Verona: The Duomo

Duomo of Verona.

There is a lot to see in the Duomo complex of Verona. Apart from the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the complex comprises the baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, the church of Sant’Elena and the cloister of the canons (Chiostro dei Canonici). The Duomo has the most intelligent staff in the entire city of Verona. While I was waiting in a queue at the entrance, one of the custodians handed me a brochure in Dutch. When I asked her how she knew that I was Dutch, she pointed at my Capitool travel guide. This made clear to me that the Duomo authorities select their employees based on their keen sense of observation.

Early history

The first cathedral of Verona stood on the spot now occupied by the church of Sant’Elena, so just north of the current cathedral. The edifice was situated in a rich part of the city centre and possibly replaced a temple for the Roman goddess Minerva. The cathedral was consecrated during the episcopate of bishop Zeno (362-372/380), the future patron saint of Verona. Remnants of the fourth-century building can be seen inside the Sant’Elena, where visitors can admire a piece of mosaic floor. The first cathedral was not very large, measuring 16.9 by 37.5 metres, and it was quickly established that it was too small for the fast-growing Christian community of the city. The decision to build a larger cathedral was probably taken as early as the fifth century. To enable its construction, the old cathedral was partly demolished, but its rear section was split into several different rooms, which remained in use.

Floor of the second cathedral from the fifth century.

And so the second cathedral was partially built west of the old one and partially over it. The dimensions of the new building were 29.2 by 72.8 metres. The second cathedral was presumably lost in the eighth century due to a fire or earthquake. Some remnants of it can still be seen in the cloister, where we can again admire a piece of mosaic floor. Apart from a large vase with pigeons it also features the message that Stercorius and Decentius cum suis laid (i.e. sponsored) 300 feet of mosaic. In the eighth and ninth century a new cathedral was built, now on the spot of the current cathedral. Construction was started under bishop Annone (ca. 750-780) and completed during the episcopate of bishop Ratoldo (ca. 799-840). Henceforth, the Duomo was called the cathedral of Santa Maria Matricolare, and that name is sometimes still used today.

The Romanesque cathedral

In 1117 Verona was struck by a heavy earthquake. This caused severe damage to the Duomo complex. Fortunately a restoration programme could quickly be launched, and around 1139 the new Romanesque cathedral of the city was completed. In 1185 Pope Lucius III (1181-1185) died in Verona, becoming the only pope in history who was buried in the cathedral of the city. Unfortunately his funerary monument has not been preserved, but at the end of the right aisle his tombstone is still visible on the wall. Lucius was succeeded by Uberto Crivelli, who took the name Urbanus III. In 1187 he consecrated the rebuilt cathedral of Verona. Urbanus then died the same year in Ferrara, and as a consequence it is in the Ferrarese cathedral that he found his final resting place (the tomb there has been lost as well).

Chiostro dei Canonici.

Interior of the Duomo.

Much of the Romanesque cathedral of Verona has been preserved, although the building underwent several important changes over the course of time. These changes were mostly affected between the second half of the fifteenth and the end of the sixteenth century, when especially the interior of the Duomo was thoroughly remodelled. The building got its pillars of red Verona marble with white capitals, its arcades with pointed arches and high cross-vaults, all in the Late Gothic style. The renovations took place in the transitional phase between Gothic and Renaissance, and that explains why we also find several Renaissance elements in the interior, especially in and around the side chapels, and definitely in the choir of the cathedral. The choir was renovated during the episcopate of bishop Gian Matteo Giberti (1524-1543). The building was also provided with a new floor back then (1527). On the outside, the façade was raised on the orders of bishop Agostino Valier (1565-1606). In the triangular pediment we therefore see his coat of arms with the cardinal’s hat and the text AVG VAL CARD EPISC VERON. A Venetian, Valier had been appointed cardinal in 1583.

The current floor of the cathedral was laid in 1880, while the last great project was the (failed) attempt to complete the campanile. The story of the campanile is very odd, to put it mildly. The tower has a Romanesque base from the twelfth century, which for some unknown reason was never developed into a full-fledged tower. The middle segment dates from the sixteenth century. It was originally designed by Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559), but ultimately built under the direction of his nephew Bernardino Brugnoli (1539-1584). The latter was also involved in the construction of the bell-tower of the church of San Giorgio in Braida, which is situated opposite the Duomo on the other side of the river Adige. In the end Brugnoli was unable to complete either of the two towers, and a lack of funds may have been the main reason. The top part of the tower is the bell chamber, built between 1913 and 1925 after a design by Ettore Fagiuoli (1884-1961). The campanile now reaches a height of 75 metres, but could have been much higher if the projected spire had been built. It wasn’t.

Duomo and Ponte Pietra.

Portal by Niccolò.

Exterior

The most splendid element of the façade is undoubtedly the portal or pròtiro from about 1139-1140. It was made by the sculptor Niccolò (Nicholaus). His name has been preserved on the first storey of the portal, just left of the Lamb of God on the arch. On either side of this arch we see Saints John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The latter points at the Lamb and speaks the words ECCE AGNVS DEI. In the lunette above the main entrance we see a painted relief with the Madonna and Child in the centre. On the left the shepherds have been depicted and on the right three Magi. The relief is accompanied by the Latin text HIC DOMINVS MAGNVS LEO CRISTUS CERNITVR AGNVS. This means something along the lines of: “Here one sees the Lord, the great lion Christ, in the guise of a lamb”. Below the lunette the three theological virtues have been sculpted, with their Latin names FIDES, CARITAS and SPES, so Faith, Charity and Hope.

The door frames of the portal are very impressive. They are guarded by two warriors, Roland and Oliver from the famous Song of Roland. Roland is recognisable by the text on his sword (it probably says DVRINDARDA, a variant of Durendal). He is wearing chainmail armour, a helmet and a large kite shield. Oliver, by contrast, is wearing considerably less armour. He has to make do without chainmail and a helmet. The other figures on the door frames are prophets. They can be identified by the Latin texts on the scrolls and books they are holding. On the left we see Malachi, king David or Solomon, Baruch and Isaiah. I was unable to identify the fifth prophet, the one closest to the door, but apparently he is Daniel. The prophets on the right are said to be Habakkuk, Haggai, Zechariah, Micah and Joel. Most are so-called minor prophets, while Baruch was the major prophet Jeremiah’s secretary.

Madonna and Child above the entrance.

Roland and prophets.

Oliver and prophets.

Do not forget to take a look at the side portal of the cathedral, which also warrants closer inspection. The sculptural work here was not made by Niccolò, but by a certain Peregrinus. We know nothing about him, but he also made a relief featuring Christ between Saints Peter and Paul that is currently in the Castelvecchio museum. The column on the left has an element with a very peculiar representation of Jonah being swallowed by a sea monster. The beast is a pistrix, a monster known from images that date back to Antiquity. Jonah was forced to spend three days in the belly of the sea monster, and Christians obviously saw this as foretelling the Resurrection of Christ on the third day.

Jonah swallowed by a sea monster.

Romanesque frieze.

Interior

The frescoes in the choir were painted by Francesco Torbido (ca. 1482-1562) and date from 1534. The preparatory sketches were, however, drawn by Giulio Romano (1499-1546). In the conch of the apse Torbido painted a representation of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which is of course a reference to the name of the cathedral (Santa Maria Assunta). On the barrel vault we see other scenes from the life of the Virgin, i.e. her birth and the introduction in the Temple. Above those scenes an Annunciation witnessed by the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel has been painted. The choir is closed off by a semi-circular colonnade (tornacoro) by Michele Sanmicheli, which also dates from 1534. The tornacoro was the inspiration for a similar colonnade in the church of San Fermo Maggiore.

Frescoes by Francesco Torbido.

On both sides the cathedral has three shallow chapels (no more than niches) and two large chapels. There are also chapels at the end of each aisle. I cannot discuss everything, so I will confine myself to a couple of highlights. In the first chapel on the left we find perhaps the most famous work of art in the cathedral, an Assumption of the Virgin by Titian (ca. 1488-1576). The work dates from 1535, which makes it considerably younger than Titian’s Assumption in the church of the Frari in Venice. I personally consider it less spectacular too. In fact, I was so ill-prepared during my visit to the Duomo that I completely missed the painting. People who enjoy and admire Titian’s work can find an image of the Assumption in the relevant article on Wikipedia (only in Italian).

Funerary monument for bishop Galesio Nichesola – Jacopo Sansovino.

Arca di Sant’Agata.

Maybe I was simply distracted by the beautiful tomb to the left of the chapel with Titian’s painting. The tomb is a monument for Galeso Nichesola, who served as bishop of Belluno between 1509 and 1527. The sculptor responsible for the work was Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570). We see the effigy of the deceased supporting his head with his right hand. Above him are statues of the Madonna and Child, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Sebastian.

The Cappella Mazzanti is the chapel at the end of the right aisle. It is dedicated to Saint Franciscus of Assisi and Saint Agatha. Agatha of Sicily was a virgin who was martyred in the third century. According to tradition her breasts were severed with a pair of pliers. Inside the chapel we find the so-called Arca di Sant’Agata, a tomb from 1353 made by an anonymous master. Topping the monument is a gruesome scene of two executioners torturing the crucified Agatha with their instruments. The central part of the monument has her on her deathbed, while in the sarcophagus below her effigy the remains of Maria, the sister of the aforementioned bishop Annone, have been enshrined. Lastly, the statue on the altar represents Saint James the Great.

Cappella Calcasoli.

In the second chapel on the right, the Cappella Calcasoli, the composite altarpiece catches the eye. The part in the middle represents the Adoration of the Magi and is a work by Liberale da Verona (ca. 1445-1530). The Adoration is flanked by four saints. On the left these are Rochus and Anthony the Abbott, and on the right Bartholomew and Sebastian. The artist responsible for these works was Niccolò Giolfino (1476-1555). He also painted the top part of the altarpiece, which features a Lamentation of the dead Christ. The beautiful frescoes surrounding the chapel were painted by Giovanni Maria Falconetto (ca. 1468-1535). See this image for instance.

Baptistery

The baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte is basically a church in its own right, with a nave and aisles. It follows that it does not have the circular or oval shape typical for many other baptisteries. The present baptistery dates from 1123. It has at least one, but possibly even two predecessors, assuming that not just the cathedral from the ninth century, but also the cathedral from Late Antiquity already had a baptistery. The baptistery has very small windows and it can therefore be quite dark inside.

The baptistery.

The most important object in the baptistery is of course the baptismal font, made from a single block of marble and attributed to the sculptor Brioloto de Balneo, the man who was also responsible for the rose window of the San Zeno in Verona. The baptismal font is composed of an octagonal basin containing a second basin in the shape of a four-leaf clover. It was used to baptise people by full immersion. The font has been decorated with eight reliefs featuring scenes from the life of Christ. Visitors entering the baptistery will immediately see the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan. On the walls of the building we still see some frescoes from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The large crucifix from the early fifteenth century is attributed to Giovanni Badile (ca. 1379-1451).

Sant’Elena

The church of Sant’Elena was built in the ninth century on the spot where the first cathedral of Verona stood (see above). It was dedicated to Saints George and Zeno, and was used by the canons of the adjacent convent, who were under the authority of the patriarch of Aquileia instead of the bishop of Verona. It was therefore the patriarch who consecrated the church in the ninth century. After it had been severely damaged during the 1117 earthquake, it was rebuilt and then consecrated again by the patriarch of Aquileia in 1140. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish why a church that is dedicated to Saints George and Zeno is now called the Sant’Elena. I assume this Elena is Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great (306-337). In 312 this Constantine captured Verona (see Verona: Remains of a Roman city).

Sant’Elena.

Like the baptistery, the Sant’Elena is a fairly dark church. The altarpiece in the square apse is a work by Felice Brusasorzi (1539-1605). On the painting we see, among other things, the aforementioned Saint Helena with the True Cross she found in the Holy Land. In the church we also find a sculptural work by Giovanni di Rigino from the fourteenth century. The most interesting decorations are the floor mosaics of the first cathedral. Although these are not of great beauty, what counts is that they are truly ancient.

Sources: Capitool travel guide to Venice & Veneto (2012), Trotter travel guide to Northeast Italy (2016), Italian Wikipedia, Churches of Venice, Chiese Verona website and folder.

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