The city of Vicenza was known as Vicetia during the Roman era. It seems to have been of relatively minor importance, but its cathedral goes back a long way. By the third century CE, Vicenza had a Christian community that made use of a Roman building from the first century. The first proper church on this spot was erected after the 313 Edict of Milan gave Christianity an official status within the Roman Empire. This building can perhaps be considered the first Duomo of Vicenza. It was restored, enlarged, damaged, rebuilt and repaired on many occasions in the ensuing centuries.
The present appearance of the cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria Annunciata, can be dated to the fifteenth century. Its Gothic-style facade was constructed between 1444 and 1467. It has a dome designed and executed by the great architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) in the 1550s and 1560s. Unfortunately much of the Duomo was heavily damaged during Allied bombing raids in World War II. Palladio’s dome was destroyed, the nave of the cathedral heavily damaged. Basically, only the facade was left standing. Reconstruction of the Duomo started directly after the war had ended, and continued into the twenty-first century: the renovation project was only completed in 2002.
It has to be said that the heavily restored building that we can visit today lacks any real beauty on the outside. The Gothic facade, in white and pink, is nice though, and is certainly worth one’s attention for a few minutes. It is composed of four registers. The lowest register is also the largest. There are five large pointed arches, with the central one covering the only front entrance. The second register has a large rose window and six columns, while the third and fourth are topped by five statues and two little towers or pinnacles. And speaking of towers: the Duomo of Vicenza has a freestanding campanile to the right of the apse. Its base dates from the tenth century, the storeys above the base from the twelfth century. Apparently the campanile survived the war.
We noticed Andrea Palladio’s huge dome from afar, without realising what it was. We actually assumed it was a separate building, and this is in large part due to the fact that it does not seem to match very well with the rest of the cathedral, both with regard to colour and with regard to shape. Of course we should realise that this is not the original dome, which was destroyed during the War. Palladio built the original in two stages. In 1558 and 1559, he started by constructing the cornice above the windows of the apse and then added the drum. After a five-year break, Palladio continued the work and built the dome itself, between 1564 and 1566.
The interior of the Duomo is a huge open space. The cathedral has a single nave and several side chapels. The walls, arches, pilasters and vault are again an interesting combination of white and soft pink. These colours are very pleasing to the eye. A set of stairs leads to the sanctuary and main altar in the apse. The apse is decorated with an elaborate marble and stucco frame in which about a dozen paintings are set. The ones on the left depict scenes from the Old Testament while those on the right are about Constantine and the True Cross. The frame is topped by several statues of angels. The frame was commissioned by Giuseppe Civran, bishop of Vicenza from 1660 until his death in 1679. It is named the Paramento Civran after him. The Paramento is the work of one Bernardino Belladonna and the paintings were provided by several painters from the Veneto, whose names have apparently been forgotten.
The most famous work of art in the Duomo can be found in the Chapel of Saints James and Anthony Abbot on the right side. It is a polyptych by the fourteenth century painter Lorenzo Veneziano whose work we have seen previously. The polyptych, composed of 29 separate panels, was commissioned by Tommaso de Proti and completed in 1366. Tommaso himself features in it. He is one of the kneeling figures to the left or to the right of the central panel. The other kneeling figure is Giampietro de Proti (ca. 1345-1412), a local politician and presumably Tommaso’s son. Giampietro’s tomb can be found in the chapel as well.
Lorenzo Veneziano’s polyptych is very large, measuring 254 by 245 centimetres. It can be described as a Dormitio Virginis – Sleep of the Virgin – with saints, lots of saints. The central panel features the Virgin on her funerary bed, surrounded by the Apostles. This panel is flanked by three panels on either side that show full-length portraits of saints. On the far left and far right are two warrior saints with red crosses on their tunics and shields. They have been identified as saints Felix and Fortunatus. This is not unproblematic, since there are many saints named Felix or Fortunatus. These two were apparently brothers and soldiers from Vicenza, martyred in Aquileia during the persecutions ordered by Diocletianus in 303 and 304. A very interesting church in Vicenza is dedicated to them.
And there are many more saints in the polyptych. I will just mention the most important ones. To the right of Saint Felix are Saints Nicholas and James. To the left of Saint Fortunatus are Saints John the Baptist (with a scroll) and George. Above the central panel is a scene of the Crucifixion with Saint Catherine on the left and Saint Helena on the right. A little lower are six more saints, depicted from the waist up. They are, from left to right, Saints Leontius, Lucia and Anthony Abbot, and Saints Christopher, Dorothea and Carpophorus. The festival of saints then continues on the predella, with twelve more saints. A full list of all the saints depicted can be found here. The polyptych was thoroughly restored and then replaced in its chapel in 2015. In my honest opinion, it is the highlight of the church.