2 stops in Mantua: Rotondo di San Lorenzo and the Basilica of Sant’Andrea

I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Mantua in October of 2021. I can’t believe it has taken me over a year to post this! Here are some of my first sightings from that travel.

In October 2021, we in Italy were still able to travel freely after the end of the first lockdown. Alas, as I write this, those days are gone again, thanks to COVID.

This ancient church is the Rotondo di San Lorenzo:

The Rotonda di San Lorenzo is the oldest church in Mantova. It is now sunk below the level of the Piazza della Erbe. It probably stands on the site of a Roman temple that was dedicated to the goddess Venus.

It was built at the end of the 11th century or beginning of the 12th century, perhaps at the behest of Matilde di Canossa.
Inspired by the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and dedicated to St. Lawrence (martyred in Rome in the third century), the rotunda has a central plan, with a gallery for females. An ambulatory surrounds the nave, decorated with 10 columns and a small apse.

It is built in terracotta, according to the Lombard tradition of the period, but has two marble columns from the Roman era and stone pillars from the 9th-12th centuries from other buildings.

Originally it was completely frescoed, now many fragments remain, in particular those of some vaults are legible: for the rigid scheme of the composition and decoration of the clothes and the abstract and idealized expression of the faces, it can be deduced that the author is a master from the 11th century, still linked to the Byzantine school.

In the apse a later fragment represents San Lorenzo on the grill (15th century).

In 1579 the church was closed to worship at the behest of Guglielmo Gonzaga and for over three hundred years, altered and covered by walls, it was used for houses and shops. As the dome fell, the nave was used as a courtyard. The church was
“rediscovered” in 1906, it was excavated, restored, and reopened for worship.

It is a subsidiary church of the Parish of Sant’Anselmo and has been entrusted to the Dominican community since 1926.
It is preserved, protected and open to the public by the Association for Dominican Monuments.

Deconsecrated, it was used for dwellings, shops and stores, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was covered by other structures. Later, it was restored and the external additions removed.

Not far from San Lorenzo stands the magnificent Basilica of Sant’ Andrea, with its facade by Alberti. It is one of the major works of 15th-century Renaissance architecture in Northern Italy. Commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga, the church was begun in 1472 according to designs by Leon Battista Alberti on a site occupied by a Benedictine monastery, of which the bell tower (1414) remains. The building, however, was only finished 328 years later. Though later changes and expansions altered Alberti’s design, the church is still considered to be one of Alberti’s most complete works. It looms over the Piazza Mantegna.

The façade, built abutting a pre-existing bell tower (1414), is based on the scheme of the ancient Arch of Trajan at Ancona. It is largely a brick structure with hardened stucco used for the surface. It is defined by a large central arch, flanked by Corinthian pilasters. There are smaller openings to the right and left of the arch. A novel aspect of the design was the integration of a lower order, comprising the fluted Corinthian columns, with a giant order, comprising the taller, unfluted pilasters. The whole is surmounted by a pediment and above that a vaulted structure, the purpose of which is not exactly known, but presumably to shade the window opening into the church behind it.

In 1597, the lateral arms were added and the crypt finished. The massive dome (1732–1782) was designed by Filippo Juvarra, and the final decorations on the interior added under Paolo Pozzo and others in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

An important aspect of Alberti’s design was the correspondence between the façade and the interior elevations, both elaborations of the triumphal arch motif, the arcades, like the facade, having alternating high arches and much lower square topped openings.

The nave is roofed by a barrel vault, one of the first times such a form was used in such a monumental scale since antiquity, and probably modeled on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. Alberti possibly planned for the vault to be coffered, much like the shorter barrel vault of the entrance, but lack of funds led to the vault being constructed as a simple barrel vault with the coffers then being painted on. Originally, the building was planned without a transept, and possibly even without a dome. This phase of construction more or less ended in 1494.

Below are some painted wall decorations that caught my eye:

Relic of the Holy Blood

The purpose of the new building was to receive the pilgrims for the feast of the Ascension, when a vial, that the faithful believe contains the Blood of Christ, is brought up from the crypt below through a hole in the floor located directly under the dome. The relic, called Preziosissimo Sangue di Cristo (Most Precious Blood of Christ), which is preserved in Sacred Vessels. According to tradition the blood was brought to the city by the Roman centurion Longinus, who had scooped up the earth containing the blood at the foot of the cross.

In 804, the Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne obtained authentication of the relic from Pope Leo III for its veneration. According to many scholars, this resulted in the creation of the diocese of Mantua and the edification of the first nucleus of the Cathedral of St Andrew.  The relic was “rediscovered” (secunda inventio) ca. 1049, in the presence of Matilda of Tuscany. Pope Leo IX  recognized this relic as authentic in 1053, and it was highly venerated throughout the Renaissance. The relic is displayed on Good Friday, in a procession on the city’s streets.

Portions of the relic were extracted and taken by Charlemagne  to the St. Chapelle in Paris, and later to the Weingarten Abbey, to the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, and to the Church of the Holy Cross in Guastalla (built on behalf of Beatrix of Canossa).

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