Gubbio: San Domenico

Church of San Domenico.

The church of San Domenico is by far the most peculiar building in all of Gubbio. Just take a look at its unfinished facade, which is higher on the right than on the left. Opposite the church is a nice restaurant called Trattoria San Martino, the name of which gives us a clue about the history of the San Domenico. Originally there was a church dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours here, which was granted to the Dominicans in the late thirteenth century. These rebuilt the church, which was henceforth known as the San Domenico, but note that the parish is called the Parrocchia di San Martino in San Domenico, so the previous name is not completely gone. Rather ironically, the church can be found on the Piazza Giordano Bruno, named after a Dominican friar who was burned at the stake in 1600 by order of the Inquisition, which was staffed by the Dominicans – or Domini canes, dogs of the Lord – themselves.

The friars made changes to their church in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One of the changes that can be traced to the fifteenth century involved adding a transept. Another involved truncating the building by removing the first bay. If we closely study the facade behind the unfinished facade, we should be able to see the remains of the walls on the left and right. Why the facade was never completed is a great mystery to me. Lack of funds? Some kind of disaster? Disagreements with the architects? A sudden change of stylistic taste? Who knows.

Interior of the church.

Once inside we see a church interior that mostly dates from the eighteenth century. It is the result of a restoration that ended in 1765. Like many other churches in Gubbio, the San Domenico has a single nave. The original pointed arches were replaced with rounded arches, so the church has completely lost its Gothic appearance (for an original pointed arch, check out the facade behind the facade outside). The colours of the interior are a curious mix of green, yellow and white and the ceiling is just plain and boring. The most interesting decorations can be found in the first two chapels on the left and right. The frescoes here date from the fifteenth century and were rediscovered in 1922 and 1992 respectively. The walls in the chapels had previously been whitewashed, probably in the eighteenth century, and unfortunately the state of conservation of the frescoes is far from perfect.

The most interesting frescoes can be found in the second chapel on the left. These are attributed to Ottaviano Nelli (1375-1444), whose work we have also seen in the churches of San Francesco and Sant’Agostino elsewhere in Gubbio. The frescoes show scenes from the life of Saint Peter of Verona, also known as Saint Peter Martyr. Peter was a Dominican preacher and inquisitor who was murdered in 1252. The assassins had been sent by the Cathars, a heretical sect that Peter had been actively suppressing. His tomb can be found in the church of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan. One of the frescoes, in fact the only one that is still more or less intact, shows how Peter is attacked by three men. The first man hits him in the head with a two-handed axe, cracking his skull, while a second stabs him with a dagger. The third man, armed with a sword and shield, is not yet doing anything. On the left, Peter’s companion is panicking. The most interesting detail is that Peter is writing words on the ground as he is dying. We should be able to read Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem. According to a slightly incredible tradition he wrote these words using his own blood.

Death of Saint Peter Martyr – attributed to Ottaviano Nelli.

Faded frescoes from the late fifteenth century.

More frescoes can be found in the first and second chapel on the right and the first chapel on the left. A note in one of the chapels states that they were made in the late fifteenth century, so Nelli – who died in 1444 – cannot have been the painter. Perhaps they were painted by some of his followers. A fresco of the Adoration of the Magi is the highlight of the second chapel on the right. Below the adoration scene are Saints Sebastian (left) and Rochus (right). The former is tied to the stake and has a body riddled with arrows. The latter is accompanied by a dog. The two saints flank an Annunciation scene of which the middle part is gone. The Virgin is still visible, but some genius decided to place a statue of the Madonna and Child right in front of the archangel Gabriel, effectively blocking the view.

Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide to Umbria and the Key to Umbria website.


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