It is a historical irony that the mural survived. “It has survived in the way that many outstanding artistic monuments have come through to us. Not long after it was at its height of wealth, the town very quickly became an incredibly poor place. It’s similar to San Gimignano. San Gimignano has all the towers that it has got today almost purely due to the fact that it was not long after these towers were built, that the town was largely abandoned. Its location and the general power struggle in the region at that time meant it wasn’t worth anyone’s while to come in and knock down these towers that had been built as a kind of natural defense system as well as a status symbol. No-one cared, so they remained as they were. In the case of Massa Marittima this painting survived because at some point, and it’s impossible to know when, it was at first altered and then whitewashed. The first stage of alteration had to do with the removal of the phalluses from the painting. I’ve spoken with the man who did the restoration, a fascinating man who’s been in the business since the 1950s. He told me that when he was scraping the layers of lime and whitewash off the mural that he found these large flowers on the trees, and underneath these flowers he eventually found the phalluses. The flowers covered over the fact that this was an un-natural tree, a tree of evil, and it just became a decorative tree. Then it got painted over. Over the centuries, because it was painted at the fountain, and because Massa’s water supply is extremely rich in lime, not surprisingly due to the quantity and diversity of metals in the hills, this lime just got attached to the walls so that gradually all memory of the image disappeared. It was only by pure chance that it was re-discovered and restored in 2000”.
Ferzoco has been unable so far to find reference to the mural in any surviving documents from the period, which remains a puzzle for him. “One can never say never and I hope one day to find documents relating to it, but the coeval documents that I’ve examined to date and ones that I’ve looked at from later periods as well make absolutely no mention of this painting, which on the one hand is surprising as it would certainly have cost the comune a pretty penny to have painted. At some time or other, there must have been documentation relating to the payment of artists for it. Also you would have thought a painting, at least so striking to us would have been mentioned somewhere, but so far nothing. It took the discoverers and restorers of this image completely by surprise. No-one had expected such an image existed”.
To say that no-one had expected such an image existed is not strictly speaking true. An obscure passage in Europe’s most famous witch hunting manual, the Malleus Maleficarum, published in the late 15th century has long puzzled researchers, referring bizzarely to a practice where a witch would cut off a man’s genitals and bring it to a prepared nest, in a tree, where the phallus would be placed, and from whence it would grow on the tree. If one looks carefully at the Massa Marittima mural, one of the women is prodding a nest on one of the branches of the tree. Ferzoco is convinced that the Massa Marittima mural is one of the earliest depictions of witchcraft surviving from Medieval Europe: “One must always be careful of saying ‘the first ever’, as it’s a guarantee of something earlier popping up, but I have been looking very extensively, and I’ve consulted widely with scholars who are very well informed about the history of images of witchcraft and there’s not one uncontestable image of a witch that comes remotely close to this one chronologically speaking. The fact that this woman is prodding a nest in a tree has gone almost completely unnoticed. This is partly because the nest is not easily seen, and partly because as one glances at the image one gets more the impression that she’s waving the stick to scare away the birds that are circling around, or perhaps that she’s reaching up to the tree to shake down some of the fruit for herself. But the connection of the woman with the nest is extremely important. The tree in the Massa Marittima mural seems as if it was painted to describe this chapter, it fits it so perfectly. The tree shows, at least what is visible to the naked eye since it was uncovered in 2000, 25 phalluses [according to the passage in the Malleus Maleficarum, between 20-30 phalluses could grow on one tree]. Again let’s recall, the appearance of phalluses in a tree was seen not to be natural so these phalluses would somehow have been placed there. Twenty-five of them in a tree, and in the same painting there is a bird’s nest being breached by a woman. The connection, in light of this obscure chapter from the witchhunting manual becomes painfully obvious. We’ve got here a witch in the process of getting a nest so it could serve as a new home for a phallus taken from one of the unlucky men from the town.”
There is much more research to be done on this fascinating mural, but the citizens of Massa Marittima can breathe easy, thanks to Ferzoco’s research, knowing that their town is the home to a unique and important piece of art, rather than a dirty painting best covered up.
George Ferzoco is the director of the Centre for Tuscan Studies at the University of Leicester. His work, The Mural at Massa Marittima was recently recognized with a prize by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship.