Brescia: San Pietro in Oliveto

The San Pietro in Oliveto.

We left the church of the Most Sacred Body of Christ and followed a path leading up the slope of the Colle Cidneo. After less than 300 metres, we had already reached the next church that was on our list, that of San Pietro in Oliveto, or Saint Peter in the Olive Garden. It soon became clear to us that tourists looking for important works of art may very well skip this church. The church once owned works by the great Brescian painter Il Moretto (ca. 1498-1554/1564) and a polyptych by Antonio Vivarini (died ca. 1480), but all of these works have been moved to museums long ago. The church and the adjacent cloisters are nowadays dominated by soberness, but they do have one unique selling point: their location on the hill, which is both magnificent and exceptionally quiet. The south side of the complex offers a panoramic view of Brescia and allows visitors to see landmarks such as the aforementioned  Santissimo Corpo di Cristo, the church of Sant’Afra and the Duomo Nuovo from afar.

The first church on this spot may have been founded as early as the eighth century, when Brescia was under Longobard rule. At the start of the twelfth century, this small church was enlarged, or rather incorporated into a larger building constructed in the Romanesque style. The new church was consecrated in 1148 by Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153). In the fifteenth century, the San Pietro in Oliveto became a victim of both its strategic position and the political situation in Italy. Brescia had been ruled by the Viscontis of Milan since 1337, but in 1404 it was taken by the condottiero Pandolfo III Malatesta. In 1426 it was subsequently acquired by the Republic of Venice, which constantly vied for power in Northern Italy with Milan. The condottiero Niccolò Piccinino, who was fighting for the Milanese, put Brescia under siege in 1438. Since the San Pietro in Oliveto stood close to the eastern city walls, the church was directly in the line of fire. Although the siege was ultimately a failure, both the church and the adjacent convent were heavily damaged in the fighting. And perhaps even worse: the olive garden that gave the church its name was no longer there. Because of a shortage of timber, all the trees had been cut down during the siege.

Interior of the church.

Most of the rest of the fifteenth century was spent repairing the damage to the complex. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the buildings were given a makeover in the style of Renaissance. The architect involved was Antonio Medaglia. The most visible result of his intervention is the facade of the church. Its principal decorations are a relief of God the Father and statues of Saint Peter (with a key) and Saint Paul (with a sword). The presence of the latter is a subtle hint that the church, although it is consistently called the San Pietro, is actually dedicated to both Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

The history of the church from the later seventeenth century onward is not exactly a happy story. Although there were periods of relative quiet, it is hard to ignore all the tragedies, ranging from a fanatic provost who sobered up the splendid interior to the billeting of French soldiers in the Napoleonic era and of Italian Bersaglieri during the First World War. Fortunately the complex survived the Second World War unscathed, and in the 1960s both cloisters were thoroughly restored.

Cloister with Doric columns.

If we cross the threshold of the entrance, we enter a church with a simple Renaissance interior. There are many works of art on the walls, but I only found an Ascent to Calvary by Paolo da Caylina the Younger (ca. 1485-1545) worth my time. An image of this painting can be found here. This Paolo da Caylina the Younger was a son or – more likely – a nephew of Paolo da Caylina the Elder, whose work in Brescia has been discussed before (here and here).

The two cloisters can be found to the south of the church. The atmosphere here is nice and quiet. The complex is administered by Discalced Carmelites, who also live here. The larger of the two cloisters, which can be reached from the right transept, has a colonnade composed of Doric columns and a well in the centre. The smaller cloister has Ionic instead of Doric columns. This cloister gives access to a large inner court, which offers a panoramic view of the city. It is truly wonderful to spend a few minutes here and admire the Brescian skyline.

Sources

  • Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 54;
  • Information panel in front of the church;
  • Italian Wikipedia.

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