The dances of Clusone

Clusone; is a small town that commands the Seriana Valle, just over an hour’s drive from the centre of Bergamo. It’s not much of a trek - just a few turns on the highway - but it’s a drive that many families make in order to get away from the everyday routine of work and concrete, and escape into the green of the mountains.

In Clusone, you breathe the air of Christmas holidays and outdoor weekends. But there’s much more to this town than leisure tourism, for this corner of the Bergamascan mountains positively bursts with art and culture. Take the Oratorio dei Disciplini, a fourteenth-century oratory that the Disciplini, a religious order from Bergamo, built as their headquarters. Frescoes cover the walls, forming a real piece of civic history. Indeed it was a local boy, one Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, who painted the most important of these frescoes: a five-part piece unique in late-medieval Europe for its holistic vision of Death. Here – on the outside of the building – we find Death Triumphant, with the Danse Macabre twirling around. Only inside the oratory will you find the Life and Crucifixion of Jesus.

The Triumph of Death presents Death as supreme ruler, to whom all submit: below, every living person wears an expression of fear and despair, as they come face to face with their own skeleton. They go in procession, side by side, but the skeleton is twice the size of its living partner. The Danse Macabre was a common artistic subject at the time, but more in northern Europe, where it inspired countless poets, artists and singers. Latterly, it has informed the work of Vinicio Capossela, whose 2019 album Ballate per uomini e Bestie included the song “Danza Macabra” – a song which, Capossela admits, is based on these very frescoes.

But what do death and skeletons have to do with a magazine that talks about life, and lust for life? You may well ask. Look closely, we answer. For the fresco, however ghoulish in its imagery, is really an ode to resilience, intended to urge the faithful to never lose hope. This is confirmed by the gothic script written on the oratory wall: “O you who serve the Lord with good heart, may this dance not afear you. Come with joy in your hearts, and have no fear: all who are born must die”. A sort of squeeze of the shoulder for those who have lived a good life: face death with ‘cheer’ rather than fear, almost, for the inevitable end of the worldly body should not frighten you.

Thinking about this aspect of the fresco a little more, we have to conclude that the Disciplini, who commissioned Borlone to paint it, were rather ahead of their time. As with every religion, their aim was to make those who saw it repent of their sins and live a more upright life, but they pursued those aims with methods slightly different from their rivals. The faithful knew they were being warned, yes, but not terrorized. They were, in the end, being urged to live with gusto.