The Santa Maria Maggiore, also known as the Santa Maria della Neve, is a parish church in the centre of Sirmione. It is difficult to establish how old exactly the church is, but construction of the current Santa Maria Maggiore took place between the second half of the fifteenth century and about 1508-1510. The church did exist before the second half of the fifteenth century, but it was then known as the San Martino in Castro. Castro – from Latin castrum, which means ‘army camp’ or ‘fort’ – must refer to the castle of Sirmione, the Rocca Scaligera, which is a mere eighty metres to the south. The old church was literally ‘in Castro’, so inside the castle, and standing on the keep of the Rocca, 47 metres above the ground, one can easily see what this meant. Behind the church one will spot the remains of a wall and a tower, and it follows that the defences surrounding the Rocca Scaligera were much more elaborate in the past (see the image below). The freestanding campanile of the current church was part of these defences as well. So in other words, it was originally not even a campanile.
The church portico was added in the seventeenth century. Note the column on the far left. This used to be a Roman milestone and it mentions the name of the emperor Julianus the Apostate (361-363). The exterior of the church is otherwise devoid of interesting decorations and the interior of the Santa Maria Maggiore is plain and simple (see the image below). The enormous pointed arches from the (late) Gothic period immediately catch the eye and among the other decorations we see a few Baroque altars and some pretty good stained glass windows. The walls have several frescoes that were painted in 1510, for example the fresco included in this post that depicts Saint Vincentius. It is easy to determine when the fresco was made, for the painter was kind enough to add the year 1510 to his work. None of the aforementioned pieces of art can be called spectacular, and in this respect the Santa Maria Maggiore is no more than an ordinary church. In fact, the most beautiful object from the Santa Maria Maggiore is not even in the church anymore. I found it in the museum of the Grotte di Catullo elsewhere in Sirmione: a beautiful pluteus, or balustrade that separates the nave from the sanctuary (see the image below). The object probably dates from the ninth century and the style appears to be Longobardic. The pluteus is exceptional, but I already mentioned that you will no longer be able to find it in this church.
Fortunately the Santa Maria Maggiore does still have the remains of older frescoes that have been attached to the walls. Although these frescoes raise more questions than I can answer, a couple of things are fairly clear. Judging by the style of the works they were painted in different periods and they all predate the construction of the current church in the second half of the fifteenth century. That means they must have once adorned the walls of the San Martino in Castro, and we can count our blessings that they have been detached and preserved. Therefore I will include a small slideshow below. One of the best preserved frescoes can be found on the northern wall. It is a Madonna and Child with three saints: Saint Catherine of Alexandria (note the wheel), Saint John the Baptist and a second female saint. The style suggests it dates from the fourteenth century. On the same wall we see the remains of a fresco featuring a woman (a canonised queen perhaps?) who addresses a group of other women. I have no idea what this scene is supposed to depict, but it is certainly intriguing. On the southern wall we furthermore see a Crucifixion, a Pietà and a fresco featuring Saint Christopher. Another highlight of the northern wall is a fresco with several episodes from the life of Christ.
Since this is a rather short post, I will add some information about the restaurant where we had lunch after our visit to the Santa Maria Maggiore. Restaurant La Nuova Botte is located in the Via Antiche Mura directly north of the church. Our experience there was rather weird, but not because the food was bad. On the contrary, although the seafood starters were nothing special, the pizzas that we got were actually quite good. Was it perhaps the service? Well, it could have been better. If it is 37 degrees Celsius outside, a new bottle of aqua naturale should be served right away, and not after asking five times. But since the bottle ultimately did arrive and the staff issued an apology, we do not have any serious complaints about La Nuova Botte.
Unfortunately there is more. What was really horrible was the way an elderly couple was treated. It must have been close to 14:00 when they took a seat. The restaurant was mostly empty, for most people who had gone there for lunch had already left. It was rather unlikely that many more new people were going to ask for a table, so one would expect the staff to be happy with any new client. Well, not in Sirmione. When the couple indicated they only wanted to have a drink, their menus were taken away from them and they were simply kicked out. The rather hot-headed waitress rudely told them to go to a wine bar if they only wanted a drink. A cynical ‘bye’ then ended their first – and undoubtedly only – visit to La Nuova Botte. If you search online, you will inevitably find more stories about arrogant and rude behaviour from the staff of the restaurant. If you are going to eat here, be warned!
- Capitool Reisgidsen Milaan & De Meren 2010, p. 148;
- Evert de Rooij, Lago di Garda, p. 78.