Unique Art in the Middle Ages

L'Albero della Fecondita: The Massa Marittima Mural

Art in the Middle Ages: Massa Marittima Mural L'Albero della Fecondita

Art in the middle ages doesn't come much rarer or unique than this. Massa Marittima in Maremma is home to not only one of the most unique pieces of political art in the middle ages, it is potentially also the earliest surviving public image of witchcraft in medieval Europe.

Discovered only in 2000 and since restored, the "Tree of Fertility" fresco mural as it is known by locally, is set in the wall of the Fonti dell'Abbondanza - the Fountains of Abundance - in the centre of this stunning medieval and Renaissance city.

Read some more about L'Albero della Fecondita, just one of Maremma's many mysteries...


Discovery and restoration

The "L'Albero della Fecondita" (The Tree of Fecundity) was discovered by chance in 2000 whilst the palazzo above, the "Le Fonti dell'Abbondanza", was being restored. Despite being in a poor condition, at five metres high and six metres wide, entirely filling the arched wall upon which it was painted, its richly coloured imagery clearly showed a full semi-circular tree with twenty-five large erect penises with testicles and other black "fruit" attached to its branches. Black birds encircling below and eight female figures and perhaps a ninth.

Years of water trickling down its surface had left a substantial covering of calcareous deposits on its surface.

With a donation of Euros 50,000 from the oldest bank in Italy, the Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the first phase of restoration was undertaken, from which it became clear that at one stage the tree's phalluses had been over painted with flowers and, by 1300, the whole mural completely whitewashed.

The second phase of the restoration of the mural is now underway: that of monitoring its condition and it is now possible once again to see the mural (behind a protective plexi-glass screen).

Whilst at first considered a fertility tree, studies during its restoration have concluded that it was painted for a much different motive. Or was it? The debate between historians and researchers continues. But what is undisputed is that it is an unparalleled find of "fine detail rarely observed in mural works from this period" with an "advanced two-dimensional system of perspective" (**).


The Fonti dell'Abbondanza - Fountains of Abbundance

The Fonti dell'Abbondanza building was built in 1265 as a republic granary with a public fresh water supply and baths within its three voluminous arches below. It was a rare and very important construction in its days in that it provided the residents of the city with precious fresh water within the city walls. Hence obviating the life-threatening task of fetching water in lower lying land outside of the protection of the city walls during times of siege. As a wealthy city with control of the rich mining hills and mines of Le Colline Metalliferi - its metalliferous hills - Massa Marittima witnessed many challenges for control of the city.

The name "Fonti dell'Abbondanza" comes from the store of grain on the top floor above the waters to which farmers were required to contribute five per cent of their crop in order to provide for periods of famines or the event of war. It ceased functioning as a repository on 3 August 1778, probably due to abuse by its directors.

L'Albero della Fecondita - originally names the "L'affresco delle Fonti" when it was discovered - is found in the left hand of the three large arches.

You can't miss the building, it is opposite the (privately owned) central car park in Massa Marittima, where you will also find the Post Office.


Interpretation: the mystery continues

The Context

The fresco has been dated as having been painted during the period when Massa Marittima was an independent city republic, between 1225 and 1338.

The history of medieval Massa Marittima and Maremma in the 13th century is dominated by the political struggle for power between the Ghibelline party associated with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Guelph party aligned with the Papacy.

As a work of art on a public building it must have been commissioned by the city, but there are no records to date of the commission or payments to its artist or artists, or indeed, of mention of its existence in general papers of the period.

The other two arched walls also contain remnants of frescos, but very little remains of their subject matter.


Unravelling the symbolism: more questions than answers...

These are some of the key, but by no means all of the currently contested interpretations of this impressive piece of middle ages art. What do you think?

Middle Ages Art: L'Albero della Fecondita - The tree of Life

Despite having caused somewhat of an embarrassed stir amongst some residents of Massa Marittima when it was discovered, it is accepted that the fresco is not thirteenth century pornographic art. Notwithstanding current day mind set which would fore bade placing such in an important public place in the centre of a city close to its "duomo" (cathedral), contemporary medieval mind set did not consider public art containing nude genitalia as erotic.*

If then, it is an allegoric secular piece of art, is it of fecundity or political intent?

Have the phalluses in the tree been collected together by the fiendish act of witches, as described in the 1486 publication of Malleus Maleficarum? Or does the fact that they are not contained in the Malleus Maleficarum pre-requisite "nests" or boxes, nor do they appear at all impotent, argue against this theory?**

Or rather, are they, together with the one carved in the structure of the Fonte dell'Abbondanza, actually symbols of good luck, similar to those found in Roman times (**), for both the continual rise and supply of water for the baths below and against a famine or war and the need to share-out the grain and seeds stored in the granary above?

Alternatively, the tree's form can be closely compared to that of a fig. So are its other dark "fruit", at the end of branches nearly all touching the penises, in fact figs? If so, as figs are known aphrodisiacs and a metaphor in both Latin and Italian for the female vagina, is this genital tree in fact one celebrating sexuality or sexual yearning ?(**) With Massa Marittima's trade throughout Italy and into France, it is suggested that the imagery of the mural has its origins in the French Roman del la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) and its own phallus-yielding tree from which nuns gathered its fruit (**).

The biggest missing clue to the contemporary meaning of the original mural must be the other two that accompany it. If they were painted at the same time, then the three together may have been commissioned as a "visual narrative" (**). And who knows what story it told?


Art of Middle Ages: The Tree of Life

Are these two women or witches fighting over the phallus in the red vase?

Or does their unveiled hair and that of the other women in the mural, together with their simple cloth tunics, in fact depict that they are virgins or even nuns?(**)

Are they in fact wringing water out from each others hair?(**)

Does the peaceful comportment of the women and the absence of any other figures normally associated with witchcraft in the mural disprove the hypothesis that they are witches?(**)


Art of the Middle Ages: The Massa Marittima Mural

Is the women in a red dress being sodomized by the free floating phallus?*

And if the eagle that appears to be touching her head is the symbol of the Ghibelline eagle, is this a blatant propaganda message that the women of Massa Marittima will be sodomized by heretic Ghibellines if they returned to power?*

Or, is the position of the phallus at knee height and there was never any intention of the sodomy in the symbolism?**

Is she in fact holding the phallus herself behind her with her right hand?

Was the eagle added later to the painting when the competing political faction of the Guelf party returned to power in the city? Hence changing completely the original symbolism (**) of the painting into a political poster in one of the key locations of the city?

Art from the Middle Ages: The Massa Marittima Mural

Is the woman in the orange/yellow dress here a sorceress placing a phallus in a birds nest with a stick, or pulling the branches of the tree downwards to retrieve one?

Or, upon closer inspection does this nest actually contain birds eggs?**

Or is she simply picking one of the figs from the tree?

Has she startled the other black eagles into flight, or is she in fact attempting to frighten-off the birds from the tree?

Massa Marittima Mural: L'Albero della Fecondita

If these are Ghibelline eagles, were they included in the painting to tell of its patronage? Or are those in flight symbolic of the expulsion in 1267 of the Ghibelline party from their only period of rule of the city?**

Or were they all added to the fresco at a later date along with the larger eagle with talons atop the woman in red?

Art from medieval Europe: the Massa Marittima fresco

Are the black lines to the right of the trunk of the tree the remains of a serpent figure?

If so, this would without doubt change the contention of the painting as a secular one to a religious Christian one with obvious connections to The Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve.**

Interestingly, the official Massa Marittima tourism web site (www.massamarittima.info) still describes the fresco as that of a fecundity tree and that the phalluses represent fertility, life, abundance and good fortune.


Current day controversy

When the newly restored fresco was unveiled to members of the Comune and local dignitary, there was considerable dissatisfaction expressed by some with claims made that the restoration works have censored the original painting by covering up and reducing the size of some of the phalli. Not surprisingly, unlike the unveiling of many other restored medieval works of art, the subject matter and claims attracted the attention of the international press.



Notwithstanding the debate about its meaning, which I am sure will continue for years to come - I'll update this page if any new theories are proposed or evidence comes to light - the Massa Marittima Mural is an impressive fresco and well worth visiting.

PHOTO TIP: if you are planning a visit to Massa Marittima - I cannot recommend it highly enough - and would like to take some photos of your own of L'Albero della Fecondita, try and do so in the morning as the afternoon sun casts a shadow on the frescoed walls of Le Fonti dell'Abbondanza.


Recommended Resources

In preparing this page I have drawn heavily upon the following two works.

The first, * Book Il Murale di Massa Marittima - The Massa Marittima Mural, by George Ferzoco from the new Centre for Tuscan Studies at the University of Leicester, and published by the Consiglio Regionale della Toscana, Firenze. Written in both English and Italian.

ISBN: 9788889365007 Published 06/12/2004 Troubador Publishing Limited £9.99. It is currently out of print, but I found it in the reference section of my local library.

The second, ** Reconsidering the 'Obscene': The Massa Marittima Mural, Matthew Ryan Smith. SHIFT Queen's Journal of Visual & Material Culture, Issue 2, 2009, presents excellent challenges to the conclusions and hyptheses of George Ferzoco, and is logically presented and extremely easy to read. It would make for a great introduction to this subject even for those for whom this would be a first venture into art in the middle ages. The PDF download.


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