The thirteenth century church of San Lorenzo in Vicenza is of course dedicated to Saint Lawrence the Deacon, martyred in 258 (more information here and here). The church and adjacent monastery have always been administered by members of the Franciscan Order. Now Saint Lawrence is not a typical Franciscan saint – he died almost a thousand years before the Order was founded – but the church of San Lorenzo probably replaced an older chapel dedicated to this saint when construction of the church started in 1280. The new church, built in the Gothic style, was completed around the year 1300. Next door is the convent, of which the first cloister, completed in the first half of the fifteenth century, can be visited. It is a nice and quiet place.
After the Napoleonic invasion of Italy in the 1790s, the church was abandoned and subsequently used as a hospital and a military barracks. The religious orders were dissolved and the Franciscans were forced to leave. When the municipal authorities of Vicenza purchased the San Lorenzo in 1836, they effectively purchased a ruin that was in desperate need of restoration. In the next century or so, the church was frequently reopened and then closed again because of wars and severe structural damage. In 1927, more than a century after they had been chased away by the French, the Franciscans returned to the San Lorenzo.
A typical feature of the church is its imposing gabled facade, a facciata a capanna as the Italians say. The top part is a huge triangular brick front with one large rose window and five smaller oculi. The bottom part has seven Gothic arches and a splendid Gothic portal, attributed to the architect and sculptor Andriolo de Santi (see here and here) and made between 1342 and 1344. Funds for the portal were provided by Pietro da Marano, a councillor to the Della Scalas of Verona and also a usurer who wanted to expiate his sins (much like Enrico Scrovegni in Padova). Pietro da Marano is himself depicted in the lunette of the portal, kneeling before the Madonna and Child and flanked by Saints Franciscus of Assisi and Lawrence (see the image below). Visitors may notice that Pietro look a bit odd, with a large head and a small body. His nickname ‘Il Nano’, the dwarf, provides us with a clue: he was, in fact, a dwarf, and Andriolo de Santi sculpted him as such. Also part of the decoration of the facade are four fourteenth century sarcophagi.
Once inside, we can conclude that the San Lorenzo is a large church with a sober interior. The church is impressive in its simplicity. It is divided into a central nave and two aisles by huge striped columns. Much of the decoration inside is made up of tombs and other funerary monuments from different centuries. One of the illustrious people who were buried in the San Lorenzo is the poet Giacomo Zanella (1820-1888). There is a statue of him on the Piazza San Lorenzo outside. One of the most interesting tombs inside the church is that of Bartolomeo Da Porto in the Cappella della Madonna. It was made in ca. 1404 and is attributed to the sculptor and architect Pierpaolo dalle Masegne. The tomb has an effigy of the deceased beneath a beautifully sculpted baldachin. The monument was once entirely surrounded by frescoes, of which now only traces remain. Saints Paul (left) and Peter (right) can still be identified. The frescoes have been attributed to Bartolomeo Montagna (ca. 1449-1523) and must have been added later.
The most interesting piece of art in the church is the Altare Pojana (or Poiana) on the right side, commissioned by an important Vicentine noble family. The central part of the altar is a marble dossal or altarpiece that is attributed to the sculptor Pietro Lombardo (ca. 1435-1515) and is dated to 1474. It features a figure of Christ supported by two angels, flanked by Saint Franciscus on the left and Saint Bernardino da Siena on the right. Bernardino holds a disc with the letters IHS on it, a reference to the name of Christ (the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek are Iota, Eta, Sigma). In the lunette above Christ is God the Father, surrounded by seraphim. The altar is covered by a large arch that rests on two lavishly decorated columns. In the large lunette is a fresco of the Crucifixion. The frescoes of the altar have been attributed to either Bartolomeo Montagna (see above), Giovanni Buonconsiglio (ca. 1465-1537) or Andrea da Murano (died 1512). The Altare Pojana was restored in 2014 thanks to a grant by the Fondazione Giuseppe Roi, named after a patron of the arts who had died five years previously.
Update 1 October 2022: text and images have been updated.