Rules are rules, and sitting on the steps of the cathedral is not allowed in Piacenza. It was a clear message that a cyclist who happened to be passing by conveyed to my better half and myself. It was a hot day and the sun was out in force. We were sitting on the steps in the shadow, where it was nice and cool, and were about to read a bit about the history and art of the Duomo. The cyclist told us it would be better to do that inside, as the police might give us a fine if we stayed outside. We decided to abide by the local laws and thanked the cyclist for his warning. After getting up, we entered the medieval building and started exploring it, unfortunately less prepared than usual.
Saint Justina, but which one?
The cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta – Mary taken up to Heaven – and to Saint Justina. This is not Saint Justina of Padova, a virgin who according to tradition was martyred in 304, but Saint Justina of Antioch. She was said to have been executed in the same year in Nicomedia by order of the emperor Diocletianus. While it is true that this emperor persecuted Christians, the story of Saint Justina of Antioch does not sound very credible. A sorcerer named Cyprianus supposedly tried to put a spell on her to fall in love with a man, but the spell had no effect at all on pious Justina. On the contrary, she managed to convert Cyprianus, who subsequently even became bishop of Antioch. This is a clear indication we are dealing with pseudo-history: the city of Antioch never had a bishop named Cyprianus, unlike the city of Carthage. And where Justina of Antioch is often confused with her namesake from Padova, it is much the same with the two Cypriani.
Cyprianus and Justina were, according to tradition, ultimately both arrested, tortured and decapitated. Their remains ended up in Rome, where in the twelfth century a chapel was dedicated to them in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte. Justina’s cult had previously reached Piacenza thanks to the efforts of bishop John Filagathos (988-997), an ethnic Greek from Calabria who in 997-998 served as antipope John XVI for a while. His successor as bishop of Piacenza, Sigifredo (997-1031), continued the cult and it is in the crypt of the cathedral, which has a stunning 108 columns, where her relics are now kept. Justina of Antioch is considered a patron saint of Piacenza. High up in the nave of the cathedral we can admire a marvellous medieval keystone featuring her image. A devil whispers bad things into her ear, but the pious Christian virgin remains unaffected.
Very little is known with certainty about the early history of the Duomo. There are basically two different theories: one assumes that the cathedral was built in two phases, the other that it was built in three. In both theories the year 1122 plays a prominent role. It is a year that is mentioned in a Latin inscription above the right portal of the façade. 1122 is not written in the traditional fashion, i.e. not in Roman numerals (MCXXII), but in full: CENTVM VICENI DVO XPI POST MILLE FVERE ANNO CVM INCEPTVM FVIT HOC LAVDABILE TEMPLVM. So the text says that 122 years had passed after the year of our Lord 1000 when construction of ‘this laudable temple’ commenced. The first theory therefore assumes that the first phase of construction of the cathedral started in 1122 and was ended around 1150-1160. It was then followed by a second phase around the start of the thirteenth century, which led to the building being completed before the middle of that century.
Proponents of the second theory argue that the original cathedral dates from the end of the eleventh century and that this cathedral was damaged by the heavy earthquake that struck Northern Italy in 1117. Piacenza’s eternal rival Cremona, founded by the Romans in the same year on the other side of the river Po, also suffered severe damage. There the unfinished cathedral collapsed and in Piacenza the existing cathedral was heavily damaged. The second theory therefore assumes that the year 1122 did not see the start of construction of the current cathedral, but instead an extensive restoration of the existing building. The theory furthermore hypothesises that after this restoration a comprehensive remodelling took place at the beginning of the thirteenth century.
The campanile of the cathedral dates from 1333. It has a height of 72,5 metres and is topped by a statue of an angel made of gilded bronze. The statue dates from 1341, has a height of 2,75 metres and weighs over 100 kilograms. It is known as the Angil dal Dom and is attributed to the local architect and sculptor Pietro Vago, about whom not much is known (a street west of the Duomo was named after him). A rather curious attribute of the campanile is an iron cage that can be seen just below the bell chamber. The cage was added in 1495 by order of Ludovico Sforza, nicknamed “Il Moro”, who was Duke of Milan between 1494 and 1499. The purpose of the object was to warn criminals that bad behaviour would have dire consequences. When the cage was put up, Piacenza had been under Milanese rule for over a century and a half. However, in 1499 Ludovico was expelled from Milan by the French king Louis XII. Piacenza was then a French possession for a while, but in 1521 became part of the Papal States. Several years later Pope Paulus III (1534-1549), whose birth name was Alessandro Farnese, donated the city to his illegitimate son Pier Luigi Farnese, who subsequently became the first Duke of Parma and Piacenza.
In the seventeenth century the bishops Claudio Rangoni (1596-1619) and Giovanni Linati (1620-1627) both ordered a thorough remodelling of the interior. The Baroque paintings and frescoes that they commissioned have been partially preserved, unlike most of the other Baroque and Neoclassicist additions. At the end of the nineteenth century bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1876-1905) decided that the cathedral of Piacenza was to be given back its original medieval appearance. The bishop therefore hired the architect Camillo Guidotti (1854-1925), who executed the project between 1894 and 1902. As a result of the project the Duomo now has a rather dark and sober interior. Scalabrini, a hugely popular bishop, was beatified in 1997. He was buried in the right transept of the cathedral. Obviously the cathedral should be one of the safest places in all of Piacenza, but in 2013 valuable objects were stolen from the bishop’s coffin. The long street south of the cathedral is named the Via Scalabrini after him.
The lower part of the façade, which covers about half of it, is made of beautiful pink marble from Verona (marmo rosso di Verona). The upper part is made of sandstone; its conspicuous elements are a large rose window, the cross above it and three colonnades. The lower part is decorated with three impressive portals or pròtiri. The portals warrant closer inspection, especially because of their original twelfth century sculptural work. The relief above the left entrance is attributed to the sculptor Wiligelmus and his workshop. He was also active in neighbouring Cremona. The architrave above the entrance features scenes from the early life of Christ: the Annunciation, the Visitation (i.e. Mary visiting her cousin Elisabeth, the future mother of John the Baptist), the Nativity (with a pensive Joseph), the annunciation to the shepherds and the visit of the three Magi. The relief is a typical example of the Romanesque style. The figures at the edges of the architrave represent sinners, the figures below them the virtues Patience and Humility.
The sculptural work of the right portal is attributed to a sculptor named Niccolò (or Nicholaus), whose work in Cremona and Ferrara I have discussed on other occasions. Niccolò and his workshop continued the stories from the life of Christ, so we may conclude that two separate workshops worked on the façade simultaneously. On the architrave we see the Presentation in the Temple, the Flight to Egypt, the Baptism in the river Jordan and a threefold Temptation of Christ by the Devil. At the edges of the architrave we see figures representing Cain and Abel (left) and Adam and Eve (right). Below them there are once again sculptures of Patience and Humility. What is remarkable, is that the text on the relief on the right has been mostly preserved, much unlike that on the left. The text above the stories from the life of Christ describes the scenes that we see below. Below these scenes is the text HOC OPVS INTENDAT QVISQVIS BONVS EXIT ET INTRAT, which means something along the lines of ‘this work is intended for every righteous person entering and exiting’.
It is possible that Wiligelmus and Niccolò worked together on the central portal. Once again the architrave above the main entrance features scenes from the life of Christ. There are no captions, but many of the scenes are easily identified as miracles supposedly performed by the Messiah. Among other things we see the Healing of a blind man, the Wedding at Cana and the Raising of Lazarus. The architrave is supported by two beautiful telamons with captions that read VSVRA (usury) and AVARICIA (greed). The somewhat weathered fresco in the lunette above the architrave looks fairly modern and was presumably painted during the remodelling operation led by Camillo Guidotti.
By far the best and most interesting sculptures can be seen on the arch of the central portal. The arch features a zodiac complemented with winds, stars, sun and moon and the Hand of God in the centre. Six signs of the zodiac have been sculpted on both the left and right and all signs have captions. If they were crafted around the year 1122 mentioned above then they must be close to 900 years old. The reliefs of Hope and Faith above them are, however, modern additions that were made in the twentieth century. The lions supporting the portal date from the sixteenth century.
It is very rewarding to walk around the enormous Duomo and inspect the apse and both ends of the transept. Here too we find sculptures and painted decorations, although these are not as impressive as those of the façade. The walk around the cathedral does give an excellent idea of the size of the building.
Camillo Guidotti’s interventions have made the Duomo a rather empty building, but fortunately there is enough to be seen. Visitors just have to know where to look. I will start with the remaining medieval art. Above, I have already mentioned the keystone featuring Saint Justina and in the nave we find more keystones that feature prophets and more female saints. The columns are adorned with tiles that have been set up there by the medieval guilds in Piacenza (known as paratici). The cartwright’s guild, shoemakers guild, cloth merchants guild, tanners guild, bakers guild and dyers guild all contributed financially to construction of the Duomo and wanted posterity to remember it. Included in this post is the tile of the cartwright’s guild, on which we may read the text IOHANNES CACAINSOLARIO. The tile depicts a man working on the wheel of a cart. All tiles are attributed to Niccolò’s workshop.
During the renovation launched by Scalabrini and led by Guidotti old frescoes were rediscovered in the left transept. A large fresco of Saint Christopher carrying Christ on his shoulder is flanked by smaller frescoes of Saint George (left) and Saint Antoninus of Piacenza (right). The latter was reportedly martyred at the beginning of the fourth century and is considered a patron saint of the city, just like Saint Justina. The frescoes date from the second half of the thirteenth century. More frescoes can be found in the nave, on the second column on the right. The Virgin Mary takes up a central position in these frescoes. The oldest of the two dates from the thirteenth century as well and depicts the Virgin flanked by Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. The fresco of the so-called Vergine delle Grazie, which is protected by glass, is much younger. It dates from the start of the sixteenth century.
Inside the Duomo we can admire several medieval tombs. A good example is the funerary monument of cardinal Jacopo da Pecorara, who died in 1244. Jacopo had been born in about 1170, in or close to Piacenza. Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241) made him a cardinal in 1231 and Jacopo subsequently served Christ’s Vicar loyally in his conflict with the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II. The conflict even saw the cardinal being imprisoned by his enemies. After his death he was buried in Cluny, France, but part of his skull and a finger ended up in Piacenza.
In the right transept we find the wall tomb of bishop Rogerio Caccia (1338-1354), which was completed in the year after his death. The fresco above it, which also dates from the fourteenth century, does not seem to be part of the monument. It may have been made earlier, but was only rediscovered in 1873. The fresco features Christ flanked by two female saints, possibly Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch. The style of the fresco to the left of the tomb makes it clear that it was painted at a much later date, i.e. the beginning of the sixteenth century. It depicts the Crucifixion and has for centuries been attributed to Bartolomeo Bonone, a painter who – as his name indicates – was from Bologna (Bononia in Latin). Some doubt remains about the attribution though.
The polyptych that adorns the high altar is of exceptional quality. It is made of wood and was carved in the fifteenth century by Antonio Burlengo. Bartolomeo da Groppallo then painted and gilded it. Not much is known about the two artists, and it is telling that the website of the cathedral dates the polyptych to 1443-1447, while an Italian cultural website dates it to 1477. The altarpiece features a grand total of 31 statuettes on several levels. The three larger statuettes in the centre represent the Virgin Mary (who is taken up to Heaven), Christ and God the Father. Among the many other saints we also recognise the aforementioned patron saints of Piacenza, Justina and Antoninus.
The rather grey interior of the Duomo is lightened up by colourful frescoes in the apse and choir, and on the inside of the dome. The frescoes were commissioned by the bishops Claudio Rangoni (1596-1619) and Giovanni Linati (1620-1627), who have already been mentioned above. The former hired Camillo Procaccini (1561-1629) and Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619) to decorate the conch of the apse and the choir (see the image above). Between 1605 and 1609 the painters and their assistants executed the bishop’s assignment. During the interventions at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century some of their frescoes were detached and moved. As a result we now find some works on the counter-façade of the cathedral, but fortunately the frescoes of the apse and those on the vault of the choir have remained in place. The conch of the apse features an Assumption and a Coronation of the Virgin by Procaccini, while the vault has a Glory of the Angels by Carracci.
Bishop Linati had initially commissioned Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli (1573-1626), also known as Il Morazzone, to paint the inside of the dome. In 1625 the artist enthusiastically started painting the intended eight prophets, but he died after completing just David and Isaiah. The other six prophets are the work of Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), a painter who because of his strabismus was also called Guercino, ‘the squinter’. Guercino painted the prophets Haggai, Hosea, Zechariah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Consult this excellent website to find out who is who, and also to view more beautiful photos of the other frescoes that Guercino made for the dome and that offer us, among other things, scenes from the life of Christ and several Sibyls. There should be a possibility to climb up to the dome and admire the frescoes from up close. To make the climb one has to book a tour at the museum of the Duomo, which is named Kronos. Unfortunately we visited Piacenza in Augustus of 2020, when the country was still in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis. Because of COVID, the possibilities to book a tour were extremely limited.
Much of the information used for this post came from the website of the Duomo, the website of the comune of Piacenza and Italian Wikipedia. For a discussion of the medieval sculptures in the cathedral I refer to this website. An extensive discussion of the frescoes by Il Morazzone and Guercino can be found here.