Tanager Photography is temporarily grounded (i.e. the baby is due in less than three weeks), so I figure a retrospective is in order — how about the most spectacular churches in Italy?
Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments box, or suggest ones I missed. Keep in mind a few things: these are from a non-Catholic, non-historically significant, photographer’s standpoint. My criteria was a simple scale of how blown away I was by each church. Also, I intentionally left St. Peter’s Basilica off the list because technically it is in the Vatican.
In one of the few cities in Italy where the main piazza is crowned by a town hall instead of a cathedral, the Duomo of Siena still manages to stand out as Italy’s most majestic church. Composed of alternating stripes of black and white marble and situated at the crown of the city’s hill, Il Duomo is a riot of medieval art, storytelling mosaics and hallowed spaces. Of particular note: Pisano’s ridiculously elaborate pulpit (above right), Bernini’s ecstatic St. Jerome holding the cross like a cradled fiddle (top left), a floor mosaic depicting the Slaughter of the Innocents, and a painted dome that creates an optical illusion of the three-dimensional heavens (above right). This church is a mind blower.
My first stab at this list didn’t even include the Pantheon. Why? It’s not very churchy. In fact, it’s hard to figure out. From nearby Piazza della Minerva, it looks like nothing more than a massive, ancient turret. From the front, it’s portico of Corinthian columns looks more reminiscent of the Acropolis than any vestige of Christendom. And in fact, therein lies the rub. Built originally by Romans during the tenure of Hadrian in 124 AD, it was a tribute to the multiple deities of the day. Not until 609 AD was it converted into a Christian church, and fortunately, since then they’ve pretty much left this austere and daunting, perfectly symmetrical building as it was. At first blush, the Pantheon inspires a humanistic awe at how crafty the Romans were. But after an hour of watching the sun shaft that passes through the oculus move about the room, you can’t help but get the feeling that its God peeking in.
No word better describes Assisi than tranquil. Granted, I was there in early April, in the midst of constant rains and the renewal of spring. Summer may be a different story. Regardless of when you roll through this town, the Basilica de San Francesco d’Assisi is impossible to miss. Towering over the Umbrian valley, the cathedral that honors the town’s native son St. Francis — the patron saint of Italy, animals and the environment — is a massive complex, and somewhat contrary to the intimacy of the town. It is, in essence, a double-decker church. The Upper Basilica — which was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1997 but restored — is lavishly colorful, with richly detailed frescos by Giotto depicting the saint’s life. Underneath, the Lower Basilica is more somber, cold and bucolic, especially during a service, when chanting and hymns echo off its low-arched ceiling.
I have mixed feelings on Venice, particularly St. Mark’s Square. On the one hand are the hawkers of trinkets, the tourists feeding pigeons, the 6-Euro cappuccinos, the menus in 8 different languages. On the other hand, is the stout, gray onion-domed cathedral crowned with gold-winged angels and Byzantine mosaics. She’s like an old lady with too much jewelry, but you can’t help but love her anyway. Like Sophia Lauren, now that I mention it. The basilica is, in a word, ridiculous: from the length of the line to get in, to the amount of opulence the Venetians put into it to demonstrate their wealth. The ceilings, walls and arches of the interior are layered with gold tiles and mosaics depicting saints and the prophets, and its easy to fall under the spell of the cathedral’s radiance. Much of the church is filled with treasures the Venetians raided from elsewhere, including it’s namesake’s relics. Historically, its fascinating, but on a WWJD level … well, you decide.
5. Santa Maria d’Idris, Matera
Poles apart from the Pantheon, the Church of St. Francis and Basilica di San Marco, is Santa Maria d’Idris. Located in a small cave atop a rocky mount overlooking the grottos and canyon of Matera (upper right corner, above left photo), it is a strange, mystical, spooky place. This ancient city in Basilicata (it dates back to Paleolithic times — put that in your pipe and smoke it, Rome) has clusters of cave churches throughout the city limits, but this one is most memorable, in part because of its rocky mount location (it’s entrance takes in a beautiful 270-degree panorama of the city), and its labyrinth of meditation chambers, which are decorated with boldly colorful frescos in various states of decay. Looking like it was carved by hand out of the rock, Santa Maria d’Idris is imperfect and intimate, two traits missing in so many places of worship.
Intimacy was clearly never the intent of Florence’s massive duomo. No, this church was meant to send a message to other city-states, like Siena. Looming over the city center and seemingly peering into every alley, passageway and window in the city proper, it is one of those rare churches that’s actually a skyscraper. It’s interior includes an unforgettable and grotesque ceiling fresco by Vasari and Zuccaro, but is largely forgettable in comparison to the cathedral’s exterior circus of pink, green and white marble. A row of grim-faced saints on the facade point at patrons of the piazza, a once stern and effective reminder of morality no doubt, that has slowly been lost on the tourist licking their gelato at the Baptistery’s gate. But the truly moving element of this iconic cathedral is Brunelleschi’s dome. By the time it was conceived in the early 1400s, the formula for Roman concrete (the kind which made the Pantheon possible) was forgotten. So he just decided to make it of bricks instead — 4 million of them … without a crane.
Venice has a staggering amount of amazing churches, but after the Basilica di San Marco, the Frari Church is head and shoulders the standout. Not because of its exterior (which is actually quite drab) but because of the art it holds inside. Most famous may be Titian’s altarpiece, The Assumption, a fantastic portrayal of Mary’s Assumption to Heaven, surrounded by swirling angels and clouds. The church also houses Donatello’s John the Baptist, works by Bellini, several tombs (including Titian’s) and elaborate wood and gold choir stalls by Marco Cozzi.
8. Santa Maria Assunta, Positano
OK. I’ll be honest. I barely peeked inside this church. I know, I know. How could it make the must-see list if all I’m basing it on is the exterior? Some roving journalist I am! But there’s something romantically delightful about this church. From my experience, no other church in Italy fits more perfectly into the landscape than this one. It appears to anchor Positano to the ground, as if its presence keeps this wildly gorgeous town from floating away. Secondly, it’s beautiful mosaic dome has grass and plants growing out of its clefts, a small detail that shows that all things — manmade or otherwise — are reclaimed by nature. And finally, spend a Sunday in Positano and you’ll see the locals flocking to church, a pleasant reminder that this is a living, breathing community after all — not just a tourist playground.
The mother church of the Jesuit Order is located a few blocks from the Coliseum, the Pantheon and the Forum. Talk about a long shadow. But that’s Rome. For us, the church was a quick stop en route to Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the Pantheon at the insistence of my cousin, Nick, who lives in Ciampino and has been a Roman resident for years. The church is a neck craner, with the highlight being a spectacular ceiling fresco by Giovanni Battista Gaulli called Triumph of the Name of Jesus (above right). It’s the only ceiling I’ve ever wanted to stare at for an hour.
10. Duomo di Amalfi
The Cathedral of Saint Andrew in Amalfi exudes a rare elegance among large churches. Its 62 stairs spill like a waterfall from the zebra-striped and gold facade. It’s campanille is composed of multiple cylinders, a style I haven’t seen elsewhere. Considering that the church is in the middle of the spectacular Amalfi Coast, it’s an amazing convergence to see from the piazza below. Inside, Baroque and Romanesque elements combine beautifully, but the real story lies in the crypt. Here, supposedly, lie the bones of St. Andrew. How they ended up here is just one of those historical footnotes of Europe’s history. Like with other saints, his relics were transported, stolen and stashed all across the continent. St. Andrew mostly ended up here, where his bones were safely stored after the sacking of Constantinople in 1208.
Of course, there are a few honorable mentions:
- Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome
- San Miniato al Monte, Florence
- Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
- Il Duomo, Orvieto
- Chiesa di Sant’Antonio, Alberobello
And the one that got away: The Cathedral of Milan. A train strike kept us from spending any time in Milan, so we missed what is considered by many to be one of the most spectacular Gothic churches on earth. Perhaps another time.
Alright, if you’ve been: what did I miss?