Remarkably, the large basilica of Santa Anastasia in Verona is not dedicated to the eponymous saint. Instead the immense church is dedicated to Saint Peter of Verona, also known as Saint Peter Martyr. This Dominican preacher, inquisitor and persecutor of heretics was murdered by a hired assassin in 1252 and canonised the next year by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254). One can admire his tomb in Milan. At the end of the thirteenth century, the Dominicans in Verona built a church dedicated to their martyr on the site occupied for several centuries by a much smaller church that was dedicated to Saint Anastasia, a rather obscure female martyr from the Balkans to whom a well-known church in Rome is dedicated. Officially the large basilica is apparently called the church of San Pietro da Verona in Santa Anastasia. For reasons that are quite understandable, practically everybody simply calls it the Santa Anastasia. The small church next to the Santa Anastasia – deconsecrated ages ago – is by the way called the San Pietro Martire. The Dominicans used this small church in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries while they were working on the gigantic basilica next door.
We do not know when exactly the first church of Santa Anastasia was built. Most sources state that this must have happened in the Longobard era, so somewhere between 568 and 774. In the next era, when the Longobards had been defeated by the Franks, this church was supposedly incorporated into a larger church, dedicated to the French Saint Remigius of Reims. Both churches stood along the decumanus maximus, the street that ran east to west in Roman Verona. It was the urban stretch of the Via Postumia, an important Roman road. Behind the churches was a bridge across the river Adige, the Pons Postumius, now long gone. As early as 1260 the bishop of Verona granted the terrain to the friars of the Order of the Dominicans, who had settled outside the city walls some decades previously. Presumably the Dominicans first focussed on the construction of the adjacent convent (which they were forced to leave in 1807). Around 1290 the construction of the second Santa Anastasia started.
We do not know who the architect or architects of the new basilica were, but two Dominican friars are often mentioned, Benvenuto of Bologna and Nicola of Imola. An important benefactor of the project was the condottiero (mercenary captain) Guglielmo da Castelbarco (died 1320). He was a friend of Cangrande I della Scala, who was Lord of Verona between 1311 and 1329. Guglielmo da Castelbarco’s tomb outside the church can still be admired today (see below). The construction of the Santa Anastasia took about two centuries. The new church was consecrated in 1471, but that was not the end of the story, as in the ensuing decades more construction work was executed. The conspicuous bell-tower, which reaches a height of some 72 metres, was completed in the fifteenth century. The façade of the church was, on the other hand, never finished. Although it does feature some decorations, we mostly see naked brick and empty spots where sculpted reliefs could have been attached. In spite of the lack of external decorations the Santa Anastasia is a very impressive church. It is the largest church in all of Verona to boot.
The double entrance of the church is surrounded by a portal with a fine Gothic arch in the colours white, pink and grey. In the lunettes above the entrance we see three faded frescoes. The maker of the frescoes is unknown, but he may have been a pupil of Stefano da Verona (ca. 1379-1438). Below the frescoes are six reliefs featuring scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. The reliefs are flanked by statuettes of two saints, on the left Saint Anastasia and on the right Saint Catherine of Alexandria (note the wheel, her standard attribute). In the middle is a slightly larger statuette of the Madonna and Child.
To the right of the entrance two reliefs have been affixed depicting the murder of Peter of Verona (above) and a sermon by Peter (below). Below the relief of the murder is the following Latin text:
EX COMO MEDIOLANVM REDIENS INTINERE OCCIDOR
(“I am killed on the way back from Como to Milan”)
On a gate between the Santa Anastasia and the San Pietro Martire is the imposing tomb of the aforementioned Guglielmo da Castelbarco. The monument is attributed to the sculptor Rigino di Enrico. He was the father of Giovanni di Rigino, the man who was probably responsible for the equestrian statue of Cangrande I della Scala, which is currently in the Castelvecchio. The tomb features the condottiero on his deathbed underneath a baldachin. His sword is on his chest, his hands folded around it. The deceased is again depicted on the side of the sarcophagus, this time kneeling before the Madonna and Child. The coat of arms of the family, visible on the right, features a griffin.
Large columns divide the interior of the church into a central nave and two aisles. The chapels in the aisles are little more than shallow niches; the real chapels can be found on either side of the choir. The Santa Anastasia has a beautiful floor, which dates from 1462. It was designed and laid by the sculptor Pietro da Porlezza, who was from a small town in the north of Lombardy. The colours white and black symbolise the habit of the Dominicans, while the colour red symbolises the blood of both Jesus Christ and the martyr Saint Peter of Verona. Do not forget to look up, as both the nave and the aisles have beautifully painted cross-vaults. Close to the entrance are two curious holy water stoups. In both cases the stoup is supported by a hunchback (gobbo in Italian). The oldest of the two stoups, which dates from the end of the fifteenth century, was supposedly made by Gabriele Caliari, the father of the famous painter Veronese. The other stoup is about a century younger and is attributed to Paolo Orefice.
The Santa Anastasia is so large and has so much art that it is impossible to discuss everything in one post. I will therefore confine myself to a couple of highlights, starting with a panel painting by Liberale da Verona (ca. 1445-1530) which can be found on the wall of the right aisle. On the panel we see a praying Mary Magdalene among Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Toscana of Zevio. The latter is actually not a saint. After the death of her husband in 1318 Toscana dedicated herself to charity, which she continued to do until her own death in 1343 or 1344. She is nowadays venerated in her place of birth, Zevio, which is southeast of Verona, and in Verona itself. However, as far as I know no pope ever beatified or canonised her.
At the end of the right aisle is a small chapel. This Cappella del Crocifisso is the oldest part of the current basilica, but it is debated whether it is a remnant of the first church of Santa Anastasia from the Longobard era. There is, in any case, no evidence for this assumption. The chapel has a nice wooden crucifix from the fifteenth century, but it is mostly interesting because of a funerary monument on the left side. The monument was made for a certain Gianesello da Folgaria, who made his will in 1427 and presumably died not long after. On stylistic grounds the monument has been attributed to Bartolomeo Giolfino (ca. 1410-1486), a sculptor from Verona. It is made of tuff which was subsequently painted. Much of the colour has been preserved. The monument features a splendid lamentation of the dead Christ. Below his tomb are the busts of eight apostles.
The altar in the right transept was built between 1488 and 1502 by order of the Centrago family. The altarpiece was painted by Girolamo dai Libri (ca. 1474-1555). The painter’s somewhat curious surname ‘of the Books’ derives from the fact that both he himself and his father Francesco were also active as illuminators of books and manuscripts. The altarpiece represents the Madonna and Child, flanked by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a famous Dominican theologian, and Saint Augustinus. The painter added a couple of interesting details to his altarpiece. Note for instance the scale model of the Santa Anastasia that Thomas is holding and the images of saints on Augustinus’ chasuble. The two praying people in the foreground are members of the Centrago family. They are Cosimo Centrago and his wife Orsolina Cipolla.
We now arrive at the Cappella Cavalli, which is situated on the far right of the choir. Unfortunately the chapel, like the other chapels, keeps its gates shut, which makes it difficult to fully enjoy the beautiful decorations. On the right wall Altichiero da Zevio (ca. 1330-1390) painted a large fresco that shows how members of the Cavalli family are kneeling before the Madonna and Child enthroned. The beautiful tomb against the same wall is the final resting place of Federico Cavalli. The way the effigy of the deceased is lying on the sarcophagus is remarkable: not straight, but at an angle. This gives visitors the impression that Federico’s sword might fall off any time. The name of the sculptor is unknown, but the fresco in the lunette is attributed to the aforementioned Stefano da Verona. In the chapel we furthermore find, among other things, frescoes by Martino da Verona (died 1412).
The Cappella Pellegrini directly to the right of the choir is also worth a look. The 24 terracotta reliefs with scenes from the life of Christ were made by Michele da Firenze (ca. 1385-1455). They date from about 1436 and were once all painted. Two funerary monuments in the chapel immediately catch the eye. The monument on the left wall is for Tommaso Pellegrini, that on the right wall for the Bevilacqua-Pellegrini family. The latter monument is embellished by a truly beautiful fresco, in extraordinarily good condition, by Martino da Verona. Three members of the Bevilacqua family are on their knees before the Madonna and Child enthroned. They are introduced by Saints George and Catherine of Alexandria. Behind Saint George is Saint Zeno, bishop of Verona in the fourth century and patron saint of the city. Behind Saint Catherine we see Saint Dominicus and Saint Anthony the Abbot.
In 1434-1438 Pisanello (ca. 1395-1455) painted a famous fresco of Saint George and the dragon on the arch that gives access to the Cappella Pellegrini. Regretfully, not much is left of the dragon (on the left). The part featuring Saint George and the princess is fortunately in a much better condition. Our hero is about to mount his steed and has already placed his left foot in the stirrup. In the background we see, according to my sources, the city of Trabzon in present-day Turkey, where the legend of Saint George and the dragon is set, although I should add that other sources set it in the city of Beirut or modern Libya. Judging by the style of the building, the city that Pisanello painted might just as well be fifteenth-century Verona. On the water is a boat to take our hero to the dragon. If Saint George manages to kill the dragon, the princess will be saved in the process, as she is to be sacrificed to the beast. Interesting details of the fresco are the high hairdo sported by the princess, the two hanged men in the background and the dogs and ram in the foreground. Pisanello was exceptionally skilled at painting animals.
In the choir, it is especially the large funerary monument for Cortesia Serego that draws our attention. He was a condottiero from Vicenza who died in 1386. The monument is actually not a tomb, but a cenotaph. It was commissioned by Serego’s son, and the architect Piero di Niccolò Lamberti (1393-1435) is often named as the maker. According to an alternative theory it is, however, a work by the Florentine Nanni di Bartolo. This theory is probably based on the fact that Nanni di Bartolo was responsible for a similar monument in the church of San Fermo Maggiore in Verona, the Brenzoni Mausoleum. But whichever sculptor was involved in the project, the monument is very special. On the (empty) sarcophagus an equestrian statue of the deceased has been placed. Two soldiers are holding the curtain of the baldachin and topping the baldachin is a statue of the archangel Gabriel. Everything is painted and perfectly matches with the frescoes painted around the monument. These frescoes are sometimes attributed to the Venetian Michele Giambono (ca. 1400-1462). They feature, at the bottom, the Dominican Saints Dominicus himself and Peter of Verona. At the top we see a damaged Annunciation. There we also read the year 1432 in Roman numerals.
In the left transept several late medieval frescoes have been preserved. Most are attributed to the fairly obscure Veronese painter Bonaventura Boninsegna. A fresco of a kneeling knight who is introduced to the Madonna and Child by a saint is, however, a work of the mysterious Secondo Maestro di San Zeno. The knight has been identified as a certain Jacopo Beccucci (the name is just legible above the fresco), which makes it reasonable to assume that the saint is Jacopo’s namesake James the Great. The left transept gives access to the Cappella Giusti and the sacristy. Here we find a rudder that was captured from the Ottoman Turks during the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. At Lepanto, the Turks were defeated by a large Christian coalition in which Venice also participated. And as Verona was under Venetian rule at the time and had actually provided the coalition with a few dozen soldiers, the city was allowed to share in the victory celebrations. The time for celebrating was short, however. The Christian coalition quickly fell apart and the Turks remained a great danger.
The next chapel, the Cappella del Rosario, also has a connection with the battle of Lepanto. It was built between 1585 and 1596 in honour of the Christian victory. The architect was Domenico Curtoni (1556-1629), a nephew of the famous Veronese architect Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559). One can find similar chapels in churches in Venice and Vicenza. The altarpiece in the Verona chapel is much older than the chapel itself. It is a painting by Lorenzo Veneziano from 1358-1359. The scene we see is also called the Madonna dell’Umiltà, which involves a Madonna sitting very humbly on the ground with the Christ child. This Madonna is flanked by Dominicus and Peter of Verona. It is clear that the work is very old: the cloud of angels surrounding the Madonna has faded and the habits of the two Dominicans appear to be yellow rather than white, but otherwise the painting seems to be in remarkably good condition.
Note the spouses that are kneeling before the Madonna and Child. They are almost certainly members of the Della Scala family, who ruled over Verona between 1263 and 1387 (see Verona: The tombs of the Scaligeri). The man is often identified as Cangrande II della Scala (1351-1359), which means that the woman is Elizabeth of Bavaria. She was a daughter of Louis IV of Bavaria, Holy Roman emperor, and Margaret of Hainault, who was also countess of Holland and Zealand.
Lastly, I would like to mention the Cappella Miniscalchi in the left aisle, which is in fact just a niche with an altar, but a pretty nice one nonetheless. The altar dates from 1436 and the design is attributed to Pietro da Porlezza, already mentioned above. The altarpiece of the descent of the Holy Spirit is by Niccolò Giolfino (1476-1555). In the conch of the apse above it Francesco Morone (1471-1529) painted a representation of Pentecost, which of course also involved the Holy Spirit. In niches on either side of the altar we see six statues of saints. All the way at the top is a statue of Christ giving his blessing between statues of Saints Peter and Paul. To the right of the Cappella Miniscalchi is the large organ of the Santa Anastasia.