There are many reasons to consider the small church of San Pietro in Mavino to be the highlight of Sirmione. First of all, it literally occupies a high spot, as it was built at the top of a hill near the end of the promontory on which Sirmione is situated. The name of the church, San Pietro in Mavino, actually refers to its location in summas vineas, in the highest (or very high) vineyards. Secondly, it is usually very nice and quiet in around the little church. Sirmione can be a bit of a pandemonium, but most tourists do not seem to have discovered the San Pietro yet. And finally, the little church is well worth your time because of the frescoes that can be found inside. My travel guide, which by the way discusses the little church rather summarily, claims that these frescoes were painted between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. I think that is a tad inaccurate: considering the styles we see, these works of art must have been made between the late thirteenth and the fifteenth century. We can rule out that there are sixteenth century frescoes in the San Pietro. Anyway, as a result of a recent restoration, the frescoes, and especially those in the apses, look splendid again.
The history of the San Pietro in Mavino goes back to the eighth century. We are probably not far off if we link its history to the Longobard king Desiderius (757-774) and his wife queen Ansa, who in the second half of the eighth century founded a convent in Sirmione (see Brescia: Santa Giulia (part 1)). This convent was the Abbazia di San Salvatore, which has not survived: nowadays we only see a few scant remains of it. The San Pietro in Mavino must have been built around the same time, and local websites usually mention the year 765. In the eleventh century, the church was completely rebuilt and a campanile was added. In 1320 it was enlarged and the church was given its present appearance: that of an aisleless church. On this occasion, new frescoes were painted on the walls. In one fresco we see Saint Simeon pointing at a year that it mentioned on a banner: MCCCXXI, or 1321 (see the image below). The church was provided with more frescoes on a later occasion. A mural of Saint Michael the Archangel for instance dates to at least the fifteenth century.
The most beautiful frescoes can be found in the three apses of the little church. The great central apse has a fresco of Christ enthroned inside a mandorla, flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist (see the image below). Two angels are blowing their trumpets, thus resurrecting the dead that can be seen at Christ’s feet. From this we may conclude that the scene depicts the Last Judgment. Note the two trees that have been painted to the left and right of the mandorla. The leaves have been analysed and it has been established that we see plane trees. Below Christ’s feet two groups of three saints have been added. At least two of them can easily be identified as Saints Peter and Paul. It is possible that the saints are six of the twelve apostles who together sat on the Heavenly Court and were thus part of the Last Judgment. If this theory is correct, then unfortunately we must conclude that the other six apostles have disappeared without a trace.
The smaller right apse was provided with a fresco of the Crucifixion (see the image below). The Virgin Mary has fainted and is supported by other women. On the right we see Saint John the Evangelist, and below the Crucifixion scene Saint Michael the Archangel, with a spear and scales. He is – apparently – flanked by Saints Mary Magdalene and James the Greater, who introduce two kneeling suppliants to him. A nice little detail are the two faces in the air, which probably represent sun and moon. Regretfully the lower part of this fresco is quite damaged. The fresco of the Madonna and Child in the left apse (see the image below) has fortunately survived completely intact. The Madonna is flanked by two Saints John – the Baptist and the Evangelist – and we see vines growing from her throne.
The wall frescoes should be seen as intriguing rather than beautiful. Whether they are in the right place is up for debate, and it is certain that the cycle we see today is anything but complete. Some of the saints can be identified because their names are still legible (an example is the aforementioned Saint Simeon), others are easily recognisable because of their attributes (an example is the Penitent Mary Magdalene in a hairy tunic), but many remain anonymous.
On the little square in front of the church is a war memorial, the Campana dei Caduti. Engraved in this ‘Bell of the Fallen’ are the names of Italians from Sirmione who fell for their country, mostly during both World Wars. The bell actually has a name: La Julia. A plaque near the memorial refers to 8 September 1943, the day the Italian government surrendered to the Allies. On that day, Nazi Germany lost an ally and won an enemy. As a consequence, units of the German army immediately invaded Italy and began disarming the Italian forces. Over a million Italian soldiers were sent to German prisoner camps and several thousands of them did not return. It is for these fallen that La Julia is sounded at sunset.