Brescia: The Duomo Nuovo

The Duomo Nuovo.

The spot where we nowadays find the Duomo Nuovo was occupied by the summer cathedral of San Pietro since the fifth or sixth century. Next to it stood the winter cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was replaced with the Duomo Vecchio, also known as La Rotonda, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over the centuries, the cathedral of San Pietro became so dilapidated that, in 1599, the decision was taken to demolish it. The demolition process started in 1603, and between 1604 and 1825 the old building was replaced with the Duomo Nuovo, whose official name is the summer cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The fact that a period of 220 years elapsed between the start and completion of the new cathedral suggests that construction was a difficult process. And if we study the history of this process, we may conclude that this was indeed the case.

History

The first stone of the new cathedral was laid in 1604. The architects involved were Giovanni Battista Lantana (1573-1627) and Pier Maria Bagnadore (1550-1627). The two men were each other’s rivals and disagreed, among other things, about the shape of the new building: was it to be built on a Greek- or a Latin-cross plan? Lantana, who had always advocated a Greek-cross plan, ultimately withdrew from the project. Bagnadore, a lifelong proponent of a Latin-cross plan, then suddenly changed his mind. It was his sudden, rather opportunistic choice for a Greek-cross plan that caused him to lose favour with bishop Marino Zorzi (1596-1631), who fired the architect in 1611. A new architect was subsequently hired, Lorenzo Binago (1554-1629) from Milan. He took on the project together with Antonio Comino (died 1644), a native of Brescia. Work could now resume, but Binago’s death in 1629 and a great plague in Brescia the following year halted the project again.

Interior of the Duomo Nuovo.

It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that work on the Duomo Nuovo was in full swing again. Driving force behind the project in the eighteenth century was bishop Angelo Maria Querini (1727-1755). The addition of his bust, a work by Antonio Calegari (1699-1777), to the façade of the cathedral was therefore fully justified. One can find the sculpture above the main entrance. At some point Giovanni Antonio Biasio (1677-1754) was appointed lead architect of the cathedral and he focussed on designing the aforementioned façade. But as architectural tastes shifted over time, the design of the façade was altered as well. Biasio was ultimately only responsible for the lower part; the upper part was constructed by Giovanni Battista Marchetti (1686-1758). In 1825 the dome of the cathedral was completed. Construction of this pièce de résistance had commenced in 1815. The dome is at least 80 metres high, even 82 metres according to one source. It was designed by Luigi Cagnola (1762-1833) and built by Rodolfo Vantini (1792-1856).

With the addition of the dome, the cathedral was finished. Even so, it was not until 1914 that the building was officially consecrated by Giacinto Gaggia, the then bishop of Brescia (1913-1933). During World War II, the cathedral suffered serious damage as a result of an Allied bombardment that took place on 13 July 1944. Fortunately it was not beyond repair. The best view of the Duomo is from the Colle Cidneo, the hill on which Brescia’s Castello is located. The view of the imposing dome is especially good from this spot.

The Duomo Nuovo seen from a distance.

Arca di Sant’Apollonio.

Exploring the Duomo

The impressive facade is an amalgam of Baroque and Neoclassicism, executed in Marmo Botticino. This is a type of white marble named after the town of Botticino, east of Brescia. The façade is richly decorated with Corinthian columns; the triangular pediment has statues of the Assumption and the apostles Peter, Paul, James and John. These statues were made by various artists at the end of the eighteenth century. Once inside, we can see for ourselves that the Duomo Nuovo was indeed constructed on a Greek-cross plan, to which in this case a very deep choir was added. Above the high altar is a canvas by the painter Giacomo Zoboli (1681-1767) representing the Assumption of the Virgin. Both the decorations in and outside the building make it clear that this is indeed the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

The Duomo Nuovo has eight chapels, although these are really no more than niches. I will briefly discuss some of the highlights that we can admire there. In the right arm of the Greek cross, we find the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament, which has a Neo-classicist altar by the aforementioned Rodolfo Vantini. The altarpiece was painted by Il Moretto (Alessandro Bonvicino; ca. 1498-1554/1564). Just a bit further down the aisle, we stumble upon the so-called Arch of Saint Apollonius (Arca di Sant’Apollonio). This magnificent work, installed between painted columns, dates from the early sixteenth century (1508-1510) and was made by the sculptor Gasparo Cairano, whose years of birth and death are unfortunately unknown. The arch served as a final resting place for the remains of Saint Apollonius, a fourth century bishop of Brescia. When the summer cathedral of San Pietro was demolished, the Arch was moved temporarily to the adjacent Duomo Vecchio. Later it was returned to what was more or less its old spot. A particularly curious object is the reliquary in front of the Arch: it is said to contain an arm of Saint Benedictus of Nursia (ca. 480-547).

Monument for Pope Paulus VI.

On the other side of the cathedral, at the end of the left aisle, there is a chapel that has the tomb of the aforementioned, seventeenth century bishop Marino Zorzi. The bishop is also featured in the altarpiece in the chapel, which is a work by the Venetian painter Jacopo Palma Il Giovane (ca. 1548-1628). An image of the chapel can be found here.

In the chapel in the left arm of the Greek cross, we can admire several organ panels that used to be in the Duomo Vecchio. They were painted by Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566), but are unfortunately so high up on the wall that they are easy to miss. The panels are furthermore easily eclipsed by a rather conspicuous statue of Pope Paulus VI (1963-1978). This pope was born in 1897 as Giovanni Battista Montini. His place of birth was Concesio, a small town just north of Brescia.[1] In 1920, he was ordained a priest and held his first mass in the sanctuary next to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Brescia. Once pope, he continued the Second Vatican Council, which had been convened by his predecessor Pope John XXIII in an attempt to modernise the Roman-Catholic Church. Pope Paulus VI passed away in 1978 and was beatified in 2014. His canonisation followed quickly in 2018. The square in front of the two Brescian cathedrals is named the Piazza Paolo VI after him. His statue in the Duomo Nuovo was made in 1984 by Raffaele “Lello” Scorzelli (1921-1997). Scorzelli had previously made the papal ferula that Paulus VI used. The statue of the pope has been provided with a replica of this bishop’s staff.

Sources

Note

[1] On a side note, professional football player Mario Balotelli grew up in Concesio.

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