Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Basilica of St Andrew in Vercelli, Italy

Two days ago, the basilica of St Andrew in the northern Italian city of Vercelli celebrated the 800th anniversary of the laying of its cornerstone by Cardinal Guala Bicchieri (ca. 1150-1227), a native of the city and one of the most prominent churchmen of his era. After studying in Bologna and obtaining the very prestigious laurea utriusque (a degree in both civil and canon law), he became a canon of his city’s cathedral; he was made a cardinal in 1205, and served as papal legate first in northern Italy, then France, and finally England. In this last capacity, he was a supporter of the royal cause during the rebellion of the English barons that concluded with the signing of the Magna Carta, of which he was one of the signatories. In gratitude for his support, King Henry III granted him the rights to the income of a certain church in England, arrangements of this sort being very common in the High Middle Ages. These revenues were used in part to pay for the construction of the new church in Vercelli, and for the installation therein of canons regular from the church of St Victor in Paris, an important center of the reformed canonical life.

The basilica is an interesting example of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic; inspired by Cistercian architecture, and in the spirit of Cistercian austerity, it does not have a lot of decoration inside, but is an impressively large and luminous space. (Photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

The façade of the church is far closer to the sensibilities of the Romanesque than the Gothic, with long stretches of solid wall; the arched windows of the bell-towers, which grow in size as they go higher up, are also very typical of the Italian Romanesque.

A rare Italian example of external buttresses, typical of Gothic architecture in France and western Germany, but generally disliked in Italy; as a result, most Italian Gothic churches are far lower than buildings like the cathedrals of Chartres, Amiens, or Cologne.
The internal vaulting of the church, on the other hand, is classically Gothic. Unlike central Italy, and especially Rome, northern Italy is fairly poor in marble, and therefore makes a lot of use of the decorative arrangement of bricks, as we see here.
The cupola
The martyrdom of St Andrew, depicted over the central door; this sculpture and the one below are both from the original construction of the church at the beginning of the 13th century.
Over the left portal of the façade, the cardinal is depicted presenting the church to St Andrew seated on a throne.
Choir stalls of the 16th century
The mid-14th century tomb of Thomas Gallo, the first abbot of the canons regular from St Victor, who served from the community’s foundation in 1226 until 1246.
The church and its central tower seen from the cloister.
The chronology of the abbots of the church when it was part of the Victorine congregation, from 1226 to 1446. Note that there are also five “commendatory” abbots (“commendatari” in Italian) on the list. This refers to a recurrent abuse, which flourished in the years leading up to the Reformation, by which a man (often a layman) was appointed abbot of a monastery, and drew the revenues attached to the position, but did not live as a member of the community, and had no authority or very limited authority within it.
In 1467, the community passed to a different congregation of Canons Regular, known as the Lateran congregation, and began regular election of abbots.

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