Bardolino: San Zeno

Church of San Zeno.

It is a five-minute walk from the church of San Severo to the minuscule church of San Zeno, a true gem just outside the centre of Bardolino. You are unlikely to encounter many other visitors here. According to my travel guide, the San Zeno is among the oldest churches in Italy.[1] That is a bit of an exaggeration, but the church is certainly old. The history of the building goes back to at least the days of the emperor Charlemagne, and the San Zeno is first documented in 807. It is easy to miss the little church, as it simply blends in with the buildings that surround it. Fortunately a Good Samaritan has put up a sign with the letters S. ZENO above the entrance, so that we know we are entering the right building.

Upon entering we immediately find ourselves in the single nave of the church, where we see a peculiar mix of old and new elements. The carpets, chairs and hideous painting of a bishop – no doubt Saint Zeno of Verona – and a couple of putti are new. The old elements are the six Roman columns, taken from other buildings as spolia and reused here. The information panel outside the church claims that of the Corinthian capitals only one is a Roman original. The others are replicas from the Carolingian era, which means they are still over twelve centuries old. A notable element of this church is the square dome at the crossing of the nave and transept. It is called a tiburio in Italian.

Interior of the church.

The walls of the San Zeno must have once been entirely decorated with frescoes. Unfortunately not much of these frescoes is left today. In a niche left of the altar, itself half gone, we still see the remnants of what were once a Madonna and Child. The Madonna still has a head, but no body, while the Child has a body, but no head. In much better condition is a fresco of Saint Peter in a niche to the right of the altar. Peter is easily recognisable by his white beard and hair. The saint has been depicted wearing a Roman toga, but the frescoes date from the ninth century. They were presumably executed shortly after the little church was completed and can therefore be considered 100 percent original. An interesting detail of the fresco featuring Saint Peter is the partly preserved architectural background. Note that the painter has bravely tried his hand at perspective.

Frescoes in the San Zeno.

Note

[1] Evert de Rooij, Lago di Garda, p. 140.

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