On the edge of Bardolino’s small centre, we find the Romanesque church of San Severo. This church should not be confused with the church of San Nicolò e San Severo situated in the centre itself. The latter is a neo-classicist monstrosity that visitors to Bardolino should really skip. The San Severo without San Nicolò, however, is a thoroughly charming medieval little church with an interesting collection of frescoes which mostly date from the twelfth century.
The church of San Severo is first documented in 893. Over the centuries, the building underwent a lot of changes. Parts of the central apse and right outer wall can be traced back to the early Middle Ages. These are the remains of the original building, which must have been rebuilt at the end of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century. Fabric from this period can be found in another part of the central apse, the right apse, the right outer wall, the façade and the campanile. Finally, the left outer wall and the left apse date from the twelfth century. People consulting the plan of the church on the information panel outside will no doubt conclude that this is a highly asymmetrical building. The façade is slightly skew and the left apse is larger than the right apse. In the following centuries, more changes were made to the building. In the eighteenth century the façade was remodelled and in 1942-1943 the apses were completely rebuilt.
The interior of the San Severo can only be described as simple. Brick columns create a nave and two aisles of uneven width and support several arcades. Apart from a crucifix, the central apse is completely undecorated. The church furthermore has an open crypt, which is largely uninteresting. The main attractions in this church are the frescoes painted on the walls of the nave. As was mentioned above, these date from the twelfth century. They personally reminded me of the frescoes in the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina in Rome, which were made during the pontificate of Pope Celestinus III (1191-1198). The San Severo frescoes are probably several decades older, for it is assumed that they have been added in the early twelfth century. On the right wall of the nave we see stories from the life of the Virgin and scenes from the Book of Revelation. The left wall has scenes from the life of Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, who finds the True Cross in Jerusalem.
The scenes from the Book of Revelation include images of monsters and the twenty-four elders mentioned in this Book. The colours of the frescoes have faded and the texts are now largely illegible, but fortunately it still possible to establish what has been depicted here. The story of the finding of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother is well-known: in about 326/327, Helena travels to the Holy Land to find the cross to which the Saviour had been nailed. A Jew who knows its whereabouts is thrown into a pit and only taken out again after he reveals the location where the cross was buried. With the Jew’s information, Helena manages to dig up three crosses. Since Christ was crucified between two criminals, the problem is which cross is His. The cross is held over the body of young man who has just died. The man is miraculously brought back to life and this makes it clear that the cross is in fact the True Cross. The whole story can still be read fairly well on the left wall, and that includes the cruel treatment of the Jew. One wonders whether the fifteenth century painter Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492) ever saw the fresco cycle in Bardolino: he created a similar cycle for the church of San Francesco in Arezzo.
On the walls of the left aisle and left apse are some more frescoes. It is difficult to date them, but some must have been executed simultaneously with the frescoes on the walls of the nave. Other frescoes, for instance one of an unknown bishop, are possibly a little younger: thirteenth or fourteenth century. I particularly liked the fresco of an angel near the left apse. “Particularly expressive and well preserved”, according to the information panel outside the church. Amen to that!