Piacenza: San Savino

The San Savino.

In 218 BCE Piacenza was founded by the Romans as the Latin colony of Placentia. In the fourth century CE the city got its first Christian bishop, and towards the end of this century a certain Sabinus was appointed as the second bishop of Piacenza. Sabinus died at the beginning of the fifth century and was subsequently venerated as a saint. As a consequence, he is known to the Italians, and especially the Piacentines, as San Savino. When he was still alive Sabinus had ordered the construction of a church dedicated to the twelve apostles just outside the walls of Piacenza. His successor Maurus had him buried in this church and then decided to dedicate the building to his predecessor as well. In the ninth and tenth century the first version of the San Savino was twice destroyed by invading Magyars. Construction of the present church was commenced under bishop Sigifredo (997-1031). In 1107 it was consecrated by bishop Aldo (1096-1118).

Over the centuries the original Romanesque building has undergone significant changes. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the church was given Baroque and Rococo makeovers, but very few decorations from that era have been preserved. At the beginning of the twentieth century (1902-1903) bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini (1876-1905) had the original Romanesque interior of the San Savino restored. Scalabrini, beatified in 1997, by the way took the same decision with regard to the cathedral of his city. As a consequence, the Baroque history of the church is best represented by the façade that was added in 1721 after a design by the architect Andrea Galluzzi (1689-after 1743). View of the façade is somewhat obstructed by the trees of the adjacent park, but we nevertheless immediately recognise the figure in the niche at the top as bishop Sabinus, who gave his name to the church. The busts above the double columns below represent the four evangelists.

Interior of the church.

Once inside, we see a building that is radically different and features Romanesque rounded arches, much stone and brick and very few decorations. The columns supporting the arches have beautiful Romanesque capitals, presumably all original. The capital of which a picture is included in this post sports two very elegantly carved rams. Even the fur of the animals and the grooves in their horns are clearly visible. The remains of Saint Sabinus are kept in the back of the church, under the high altar. It is here, in the apse, that we can admire a wooden crucifix from the twelfth century. The crucifix and the mosaics that I will discuss below must be counted among the oldest elements of the San Savino. Unfortunately we do not know the name of the sculptor who made the crucifix.

Romanesque capital.

Wooden crucifix (12th century).

There are two places inside the church where we can admire splendid mosaics dating from the beginning of the twelfth century. These were presumably laid before the church was consecrated in 1107. The first spot to look for mosaics is the choir. Visitors who are lucky may enter the choir and inspect the mosaics from up close. They will see Christ in the centre, holding the sun and moon in his hands. The central mosaic is surrounded by four more scenes, one of which features a game of chess. Unfortunately the choir was roped off when I visited the San Savino, and it is difficult to see the details of the mosaics from the side. The last two photos on this website give a good idea of their beauty, while Google Street View also offers a view of the choir.

The other mosaics are located in the crypt below the choir. Together they make up a large floor mosaic that features ten of the twelve signs of the zodiac. Further to the back, close to the altar, we see two medallions that presumably feature the remaining two signs, associated with the months of January and February. Unfortunately the mosaics are damaged in places. Note for instance that large chunks of November/Scorpio are missing. The website I linked to above offers photographs of the mosaics after they had been restored, but apparently the restoration was considered unsatisfactory: when I visited the church in August of 2020, the damaged spots were back again. Although this is a pity, there is still a lot to see. Below the signs of the zodiac, we can admire (part of) an elephant, jousting knights, men wrestling and engaged in combat with edged weapons and an unknown animal with speckled fur, a horn and hooves. The pictures included below should give a good impression of the crypt.

Crypt of the San Savino.

Mosaic floor in the crypt.

Signs of the zodiac: Aries (above), Cancer and Leo.

Mosaic floor (detail).

It is unlikely I would ever have visited the San Savino if I had not read Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 17. The website of the comune of Piacenza and Italian Wikipedia offered useful information about the church.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:Piacenza: Sant’Antonino – – Corvinus –

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