The last velvet maker in Italy, Bevilacqua of Venice

Fascinating article from BBC:

The last velvet merchant of Venice
By Eliot Stein 14 November 2018

Velvet was once among the most coveted fabrics in the world, but now only one family in Italy produces it the traditional way – and can trace its textile tradition back to 1499.

Rare splendour

With its water-lapped palaces, canal-laced islands and golden basilicas rising from the tides, Venice is a floating masterpiece of creativity and craftsmanship. A metropolis of marble conceived from a cluster of mudflats, the City of Water’s fairy-tale setting has inspired centuries of artists and inventors. But while Venice’s urban fabric has always shaped the city, its fine fabrics once spun the fashion world.

From the 13th to 18th Centuries, Venice was the epicentre of the luxury textile trade, and no fabric from the maritime republic was more coveted than velvet. At the height of the industry in the 1500s, the clacking of 6,000 wooden looms echoed throughout the Venetian lagoon as the city’s Guild of Silk Weavers slowly wove velvet from thousands of silk threads to supply sumptuous patterned garments to the highest rung of Renaissance nobility.

Today, there’s only one company left in Venice – and all of Italy – producing velvet on traditional wooden looms: the Luigi Bevilacqua Company, a small, family-run business that can trace its velvet-weaving lineage back to 1499. And if you follow the rhythmic clattering to a windowless workshop hidden off the Grand Canal, you’ll find a team of loyal weavers single-handedly preserving the secrets of Venetian velvet from sinking into oblivion.



Workshop of wonders

Like the city that holds it, the Bevilacqua workshop is adrift in a world of its own place and time, and entering the dusty studio feels like stepping inside the ghost of a medieval mill.

Some 3,500 designs and weave drafts dating from the Middle Ages to the 1920s sit stacked floor-to-ceiling. A maze of ropes and rigging criss-crosses 18 towering looms from the 1700s. And two ancient circular warps inspired by sketches from Leonardo da Vinci shake the creaky wooden floor with each hand-cranked turn.

“Not much has changed here over the years,” explained company director Alberto Bevilacqua, surrounded by a plush trove of centuries-old silk damasks, brocades and gilt-embroidered tapestries. “The rising tides cause the floor to flood more often now, but we still produce velvet the same way it was made 300 years ago: thread by thread and entirely by hand.”

A remarkable thread

Alberto’s great-grandfather, Luigi, opened the workshop in 1875 across the Grand Canal, and today, it is the oldest active velvet-weaving mill in Italy. Yet, the family’s textile traditions trace back more than 500 years, as evidenced by a 1499 painting showing a parade of Venetian aristocracy in flowing velvet togas with the inscription: ‘Giacomo Bevilacqua, weaver’. Since then, the intricate techniques and patterns of Venetian velvet have been passed down through a remarkable thread of artists in the Bevilacqua family – each of whom has guarded them tightly before revealing them to a trusted team of weavers trained in the family workshop.

In the past 143 years, the family business has woven velvet for popes, kings and more than a dozen royal palaces. Its yellow-patterned velvet hangs in the White House’s Oval Office, its crimson ciselé covers chairs in the Kremlin, and it was an official supplier to the Vatican for decades.

In fact, looking at the faded entries from the company’s water-stained ledger books is a glimpse into a rarefied world: there are commissions from the Shah of Iran, the Sheik of Kuwait and six members of the Swedish royal family. Egypt’s King Farouk ordered a kilometre of green velvet; composer Gordon Getty’s wife wanted her living room to resemble a velvet-wrapped theatre; and the Maharajah of Gwalior requested an embroidery of his coat of arms showing two raised pythons.


Time-honoured tools

Royal patrons have come and gone over the years, but the company still uses the same ancient looms that Luigi Bevilacqua salvaged from the city’s abandoned silk guild decades after Napoleon conquered Venice and closed its mills in 1806.
“There are certain details that you simply can’t reproduce on a machine,” Bevilacqua said, passing under the workshop’s canopy of wooden masts. “This tradition has been lost elsewhere because it is such a slow, careful craft.”

Just then, a rhythmic cacophony of clacking rang through the studio as weaver Silvia Longo pulled the levers of her antique loom to life. With each pass of the beam and step on the treadle, a tiny sliver of vermillion velvet destined for the Royal Palace in Dresden gradually expanded under her fingers. She explained that each weaver can only produce about 25cm of fabric a day, and that she and two other weavers have been working on the 740m design every day for the last three years.

The secret of Venetian velvet is its sheer complexity. It has always been so desirable because it has always been so difficult to produce,” said Doretta Davanzo Poli, textile professor at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University.



Venice’s interwoven velvet history
Venice was importing silk from the Byzantines before Marco Polo’s journeys east, but it was the arrival of 300 asylum-seeking weavers from Lucca in the 1300s who taught the Venetians how to loop, warp and cut silky-smooth threads into a dense, velvety pile. The Lucchesi learned the skills by trading with Asian merchants, and the newly settled artists quickly established the Republic of Venice’s Guild of Velvet Weavers in 1347. By the 1500s, records show that more than 30,000 of Venice’s residents (roughly one-fifth its population) worked in the silk and velvet trades.

“Textiles became the most valuable source of wealth for the republic,” said Luca Molà, a historian at the UK’s University of Warwick who has written two books on the Venetian silk industry. “Velvet required more material and time to create than other fabrics, so it was more expensive, and Venice was exporting it around the world.”

The velvets, silks and damasks spilling out of the Bevilacqua showroom not only plunge visitors back to the days when Venice was a gateway between East and West, but also testify to the city’s rich tapestry of trading partners. There are patterned swathes showing winged Persian lions, tasselled cushions emblazoned with bare-breasted Greek sirens and draped silk brocades woven with Chinese lettering. And, as a way to ensure their sartorial reign, the Venetians did something crafty: they developed ways to decorate and produce velvet that were so intricate that no-one else could replicate it.


From patterns to patent law

Around the time Giacomo Bevilacqua started his velvet business in the late 1400s, Venice’s velvet guilds began weaving with an elevated sense of sophistication. Gilded backgrounds appeared. Glittering metals were woven around silk threads. And the height of Venetian velvet artistry emerged: the soprarizzo, a double-pile technique that’s still slowly produced by the Bevilacqua weavers, in which one layer of cut velvet that absorbs light lays atop a lighter curl that reflects it, creating an undulating texture that ripples like water as your hand passes over it.

Venice jealously guarded the secrets of its soprarizzo– so much so, according to Molà, that the most skilled weavers were prohibited from leaving the republic for fear that they’d share the technique with rival manufacturers. As Venice’s many guilds expanded, the city developed an innovative idea in 1474 to protect its glass, jewellery and – above all – textile profits: it created patent law.

“One of the great legacies of Venice’s craft guilds was the establishment of intellectual property,” Molà said. “No other city had ever protected inventions before, and that further cemented the city as a hub of creativity and new ideas.”

Venice changed the way societies thought about clothing. Textiles were no longer something people wore every day for practical reasons, but as a brief choreography to represent the wealth of the family. Consumerism became fashionable,” said Chiara Squarcina, curator of Venice’s Mocenigo Palace of Textiles and Costumes.

Renaissance couture
While velvet spun Venice’s textile trade to new heights, it also emerged as a symbol of power, wealth and taste. The lavish threads lined the halls of the city’s grandest palaces and richest churches, and paintings portraying Venetian nobility by local artists like Titian and Tintoretto reveal its role in shaping one’s image. Kings and popes wrapped velvet under their crowns, senators and cardinals wore crimson-velvet robes or sashes, and noblewomen walked on velvet-encased high heels.

“In Venice, a person’s status was immediately recognised by the clothing and fabric they wore, and no fabric was more valuable than velvet,” Poli said. “Venice was the greatest influencer of Renaissance fashion through the 1500s, but as the secret of the soprarizzo passed onto other Italian cities and throughout Europe, it all changed.”

By the time Napoleon sailed in in 1797, Venice’s velvet mills were already on their last legs. The little leader closed the city’s guilds to reduce competition with France, and the lagoon’s looms lay silent and unused until Luigi Bevilacqua dusted them off decades later.

The weavers

At the start of the 1900s, nearly 100 weavers worked at the Luigi Bevilacqua Company. Girls as young as 12 would come into the workshop to help their mothers change the threads or lay the spools. After a six- to eight-year apprenticeship, they’d become weavers by age 20 and often stay until they retired.

Today, there are just seven weavers, and looking at the rows of idle looms, Bevilacqua admitted that it has become harder to find artists with the passion and patience for the craft. As in the past, the seven weavers each began as apprentices, training under experts who had worked at the company for 40 to 50 years. Novices may spend a year winding warps and punching Jacquard cards before moving to the lightest looms, which, as Longo explained, take some getting used to.

“You have to learn to feel the loom, to understand it. That can take a full year of working every day,” she said. “Every loom has its own sound. If something is wrong, you may hear a faint noise and have to find one individual thread among thousands and replace it.”


Patient process

All Bevilacqua velvets start as a design, and the evolution from initial pattern to finished product is a painstaking process. Weavers begin by hand-drawing the design on a millimetre grid. Every half-millimetre of the grid represents a cardboard Jacquard card that is punched through with a hammer, and every punched hole in the cards corresponds to a thread. If a design has a repeat of 1.5m, it requires 3,000 cards. After weavers tie the cards together one by one and hoist them atop the loom, the real work begins.
Next, the loom is prepared. Depending on the size and complexity of the pattern, this may take up to six months and involve knotting a thicket of 16,000 threads by hand. Weavers start by spinning the vertical warp while counting and crossing the threads with their fingers. Once the vertical warp is wound, they transfer it to the horizontal warp and hand-crank it into place. It’s then wound onto a warp beam, carried to the loom and slowly laid using a special adhesive to keep the slippery silk threads in place.
Finally, the manual weaving begins. Hidden under every complex soprarizzo cut are two iron rods – one rounded, and one ridged – that must be moved as the velvet expands. With each pull of the beam, weavers carefully slide a blade over the ridged rod to cut the microscopic silk threads from the top layer, while leaving the bottom layer in a perfectly curved loop that glistens in the light.

It’s a beautiful job that enters your heart. You have these tiny threads and you can do incredible things with them,” said Longo, who has been weaving at the company for 19 years.


Fashion icons
In addition to dressing popes and decorating opera houses, the Bevilacqua family’s hand-operated looms have been behind some of the world’s finest haute couture over the last 60 years.
For decades, designer Roberta di Camerino used Bevilacqua velvets to line her handbags that were carried by celebrities like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor and Farrah Fawcett. Fashion icon Iris Apfel used to stop by the workshop regularly to order tiger- and leopard-cut velvets for her New York apartment. And in the last two decades, the company has collaborated with Valentino, Rubeus Milano and Dolce & Gabbana – which once clad supermodel Gisele Bündchen in a bra embroidered with Byzantine lions as she glided down the catwalk.


Shifting tide

Today, the 3,500 archival designs stacked on the workshop’s warped floorboards are all still available, but many are no longer produced in-house. Like Venice itself, the Bevilacqua company has had to adapt in order to stay afloat in a changing world, and the family now owns a second factory on the mainland where some of its archaic patterns are woven by modern machines.
Bevilacqua explained that many of his long-time clients can no longer afford the high costs of hand production, and that the 6m a machine makes in one day would take a weaver a full month and cost four times as much. Yet, the secrets of the soprarizzo are something that no machine can learn, and after five centuries of craftsmanship, Bevilacqua sees it as his family’s duty to ensure that this ancient Venetian thread doesn’t unravel.

“Each of these designs tells a story from our past,” he said, passing his palm over a soprarizzo pattern depicting the Chalice of Life. “They’re a reminder that many years ago, Venice gave something beautiful to the world.”
Custom Made is a BBC Travel series that introduces you to custodians of cultural traditions all around the world.


Palazzo Corsini, Firenze

Originally, the magnificent Palazzo Corsini began as a casino (a small house surrounded by a large garden) that extended to the banks of the Arno River where Lungarno Corsini is located. The casino belonged to the Ardinghelli family, then to the Medici, and finally to the Corsini: in 1649 the wife of the Marchese Filippo Corsini, Maria Maddalena Macchiavelli, purchased the palace from the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. Today it is in the hands of the Corsini descendants: Miari Fulcis and Sanminiatelli.

The Palazzo today appears as a late Baroque building; one sees Baroque details throughout, from the roofs decorated with statues and terracotta vases – a novelty for Renaissance Florence – and the main, U-shaped courtyard that opens towards the riverbank. The two men responsible for the way the Palazzo Corsini looks today were Bartolomeo Corsini (1622-1685), the son of Filippo Corsini and Maria Maddalena Macchiavelli and, Filippo son of Bartolomeo’s son (1647-1705) who expanded the portion of the Palazzo that extends towards Ponte S. Trinita.

The construction continued non-stop for 50 years. The magnificent interior decorations, which were completed between 1692 and 1700, belong to one of the finest and most intense moments in Florentine painting.

The family commissioned several artists to decorate the noble apartment on the first floor, that includes Galleria Aurora, the Salone, the ballroom and other important rooms; the outstanding painters include Anton Domenico Gabbiani, Alessandro Gherardini and Pier Dandini.

Let’s start at the GROUND FLOOR: consisting of the Summer Apartments and Halls of the Nymph. The decorative scheme here reveals the most romantic and decadent side of the Palazzo with the impressive frescoes and of the evocative grotto built by architect Antonio Ferri.

One level up, the main floor: from the lower floor one reaches the “noble” floor through the imposing grand staircase. From the hallway open the doors to rooms and rooms filled with beautiful frescoes and stuccoes, perfectly preserved. The coup de gras is the majestic Throne Room (320 square meters) where you can feel the ambience of noble antiquity.

Una cornice sfarzosa che si affaccia direttamente sul Lungarni e una vista intrigante.  A magnificent setting overlooking the Lungarni and an intriguing sight.

The Throne Room
View from across the Arno

The Palazzo from the Arno River

Few among the private palaces of Florence are as gorgeous as the splendid Palazzo Corsini, also called “al Parione” and belonged to the famous Corsini family, in the 17th century the richest and most important of all Florence after the Medici. An ascent that culminated in 1740 with the election of Lorenzo Corsini to the papal throne with the name of Clemente XII.

With such prerequisites, it is not surprising that the building with its grandiose façade overlooking the Arno is an architectural masterpiece rich in precious jewels and a collection of paintings, the Galleria Corsini, which can be considered the most important private art collection in Florence. His style (the villla was built at the turn of two centuries, between 1656 and 1737, with at least fifty years of uninterrupted work) is that of a flourishing and decided baroque: each element is stunning scenery and decoration, with a grand façade to the front, from the terrace to the attics with balustrades, until reaching the perfect expression of the “marvelous” in the large helical staircase attributed to Gherardo Silvani.

The building is divided into three main bodies that surround a large courtyard, and among the first things that jump to the eyes there is the obvious asymmetry between the two side parts; according to the original project, in fact, the left wing had to be as big as the right one (ie about twice the current size). Also worthy of note is the crowning of the roof, with the terracotta crater vases and the balustrade decorated with stone statues, following suggestions similar to those that animated the classic “Italian gardens” destined to be famous throughout Europe.

The interiors of Palazzo Corsini at the Parione show once again the best and most fascinating insights of the baroque period, with a great work of stuccos and decorations; Particularly striking is the artificial grotto on the ground floor, designed by Antonio Maria Ferri, an artist who was also the architect in charge of permanently closing the villa’s works; to him the merit for today’s appearance of Palazzo Corsini. In addition to the Silvani helical staircase there is also a monumental staircase made by Ferri that culminates in the staircase of Pope Clement XII.

The rooms of the building are full of original decorations, with frescoes, stuccoes and decorations: especially the Salone del Trono and the Ballroom stand out, truly immense rooms (the Salone del Trono measures about 320 square meters) with rich frescoes on the ceilings, columns , eighteenth-century busts.

On the first floor, Galleria Corsini is a precious casket that holds masterpieces of timeless artists, especially relating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Italian but not disdaining the Renaissance, with a prevalence of Roman, Neapolitan and Bolognese schools: among the exhibited painters, Rubens, Beato Angelico, Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Murillo, Filippo Lippi, Luca Signorelli, the Pontormo, Salvator Rosa, Luca Giordano, Gentileschi, and Giovanni Bellini. The Corsini Gallery also hosts bronzes and furniture from the eighteenth century.

Below is a history of the Palazzo Corsini from the 1905 book “Florentine Palaces, And Their Stories” by Janet Ross – some of the scholarship from that day may have changed since!  


The Corsini become a wealthy Florentine family in 1500: Palazzo Corsini, also known as the Parione, located on Lungarno Corsini, is still a family home. The building is the result of the acquisition and merger of many historic houses built by different architects: Alfonso Parigi the Younger, Ferdinando Tacca, Pierfrancesco Silvani – author of the beautiful spiral staircase, and Antonio Maria Ferri – who finished the project by drawing the current frame. In addition to the spiral staircase made by Silvani and the monumental one by Ferri, the interior of several rooms of Palazzo Corsini and its halls are filled with frescoes, decorations and period furnishings. The Corsini Gallery, inside the building, is the most important private art collection of Florence, with works dating back to the 1600s and1700s, both by Italian and European Renaissance artists.

Palazzo Sforza Almeni, the Museo de’ Medici in Florence

Opened in June of 2019

Museo de ‘Medici is the first museum entirely dedicated to the Medici Dynasty, from the Renaissance of Lorenzo the Magnificent to the baroque style of Gian Gastone, the last Grand Duke of Tuscany. The museum is housed in the sixteenth century palace designed by Ammannati and Vasari for Sforza Almeni, the secret servant of Cosimo I.

Palazzo Sforza Almeni is a 16th-century palace, which is particularly known for the ceiling frescoes by Giorgio Vasari in its so-called Vasari Hall. Located in the heart of Florence, the palace is home to live music performances, as well as artist ateliers in the cellars, and a restaurant on the ground floor.

Built for Piero d’Antonio Taddei, the palace was confiscated by Cosimo di Medici I because of the Taddei family’s opposition to the Medici regime. Duke di Medici granted the palazzo to his cupbearer, Sforza Almeni, who commissioned the paintings by Cristoforo Gherardi and Giorgio Vasari.

The Florentine museum develops on the noble floor of an ancient palace that was confiscated by the Taddei family in the mid-sixteenth century by Cosimo I de ‘Medici to be donated to the secret counselor Sforza Almeni . Not only did Cosimo I and Eleonora of Toledo walk in these rooms, but also artists such as Bartolomeo Ammannati and Giorgio Vasari , who were commissioned to decorate the palace by Sforza Almeni who, after having received so much wealth from the Grand Duke, was tragically strangled by them!

The museum tells the story of the dynasty through thematic rooms, temporary exhibitions, events and a specialized bookshop.
The first thematic room is dedicated to genealogy, it is a true portrait of the Medici family narrated through an evocative holographic cinema.

From the family to the territory, the room that follows tells the birth of the grand duchy, the Medici villas, the fleet of the Knights of Santo Stefano and a large diorama illustrates the famous battle of Anghiari : the battle that saved the Renaissance. In return, the museum continues in a large room dedicated to artistic patronage, a peculiar feature of the dynasty.

In the room, in addition to the virtual painting gallery and a very precious collection of original coins from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century and historical engravings of the Grand Dukes, the interactive installation is particularly interesting allowing you to listen to the music that accompanied the life of the Medici from before Florentine invention of the Opera to that of the piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

The following room is instead dedicated to the costume: the Medici princesses were undisputed arbiters of taste! In the room it is possible to admire, among other wonders, also some statues for banquets really melted in sugar and the cooking recipes of Caterina de ‘Medici.

The last large room is dedicated to science. The Medici founded the first scientific academy in the world and were the most convinced supporters of Galileo Galilei. In the room there is a historical collection of stuffed animals , a collection of minerals and stills related to alchemy, a model of the telescope with which Galilei discovered the Medici planets and even an original document by the pope who condemned the Pisan astronomer.

Jewel of the museum, the small room previously used as a palatine chapel by Sforza Almeni which still retains a ceiling with an extraordinary fresco of the sixteenth century.

Finally, the “treasure room” where it is possible to admire the most faithful three-dimensional reconstruction in the world of the grand-ducal crown lost over the centuries. The hall was entirely frescoed in the 18th century.

Before leaving, a wine cellar where you can learn about and buy the favorite wines of the Medici, protected by the specific Call issued by Cosimo III as early as 1716.

The building now houses an art center run by L’Isle Saint Louis that welcomes emerging artists, as well as periodically organizing events and having an in-house restaurant.

Website :

The Laurentian library, Florence, Part 1: the stairway and entry by Michelangelo

Waiting outside to be let into this hallowed space. Temperature checks, green pass checks, masks in place. Andiamo!

Above and below are views of the beautiful cortile garden.

From above the cortile, an amazing view of the duomo and Giotto’s campanile. It is arresting to realize how close San Lorenzo and the Medici enclave headquarters were to the duomo.

And here it is, in all it’s Michelangelesque glory! Behold! The entrance to the magnificent library that he designed for the Medici family.

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the Landmark Trust

If you are a fan of Elizabeth Barrett or Robert Browning, you will know they spent many years living in Florence. Their former home, which Elizabeth called Casa Guidi is preserved in the city, a stone’s throw from the Palazzo Pitti. I have been meaning to visit this august location for years, and finally made it there last month.

Elizabeth and Robert lived in Casa Guidi from 1847 to 1861. Their apartments were inside the 15th century Palazzo Guidi, at the south end of Via Maggio. The palazzo was originally constructed for the prominent Florentine family, the Ridolfi di Piazza, whose coat of arms adorns the facade.

In the 1840s, the Palazzo Guidi was divided into apartments and in July of 1847 the Browings rented one of the two furnished apartments. They lived in these graceful rooms on the piano mobile for 3 months. A year later, they rented the same rooms, unfurnished, at 25 guineas per year. They purchased their own furniture, had draperies made, and created their home. Their only child, Pen, was born in 1849 and grew up here. He learned to play the piano which was located in the dining room, and kept rabbits on the terrace outside.

Although the Brownings traveled, visiting Siena, Rome, Paris and England, they considered Florence as home.

When Elizabeth died in 1861, Robert commissioned this painting of the drawing room, as the literary sanctum in which she wrote. The painter was George Lignaty.

Below are some details of the lovely frescoed ceiling:

The sculpture and plaque above are on the wall of the entry to the palazzo.

It was Pen Browning’s greatest wish that Casa Guidi should be recreated and maintained in his parents’ memory, but that did not happen until 1971, when most of the apartment was purchased by the Browning Institute of New York.

The Browning Institute began the restoration process, opening the apartments to visitors and hosting lectures and exhibitions. The Institute restored both the green drawing room and bedroom decoration.

In 1990, the Landmark Trust, a charity which reduces historic buildings and makes them available for holiday rental, became involved with preserving Casa Guidi. The Browning Institute was in the process of transferring ownership of the Casa to Eton College, which is a public school in the town of Eton, near Windsor in Berkshire, England. Eton College approached the Landmark Trust to help with the restoration of the Casa, and to make it available to a wider public.

The transfer to Eton was completed in January 1992 and the Casa rooms were furnished as closely as possible to the Mighty painting. Family letters and the 1913 sale of Pen Browning’s possessions were consulted to make the restoration as authentic as possible.

The furnishings include Pen Browning’s desk, chest of drawers and 2 chairs, busts of Elizabeth and Robert, the sofa Elizabeth used in London, copies of the Mighty painting, the painting of St. Jerome and the portrait of Pen. Other items include the original drawing room mirror, and a copy of a bronze plaque featuring the head of Aeschilus. The brocade curtains match as nearly as possible those described in Elizabeth’s letters and other Browning possessions.

Now operated as a part of the Landmark Trust, the apartment can be leased for holidays throughout the year. Up to 6 people can be accommodated. I had a sneak peak of the accommodations, which include a number of stairs

The principal rooms are open to visitors on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons between 3 and 6 p.m. from April to November.

The Landmark Trust

The Trust maintains 198 historic, interesting and unusual buildings that can be leased for self-catering holidays. They include castles, forts, follies, banqueting houses, a lighthouse, a railway station, a former prison and a stone pineapple. Most of the properties are in Great Britain but 7 are in Italy; 5 in the USA; one in Waterloo, Belgium and 3 in France.

The Trust’s address is:

Shottesbrooke, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 3SW, UK

Telephone: +44 (0) 1628 825925



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).