I must say our visit to the church of San Giorgio in Braida was particularly pleasant. While visitors need to buy tickets to visit the top churches in Verona, this is not the case with the San Giorgio. It should, however, be stressed that the fact that a visit is free does not at all mean that this church is less interesting. On the contrary, this is one of the very few Renaissance churches in the city and it has a dome to boot, which is quite rare in Verona. When we entered the choir of the church, a helpful custodian switched on the light for us. This allowed us to admire the most important work of art in the church very well. I am referring to the Martyrdom of Saint George, a colourful masterpiece by Paolo Caliari, also known as Veronese (1528-1588). After this warm welcome it just felt right to leave behind a generous donation.
The history of the church probably goes back to the eighth century. Very little is known about this first church and its adjacent nunnery. In 1046 the newly appointed bishop of Parma (and future antipope) Pietro Cadalo decided to found a convent of Benedictine monks in Verona. The convent was dedicated to Saint George, hence the name San Giorgio. The ‘in Braida’ part of the name refers to the Germanic word braida, which means “field of grass”. From its foundation the convent experienced both heydays and periods of sharp decline. In 1442 – Verona was now under Venetian rule – it was granted to canons of the Augustinian congregation of San Giorgio in Alga (see Rome: San Salvatore in Lauro and the tomb of Pope Eugenius IV). The Venetians would transform the church and convent into a genuine Renaissance complex.
Several sources mention 1477 as the year in which the building activities commenced. Most work on the church was done between 1480 and 1504, while the finishing touch can be dated to between 1536 and 1543. At some point the famous architect Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559) from Verona became involved in the project. He was responsible for the construction of the dome, although it was not completed until 1604, almost half a century after Sanmicheli’s death. The bell-tower of the church was unfortunately never completed. Responsible for its construction was Bernardino Brugnoli (1539-1584). He was a nephew of Sanmicheli who died quite young, but the main reason that the tower was never finished may simply have been a lack of money. Construction of the façade started in the sixteenth century and the lower part dates from this century. The upper part was added in the seventeenth century. The design of the façade is sometimes attributed to the architect and painter Paolo Farinati (1524-1606).
In 1668 the congregation of San Giorgio in Alga was dissolved by Pope Clemens IX (1667-1669). The complex was subsequently granted to the nuns of Santa Maria in Reggio. The nuns were in their turn expelled during the Napoleonic era, and in the subsequent Austrian era a large part of the convent was demolished. The San Giorgio in Braida has been parochial since 1874. In 1938 and again in 2018-2021 there were important restorations. The latter project involved work on the dome and bell-tower, which were restored to their former glory.
Things to see
The simple marble façade of the church is adorned by just two statues: one of Saint George (left) and one of Saint Lorenzo Giustinian (1381-1456), the first Patriarch of Venice. The building to the left of the façade is the rectory, designed and built by the architect Luigi Trezza (1752-1823). The building looks rather damaged, and this is the result of a firefight that took place here in 1805 between French and Austrian soldiers. To the right of the church is the cloister of the convent. It was unfortunately closed when we visited Verona in the summer of 2021.
The interior of the church is rather simple and a bit dull. The floor of 1557 does not get points for originality either. Visitors looking for splendid works of art should inspect the side chapels of the San Giorgio, especially those on the left. In the first and third chapel on the left one can admire works by Giovan Francesco Caroto (ca. 1480-1555). This painter is best known for his remarkable Boy with children’s drawing in Verona’s Castelvecchio. For the San Giorgio he painted religious works. In the first chapel we find an altarpiece representing Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins, who were all said to have been slaughtered by the Huns. The story is a load of hogwash, but the canvas (dating from 1545) is nice and colourful. Also by Caroto is the so-called Polittico di San Giorgio in Braida in the third chapel. It should be noted that Caroto did not paint all the parts of the polyptych. He himself did the panels featuring Saints Sebastian (left) and Rochus (right), both protectors of plague sufferers, as well as the scenes in the lunette and of the predella. The central panel with Saint Joseph and the Christ child is by the nineteenth-century painter Angelo Recchia (1816-1882). Recchia certainly did his best to imitate Caroto’s style. Lastly, the oval painting below the lunette is by Domenico Brusasorzi (1516-1567).
The altarpiece in the fourth chapel on the left is also worth closer inspection. It was painted by Girolamo dai Libri (ca. 1474-1555) and features the Madonna and Child, Saint Zeno of Verona and Saint Lorenzo Giustinian. The painter’s somewhat odd last name, ‘of the Books’, derives from the fact that both he and his father Francesco were also active as illuminators of books and manuscripts. Girolamo dai Libri painted the work in 1526. At a later stage Domenico Brusasorzi added the image of the Eternal Father in the lunette.
The San Giorgio has no transept, but in the transition area between the nave and sanctuary there is a lot of interesting art on display. I especially liked a work by Alessandro Bonvicino (ca. 1498-1554/64), nicknamed Il Moretto, a famous painter from Brescia. Below the church organ he painted an altarpiece with five female saints and a Madonna and Child in the sky. The central figure is Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. The other saints have been identified as Catherine of Alexandria, Lucia, Barbara and Agnes. The latter is of course easily recognisable by her little lamb. The canvas dates from 1540. It is flanked by works featuring Fermus and Rusticus, two local saints (see Verona: San Fermo Maggiore). These were not made by Il Moretto, but by Bernardino India (1528-1590).
The left and right wall of the choir are completely taken up by two enormous paintings. They are impressive because of their size, but artistically the works are not much to look at. On the left we see the Miracle of the manna in the desert, a work by Felice Brusasorzi (1539-1605). He was the son of the aforementioned Domenico Brusasorzi. The painting was not yet completed when Brusasorzi died, and it had to be finished by his students Pasquale Ottino (1578-1630) and Alessandro Turchi, nicknamed l’Orbetto (1578-1649). The work on the right represents the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish. It was completed in 1603 by Paolo Farinati just before his eightieth birthday.
Lastly, in the apse behind the high altar we see the artistic highlight of the church: the painting by Veronese, already mentioned in the introduction of this post, featuring the Martyrdom of Saint George. Veronese painted it in 1564-1566. Nowadays Saint George is best known as a dragon slayer and protector of princesses, but originally he was venerated as a soldier-saint and a victim of the persecution of Christians. On Veronese’s painting he is about to die a martyr’s death because of his refusal to worship a statue of the pagan god Apollo (visible on the left). A putto with a laurel wreath and the palm branch of a martyr hovers above him. At the top of the painting we see the Madonna and Child sitting on a cloud, flanked by Saints Peter and Paul. The three theological virtues have been depicted here as well, Faith, Charity and Hope.
The Martyrdom of Saint George was looted in 1797 by French troops, but it was returned to the San Giorgio in 1815. Another work by Veronese that hung in this church did not return to Italy. The painting of Saint Barnabas healing the sick remained in France and can nowadays be admired in the Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen.