The large church of San Giovanni in Canale can be found near the edge of Piacenza’s city centre. The San Giovanni was the church of the Order of Preachers, also known as the Dominicans. Many Dominican churches are dedicated to Saint Dominicus Guzmán, the Spanish founder of the order. This is not the case here in Piacenza, and this is presumably explained by the fact that the church was founded before Dominicus was canonised in 1234. In the sources we find 1220, 1221 and 1227 as foundation years. Judging by the (modern) decorations of the façade, the San Giovanni in the church name is Saint John the Baptist. In the lunette above the main entrance he is depicted as a young man and above the rose window, on the right, as an adult. The reason the church discussed in this post was called the San Giovanni in Canale is that there was another church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, that stood close to the Duomo of Piacenza. ‘In Canale’ refers to the location of the church: it previously stood on the shore of the Beverora canal. The canal was filled long ago, but flowed where we now find the Via Beverora.
An interesting fact is that the Via del Tempio behind the church is named after the church (‘temple’) used by the Knights Templar, a mighty and militant monastic order that was dissolved in 1312 by Pope Clemens V (1305-1314). The dissolution of the Knights was beneficial to the Dominicans of San Giovanni in Canale, for it allowed them to acquire the Templar complex (which has not been preserved). As the domini canes, the ‘dogs of the Lord’, the Dominicans of San Giovanni in Canale would prove themselves as zealous inquisitors. From the second half of the sixteenth century until 1769, their complex accommodated an Inquisition tribunal.
The exterior of the church can hardly be called interesting, so let us quickly go inside. In 1937-1958 an attempt was made to restore the original medieval appearance of the church. Fortunately not all decorations added in the post-medieval period were removed. The frescoes on the vault of the choir and in the apse were painted in 1721-1722 by Sebastiano Galeotti (1675-1741) and Francesco Natali (1669-1735). The altar dates from 1733 and was made by Giuliano Mozzani (died in 1734). The three men were competent artists, but cannot be counted among the Big Names of their age. More famous artists that left their mark on this church were Gaspare Landi (1756-1830) and Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844), who made the paintings for the conspicuous Cappella del Rosario on the left side of the church. The chapel was built in the Neoclassicist style and features rather curious mint green colours. It was built by Lotario Tomba (1749-1823). The canvas on the left depicts the Ascent to Calvary and was painted by Landi; the canvas on the right is Camuccini’s Presentation in the Temple.
I already mentioned the attempt to give the church back its medieval look and feel, so it is logical to expect medieval art in the San Giovanni in Canale. The best example is the sarcophagus of Alberto Scotti, a scion of a famous Piacentine family that lived in the neighbourhood surrounding the San Giovanni. The Scottis had several chapels in the church built and fitted out, and many of them were buried in the church as well. The family claimed to be descended from a Scotsman who, in the eighth century, fought alongside Charlemagne against Desiderius, the last king of the Longobards in Italy (see: Brescia: Santa Giulia). Noble families often simply invented illustrious ancestors. The counts of Holland for instance claimed to be descended from an Aquitanian prince, who in his turn was said to be a descendant of the Merovingian kings and ultimately the Trojan King Priamus.
Both in the case of the counts of Holland and that of the Scotti family of Piacenza we may conclude that the stories are creative myths. But the fact that the Scottish roots of the Scottis were a concoction does not in any diminish the family’s importance in medieval Piacenza. The family had amassed a fortune in banking and trade, and between 1290 and 1313 Alberto Scotti was, albeit intermittently, sole ruler of the city. It was Alberto who commissioned the Palazzo Gotico in Piacenza and the Palazzo del Podestà and Palazzo Ducale in the lovely town of Castell’Arquato. After his expulsion from Piacenza it was there, in Castell’Arquato, that he was imprisoned. Alberto Scotti died in Crema the next year. The beautiful sarcophagus in the San Giovanni in Piacenza features the Scotti family’s coat-of-arms: a shield with a diagonal line and two stars. The horseman with a falcon on his arm may very well be the deceased, but since Alberto died in Crema he was never laid to rest in the sarcophagus. The sarcophagus ultimately served as the final resting place of Alberto’s namesake, Alberto II Scotti, who passed away in 1462.
The sarcophagus can be found in the right aisle. Here we can also admire a couple of medieval frescoes. Some of these were originally in the former cloister next to the church. The frescoes have been detached from the walls, attached to panels and set up in the church. They date from the fourteenth century. Most were painted by anonymous artists, but two of the artists are known by name: Bartolomeo and Jacopino da Reggio painted a Madonna della Misericordia. The chapel to the right of the choir has more frescoes. Here we may enjoy wall frescoes featuring Saints Peter and Paul from the fifteenth century and an intriguing fresco from the same century by Gherardo Garatoli, a painter I had not previously heard of. The fresco features a kneeling nobleman, Antonio Scotti, who hands a text to a Dominican friar. The Dominican is Blessed Marcolino Amanni da Forlì (1317-1397). Interesting elements of the fresco are the helmet behind Antonio Scotti, the small panel with a Madonna and Child and the rays emanating from blessed Marcolino’s head. Unfortunately I have not been able to find more information about this remarkable wall painting.
Most of the information used for this post came from the website of the comune of Piacenza and from this cultural website. Some additional information came from Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 14. A very useful source was Matteo Facchi, La scultura a Piacenza in età sforzesca, p. 161-162.