Bologna: Santa Maria dei Servi

Church of Santa Maria dei Servi.

The Santa Maria dei Servi is the church of the Servites of Maria in Bologna. This order was founded in 1233 in Florence by a group of wealthy cloth traders. Official papal approval of the order had to wait until 1304. Construction of the Servite church in Bologna started in 1346. Financial support was provided by Taddeo Pepoli (ca. 1285/90-1347), lord of the city between 1337 and 1347. In 1383 the church was completed and a mere three years later the building was expanded. The leader of the order, Andrea da Faenza (1319-1396), had a pivotal role in this project. He was not only a cleric, but a very talented architect as well. Upon his death he was buried in the Santa Maria dei Servi. His tombstone has been preserved and can be admired. It is possible that the much younger architect Antonio di Vincenzo (ca. 1350-1401/02) was also involved in the expansion project. He would later become the first architect of the famous basilica of San Petronio.

A remarkable element of the church is the atrium that was built in front of it. The atrium has a long history. Construction of the colonnade along the Strada Maggiore, i.e. along the left flank of the church, started as early as 1392. Additional colonnades added in the fifteenth, sixteenth and nineteenth centuries created an atrium in front of the church that has the shape of a trapezium rather than a square. The bell-tower of the church dates from 1453 and has a height of 52 metres. The tower can be seen very well from the Asinelli tower, which is 97 metres high. The convent next to the church, which must have once had three cloisters, is no longer in use. If you study the complex from above using Google Street View, you will notice that the large cloisters are nowadays mainly used for parking cars.

Church and convent, seen from above.

Interior of the church.

The brick façade of the Santa Maria dei Servi lacks decorations and therefore interest. The large oculus has a windowpane on which, with some difficulty, we recognise the symbol of the Servites. The two smaller oculi have been bricked up. Let us now enter the church. The Santa Maria dei Servi has an impressive Gothic interior with imposing brick columns and high cross-vaults. In the aisles we find several chapels with works that were mostly made by local masters. Examples include a Noli me tangere by Francesco Albani (1578-1660), an Annunciation by Innocenzo da Imola (1490-1550) and especially a Paradise by Denijs Calvaert (ca. 1540-1619). Calvaert, who is alternatively known as Dionisio Fiammingo in Italian, was a Flemish painter who won himself an excellent reputation in Bologna. He was apparently buried in this church, but I have not been able to find a tomb or tombstone. A good image of his Paradise can be viewed here.

Further back in the church we come across several older works of art. On the vaults and walls of the ambulatory we for instance see some (traces of) frescoes painted by Vitale da Bologna (ca. 1310-1360) and the church also has a polyptych that is attributed to Lippo di Dalmasio (ca. 1352-1410). The latter was the son of Dalmasio Scannabecchi, whose work in Pistoia in Tuscany I have mentioned previously. Unfortunately it can be rather dark inside the Santa Maria dei Servi, which makes it difficult to appreciate the fine details of the paintings. In the ambulatory we also find the tombstone of the aforementioned Andrea da Faenza. Four slabs have been attached to a wall and I assume that the topmost is Andrea’s. if we look down here, we will also notice an interesting and rather conspicuous tombstone. The image of the deceased in his black habit looks very lifelike. According to this source we are looking at the tombstone of Lucido Conti (1388-1437), a cardinal who spent his final years in the Servite convent.

Madonna and Child attributed to Cimabue (photo: Web Gallery of Art).

I furthermore liked a terracotta altarpiece by the Bolognese sculptor Vincenzo Onofri, made in 1503. It represents a Madonna and Child, flanked by Saints Lawrence and Eustace. One can actually see the name of the artist on the platform that supports the Madonna’s throne.

The undisputed highlight in the church is, however, a work that can be found in the first radial chapel. The large panel painting that is kept here is attributed by many to Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302). Others attribute it to his students, or at least assume that these played a large part in painting the work. However this may be, the panel dates from ca. 1280-1285. Regretfully the chapel was closed when we visited the church in September of 2020, so we missed the opportunity to inspect the painting from up close. Fortunately we still have the Web Gallery of Art, which by the way calls the attribution to Cimabue ‘doubtful’.

Sources: Evert de Rooij, Emilia-Romagna, p. 84, Italian Wikipedia, Bologna Welcome and Informagiovani.

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