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San Zeno
Piazza San Zeno

The first small church was erected nearby in the 4th/5th century by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, presumably around Saint Zeno's burial place in the cemetery here, which dated from Roman times. A church and Benedictine monastery was then built in the early 9th century, with the help ok Pepin, Kimg of Italy and son of Charlemagne, with consecration in 806 and soon after the translation of the saint's relics into the new church. After being severely damaged by the Magyar invasion of 951, a new Romanesque church was built by Bishop Raterius in 967, with financial help from the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. This church was damaged on January 3rd 1117 by the earthquake which so affected so many of Verona's churches, and was rebuilt bigger at the city's expense, in 1123-1138, this being the almost-unchanged church we see today, called the Basilica di San Zeno. The church has remained unchanged as a building symbolic of the city's early communal government, which met here for civic as well as religious occasions. The roof and the Gothic-style apse date from 1398.

The cream-coloured facade  is the work of sculptor/architect Brioloto with help from sculptor Adamino da San Giorgio, who seems to have especially enjoyed carving animals, which he did below the slanting roof cornices. It is a screen fašade with a Lombard porch and a wall passage. The rose window in the shape of a Wheel of Fortune is 13th-century. The outer grey rim of the window is decorated with six figures representing the trials of human life.
The porch and reliefs date to around 1138 and are the work of the sculptor Niccol˛ (aka Nicholaus) along with his assistant Guglielmo - his signature is visible in several places. He also worked on the porches of the duomos in Ferrara and Verona, the latter his last known work. St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist flank the arch with the Lamb and the blessing hand of God in the centre. The polychrome lunette above the door  shows St. Zeno stamping on demons and blessing the city's banners. Under the lunette are reliefs of the Miracles of St. Zeno and around is the cycle of the months. The door is flanked by panels of marble reliefs showing scenes from the New Testament on the left (signed by the assistant Guglielmo) and the Old Testament on the right
To the left of the fašade is the squat crenellated tower of the old abbey, which was mentioned by Dante in the Canto 18 of Purgatory and which contains 13th century frescoes. Between it and the church is the entrance to the church via the early 14th cloister. A small loggia (see photo below)  protrudes on the cloister's north side which once housed a fountain for washing before entering the refectory (the lavatory of the monks, as one guidebook has it). Some of the tombs here have come from suppressed churches. They include those of Giuseppe della Scala and Ubertino della Scala, who was the prior of the adjoining monastery.

Latin cross shaped with striped walls created by layers of brick and stone. The nave is undecorated otherwise, up to the coffered ship's-keel wooden ceiling from the 14th century, a type seen only in the Veneto.  The aisle walls have considerable frescoes though, from various periods. Between the nave and aisles are alternating compound piers and columns. There are three levels with a wide staircase down to a large crypt and two smaller ones up to the raised presbytery.
The bronze doors can be admired opened into the church in the doorway. The panels on the left door arguably date from the 12th century, are described as 'German school, and depict scenes from the New Testament. Those on the right are later and by a local artist, and depict scenes from the Old Testament. Thirteen steps lead down from the door.
Inside the church in the corner to the right of the doors is a Crucifix by Lorenzo Veneziano (see right, recently - December 2022 - returned from restoration) and an octagonal baptismal font from the 13th century.
The first (Renaissance) altar on the right has an altarpiece (1520) by Francesco Torbido depicting the Virgin and Child and Saint Anne with Saints Zeno, James, Sebastian and Christopher. The surrounding fresco work is attributed to Battista del Moro.
On the wall just beyond is a patch of frescoes from the 13th to 15th centuries, including a large 14th century Saint Christopher. On the pilaster is the very faint so-called White Madonna, described as 'school of Giotto'. The next altar has odd knotted-effect marble columns retrieved from a Romanesque porch demolished in the 13th century holding up a wooden tympanum.
Behind it and up the stairs into the upper church are more frescos of various periods, dominated on the right by a Saint George and the Dragon above The Transportation of Saint Zeno's Relics. The frescos to the left of Saint George, showing The Baptism of Christ and The Raising of Lazarus are amongst the oldest here. Many are embellished with period graffiti which evidently refer to events in the 15th and 16th centuries like floods earthquakes and plagues (see photo right).  The Saint George and one of the many depictions of the Virgin Enthroned nearby are given to the so-called Second San Zeno Master.
In the apse (see photo below) built by Giovanni and Nicol˛ da Ferrara from 1386 to 1398, the high altar rests on the sarcophagus of Veronese bishops Lupicino and Lucillo and the hermit Crescenzano. The frescoes at the back, from before 1412, which would have been the focus of the church before Mantegna's altarpiece, are by Martino da Verona, as is The Annunciation on the arch around the apse.

The altarpiece (see above) is by Andrea Mantegna (1457-9), known as the San Zeno Altarpiece. It was commissioned by the Venetian humanist Abbot Gregorio Correr. It was painted in Padua, after Mantegna had completed the Ovetari Chapel in the Ermitani there, and probably delivered to Verona in late 1459. It was the first Renaissance painting seen in Verona, it is said. Despite its saturated colours, which make it look like it was painted in oils, it was executed entirely in tempera. Foremost among its innovations is how the main register takes the form of triptych but has a unified space, divided by framing columns which echo the architecture in the painting. The classical frame was also, probably, designed by Mantegna. The main panels show The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist and Zeno on the left and Saints John the Baptist, Gregory, Lawrence and Benedict on the right. San Zeno is thereby just one amongst eight saints depicted, the choice of which was, it has been suggested, a reflection of their being the dedicatees of Verona's other churches. The opening up of the window in the right wall of the apse was reportedly demanded by Mantegna to match the direction of the lighting in the picture. And the painted architecture within the altarpiece would seem oddly to suggest the viewer standing in front of the right hand panel.
The altarpiece has had a hectic life. It was looted by Napoleon in 1797 and returned in 1815, but the predella panels, showing scenes from the Passion of Christ, were never returned. In their place here are good early-19th-century copies by Paolino Caliari which were substituted for the missing panels when the altarpiece was reinstalled in San Zeno in 1871. In 1915 it was decided that it needed to be dismantled and shipped to Florence to protect it from war damage. At the end of the war it was transferred to the Castelvecchio and then to the Brera for restoration, returning to San Zeno in 1927. In 1973 the left panel was stolen and returned following payment of a ransom of 8 million lire. Usually only visible from afar, the altarpiece was happily unfenced-off and appreciable from right close up, behind the altar, when I visited in 2017. But in 2023 the barrier was back.
In the chapel to the left of the apse is the locally-venerated 13th century polychrome statue of The Smiling San Zeno. Zeno, an African, was the 8th bishop of Verona in the 4th century and was martyred under Julian the Apostate on April 12th 380. Julian it was who tried (in vain) to reinstate paganism as the state religion, attempting to reverse the work of his uncle Constantine. Zeno's right hand, used for blessing, is larger than his left, which holds a crosier from which a fish is hanging, as he liked to fish.
San Zeno in Oratorio, a small church nearby, has the stone upon which he liked to sit and fish on the banks of the Adige. The river features prominently in all of his miracles, like when he cast a demon out of an ox which was about to drag a man and his cart into the river.
On the left wall, over the sacristy door, is a large Crucifixion fresco which has been attributed to Altichiero (see photo above right) but is now labelled as 'School of'. To its left is another large patch of frescoes from various periods, including Abbott Cappelli and his Monks venerating the Virgin, which is also School of Altichiero.
Back in the lower church, the left aisle has a 2nd century porphyry basin and, just before the side door, a fresco fragment of The Last Supper with strange symbolic scorpions on the table. The 1621 Baroque altar just before the stairs came from the church of San Procolo next door.
The crypt (see above right) dates from the 10th century but was reworked in the late 12th/early 13th. Since 921 it has housed the remains of St. Zeno in the apse, along with those of Saints Cosmas and Damien, Procolo and other bishops. The crypt has a nave with 8 aisles and 49 columns, each with a differently-carved capital, with the huge bases of the piers holding up the upper church too. On the entrance arches are animals by the local sculptor Adamino da San Giorgio. To the right is a marble font made by the same sculptor architect Brioloto who was responsible for the rose window in the shape of a Wheel of Fortune. The balustrade above has 13th century statues of Christ and The Apostles which are German and were originally polychromed. This balustrade was built in 1870 when the central Baroque staircase was removed.

Lost art
A pair of 15th-century organ doors by an anonymous Veronese master (see right), showing the Annunciate Angel and San Zeno on one door and the Annunciate Virgin and Saint Benedict on the other, have been in the Castelvecchio since 1868. The Annunciation takes place in a gallery above the two saints in niches.
The three predella panels from Mantegna's San Zeno Altarpiece, which was looted by Napoleon in 1797, were kept when the main panels was returned in 1815. They are now in the Louvre (The Crucifixion) and Tours (The Agony in the Garden and The Resurrection). Sending the latter pair to Tours was a ruse on the part of Denon, Napoleon's looter-in-chief, as paintings in the Louvre were then being claimed by the countries they'd been stolen from and, well, 'out of sight out of mind'. It worked. The central Crucifixion panel is wonderful to see well-lit and up close in the Louvre, though.

Hippolyte Tain, the French traveller, wrote (in Italy: Florence and Venice 1869)
Some portions, as, for instance, the sculptures of a door, belong to the more ancient times; except at Pisa I have seen none so barbarous. The Christ at the pillar looks like a bear mounting a tree; the judges, the executioners and the personages belonging to other biblical stories resemble the gross caricatures of clumsy Germans in their overcoats ... To this low level did art fall during the Carlovingian decadence and the Hungarian invasions. In the interior of the church you follow the strange and whimsical gropings of an experimental mind, catching glimpses of daylight now and then from its obscure depths.

Separate. It was begun in 1045, restored in 1120 following the 1117 earthquake, and completed in 1178, at which time, at 64 metres, it would have been the tallest in Italy. The upper rows of windows (and presumably the spire too) are later additions.

Opening times
Monday-Saturday 9.00 - 6.00
Sunday and holidays: 1.00 - 6.00
(November-February the closing time is 17.00 and the church closes 13.00 - 13.30)
Update September 2023
The tower of the old abbey to the left of the fašade is still all covered in scaffolding.
One of the four churches run by Associazione Chiese Vive

San Procolo
To the right of San Zeno is the church of San Procolo (see photo right). It houses the remains of Saint Proculus (260-301), the fourth bishop of Verona (not to be confused with the saint of the same name from Bologna, who was a soldier) and is said to have been Verona's first church, built on a Roman burial ground, probably over the tomb of Saint Proculus, and to date from the 3rd century. Its first documented reference is for 845. Rebuilt following destruction during the Magyar (Hungarian) invasion of 951 and after the 1117 earthquake. It has frescoes from various periods, including a Last Supper and San Biagio healing the Sick by Giorgio Anselmi.  Also works by Antonio Badile and Giambettino Cignaroli (Helena adoring the cross of 1741) It has a single nave with a crypt, which is all that remains of the original Palaeo-Christian structure. In 1492 the relics of Saint Proculus were found here, as well Saints Euprepio, Cricino and Agapito, the three bishops who preceded him. There is a statue of Saint Proculus in San Zaccaria in Venice.





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