Pistoia: The Duomo

The cathedral of San Zeno, the Duomo of Pistoia.

The cathedral of Pistoia is a splendid Romanesque-style building of which the history goes back to the tenth century. The present building dates mostly from the twelfth century, as a fire that broke out in 1108 necessitated a rebuilding. In the next couple of centuries many more changes were made to the Duomo. Examples include the addition of cross-vaults to the aisles in 1274-1275 and the three loggias that decorate the upper part of the Romanesque façade, which were added between 1379 and 1449. The portico of the lower part of the façade dates from that era too. In the seventeenth century the nave was also provided with cross-vaults, but these were removed again in 1952-1966, revealing the original wooden roof construction. The apse at the back of the cathedral dates from 1598-1614 and is embellished with decorations in the style of that period, i.e. Early Baroque.

The Duomo is dedicated to Saint Zeno of Verona, a saint from the fourth century who was said to have been bishop of Verona for a couple of years. A statue of this Zeno, made in 1336, was set up on the left corner of the triangular pediment of the façade. The sculptor was Jacopo di Mazzeo, about whom not much is known. On the right side of the pediment is a statue of Saint James the Great, patron saint of Pistoia. This statue was made by Andrea Vaccà and dates from 1721. Vaccà has also remained rather obscure. He was born in about 1660-1665 in Carrara and died after 1745. The Saint James he crafted was an apostle, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. In the year 42 or 44 he was arrested by King Herod Agrippa and executed. According to tradition, his remains were taken to Santiago de Compostela in Spain by ship. The place where they were supposedly buried has been a famous destination for pilgrims for centuries. More about Saint James later.

Side view of the Duomo.

Things to see – exterior

Lunette by Andrea della Robbia.

The splendid façade of the cathedral is characterised by the alternating use of white and green marble. It is a combination one often sees in Pistoia, in Tuscany in general and especially in Pisa and Florence, cities in whose shadow Pistoia has existed for centuries. A conspicuous element of the façade is a beautiful lunette, executed in blue and white glazed terracotta. The relief represents the Coronation of the Virgin. We see the Madonna and Child with four angels, surrounded by eleven putti. The lunette is a work of Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525); it was made in 1504-1505. Andrea was a scion of a well known family of sculptors. His uncle (one of his father’s younger brothers) was Luca della Robbia and one of his sons was Giovanni della Robbia.

The bell-tower of the Duomo is also very interesting, if only because visitors can climb it. There is an admission charge and you have to be accompanied by a guide, but climbing the tower is highly recommended. The bell-tower is 67 metres high and offers a nice view of the city. Almost all of the interesting churches in Pistoia can be seen quite well: the Baptistery, San Bartolomeo, San Francesco, Madonna dell’Umiltà with its imposing dome and finally San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, which is quite close to the Duomo. The tower dates from the twelfth century, but its base is older and may date from the Longobard era, i.e. from 568-774. The base is quite sturdy and has few decorations. The upper part of the towers consists of three loggias, one above the other. Here we again see the combination of white and green marble. Above the loggias are the bell-chamber and a spire. As this part of Tuscany is prone to earthquakes, the spire needed to be replaced quite a few times.

Things to see – interior

Interior of the Duomo.

The Duomo has the shape of a classical Roman basilica, with a nave and two aisles. Only the right aisle has side chapels, of which the Cappella del Crocefisso with the silver altar of Saint James is the most famous. More about the altar below. Let us first take a stroll through the nave with its bare walls towards the apse. There, against the back wall, hangs a Resurrection by Cristofano Allori (1577-1621), who was the son of the more famous Alessandro Allori. The vault of the apse has been embellished with frescoes by Domenico Cresti, also known as Il Passignano (1559-1638). The apse furthermore has statues of Saints Zeno and James, made in 1603. These are attributed to the school of the Flemish sculptor Jean Boulogne, also known as Giambologna (1529-1608) in Italy.

On our way to the apse we have already passed by a pulpit dating from ca. 1560 and possibly made by the painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). One can find this pulpit about halfway through the nave, on the right side. To the left of the steps leading to the choir there is a large crucifix from 1274 that is attributed with certainty to Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225-1276) and his son Salerno. Coppo’s best known work – if it is indeed his – is the large mosaic of Christ the Judge in the Baptistery of Florence. In Pistoia the crucified Christ obviously takes up a central position on the crucifix, but there is much more to see. On six panels on either side of his body six scenes from his life have been depicted: his arrest and the kiss of Judas, Christ before the Sanhedrin, the flagellation, the entombment, the deposition and the empty tomb. On a column in the choir we can admire a fresco by the son, Salerno di Coppo, representing the Madonna and Child. Both the style of this fresco and that of father Coppo’s is still clearly Byzantine.

Crucifix by Coppo di Marcovaldo / fresco by his son Salerno.

Funerary monument for Cino da Pistoia – Agostino di Giovanni.

The Duomo of Pistoia has a couple of very good funerary monuments, of which I will mention two in this post. The oldest monument is the tomb of the poet and lawyer Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336), which can be found in the right aisle. Cino’s full name was Guittoncino di ser Francesco dei Sigibuldi, and with a name that complicated one is inclined to understand why the much shorter ‘Cino’ quickly gained popularity. The poet Dante was one of his friends and one of his most famous students was the lawyer Bartolus. Cino’s tomb from 1337-1339 was made by Agostino di Giovanni (ca. 1285-1347), a sculptor whose work in Arezzo I have discussed previously. The monument (a cenotaph according to many sources) is composed of multiple parts. At the bottom we see Cino depicted on a relief. He is standing behind a desk and appears to be lecturing law students. Above the relief we see him a second time, but now he is the large statue in the centre. The four other statues are probably students again. Finally, the canopy of the monument features a Madonna and Child, two saints and a kneeling figure. The saints are without a doubt Zeno and James, and the kneeling figure must be the third representation of Cino.

The second funerary monument that needs to be mentioned is that of cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri (1419-1473). The cardinal, who by the way earned some of his spurs on the battlefield, had been born in Pistoia. However, he died in Viterbo and was buried at his titular church in Rome, that of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere. It follows that the monument in the cathedral of Pistoia (see below) is a cenotaph. The first to receive a commission to make it was Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488), Leonardo da Vinci’s old teacher. Upon Verrocchio’s death in 1488, the cenotaph was not yet finished and the job to complete it was entrusted to the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Lotti, also known as Lorenzetto (1490-1541). At least that is what the aforementioned Giorgio Vasari claims in his Lives. But if we take a look at Lorenzetto’s year of birth, we must conclude that he can only have started years after Verrocchio’s death: in 1488 he had not even been born yet. Thanks to Vasari we know that the three figures surrounding the bust of the deceased are the three theological virtues, Hope, Faith and Charity (or Love). Inside the mandorla we see God the Father. It should be noted that Vasari’s claim that Lorenzetto completed the monument is not entirely true. The bust of the cardinal, the weeping boys and the frame were added as late as 1753.

Monument for cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri – Verrocchio and Lorenzetto.

A famous panel painting kept in the Duomo is the Madonna di Piazza, a work that features the Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Donatus of Fiesole. The painting was made for Donato de’ Medici, who served as bishop of Pistoia between 1436 and 1474. Once again the work was commissioned from Verrocchio, but it appears his student Lorenzo di Credi (ca. 1459-1537) did most of the work. The theory that the Madonna di Piazza was painted by none other than Leonardo da Vinci is largely incorrect. At most Leonardo painted a small part of the predella, which is currently kept at the Louvre in Paris. The Madonna di Piazza can be found in the Cappella di San Donato of the Duomo, but I have a strong suspicion that this chapel is not open to the public. In any case I have not been able to locate the painting. On my next visit to Pistoia I will give it another try.

So I cannot include an image of the Madonna di Piazza in this post, but to compensate I will briefly discuss the medieval paintings of the right aisle, close to the steps leading to the chapel to the right of the choir. Here we find frescoes and a panel painting. The frescoes are the work of a local master called Giovanni di Bartolomeo Cristiani (ca. 1340-1398). The work was signed and it mentions the year 1388. In the lunette we see Christ with the eleven remaining disciples (Judas is absent). Doubting Thomas is feeling the wound in Christ’s side, while Peter and another disciple inspect the Messiah’s pierced feet. Below the lunette two more saints have been depicted. One of them is labelled S. LEONARDVS (which is difficult to read), the other is an unlabelled bishop. Between the two saints a panel painting dating from 1424 has been set up. It was made by an anonymous master. The panel features Saint James the Great (the figure on the left), and now that James has been mentioned again I will turn to the highlight of the cathedral, the Cappella del Crocefisso with its silver altar.

Frescoes and panel painting (left) and choir (right).

Silver altar of San Jacopo

Silver altar of San Jacopo.

The history that lead to James the Great becoming patron saint of Pistoia and the introduction of his cult in the cathedral starts in 1133-1153, when a certain Atto was bishop of the city. According to tradition he was from Beja in Portugal. Although this theory is now somewhat discredited and some scholars claim he was an ordinary Tuscan, Atto’s presumed Portuguese ancestry and connection to the Iberian peninsula might help explain how, in 1145, the bishop managed to get some of James’ relics from Santiago de Compostela to Pistoia.

A special chapel was built for the relics, but in 1785 bishop Scipione de’ Ricci (1780-1791) ordered its demolition. The silver altar of San Jacopo (see below) was then moved to another chapel and has been in the Cappella del Crocefisso since 1953. Upon his death, Atto was initially buried in the church of San Giovanni in Corte, which stood opposite the Duomo on the spot where we now find the Baptistery of Pistoia. In 1337 his body was exhumed and taken to the Duomo. His urn is currently in the chapel dedicated to Saint Roch, while his funerary monument from the fourteenth century was set up against the counter-façade. An image of the monument can be found here. In 1605 the bishop was canonised.

James the Great.

If you want to visit the Cappella del Crocefisso, you will have to join a guided tour. This is obviously not free, but the tour is good value for money and most of the guides are bilingual (Italian and English). In our case the guide moreover took his time to explain everything in English, apparently much to the annoyance of the Italian-speaking tourists, who had to wait until he was finished before they could leave the chapel. As I mentioned previously, the chapel is where we find the silver altar of San Jacopo, which was made between 1287 and 1456 by various silversmiths. In a way, the altar can be compared to the silver altar of Saint John the Baptist in Florence, although work on the altar of San Jacopo started much earlier and involved silversmiths of less fame than those in Florence.

The silver altar is composed of a dossal (altar screen) and three altar frontals that cover its front and sides. This article on Italian Wikipedia gives an excellent summary of the images and scenes that can be seen on the dossal and frontals. The article also outlines which silversmith was responsible for which parts. In this post I will confine myself to discussing some of the highlights, which include the large gilded statue of Saint James, made between 1349 and 1353 by Giglio Pisano. The apostle is wearing the hat, satchel and staff of a pilgrim. He is surrounded by the scallops that were named shells of Saint James after him.

On the three frontals we see stories from the Old and New Testament, and especially from the life of Saint James. Both the front and left side feature his martyrdom and the conversion of a certain Josia, a man who had previously testified against James, but was so impressed by the apostle’s courage that he ultimately chose to become a Christian himself. The side panel, made between 1361 and 1371 and attributed in its entirety to Leonardo di ser Giovanni, is especially noticeable for its use of blue windows in the scene in which James is dragged before king Herod Agrippa. In the final scene on this side of the altar, the lifeless body of the apostle is taken to Galicia in the Iberian peninsula. Tradition dictates that it was buried there. Hundreds of years later it was supposedly rediscovered in a field (campus) where the grave was pointed out by the light of a star (stella). And so the ‘field of the star’, campus stellae, was said to have become Compostela. This is typically the kind piety-driven linguistic fantasy that makes real linguists cringe, but it is a good story that also happens to explain the many stars on the altar.

Scenes from the life of James the Great.

Jeremiah – Filippo Brunelleschi.

The most famous silversmith to work on the silver altar was doubtlessly Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). He is best known to posterity as the architect who designed the dome of the Duomo of Florence, but in 1400-1401 he was still a young man of little fame. For the altar of San Jacopo Brunelleschi made the images of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah on the side of the dossal. The images of Saints John the Evangelist and Augustinus above Jeremiah and Isaiah are also attributed to him. Brunelleschi may have been young when he made these images, but his talent is evident.

Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Florence and Tuscany, Italian Wikipedia and two more Italian websites.


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