The first thing visitors will notice about the church of San Francesco is its imposing gabled façade, or facciata a capanna as the Italians say. The façade was almost entirely executed in brick, has three little towers and is basically too big for the church building behind it: behind the two oculi, the circular windows on either side of the central rose window, there is nothing but thin air, as the roof of the church aisles is much lower than one might think. The church adjoins the Piazza dei Cavalli, a square I have discussed in a previous post. In front of the building we find a statue of the lawyer, economist and philosopher Gian Domenico Romagnosi (1761-1835). As a teenager he was enrolled in the Collegio Alberoni in Piacenza, which explains why he has a statue in this city. The statue dates from 1867 and was made by Cristoforo Marzaroli (1836-1871), a talented sculptor who unfortunately died young of tuberculosis.
History of the church
For a long time, the church of San Francesco served as the church of the Franciscans or Friars Minor in Piacenza. This part of the city was originally a residential area, but the nobleman Umbertino Landi had most of the houses demolished so that construction of the church could commence in 1278. Landi was a Ghibelline, a supporter of the Holy Roman emperor. The San Francesco was consecrated in 1356 and fully completed in 1363. Next to the church the Friars Minor built a large monastery which ultimately comprised three cloisters. Virtually nothing is left of the monastery today, but the shape of the Piazzale Plebiscito next to the church gives an indication of where it must have stood.
After Napoleon’s conquest of Italy the monastic orders in the country were dissolved. The San Francesco was used as a warehouse and hospital for a while, but in 1806 it was re-consecrated as a church. What was extraordinary was that the church was dedicated to San Napoleone (Saint Napoleon), an obscure saint who was said to have been martyred in Alexandria, Egypt, at the beginning of the fourth century. His name was actually Neopolus, not Napoleon. The name was nevertheless similar enough to invent a Saint Napoleon. And so Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been Emperor of the French since 1804 and King of Italy since 1805, used a rather dubious saint to create his own personality cult. It was a cult that never really gained momentum, and after the fall of Napoleon it was quickly abolished. In Piacenza it was even more short-lived, as the church of San Napoleone was abandoned as early as 1810. In 1818 it was made a parish church and got back its ancient name of San Francesco.
On 10 May 1848 a plebiscite was held in Piacenza, during which the people of Piacenza voted in favour of joining the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. At the time the city was still part of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza and was ruled by Charles Louis of Bourbon-Parma. The plebiscite made it clear that he was not so popular among the Piacentines, and that is putting it very mildly: of the 37,585 citizens who turned out to vote a whopping 37,089 voted in favour of annexation by Charles Albert of Sardinia’s kingdom. The results of the plebiscite were announced in the church of San Francesco and led to exuberant celebrations. The events in Piacenza made a deep impression on King Charles Albert. He decided to grant the city the title of Primogenita d’Italia, ‘firstborn of Italy’.
Unfortunately both the plebiscite – which gave the square next to the church, the Piazzale Plebiscito, its name – and the grant of the title proved to be a little premature. The Austrians heavily defeated Charles Albert at Custoza (1848) and Novara (1849), and subsequently gave Charles Louis of Bourbon-Parma back his duchy. The duke then quickly abdicated in favour of his son, Charles III, who was completely dependent on Austrian support. Charles III was assassinated in 1854 in Parma and succeeded by his six-year-old son Robert. The boy was just eleven when Piacenza was finally added to the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. This kingdom was a constituent part of the Kingdom of Italy, which was proclaimed in 1861. Victor Emmanuel II became its first king and Italy had been reunited. On 20 September 1870 the Italians finally captured Rome and made it the kingdom’s new capital. And that is why the street to the north of the San Francesco is called the Via XX Settembre. We may conclude that the church and surrounding area offer a lot of information about the history of the Risorgimento.
Art in the church
The church has a conspicuous Renaissance-style portal. It dates from the 1480s and was made by the sculptor and architect Guiniforte Solari (ca. 1429-1481) and his son Pietro Antonio (ca. 1445-1493). Since Guiniforte Solari died in 1481, the portal must be counted among his last works. It is fairly certain that it was only completed after his death. The career of his son Pietro Antonio (Pierantonio) was remarkable to say the least: he entered the service of the Russian Grand Prince Ivan III of Moscow and designed the walls and towers of the Kremlin for him. The portal of the San Francesco has a tympanum with a relief that depicts Saint Franciscus receiving the stigmata. This was said to have happened in 1224 at La Verna. On the architrave above the entrance we read the Latin text PRAEPOSITVRA SANCTI FRANCISCI ANNO MDCCCXVIII, ‘(this portal) was added to the San Francesco in 1938’. The text suggests that the portal was originally intended for a different entrance or perhaps even for a different church. It is a bit of a mystery!
The simple church interior is the result of a restoration that was led by Camillo Guidotti (1854-1925) and Giovanni Gazzola (1871-1962), who also worked on the façade and so probably on the portal as well (although in 1938 only Gazzola was still alive). Among the most interesting pieces of art in the church I count a sculpture group by Luca Reti (1598-1660) that depicts the lamentation of the dead Christ (see above). The church also has a number of notable funerary monuments. One such monument is that of the patriot Giuseppe Manfredi (1828-1918), who played an important role in the events of 1859 discussed above and who was part of the provisional government that administered Piacenza after the Austrians had left. He later became a member of the Senate of the Kingdom of Italy and served as President of the Senate from 1908 until his death ten years later.
In the back of the church we find an old tombstone for Franciscus de Mayronis (ca. 1288-1328). He was a French philosopher and a student of the Franciscan friar John Duns Scotus. Although Franciscus died in Piacenza and was buried in the church of San Francesco, the tombstone was not made in the fourteenth century. In fact it was crafted in 1477 and commissioned by Francesco Sansone from Brescia (1414-1499), who was minister-general of the conventual Franciscans. Both the year (MCCCCLXXVII) and Francesco Sansone are mentioned on the slab, while Franciscus de Mayronis’ honorific of illuminatus doctor – ‘enlightened teacher’ – is also mentioned. The relief adorning the tombstone features him sitting on a platform and giving a lecture to eight other men. All of them wear Franciscan habits. A fresco was once painted around the tombstone, but it has unfortunately become completely illegible.
Directly to the right we can admire the most splendid chapel in the church, the Cappella dell’Immacolata, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. In 1597 it was decorated with frescoes by the painter Giovan Battista Trotti, nicknamed Il Malosso (1555-1619). He was also active in Cremona, the city where he had been born. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish how he acquired his rather odd nickname, which means ‘bad bone’. Perhaps it was a reference to the quality of the ground bones that were used to make pigments? However this may be, Trotti was certainly not a bad painter. His altarpiece depicts the Immaculate Conception and on the inside of the dome we see the Coronation of the Virgin. Trotti furthermore painted various prophets and sibyls. The staff of the church has very helpfully set up a mirror so that visitors can get a better look at the fine details of the frescoes.
Information about the church of San Francesco came from Italian Wikipedia, the website of the comune of Piacenza and this cultural website. The church is also briefly discussed in Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 16-17.