Mantova: San Lorenzo

Rotonda di San Lorenzo.

The somewhat curious circular church of San Lorenzo in Mantova is also known as the Rotonda. It is possible that the roots of the building go back to the fourth century and that the church was built over the remnants of a Roman temple (perhaps dedicated to Diana) or a tomb. The construction of the church took place at the end of the eleventh century, in the Lombard Romanesque style. The church is often attributed to the margravine Matilda of Tuscany (ca. 1046-1115), a loyal ally of the popes in their struggle with the Holy Roman emperors during the so-called Investiture Controversy. There is no direct evidence that she was involved, but Mantova was in fact governed by counts from the House of Canossa, of which Matilda was a scion, between 970 and 1115. The margravine may even have been born in Mantova. She was married twice, but neither marriage produced any offspring. Upon her death the House of Canossa became extinct.

The San Lorenzo was presumably based on the Rotunda or Anastasis in Jerusalem, i.e. the part of the church of the Holy Sepulchre directly above the presumed grave of Jesus Christ. After several renovations the church was deconsecrated as early as 1579. The building was then used as a warehouse, among other things, and unfortunately lost its original dome. All sorts of buildings were constructed in front of the San Lorenzo, behind it and even over it, which led to the small building itself becoming completely invisible from the street. In 1908 the San Lorenzo was almost demolished, but fortunately at the last moment the decision was taken to restore it. In 1911 the former church was provided with a new dome and in 1926 the San Lorenzo was consecrated again.

Remains of frescoes. From left to right: the Magi visiting King Herod, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple.

Interior of the church.

The Rotonda is about 1,5 metres below street level, which is considered an indication that the original building dates from the Roman era. In spite of its interesting history, the interior of the San Lorenzo has little to offer. Ten columns divide the church into an outer and an inner ring, and high up in the church there is a gallery or matronaeum. On the brick arches we can still see traces of frescoes from the eleventh and twelfth century, made by an unknown painter. Although the frescoes clearly feature people, only experts can tell us which stories were once depicted here. Apparently what we see are scenes from the life of Christ, including the Magi visiting King Herod, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple and the Crucifixion. The final scene is possibly about the martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, the deacon who was martyred in the year 258 because he refused to tell the Roman authorities where the treasures of the Church were hidden.

The church is featured in the 2013 movie Romeo & Juliet. Inside the building the scene was filmed of the duel in which Romeo kills Tybalt, Julia’s cousin. After the duel Romeo was banished from Verona, where the story is set. This makes it rather odd that many scenes were shot in Mantova, although most viewers probably never recognised the locations.


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