Piacenza: San Sisto

The San Sisto.

The history of the church of San Sisto goes all the way back to the ninth century. It was founded in 874 by Engelberga of Parma, wife of King Louis II of Italy (844-875). This Louis was a grandson of Louis the Pious and therefore a great-grandson of Charlemagne. The church was initially dedicated to the Risen Christ and the twelve apostles. In 882 a convent of Benedictine nuns was added and at some point Engelberga became abbess of the convent. In 1129 it passed into the hands of Benedictine monks of Polirone, who in 1425 were succeeded by Benedictines of Monte Cassino. I have unfortunately not been able to find out when the dedication of the church was altered, but it is currently dedicated to Saint Sixtus. This Saint Sixtus must in any case have been a Pope Sixtus, for above the main entrance we see a man wearing a tiara. Historically there were three popes of this name who are venerated as saints: Sixtus I (ca. 115-124), Sixtus II (257-258) and Sixtus III (432-440). The church in Piacenza is dedicated to the second Sixtus. In 258 he was martyred during the persecutions orchestrated by the emperor Valerianus.

The present church of San Sisto

The present church of San Sisto in Piacenza dates from the sixteenth century. It was built between 1499 and 1511, presumably by Alessio Tramello (1455-1535). The façade and atrium in front of the church were added as late as 1591-1596. The fact that the façade was executed in yellow and pink makes it a rather conspicuous element of the church. I already mentioned that the statue in the niche above the central entrance is that of Pope Sixtus II. In the niches on either side of the rose window we see a further two statues. These represent Germanus of Capua and Benedictus of Nursia. Both sixth-century saints played an important role in the lives of the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino. Two busts of women, in this case of Saints Barbara and Martina, are also part of the façade. The chapel at the end of the right transept is dedicated to Saint Barbara. She is considered the patron saint of artillerymen. The altarpiece in this chapel was painted in 1598 by Palma il Giovane (ca. 1548-1628). Nowadays you will no longer find any Benedictine monks in or around the San Sisto: the church has been a parish church since 1810.

Interior of the church.

The church has a richly decorated interior and a splendid barrel vault, but it must be said that the floor is truly hideous. Of the many works of art worth mentioning I first of all refer to the dome with frescoes by Bernardino Zacchetti, a painter from Reggio nell’Emilia. Although Zacchetti has remained relatively obscure, there is compelling evidence that he assisted Michelangelo for a while when the latter painted his famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.[1] And the great Michelangelo obviously did not hire amateurs. Next, make sure you do not skip the beautifully decorated choir stalls by Bartolomeo Spinelli and Gianpietro Panbianchi, made in ca. 1514-1525 (see the image below). Finally, in the chapels of the aisles we find works of, among others, Camillo Procaccini (1561-1629) and Sebastiano Novelli, a painter from Piedmont.

Unfortunately the most important work of art that ever hung in the church was already removed from the building in the eighteenth century. I refer to the Madonna Sistina, an altarpiece made by the famous painter Raphael (1483-1520). Raphael completed it in about 1512 (or a little later) for Pope Julius II (1503-1513). Julius had been born Giuliano della Rovere. With Raphael’s altarpiece he did not just want to embellish the San Sisto, but at the same time honour his uncle Francesco della Rovere, who had sat on Saint Peter’s throne as Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484). Given that pope’s name and the name of the church, it was evident that Pope Sixtus II had to feature on the altarpiece. The female saint to the right of the Madonna and Child is Saint Barbara, already mentioned above. In 1754 the Benedictines were so poor that they were forced to sell the canvas to Frederick August II, Elector of Saxony.[2] That explains why we can nowadays admire Raphael’s work in the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. The San Sisto in Piacenza fortunately still possesses a copy made by the local painter Pietro Antonio Avanzini (1656-1733).

Choir stalls and the copy of the Madonna Sistina (top right).

Margaret of Parma

Tomb of Margaret of Parma.

In the left transept we find an interesting monument that is closely connected with a piece of Dutch history: the tomb of Margaret of Austria, also known as Margaret of Parma (1522-1586). She was the illegitimate daughter of the emperor Charles V and the Flemish maid Johanna van der Gheynst.[3] It took Charles until 1529 to officially acknowledge her and she was then allowed to call herself Margaret of Austria. In the same year the emperor and Pope Clemens VII (1523-1534) agreed that she was to marry a man from the de’ Medici family. The Pope, who was born Giulio de’ Medici, was himself a member of this illustrious Florentine family. In 1533 Margaret arrived in Italy and in 1536 she wedded Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence, who was widely rumoured to be the natural son of Clemens VII, now deceased. Unfortunately the marriage proved to be short-lived: in 1537 poor Alessandro was assassinated. By this time young Margaret was usually addressed as ‘Madama’, and this explains why the palazzo in Rome where she lived is called the Palazzo Madama. The building currently serves as the seat of the Italian Senate.

In 1538 Margaret married for the second time. The groom was Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza and a grandson of the new Pope Paulus III (1534-1549). Margaret bore her husband two sons, the twins Carlo and Alessandro. Carlo died before his first birthday, but Alessandro (1545-1592) had a distinguished career as a general. Like his mother, he became an important figure in the history of the Low Countries. In 1559 Margaret was appointed as governess of the Netherlands by her half-brother, the Spanish King Philip II. One of her advisers was the much hated cardinal Granvelle from Besançon. King Philip ordered his half-sister to crack down on the Protestant heretics in the Netherlands, but her initially tough religious stance caused widespread unrest. In 1566 a group of noblemen presented their governess with a petition (‘Smeekschrift’) and urged her to mitigate the persecutions. Margaret was inclined to honour the request, but then the very same year large-scale iconoclastic riots broke out (‘Beeldenstorm’). Philip was furious and in 1567 sent the Duke of Alba to the Netherlands with an army. Margaret disagreed with this decision and requested to be relieved of her position. Her request was granted in December of 1567.

Bust of Margaret of Parma.

In 1577 Margaret’s son Alessandro was sent to the Netherlands to quell the rebellion there, that was led by – among others – William of Orange. The next year Philip II appointed him commander of the army of Flanders and governor of the Netherlands. Alessandro succeeded Don Juan, his mother’s half-brother and a child from an affair between Charles V and a German girl named Barbara Blomberg. The new governor would win lasting fame because of his conquest of Antwerp in 1585. I have previously discussed his equestrian statue in the Piazza dei Cavalli in Piacenza. Although he is often called the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands, it should be noted that he did not formally become Duke until 1586, when his father Ottavio passed away. At the time of his death Ottavio had been a widower for a couple of months, Margaret having predeceased him in January of the same year.

Margaret was buried in the church of San Sisto in Piacenza. Shortly after her death construction of a large tomb started, after a design by Simone Moschino (1553-1610). Not far from this monument we furthermore find a bust of the governess that was made in 1617. My travel guide did not mention Margaret’s tomb at all, which is remarkable given the fact that it is this monument that makes a visit to the San Sisto all the more interesting for Dutch people. The Italians may be forgiven for the silly error that can be found on the handwritten note that is attached to the tomb. The note calls Margaret ‘Governatrice di Fiandre’, governess of Flanders, which she was not. The Netherlands are much more than just Flanders!

Sources: Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 16, Italian Wikipedia, the website of the comune of Piacenza, this cultural website and the sources mentioned in the footnotes.


[1] Ross King, De Hemel van de Paus, p. 228 and 253.

[2] And also known as August III of Poland.

[3] The following paragraphs are based on Arnout van Cruyningen, De Opstand 1568-1648, p. 107-112.

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