Piacenza: Sant’Antonino

Basilica di Sant’Antonino.

Saint Antoninus is considered the patron saint of Piacenza, together with Saint Justina of Antioch. According to a not necessarily reliable tradition he was a soldier who was martyred in about 303 during the persecutions of Christians orchestrated by the emperor Diocletianus. His martyrdom was said to have taken place in the vicinity of Travo, about twenty kilometres south of Piacenza. In the latter city, the large church of Sant’Antonino is dedicated to this Saint Antoninus.


The history of the church goes back to the fourth century CE. Bishop Victor, the first bishop of Piacenza and known locally as San Vittore, presumably had it built. The church was erected outside the city walls in a Roman cemetery. It was, however, Victor’s successor Saint Sabinus who in 386 discovered the relics of Saint Antoninus in a hypogeum that was located where we now find the church of Santa Maria in Cortina, just west of the Sant’Antonino and opposite the Teatro Municipale. Sabinus ordered the translation of the saint’s relics to Victor’s church and they are still kept there today. So are Victor’s relics, while another basilica outside the city walls was dedicated to Sabinus: the San Savino.

Front view of the church.

Interior of the church.

The Sant’Antonino served as cathedral of Piacenza for a couple of centuries, but its geographic location outside the walls was problematic. At some point in the ninth century it was therefore decided to make another church inside the walls the new cathedral. This proved to be a very wise choice, for at the end of the ninth or beginning of the tenth century the Sant’Antonino was heavily damaged by Magyars that had invaded Italy. But in spite of all the damage, it was never an option to abandon the church: from a religious viewpoint the edifice was much too important for that. Not only was the church dedicated to the city’s patron saint, the building was also situated on the so-called Via Francigena. This was an important pilgrim route that ran from Canterbury in England, through France and Switzerland, to Rome in Italy. Sigeric, who served as archbishop of Canterbury between 990 and 994, has left us an important description of the route.

Because of the great religious importance of the church, bishop Sigifredo (997-1031) ordered its rebuilding, a project that also involved moving the main altar to the eastern apse. Sigifredo’s project gave us the conspicuous octagonal tower with its characteristic mullioned openings as well. Unfortunately not much is left of the frescoes that the bishop commissioned. Since its reconstruction in the eleventh century the building underwent significant changes. Around 1350 a portico was added to the right side of the church that became known as the Portico del Paradiso. It was designed by the architect Pietro Vago, the man to whom the weather vane of the cathedral of Piacenza, the Angil dal Dom, is attributed. The portico gives access to the side entrance of the church, which is surrounded by sculptural work from the twelfth century. Further interest lies in the fact that in the portico we find references to two important historical persons.

Frescoes in one of the chapels.

Frederick Barbarossa and Teobaldo Visconti

The first of these two persons is Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman emperor. For much of his reign he was at war with Pope Alexander III (1159-1181). Initially he was successful in this struggle, and in 1167 the emperor managed to capture Rome. However, nine years later Frederick suffered a sharp defeat against the cities of the Lombard League, which were formally part of the Empire, but had allied themselves with the Pope (see Milan: San Simpliciano). In 1177 the Treaty of Venice was signed, which led to a reconciliation between the emperor and the Pope and his Italian allies (see Venice: Piazza San Marco). This was a temporary treaty; it was not until the Peace of Konstanz of 1183 that the conflict was finally ended. The preliminary negotiations for this peace were held in the church of Sant’Antonino in Piacenza. After all, Piacenza was one of the member cities of the Lombard League. A plaque in the Portico del Paradiso commemorates these negotiations. The plaque was placed here in 1876, 700 years after the victory of the Lombard cities at Legnano. An image can be found here.

The second person of historical importance is Teobaldo Visconti, also known as Pope Gregorius X. He was born in Piacenza around the year 1210. Young Teobaldo was a loyal servant of cardinal Jacopo da Pecorara, whose funerary monument in the Duomo of Piacenza I have previously discussed. Moreover, Teobaldo was a canon at the church of Sant’Antonino. In 1271 he was elected pope after the longest conclave in history, which had lasted close to three years. Pope Gregorius was already in bad health when he left France in 1275 to return to Rome. He never reached the Eternal City again, dying in Arezzo on 10 January 1276. It is in the Duomo of Arezzo that we find his tomb. In 1998 a statue of him was placed in the Portico del Paradiso in Piacenza.

Things to see

Fresco of Saint Anthony the Abbot.

The Portico del Paradiso is not the only addition to the church. The lateral chapels were built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the adjacent monastery dates from 1483 and the Gothic ceiling from 1495. In the second half of the sixteenth century the choir at the eastern side of the church was extended. Between 1853 and 1856 neo-Gothic elements were added to the interior as part of a remodelling led by the architect Andrea Guidotti. Finally, between 1925 and 1930 the architect Giulio Ulisse Arata (1881-1962) attempted to give the church of Sant’Antonino back its medieval appearance. Fortunately not all the art that had been added after the Middle Ages was removed.

On the walls we find five works by the seventeenth century painter Robert de Longe (1646-1709) from Brussels. His paintings feature scenes from the life of Saint Antoninus. Nowadays a man who is from Brussels will no longer be called a Fleming, but in his own time the Italians nicknamed De Longe Il Fiammingo. In the church we can furthermore admire a Last Supper by Bernardo Castello (1557-1629) and the scant remains of frescoes from the sixteenth century. Included in this post is a fresco of Saint Anthony the Abbot, who can be recognised by his staff with a bell featuring the Greek letter tau (T).

The best works of art inside the church of Sant’Antonino are with a doubt the frescoes made by Camillo Gavasetti (ca. 1596-1628) from Modena, who died at a young age. The frescoes were painted in 1622 by order of Duke Odoardo I Farnese and depict the Triumph of Christ. We are basically looking up into Heaven and for instance see a horseman from the Apocalypse. As he is galloping through the sky and we are on earth down below, we see the belly (and private parts) of his white horse. The fresco is of excellent quality, but unfortunately it can sometimes be rather dark inside the church.

Ceiling fresco by Camillo Gavasetti.

It is unlikely I would ever have visited the Sant’Antonino if I had not read Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 12-13. The website of the comune of Piacenza and Italian Wikipedia offered useful information about the church. Matteo Facchi, La scultura a Piacenza in età sforzesca, p. 179-181, was very helpful as well.

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