The compagnia laicale di San Niccolò
One of the most relevant phenomenons of culture and religiousness during the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance was the formation of lay brotherhoods, which followed a centuries-old tradition of a superstitious belief in a forthcoming end of the world. This idea was often widespread as a fair punishment for humankind, since people were more attracted by material pleasure than by the observance of religion because the Church did not always follow its original precepts.
In the 15th century, with the renaissance of arts, literature and sciences, the contrast between small groups of privileged people protected by their job or belonging to an association or “art”, and the illiterate, subdued and poor low-class people became more and more evident. This gap was even accentuated by frequent conflicts and wars, which were usually fought at the expense of the Poor, tormented by plague and by the lack of consideration of the human life value. Cortona was not different from the rest of the world: we can find evidence of these discriminations in the chronicles of the local history. In order to cope with this situation, many associations that we could call today “charities” tried to help the weakest social groups: the brotherhoods that spread the Christian faith during the Middle-Ages then devoted themselves to the material and moral support to the Poor.
The foreword of the Statuti della Venerabile Compagnia di Santo Niccolò in Cortona states that in the holy year 1440 after the incarnation of God, in August, on the day celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin Mary a small group of young people aged under 18 formed this association, in the name of the Saint, according to three consecutive degrees of activity: firstly a contemplative life, secondly an active life to help the neighbor in need, thirdly a moral life to follow honest and virtuous people. In association with the Franciscan fathers of the Osservanza di Santa Margherita, they however did not only devote to the spiritual life. In fact, they actively participated in charitable acts according to their rules: they mainly helped the Poor and provided dowries to poor young girls who wanted to get married.
The first two centuries of activity of the Compagnia were full of fervor and social commitment; and it was probably around the last quarter of the 15th century that the Brothers built an oratory where they could meet. Another theory states that they re-established worship in an existing church of the 14th century, which was named after the Saint of the Compagnia. As evidence of that, the unfinished fresco that is traditionally attributed to the School of Luca Signorelli dates back to the end of the 15th century; and we must not forget that this famous painter from Cortona was one of the brothers of the Compagnia, as told in the 18th century by Manni, author of a biography of Signorelli. We also know that in the first decade of the 16th century Signorelli made a big opistograph painting representing the “Deposition of Christ” for the Compagnia.
The social commitment and the relief work were managed by the Brothers of the Compagnia: before being transformed in a Brotherhood of Nobles and owning movable goods and properties donated by benefactors or inherited by them, the brothers weren’t backward about asking for alms, which were offered with pleasure given the consideration and esteem they received. The money collected was stored in the fund for young poor girls’ dowries. They also used the money to renovate the oratory where they gathered and met, even if the results were not proportional to the costs: we remind you, for instance, of the transformations made in the 17th and in the 18th century.