Cremona: The Duomo

Duomo of Cremona.

The Duomo of Cremona, also known as the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, is undoubtedly the most famous building of the city. Almost every person living in the Netherlands knows it, if only because the cathedral and adjacent Baptistery feature prominently in a De’Longhi coffee commercial. The setting of the commercial is the picturesque Piazza del Comune, where apart from the two aforementioned buildings we also find two beautiful buildings from the thirteenth century, the Palazzo del Commune and the Loggia dei Militi. However, this post is only about the cathedral, which was built in the twelfth century. The Duomo of Cremona can easily be counted among the most stunning Romanesque churches in Italy, although I readily admit that the building has not managed to entirely preserve its Romanesque purity. The interior and exterior of the cathedral feature too many Gothic, Mannerist and Baroque elements for that. Next to the cathedral we find the sturdy Torrazzo. This campanile, with an attested height of over 112 metres, is generally considered to be the highest medieval tower in Italy (the Campanile di Mortegliano is even higher, but it is not medieval). Visitors are allowed to climb the Torrazzo and that is exactly what I will do in this post.

History

The first stone of the Duomo was laid on 26 August of the year 1107. The twelfth century was a Golden Age for Cremona. Although it was not left untouched by the feud between the Guelphs (who supported the Pope) and the Ghibellines (the supporters of the Emperor), the city’s economy flourished and Cremona was considered a regional military power. The twelfth century also produced the great scholar Gerard of Cremona (ca. 1114-1187), although he left for Toledo in Spain to learn Arabic and translate Arabic texts into Latin. So to sum up, for Cremona the twelfth century was an ideal time to start construction of a new cathedral. It is generally assumed that the workmen first built the apse and choir and then the nave of the Duomo. Unfortunately Northern Italy was struck by a heavy earthquake in 1117, which destroyed almost all of the work. After a twelve-year break the project was relaunched in 1129. The cathedral was presumably completed by the middle of the century, but it was not until 1190 or 1196 that the building was consecrated by Sicardus of Cremona, who served as bishop of the city between 1185 and 1215.

Piazza del Comune.

As part of the consecration ceremony, the remains of Saint Himerius of Cremona (who died in about 560) were translated to the cathedral. These relics were said to have been ‘rediscovered’ in 1129 when workmen were searching through the rubble of the partially completed Duomo that had just collapsed. The story is vague and unconvincing; it kind of resembles the story of how the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist were ‘rediscovered’ in Venice (see Venice: San Marco). Perhaps the story was simply made up by the church authorities in an attempt to get construction of the cathedral going again. If that is indeed the case, we may conclude that the little ruse worked out perfectly. On a side note, it should be mentioned here that the sixth century Saint Himerius had no relation whatsoever with Cremona. He was, in fact, the bishop of Amelia in Umbria. Thanks to the tenth century bishop Liutprand his relics were taken to Cremona in 965, where Himerius quickly became patron saint of the city.

View of the transept from above. Note the characteristic little towers.

When the Duomo was consecrated in 1190, it had yet to be provided with a transept. This was added in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Both ends of the transept have their own façade and the transept itself is much longer than is usual for a Catholic church. As a result, the cathedral now has the shape of a botched Greek cross. I have not bothered to actually measure it, but the transept may very well be longer than the nave of the cathedral. When the transept was built, the Romanesque style had fallen out of favour and Gothic had become the norm. If we inspect the cathedral, we immediately recognise the pointed arches and cross-vaults, which can also be found in the nave. There the Romanesque arches were replaced with Gothic ones, an operation which very likely involved raising the clerestory and the vault as well. The Mannerist frescoes on the walls of the nave, which will be discussed in greater detail below, date from the first decades of the sixteenth century. For their part, the Baroque works of art in the cathedral mostly date from the seventeenth century.

Exterior

The façade of the Duomo is perhaps the most beautiful part of the building. While the northern and southern façades of the transept are plain and simple and completely made of brick, the main façade facing the Piazza del Comune is entirely clad in white and pink marble. This façade is attributed to the Maestri campionesi, specialised craftsmen from Campione d’Italia near the border with Switzerland who were active in thirteenth century Cremona. Based on an inscription, the façade is more specifically attributed to Jacopo Porrata and dated to 1274. Porrata was presumably the lead architect, but we really know very little about him, apart from the fact that he was from Como.

Close-up of part of the façade.

Peter of Verona.

Although it dates from the thirteenth century, the façade also features quite a lot of reused sculptural work from the preceding century. The portal through which one enters the church is for instance attributed to the workshop of one Master Niccolò. A sculptor from this workshop made four rather large sculptures of prophets which can be found on either side of the entrance. They are Jeremiah and Isaiah (on the left) and Daniel and Ezekiel (on the right). Directly to the left of the entrance, under the loggia, we find reliefs featuring scenes from the Book of Genesis. These were made by an artist from the school of a certain Wiligelmus. It was the same school that produced the ceremonial foundation stone of the cathedral, which visitors should be able to find in the sacristy (the Baptistery has a replica).

The façade has two loggias that immediately catch the eye. The long horizontal loggia is sometimes called the Loggia della Bertazzola (see the second image in this post). It connects the cathedral to the Torrazzo. This colonnade was built at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. It replaced an older loggia made of wood. Topping the current loggia are statues of saints and angels. We immediately recognise Saint Peter of Verona (with a meat cleaver in his skull; far left) and Saint Franciscus of Assisi (far right). The statues were sculpted in the eighteenth century by Giorgio and Antonio Ferretti, who were father and son (for the son, see Brescia: Santa Maria della Carità). The statues are of decent quality, but can hardly be called exceptional.

Marble lion.

What is, on the other hand, truly exceptional, is the narrow vertical loggia (or pròtiro) that surrounds the main entrance. The construction is supported by two lions made of red marble from Verona. These are tentatively attributed to Giambono da Bissone, one of the Maestri campionesi. The upper part of the loggia is once again decorated with reused older sculptural work. Here we find the beautiful Fregio dei Mesi, the Frieze of the Months, which was made at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century (see the image above). The name of the artist is unknown, but his style demonstrates he closely followed Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230).

The calendar should be read from right to left. The months of March to August are separated from September to February by the relief of a bishop who may very well be Sicardus, the man who consecrated the cathedral in 1190 or 1196. The website of the cathedral points out strong similarities between the Frieze of the Months and a similar calendar which can be found in the Baptistery of Parma (which was designed by Antelami). I myself noticed similarities between the Frieze and the statues representing the months that once adorned the exterior of the Duomo of Ferrara as part of a Porta dei Mesi. And have I got news for you, Benedetto Antelami was involved with the creation of that portal as well.

Above the Frieze of the Months are three niches into which statues have been set of the Madonna and Child, the aforementioned Saint Himerius and Saint Homobonus of Cremona (see the large image above). The latter’s full name was Omobono Tucenghi. He was a rich cloth merchant who was known as a particularly pious man. After his death on 13 November 1197, the citizens of Cremona pleaded with the new pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) to canonise him as quickly as possible. Pope Innocentius honoured their request and made Homobonus a saint in January of 1199. This was little more than a year after he had died, making his canonisation even quicker than that of Saint Franciscus, although slightly less speedy than that of Saint Peter of Verona. The three statues are attributed to Marco Romano, a sculptor who – as his name indicates – was originally from Rome. However, his style is that of the Tuscan school and he was commissioned to work in Cremona by the then bishop of the city, Rainerio del Porrina (1296-1312). The statues must have once been painted. Himerius is easily recognisable as a bishop, while Homobonus wears the robes of a merchant and holds a coin in his right hand. Nowadays it is the former, much more than the latter, who is considered Cremona’s patron saint.

Upper part of the façade.

I have already told my readers much about the façade, but there is still more to see. Note the two colonnades (plus some extra pieces of colonnade) and the beautiful rose window above the vertical loggia. The window is also attributed to Jacopo Porrata. The top part of the façade is a relatively new addition: it was added between 1491 and 1507. Until 1498 the architect in charge was Alberto Maffiolo da Carrara, who was then replaced by Giovan Pietro da Rho. The top part is composed of curled decorations or volutes, four niches with saints and a triangular pediment. In the niches we see statues of Saints Peter, Paul, Marcellinus and another Peter.

Marcellinus and Peter, a priest and an exorcist, were victims of the persecution of Christians orchestrated by the Roman emperor Diocletianus at the start of the fourth century (see Rome: Catacombe dei Santi Marcellino e Pietro). Apparently, the two saints are quite popular in Cremona: west of the cathedral is a church dedicated to Santi Marcellino e Pietro and in the crypt of the Duomo the relics of the two martyrs are kept. So there is a bond between them and Cremona, although I have not been able to figure out what it is. A rather curious detail is that in the pediment we see the name of Pope Gregorius XIV (1590-1591). Gregorius was born as Niccolò Sfondrati and served as bishop of Cremona between 1560 and 1590. He was also cardinal-priest of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. Unfortunately, once pope he died within the year.

Interior of the Duomo.

Interior

Apse with works by Boccaccino, Gatti and Campi.

It is now time to enter the cathedral. The most conspicuous decorations of the nave, choir and apse are the Mannerist frescoes from the early sixteenth century. Creation of these decorations started in the apse, where Boccaccio Boccaccino (died ca. 1525) painted his Christ the Redeemer (or Pantokrator) in 1506-1507. Christ is flanked by the symbols of the four evangelists and by four saints: Marcellinus, Himerius, Homobonus and Peter (the exorcist, not the apostle). Boccaccino also painted a nice Annunciation on the arch above the apse, but the enormous altarpiece featuring the Assumption of the Virgin – quite appropriate for a cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta – was made by Bernardino Gatti (ca. 1495-1576). Regretfully, Gatti died before he could finish the work, so it had to be completed by Giovan Battista Trotti (1555-1619), nicknamed ‘Il Malosso’. The works on either side of the altarpiece are by Antonio (ca. 1523-1587) and Bernardino Campi (ca. 1520-1591). The Campi family produced many talented painters, but the exact familial relations between these men are not always clear. Giulio Campi (1502-1572) was active in the cathedral as well. He painted the altarpiece for the altar of Saint Michael the Archangel in the left transept.

About seven years after completing his apse fresco, in 1514, Boccaccio Boccaccino started decorating the left wall of the nave. Here we see stories from the life of the Virgin, complemented on the right wall by episodes from the Passion of Christ. Combined with the huge fresco of the Crucifixion and the smaller frescoes of the Deposition and Resurrection on the counter-façade, the fresco cycle can – as the website of the cathedral elegantly puts it – be seen as a true Biblia Pauperum, a Bible for the poor. Poor people did not have to be literate to get to know the essential stories from the lives of the Virgin and Jesus Christ. It should be noted that Boccaccino was not the only painter involved. On the left wall we also find work by Gian Francesco Bembo (died 1526) and Altobello Melone (died in the 1540s), on the right wall by the aforementioned Melone and by the great Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566). Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, nicknamed Il Pordenone (ca. 1483-1539), became active in the cathedral in 1520. He painted the last three scenes on the right wall. Of the three scenes, the one depicting Christ being nailed to the cross is an artistic gem because of the trompe-l’oeil elements (see the image below). Note for instance the piece of cloth on the far left that is draped over the head of the prophet. On the other side a piece of the cross is ‘breaking the fourth wall’ while a prophet points at a hole near the base.

Christ nailed to the cross – Il Pordenone.

And now for the true highlight, the enormous fresco of the Crucifixion, painted on the counter-façade by Pordenone in 1520-1521. This work is truly horrifying. Christ (note the sign with the letters INRI) and one of the thieves have already been crucified, while the crucifixion of the other thief is still ongoing. The fresco is full of action, drama and surrealistic effects. Note the Virgin who has fainted, the enormous banner with the letters SPQR held by the mounted soldier and all the figures gesticulating wildly. There is a remarkable contrast between the figures on the right with their eastern turbans and the soldiers wearing European armour. In this fresco, Christ is not even the central figure, that honour goes to the immense bearded soldier with the huge broadsword. The armour he wears is of the type one can find in the Castello of Brescia and he points at the Saviour. Compared to the raw violence of the Crucifixion, the Deposition, painted by Pordenone in 1522, is an oasis of peace and tranquillity. The cycle about the life of Christ was completed in 1529 by Bernardino Gatti with a fresco of the Resurrection.

Crucifixion – Il Pordenone.

Altar of San Rocco.

There is much more to see inside the fascinating Duomo of Cremona. Sometime after my visit, I was forced to conclude that I paid far too little attention to the medieval frescoes on the cross-vaults of the transept. These date from the second half of the fourteenth century and must have been painted after the transept was completed. We do not know who the painter was, but he certainly knew his trade. The Duomo website provides much more information about the cycle. And then there are the beautiful choir stalls by Giovanni Maria Platina (ca. 1455-1500). These were made between 1483 and 1489.

Of the many altars in the cathedral, I would like to draw my readers’ attention to the Baroque altar of San Rocco (1635-1645). Construction of this altar was closely linked to a plague in 1630. This should not come as a surprise, as Saint Rochus (or Roche) is a patron saint of plague-sufferers. The painted wooden statue of Rochus is flanked by smaller statues of Saint Franciscus of Assisi and Saint Bernardinus of Siena. The ten paintings that adorn the altar were made by Luigi Miradori, nicknamed Il Genovesino (ca. 1610-1657). To conclude this section, I would like to mention that the cathedral is an important place of worship of the Saints Marius, Martha, Audifax, and Abachum. These extremely obscure third century martyrs were said to have been doctors from Persia (except Martha of course, she was the wife and mother). Tradition dictates that they were martyred in Rome during the reign of the emperor Claudius Gothicus (268-270). We should be suspicious about this tradition, for Claudius was not known as a persecutor of Christians. Reliefs featuring stories about their alleged martyrdom can be found on the two pulpits at the end of the nave. The pulpits were made in 1813-1817 by Luigi Voghera, but the reliefs date from the late fifteenth century.

Crypt and Torrazzo

Triptych with Saint Nicholas (1495).

The crypt should be open to the public, but for some reason we and a couple of other visitors were asked to leave by a custodian. We were therefore only able to catch a glimpse of the Arca dei santi Marcellino e Pietro, the arch, made in 1506, that contains the relics of Saints Marcellinus and Peter. It was sculpted by Benedetto Briosco (ca. 1460-1517; see Milan: Museo del Duomo). Obviously the crypt is also the place where one should be able to find the remains of Cremona’s patron saints, Himerius and Homobonus. After our visit here was cut short, we fortunately did notice a beautiful marble triptych from 1495 featuring Saint Nicholas (centre), Saint Damianus (left) and Saint Homobonus (right). Homobonus is again depicted as a merchant and can be seen giving a coin to small boy. The men who made the triptych were Tommaso Amici and Mirabila del Mazo. This is undisputed, as they have actually signed their work.

After paying five Euros, visitors are allowed to climb the immense Torrazzo next to the cathedral (pay an additional Euro, and you can also visit the Baptistery). 502 steps lead to the top of the tower, which offers a panoramic view of Cremona. Up here you will discover that Cremona is not that large: behind the built-up area one can see the surrounding fields. The Torrazzo is furthermore an excellent spot to observe the cathedral itself from above. The slender brick towers on the three façades and apse immediately catch the eye. Visitors will also be able to spot many of the other churches in Cremona, for instance those dedicated to Saints Homobonus and Marcellinus and Peter. The church of Sant’Agata, which I will discuss later, is visible as well.

View of Cremona.

Clock of the cathedral.

The campanile of the Duomo was built in several phases between 1230 and 1309 (or 1305, according to the website of the cathedral). The tower has a height of over 112 metres, although the cathedral authorities claim it is a whopping 122 metres high. Now it should be noted that confusion about the exact height of towers is not unusual in Italy (see for instance Siena: Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico), but in this case I think 122 metres can be dismissed as an exaggeration. Since 2018 the Torrazzo houses the Vertical Museum (Museo Verticale) which is entirely dedicated to time and astronomy. The astronomical clock in the tower is a technological miracle. It was made by a father and son, Giovanni Francesco and Giovanni Battista Divizioli, shortly after the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The clock face was painted by Giovanni Battista Dordoni and Pietro Martire Pesenti.

Sources

  • Capitool Reisgidsen Italië 2014, p. 206;
  • Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 89-91;
  • Italian Wikipedia;
  • Website of the Duomo.

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