The presbytery of the Basilica di San Zeno, with its Mantegna altarpiece.
Visiting a church in Italy is three experiences, the spiritual, the artistic, and the historical. The spiritual part may depend on what your convictions are, and certainly many Americans are a bit startled when they see saints’ relics for the first time. The first time I went to Italy, there was a small church at the top of our town that housed, in a glass case, the body of a local saint–except for her hand. Someone had stolen the hand. My 20-year-old sensibilities were creeped out. While I still don’t condone stealing relics, I do understand better why they are venerated, but in this post I’ll mostly stick to what everyone can enjoy.
Verona is extremely rich in churches. For example, the entire street where I stayed was dedicated to religious buildings of one type or another: a convent, soup kitchens, schools, confraternities, all still active. In contrast to the largely Baroque churches of Torino, however, the churches of Verona are mostly Romanesque. I don’t really know what caused such a contrast, but I would guess that an 1117 earthquake in Verona and the rule of the Savoys in Torino might both play a part.
What’s for sure is that some of these churches, in both places, have origins that go back much farther. One Verona church that we entered, San Giovani in Foro, was built over the old Roman decumanus that adjoined the nearby forum and it has room off of the nave with excavations from the fifth century. The flyer for the most famous church in Verona, San Zeno, says that the original church and convent were built over the saint’s burial place (d. 380) at a Roman-turned-Christian graveyard along the Roman Via Gallica. The complex had already undergone significant renovations by the 6th century. The present church was built in the 9th century and rebuilt during the Romanesque period (the present basilica). That’s at least four major reconstructions before the Gothic period that usually comes to mind when we imagine European cathedrals.
The Basilica of San Zeno is well-known enough to appear in my current medieval art history textbook, where it is listed as a Venetian refinement of the classic Italian Romanesque style developed in Modena. All the many other Romanesque churches in Verona are based on San Zeno in some fashion. San Zeno itself has so many interesting components that it’s hard to know where to start: the local adaptation of its Romanesque architectural elements, the façade frescoes by Nicolò and the lions holding up the columns on the portico, the inner set of bronze doors with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the altarpiece by Renaissance painter Mantegna, the outlines of a Last Judgment discovered under the gable after 800 years, the hidden ruins of the original church, the graffiti’ed frescoes, or the legendary marriage of Romeo and Juliet in its crypt? Since I had to leave to return to Turin way before I had explored everything, I’m going to just have to scratch the surface.
First of all, I did notice the lions, because my own church has them, albeit in a 19th century version. This “Lombard porch” is found all across the Po Valley, but the lions also appear on pulpits, such as the famous ones by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. Do they represent law and faith? Or maybe they derived from an Assyrian motif by way of Syriac and then Carolingian manuscripts? One of the friars at my church told me that their lions were originally put there to guard against Masonic influences in Torino. I love this sort of mystery–there’s probably an answer to where these lions originated, but no one really knows! Perhaps they meant different things to the various people who used them. I like to think of them as being like Aslan.
And I certainly love the bronze doors. The Old Testament set was probably made by Saxon craftsmen in Germany, whereas the New Testament one was an early example of Italian bronze doors. Besides the Biblical scenes there are some whose subjects are hard to pinpoint, but the life of San Zeno figures among them, and probably some local rulers. What I like about the bronze panels is their sheer invention, the way the Biblical iconography is interpreted in bas-relief with woven geometric patterns and splayed out architectural elements. It’s fun to try to figure out what scene is being depicted.
The frescoes are also fun to try to figure out, partly because they seem to have been added organically over the years, and sometimes superimposed. Just as interesting are the graffiti scratched into the frescoes in all kinds of writing (including Greek). Several reference a large earthquake (spelled teremoto, with one r) in 1095, but the earthquake that interrupted the construction of the church was in 1117, and from the handwriting, I’m guessing they were added later. Some date from the 1300s and may have been left by pilgrims. Many date from the 18th century. And there are several contributions by Austrian cadets on their way out of Italy after unification. There are even a pair of figures etched into a fresco. While I’m generally horrified by the defacing of artwork, I consider the sensibilities of the times, and am intrigued by the mystery they represent. Here’s a story (in Italian) that tells of recently discovered graffiti found behind the statue of San Zeno, on a 10th century wall. It commemorates the assassination of Emperor Berengario in 924.
And humorously, among the items displayed in the crypt along with the body of San Zeno and a variety of Romanesque capitals, is the treble bell from the adjacent bell tower, with the comment, “It still works, but after 800 years of faithful service, it deserved a break!”
A Romanesque capital at the entrance to the crypt
Carlana and I also ducked in and out of several other churches as we were walking along the streets of Verona. One, San Lorenzo, was recommended by a museum guard at the Castelvecchio as “a little jewel.” Like many of the smaller churches, it was hidden within a courtyard and preceded by a portico. Inside were the typical Romanesque striped stonework and a soaring vault that one would never have suspected from the outside, plus remnants of frescoes and other more modern signs of devotion. Other churches included San Giovanni in Foro, the Romanesque Santa Maria Antica and also St. Anastasia, which is slightly newer (Gothic) but no less beautiful!
I’m having to leave out a lot here, but this does give you an idea of the hidden treasures of ecclesiastical Verona. I have a few more photos of interesting things in Verona, but I’ll save them for one last post.
For the time being I will leave you with one spiritual observation: You can’t go to Italy and not become aware of almost 2000 years of continued Christian worship. As with any institutionalized worship, yes, some of it is superstitious and some hypocritical, but some of it is very real and vibrant and continues to this day. The first time I came to Italy this idea was literally foreign to me, but now I see from the inside that “old” does not always mean “dead.”