beside a convent.

I knew Garibaldi had been there before me because my research had revealed that it was from under a portico in the convent that he aimed his one cannon at the Austrians climbing in hot pursuit. 

The view was stunning. The Madonna, I thought, would be a small extra.

Except the church was locked. It turns out you have to pay an elderly guide five euros to open it.

What’s more, the guide won’t let you see the Madonna until he’s shown you absolutely everything else to be seen – starting with the huge cistern dug out below the convent in the 1300s so that the town would have water when under siege.

It is only when you’re in the church that are you told that the Donatello has been hidden behind another locked door.

And realise that the guide isn’t going open it before he’s talked you through a twelfth-century Crucifixion, a Deposition, an Annunciation, and then the Madonna in Glory, San Nicola of Bari, San Carlo Borromeo, and Sant’Antonio with his lily in his hand. 

“How do you imagine that a tiny place like this has so many wonderful works of art?” asked the guide.

It seemed that a certain Vincenzo Vitelli, a mercenary commander of the sixteenth century who fought the Turks in Malta and at Lepanto, had a cultured lover, a nobildonna.

She chose paintings for him to bring back to Citerna, which the Pope had given him together with all its buildings and people in payment for services rendered.

I moved along a line of altars. San Michele speared the dragon. The Holy Family showed off their baby. From a painted niche San Francesco looked on.

“Did you know that San Francesco performed two miracles, right here in Citerna?” the guid asked. ‘He freed an oak tree from infesting ants and rid himself of a woman who was bothering him.’

Miracle indeed.

I began to show signs of mutiny. Defensively, with his back to a closed door, the guide explained that for centuries the Madonna had stood here, in the gloom by the altar, entirely unrecognised.

Encrusted in the grime of candle smoke she was just another old piece of church bric-a-brac.

Then a sharp-eyed young art historian noticed the elegance of the lady’s hands and realized they could only be the work of Donatello. 

The guide turned abruptly, threw open the door, and announced with a grand flourish, “La Madonna di Citerna! Di Donatello. In terracotta!”

She was worth waiting for. After seven years of restoration work in Florence, they had set her up in the centre of the room on a polished wooden block surrounded by low ropes.

She’s about four feet high, wearing a long red dress and a white headscarf. Her hair is golden. Her baby is nude and plump and his hair is also golden. The same gold. Same hair. Same skin too. 

Mother and child possess each other wonderfully – his hand on her neck, her cheek touching his temple.

There’s a serene complicity between them, a quiet grace that spreads into the space around. And into your heart.

It seems extraordinary that such sublime beauty should be locked away in this empty room, waiting for this garrulous man to turn the key.

“Did you know,” I asked him (and was delighted he didn’t), “that Garibaldi had his wounded men tended in the church. After a skirmish with the Austrians. On July 26, 1849?” The men groaned and bled on the floor between the paintings for a day and a night. 

No doubt the terracotta Madonna looked on.


Tim Park’s latest book, ‘The Hero’s Way’, follows in Garibaldi’s footsteps from Rome to Ravenna. You can order your copy on Amazon or now.

Main image: Donatello’s Terracota Madonna in Citerna (