The famous Romanesque church of San Zeno is located quite far outside Verona’s city centre. There is a sound historical explanation for this. In Antiquity there was a Roman cemetery here, where somewhere between 372 and 380 the eighth bishop of the city was buried. Little is certain about the life and deeds of this Zeno. He was probably from Africa and served as bishop of Verona for about a decade. Several churches in Italy have been dedicated to Saint Zeno, ranging from the large cathedral of Pistoia in Tuscany to the minuscule church of San Zeno in Bardolino in the Veneto. However, the church of San Zeno in Verona is undeniably the most famous of all of them.
The history of the building starts in Late Antiquity. It is possible that already during the reign of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic the Great (489-526) a small sanctuary dedicated to Zeno was constructed in Verona. The current church contains a small amount of fabric that can be dated to the sixth century. Moreover, we know that Theoderic liked to spend time in Verona and was responsible for many building activities there. Coincidentally, the Ostrogothic king had invaded Italy at the invitation of the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno (474-491), an emperor who had the same name as the bishop-saint who lived and died a century earlier. In Verona itself people firmly believe in Theoderic’s involvement in the founding of the very first church of San Zeno: we see him multiple times on the twelfth-century reliefs on the façade (see below).
In 805-806 the first sanctuary was replaced with a much larger church. Responsible for its construction were bishop Ratoldo (ca. 799-840) and Pippin of Italy, the second son of Charlemagne. Ratoldo, himself a Benedictine, settled a community of Benedictine monks in the abbey that arose next to the church. The renovated church of San Zeno was consecrated on 8 December 806 and on 21 May 807 the relics of the saint were enshrined in the crypt. In the second half of the tenth century Italy was invaded by the Magyars, and the invaders did not spare Verona. The precious relics were probably taken from the crypt to a safe location, but the church and abbey of San Zeno stood fairly defenceless outside the city walls and were heavily damaged by the Magyar attack. In 963 or 967 the church was rebuilt by bishop Raterio (932-968). The bishop, who had been born in the Belgian town of Liège, was also a Benedictine. In order to rebuild the church, he received financial support from Otto I, Holy Roman emperor. The current crypt of the church dates from the tenth century.
At the end of the eleventh century, a new project was launched to enlarge the church. Unfortunately Verona was at the epicentre of a terrible earthquake that struck Northern Italy on 3 January 1117 and left large parts of it in ruins. The San Zeno was also severely damaged. Work on the church had all been for nothing, the cloister of the abbey had been destroyed and the upper part of the freestanding campanile, of which the construction had started in 1045, had collapsed. Restoration of the church started shortly after an assessment of the damage had been made. Around 1120, the campanile had been restored, and between 1123 and 1138 work on the church itself was completed. The San Zeno was then also provided with its splendid portal (pròtiro) and the famous reliefs by the sculptor Niccolò (Nicholaus). Between 1165 and 1173 the campanile was raised and reached its present height of some 72 metres. Next, between 1217 and 1225, the façade of the church was remodelled by master Brioloto de Balneo (died ca. 1225), who collaborated with the sculptor Adamino da San Giorgio. The beautiful rose window of the San Zeno dates from this renovation.
The current cloister dates from the fourteenth century. It was built between 1293 and 1313 and is an interesting mix of Romanesque and Gothic elements. At the end of the fourteenth century it was time for another renovation of the church, which was executed between 1386 and 1398 by the architect Giovanni da Ferrara and his son Nicolò. They rebuilt the apse of the church in the Gothic style. The church was furthermore provided with a wooden ceiling in the shape of an inverted ship’s hull, which can in a way be compared to the ceiling of the church of San Fermo elsewhere in Verona. In 1405 Verona came under Venetian rule, and as of 1443 the abbey of San Zeno was led by a Venetian abbot, Gregorio Correr (1409-1464). To him we owe the beautiful altarpiece of the church, which the abbot commissioned from the young Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506), who painted it between 1457 and 1459. The altarpiece stood and still stands in the raised choir, which could be reached from the nave by a broad staircase, built in the sixteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, the complex of San Zeno went into decline. In 1770 the Venetians disbanded the abbey. Then, starting in 1801, the complex was demolished under French rule. Only the cloister and the big abbey tower were preserved. According to tradition the aforementioned Pippin of Italy was buried under the tower. Pippin’s birthname was Karloman, but he was officially renamed Pippin after his half-brother Pippin the Hunchback – Charlemagne’s eldest son – fell into disgrace. Pippin of Italy was set to succeed his father as emperor, but he died in 810 after a failed siege of Venice. He was certainly buried in the San Zeno, but it is rather doubtful that his final resting place was under the abbey tower. The construction of that imposing tower only started in 1145 and it was completed in the thirteenth century. The tower makes two things clear: first, in case of a war the complex could be defended and second, judging by the shape of the battlements, Verona was a Ghibelline city, i.e. a city that supported the Holy Roman emperor. Ghibelline battlements have the shape of a swallow’s tail. See for instance the battlements of the Castelvecchio in Verona.
In 1816 the San Zeno was made parochial, but the priests were allowed to continue to call themselves abbots. A very important event took place on 22 March 1838. On that day the relics of Saint Zeno (presumed lost) were found again. Almost a month later, on 20 April, the tomb of the saint was opened and his relics were enshrined in a new sarcophagus. Visitors can still venerate them there. In 1870 the central staircase from the sixteenth century was demolished and the two smaller staircases at the sides were restored. Nowadays the raised choir is reached by these stairs, while in the centre there is the entrance to the crypt.
Things to see – exterior
The portal and the reliefs of the façade were made by Niccolò and his associates. The reliefs on the left were sculpted by one Guglielmo (Guillelmus). He was almost certainly an assistant or student of Niccolò and must therefore not be equated with the famous Wiligelmus or Wiligelmo, who is, among other things, known for his sculptures for the cathedral of Modena. The reliefs on the right side tell the story of Genesis. We see how God creates the animals and then Adam and Eve. They ignore warnings not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and are expelled from Paradise as punishment. On the last relief we see Adam engaged in hard work as a farmer, while Eve is breastfeeding Cain and Abel and at the same time spinning wool. The two reliefs at te bottom are the most interesting. Here we see a hunting scene with king Theoderic. The king is on horseback and blowing a horn. On the right a deer tries to flee, but a hunting dog has already caught it.
The reliefs on the right feature eight scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, from the Annunciation (bottom left) to the Crucifixion (top right). The two reliefs below these scenes are again about Theoderic and possibly represent his struggle against Odoacer, who was his predecessor and the Germanic king of Italy. The former’s campaign against the latter started in 489 with the emperor Zeno’s blessing. The campaign was a great success. Odoacer was defeated and ultimately cornered in Ravenna. In 493, Theoderic offered his opponent a seemingly excellent deal: the two kings would rule Italy together. Odoacer accepted, but was later treacherously murdered at a banquet in the palace, organised to celebrate the peace treaty. According to tradition, Theoderic drew his sword and single-handedly killed his rival by splitting him in half with a tremendous blow.
Saint Zeno has been depicted on the beautiful tympanum above the main entrance of the church. He tramples on the devil and uses his right hand to give his blessing to the city of Verona. The city is symbolised by the infantry on the left and the cavalry on the right. What is interesting is that the relief has retained some of its colour. Below the infantry and cavalry we see miracles that are attributed to Zeno. Above the portal the large rose window by Brioloto de Balneo immediately catches the eye. The window is alternatively known as the Ruota della Fortuna, the wheel of fortune. Around the rose window we see six reliefs that represent phases from the life of man. The triangular pediment once had a representation of the Last Judgment. It must have looked something like this and I suspect the sgraffito technique was used. This involves using chisels and drills to carve and scratch out drawings on white marble and then filling the lines with black stucco. All of this is now gone, unfortunately.
The bronze decorations of the doors of the church are world-famous. These can no longer be seen from the outside, no doubt because they are very vulnerable. In total there are 73 bronze panels attached to the wood of the doors. The largest panels feature scenes from the Old and New Testament and miracles performed by Saint Zeno. Historians assume that the panels were made in different phases by several masters and their assistants. Usually three phases and three masters are mentioned. Most scenes from the Old Testament were probably made in the first half of the eleventh century. Another master later made most of the scenes from the New Testament, possibly in the first half of the twelfth century. Lastly, a third master is said to have been responsible for three of the four scenes featuring Saint Zeno, made at the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. A summary of all the scenes can be found here. The style of the figures on the bronze panels is quite remarkable. I thought that Abraham and Balaam looked at lot like Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings.
Things to see – interior
The striped interior of the church is the result of the alternate use of stone and brick. To the right of the entrance is the baptismal font, usually attributed to Brioloto de Balneo, although compelling evidence is lacking. Behind the baptismal font is a nice crucifix from about 1360, presumably a work by Lorenzo Veneziano. The fresco on the wall, partly preserved, represents Saint Benedictus, a reminder of the Benedictine past of the church and abbey. In the lunette above the entrance is another fresco. We see a Madonna and Child enthroned, flanked by four saints and a kneeling couple. The saints are, from left to right, Zeno, a female saint (Ursula or Barbara?), Mary Magdalene and Nicholas of Tolentino. The latter died in 1305 and was canonised in 1446. That explains why he is the only one without a halo. We do not know the names of the kneeling spouses, but there can be little doubt that they sponsored the fresco, which is attributed to the Secondo Maestro di San Zeno.
Many of the frescoes on both walls are attributed to this mysterious Secondo Maestro. He had a predecessor who is, of course, known as the Primo Maestro di San Zeno. These masters obviously did not work alone; they must have had multiple assistants. Therefore, the monikers Primo Maestro di San Zeno and Secondo Maestro di San Zeno refer to groups of painters rather than individuals. The church also has frescoes that are older than the work painted by these men. We find these frescoes on both the left and right wall of the church. The oldest fresco is probably a depiction of Christ enthroned on the left wall. Christ is flanked by Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary, but of greater interest is the person introduced to him by an angel. It is Adelardo Cattaneo, the bishop of Verona who died in 1225. The fresco dates from the first half of the thirteenth century. The right wall also has two thirteenth-century frescoes. These represent the baptism of Christ and the raising of Lazarus, and they were painted around 1240-1260 by an unknown master.
Around these last frescoes we see more frescoes, which date from the fourteenth century and are largely attributed to the Secondo Maestro di San Zeno. Very interesting is a Saint George on horseback piercing the dragon with his lance. Below this scene the body of Saint Zeno is prepared for transportation (see the image above). Close to the entrance we see another fresco of Saint George, this time between two bishops and with a kneeling man. To the right of this fresco is a life-size image of the Burgundian king Sigismund (died 524), and to the right of Sigismund we see scenes from the life of Saint Nicholas.
On the right side of the church, about halfway up the aisle, we find a remarkable altar with intertwined columns. The frescoes here are somewhat older (first half of the fourteenth century) and simpler, and are attributed to the Primo Maestro di San Zeno. The frescoes do not tell a continuous story. In other words, we are not looking at fresco cycles about the lives of certain saints. The saints and the scenes they appear in seem to have been chosen rather arbitrarily and for personal reasons, and it was not unusual to paint over older frescoes. What also catches the eye is the fact that texts have been scratched into many of the frescoes. The texts are about floods, earthquakes, plagues and wars.
A conspicuous fresco on the left walls shows us a Last Supper, or rather a part of it. On the table are bread, cups and a jug of wine. We also see black, round foodstuffs on the table. The things look like cherries, but they are probably olives. And then there are the scorpions on the table, possibly symbolising the impending danger (the betrayal and arrest of Jesus). Clearly of a later date (second half of the fourteenth century) is a large Crucifixion on the left wall. The fresco was once attributed to Altichiero da Zevio (ca. 1330-1390), but nowadays the attribution has been downgraded to someone from his school. The large fresco from 1397 featuring the abbot Pietro Paolo Cappelli and his monks before the Madonna and Child could have been made by a painter from Altichiero’s school. At the end of the left aisle we subsequently find a remarkable statue called “San Zen che ride”, Saint Zeno laughing (see the image above). Indeed we see a smile on the lips of the saint. We do not know the name of the sculptor, but the statue dates from the thirteenth century.
The fresco on the triumphal arch represents the Annunciation. It was painted in 1391-1399 by Martino da Verona (died 1412). On either side of the coat of arms in the centre are the letters PE PA, which is a reference to the aforementioned abbot Pietro Paolo Cappelli, or Petrus Paulus in Latin. The frescoes in the apse of the church were also made by Martino da Verona. Here we see a large Crucifixion and frescoes of Benedictus, Peter and Paul. The frescoes were all part of the ‘Gothic extension’ that was executed under the direction of Giovanni and Nicolò da Ferrara (see above). The high altar is a beautiful Romanesque sarcophagus from the twelfth century. The relics of the bishops Lucillus and Lupicinus, and of the hermit Crescenzianus were enshrined in it. Lucillus and Lupicinus were a predecessor and successor of Zeno.
The undisputed highlight in the choir is of course the famous altarpiece by Andrea Mantegna, painted in 1457-1459. Although strictly speaking the work is a triptych, what we see is in fact a continuous scene featuring a Madonna and Child with no less than eight saints: Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist, Zeno, Benedictus, Lawrence, Gregorius the Great and John the Baptist. The predella consists of three scenes from the life of Christ. Unfortunately the predella pieces are not original. In 1797 the altarpiece was looted by Napoleon’s troops and taken to Paris. In 1815 the work was returned, but without the predella. Part of it ended up in the Louvre (the Crucifixion) and another part in the Museum of Fine Arts in Tours (Agony in the Garden and Resurrection). The current predella pieces are replicas, made by the painter Paolino Caliari (1764-1835), who according to some sources was a descendant of the famous sixteenth-century painter Veronese (1528-1588), whose real name was Paolo Caliari.