The church of Santa Maria di Campagna adjoins the Piazzale delle Crociate, the ‘square of the Crusades’. The name of the church refers to the fact that it was built outside the city walls of Piacenza, i.e. in the country. The name of the square is in its turn connected to the Council of Piacenza, which was held in March of 1095 and was presided over by Pope Urbanus II (1088-1099). The council drew such a large crowd – 200 bishops, 4,000 clerics and 30,000 laymen – that it had to be moved to a more suitable location outside the city. The spot where it was held is now the Piazzale delle Crociate. The Council of Piacenza was the prelude to the Council of Clermont later that year. It was there that Pope Urbanus preached the First Crusade.
Since the fourteenth century, a small oratory called the Santa Maria di Campagnola stood on the spot where we now find the church. On 13 April 1522 the foundation stone of the present church was laid by the then bishop of Piacenza, cardinal Scaramuccia Trivulzio. The architect that led the construction project was Alessio Tramello (1455-1535); the long street north of the church is named after him. In 1528 the church was completed. Tramello built the Santa Maria di Campagna in the shape of a Greek cross, but the church has not retained that form. In 1791 the architect Lotario Tomba (1749-1823) created a choir by extending the west arm of the cross, giving the building the shape of a Latin cross. It should be noted that this Latin cross has the short side at the front of the building instead of at the back.
Things to see: Il Pordenone
The church was not mentioned in our travel guide. We would never have visited it if we had not printed a map of Piacenza that we got from Google. A little icon for the church was included in the map, and when we checked it for interesting art, we learnt that the Santa Maria di Campagna has several works by Giovanni Antonio de’ Sacchis, nicknamed Il Pordenone (ca. 1483-1539). That sounded very promising: the previous year we had seen frescoes by Il Pordenone in the Duomo of Cremona and had been much impressed by them. For the Santa Maria di Campagna in Piacenza, Il Pordenone first of all painted the fresco of Saint Augustinus that we can find on the wall to the left of the entrance. He also decorated the Cappella di Santa Caterina and the Cappella della Natività in the church. Finally, Il Pordenone painted the inside of the dome of the church with images of God the Father, saints, prophets, putti and sybils, and – remarkably – pagan deities as well.
The Cappella di Santa Caterina is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Her legend has been discussed on this website on several occasions. She was said to have been a Christian woman who defeated fifty pagan philosophers and orators during a theological debate organised by the emperor Maxentius (306-312). Her victory supposedly caused many of her opponents to convert to Christianity themselves. Afterwards, Maxentius had her tortured and condemned to death on the breaking wheel, which broke into pieces as she touched it. The emperor then had her decapitated. Il Pordenone painted the frescoes in the chapel in 1531. They were commissioned by the saint’s namesake, Caterina Scotti, a scion of a local noble family (see Piacenza: San Giovanni in Canale). In the two large frescoes, we see Catherine debating the philosophers and her Mystical Marriage to Christ. In the lunettes the artist painted the botched execution on the wheel and the subsequent (successful) execution by sword.
The theme of the Cappella della Natività is obviously the Nativity, i.e. the Birth of Christ. The frescoes in this chapel were commissioned from Il Pordenone by the cleric Pietro Antonio Rollieri. The large Nativity scene on the left is not about the Birth of Christ, but about that of his mother, the Virgin Mary. This is evident from the fact that the birth takes place in a house, not in a stable. The altarpiece featuring the Adoration of the Magi is much more interesting. In the foreground we see a ramshackle old stable with all the protagonists from the story of the Nativity: Joseph, Mary, Baby Jesus and the three Magi with their gifts. In the background people are standing on their balconies and peeking from their windows. It is clear the Magi have not come unattended: in the distance, all the way to the horizon, we see mounted people that are part of the Magi’s procession. Above the stable we see the Christ child in a bundle of light, next to a cross. In the lunettes Il Pordenone painted the Flight to Egypt and an Adoration of the Shepherds. The chapel also serves as the final resting place of Marco Fantuzzi da Bologna (1405-1479), a Franciscan who was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1868.
The frescoes on the inside of the dome date from 1530-1535. In the lantern we see God the Father descending, supported by three putti and surrounded by many more putti. The eight segments of the dome all have images of prophets, but only four of the eight prophets can be identified with certainty. Above God the Father we see Habakkuk, Daniel and Samson, while below Him we see David. These images can be seen quite well from down below, but if you want to see the other frescoes as well, you have two options: this marvellous website or a tour that allows the visitor to climb all the way up to the dome. If you take the tour you will be able to see from up close Il Pordenone’s scenes from classical mythology and the apostles he painted.
Other things to see
Of course the Santa Maria di Campagna has more to offer than just Il Pordenone. In fact, not all of the dome frescoes were made by him. In 1543 Bernardino Gatti, nicknamed Il Sojaro (ca. 1495-1576), completed his predecessor’s work by decorating the drum of the dome with scenes from the life of the Virgin. Il Sojaro also painted the pendentives of the dome, and since a dome has four of them, what other subject could the painter have chosen but the four evangelists. A final work by this painter is the fresco of Saint George on the wall to the right of the entrance, where we find the shop. George has already struck the dragon with his lance: the tip of the weapon is stuck in the head and body of the monster. The saint is riding a white horse and is ready to deal the dragon a coup de grâce with his sword. On the right the princess saved by George is watching. The city in the background may very well be Piacenza. One of the buildings closely resembles the Duomo, while the building in the centre looks a lot like the Palazzo Gotico.
The marble floor by Giambattista Carrà from Milan is beautiful and the church also has an interesting statue of a kneeling Ranuccio I Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza between 1592 and 1622. The statue is easy to miss, but you can find it just outside the Cappella di Santa Caterina on the way to the choir. The statue was made by Francesco Mochi (1580-1654), who would later make famous bronze statues of Ranuccio and his father Alessandro Farnese. I have discussed these statues, which can be found in the Piazza dei Cavalli in Piacenza, in a previous post. Opposite the kneeling Ranuccio in the Santa Maria di Campagna is a statue of a pope. I have not been able to establish his identity, but it may very well be Urbanus II, given his connection with this location (see above).
The church is very proud of a fresco by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), also known as Guercino (‘squinter’). You can find it to the left of the aforementioned pope. The fresco features a man and a woman who are visited by an angel. What is depicted, is the story from Judges 13. The man is Manoah and his nameless wife is barren. The angel has come to tell the couple that she will conceive after all. Towards the end of the Book of Judges the child is born and we learn his name: “The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson”.
To conclude this post, the church also has works of Camillo Procaccini (1561-1629), Pietro Antonio Avanzini (1656-1733) and Gaspare Traversi (1722-1770), to name but a few. And so it is once again proven that richly decorated interiors can lie hidden behind simple brick façades. All in all the church of Santa Maria di Campagna offers a great many things to see and is definitely worth a visit.
Sources: the website of the comune of Piacenza, this cultural website, Italian Wikipedia and two websites about the dome of the Santa Maria di Campagna.