The three buildings stand side by side along the Piazza Paolo VI in Brescia: the old Duomo, the new Duomo and the Palazzo Broletto, the seat of the comune during the Middle Ages with its imposing, 54-metre-high Torre del Pegol. This post is about the Duomo Vecchio, whose official name is the winter cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta; I will dedicate a separate post to the Duomo Nuovo. There are huge differences between the two buildings as regards shape, style and materials used. I will not hide the fact that I consider the old cathedral to be much more beautiful and interesting than the new one, but that is probably a matter of taste.
A city with two cathedrals may be special, but it is not unique. Milan, which is west of Brescia, had two cathedrals as well in the past (see Milan: The Duomo). People who travelled to Brescia in the sixth century would find the winter cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore alongside the summer cathedral of San Pietro. The Santa Maria Maggiore had a crypt, the so-called Crypt of San Filastrio, which was created in the sixth century and restored in the ninth. At an unspecified moment in the eleventh century, the Santa Maria Maggiore was demolished. The edifice, which had been built as a classical rectangular basilica, was replaced with a circular building in the Romanesque style. It is its circular shape which explains the Duomo Vecchio’s current nickname: La Rotonda. The new cathedral was completed in the first half of the twelfth century. Only the crypt of the Santa Maria Maggiore was preserved (see below).
It should be noted that the nickname La Rotonda is a bit off the mark, as interventions in the thirteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have more or less altered its shape. As a result, the plan of the church is now no longer that of a perfect circle. At the end of the thirteenth century, bishop Berardo Maggi, who will appear again below, extended the choir further to the east. After 1490, the architect Bernardino da Martinengo extended it even further. The transept and Chapel of the Holy Crosses were also added around this time. If you take a look at the Duomo Vecchio from above, for instance using Google Maps, you will notice that only the front part of the building is circular.
On 7 October 1571, a Christian fleet won a large victory over the Turks at Lepanto. The victory happened to be on Saint Justina of Padova’s feast day, and as a result her popularity surged. The city of Brescia had participated in the battle with a mere two ships, but by that time it had been under Venetian rule for nearly a century and a half and the Venetians had played a big part in the fighting. Therefore the winter cathedral of Brescia was also provided with a chapel dedicated to Saint Justina. It was built by the architect Giovanni Maria Piantavigna. Nowadays, this is the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament. The cathedral used to have a campanile, but unfortunately this collapsed in 1708 and was never rebuilt.
The cathedral was thoroughly restored at the end of the nineteenth century. The project was led by Luigi Arcioni (1841-1918), who had many of the Baroque additions removed and restored the original Romanesque appearance of the building. Since the end of the twentieth century, the Duomo Vecchio has had to cope with problems with damp. In 2010, the crypt was flooded and it still does not smell very fresh down there. The crypt is also a much chillier place than the rest of the cathedral.
Exploring the Duomo Vecchio
As the square in front of the Duomo was raised in the past, the cathedral is now partly below street level. If you enter the building, you will find yourself on the first floor. From there you take the stairs to descend into the nave of the church. From this we may conclude that the present entrance is not the original entrance. It in fact dates from the 1571 renovations and can therefore be attributed to Piantavigna. Inside the cathedral, the original entrance is marked by an inscription that reads ANTICO INGRESSO ALLA ROTONDA. Here we now find the baptistery. It should be noted that the Duomo Vecchio is a rather dark building, although the actual Rotonda is a lot darker than the transept and choir. The elongated choir is in fact very light, but unfortunately it was closed off because of maintenance during our visit in July of 2019. We may see interesting colour contrasts inside the cathedral: grey is the dominant colour in the Rotonda, the transept has an orange glow and the choir is bright white.
Directly opposite the entrance, we find one of the most interesting monument in the cathedral: the tomb of Berardo Maggi, bishop of Brescia between 1275 and 1308. Maggi was not just the most important cleric in the city, he was also its worldly leader. In 1298 he ended the conflict between the Guelfs and Ghibellines in Brescia, i.e. the eternal feud between the supporters of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor. The peace he brokered was immortalised on one of the sides of the tomb; see here for an image. An extensive collection of images of the tomb can be found here.
Maggi himself is depicted on the other side of the tomb, lying in state on his back. He is wearing the chasuble and mitre of a bishop and is holding a bishop’s staff in his left hand. At the same time he is using his right hand, on which a ring is still visible, to give his blessing. Behind the bishop is a funerary procession. The far left corner of the tomb has images of Apollonius and Filastrius, who were bishops of Brescia in the fourth century and are therefore distant predecessors of Maggi. On the far right we see Faustinus and Jovita, two martyrs from the second century who ultimately became patron saints of Brescia (see Brescia: San Faustino in Riposo). And finally, surrounding the bishop’s effigy are the symbols of the four Evangelists. Maggi died in 1308 and the tomb cannot have been made long after.
One of Maggi’s successors was Lamberto Balduino della Cecca, a man from Bologna. He was bishop of Brescia between 1344 and 1349 and he too was granted a splendid tomb in the Duomo Vecchio. This tomb can be found in the gallery surrounding the central part of the floor. The monument was made by the sculptor Bonino da Campione, whose work in Milan and Padova I have discussed previously. The upper part of the tomb is a baldachin with a Suffering Christ (Christus Patiens) above the deceased bishop’s effigy. The bishop is in full pontificals. The lower part has a detailed relief of a Madonna and Child and several saints. The Child in Mary’s lap gives the kneeling bishops his blessing. Behind the bishop is Saint Lawrence, and on the far left and right are Saints Peter (with the keys) and Paul (with the sword).
If we descend to the floor of the cathedral, we may spot some remnants of the mosaics that once adorned the floor of the old and demolished Santa Maria Maggiore. The mosaics are mostly text and are not that special. Much more interesting are the remnants of that same Late Antique floor that can be found in the transept. The current floor of the transept is simply hideous. It is composed of red tiles that would not be out of place in the bishop’s bathroom. However, glass-covered openings have been made into the floor, which allow us to admire the original sixth century floor below. Especially interesting is a piece of mosaic with the text:
H L T C S
The text indicates that a deacon (diaconus) named Syrus and his relatives embellished this place with mosaics (H L T C S is short for hunc locum tessellavit cum suis). Around the text are twelve lambs, no doubt a reference to the twelve apostles.
Choir and transept
I already mentioned that during our visit to the Duomo Vecchio the choir was closed off because of some much needed repairs. That was a pity, for as a result we were not able to admire the imposing altarpiece, an Assumption of the Virgin by Il Moretto (Alessandro Bonvicino; ca. 1498-1554/1564), a painter who is held in high regard in Brescia. The panel has its own page on Italian Wikipedia with a good image. When we visited, the scaffolds had been covered with a large canvas featuring a copy of the Assumption. It was a nice gesture, but it did not come close to seeing the original work. Once the choir is reopened to the public, you can also see two works by Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566) there, as well as the medieval high altar, made of red Verona marble and consecrated in 1342.
The transept has frescoes by Tomasso Sandrini (ca. 1580-1630) and Francesco Giugno (1577-1621), but of much greater interest are the Gothic frescoes on the rib vault in the centre (see the image above). The latter frescoes date from the thirteenth century, so they were possibly painted when Berardo Maggi was bishop. We see a Lamb of God in the centre, surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists. The lunettes to the left and right have images of the Tree of Life (left) and an archangel (right).
In the left part of the transept, we find the Chapel of the Holy Crosses. It was built around 1495 by Bernardino da Martinengo, already mentioned above, and has been remodelled a couple of times. I personally liked the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament on the other side better. As was already stated above, it was initially dedicated to Saint Justina. However, when starting in 1603 the old cathedral of San Pietro was demolished to make way for the Duomo Nuovo, the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament in that cathedral was moved to the Duomo Vecchio. The altarpiece in the chapel is a fresco fragment by Paolo da Caylina the Elder (died after 1486). It features the Flagellation of Christ and is not exactly in mint condition. The paintings in the chapel are works of Il Moretto. On the back wall we for instance see panels with Mark and Luke, two of the Evangelists.
Crypt of San Filastrio
The aforementioned Crypt of San Filastrio probably already existed in the sixth century, but it was restored in the ninth. On 9 April of the year 838, bishop Rampertus of Brescia had the relics of his distant predecessor Saint Filastrius enshrined here. King Louis II of Italy, who died in 875, was also interred here for a while, before being moved to the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. When the Santa Maria Maggiore was demolished in the eleventh century, the crypt was spared, though it was decreased in size. When the choir was extended, starting in 1490, the crypt had to be adjusted as well.
In 1572 the remains of Saint Filastrius were taken from the crypt to the cathedral above. The crypt itself was closed and only reopened for worship in 1871. The room owes its current appearance to Luigi Arcioni, already mentioned above. One interesting fact is that, according to an information panel in the crypt, this was the place where, on 15 September 1943, the constituent meeting of the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale took place. This Committee for National Liberation was a motley crew of Christian-democrats, socialists, communists and liberals who, after Italy had surrendered to the Allies and had subsequently been invaded by the Germans, coordinated resistance against the Nazis. The meeting took place under the protection of the then bishop of Brescia, Giacinto Tredici (1934-1964).
One can still see some painted images from the Middle Ages in the crypt, but only those on the rib vault have been preserved fairly well. These depict Saint Michael the archangel and the bishops Filastrius, Gaudentius and Apollonius, who all lived in the fourth century and are all venerated as saints. The images date back to the thirteenth century. They may have been painted during Berardo Maggi’s pontificate, as Apollonius and Filastrius were depicted on his tomb as well (see above). The columns and capitals in the crypt are mostly spolia, i.e. reused materials from the Roman era.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 68-69.
- Italian Wikipedia.
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