Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Abbey of St Benedict in Polirone (Part 1)

About 15 miles to the southwest of the Italian city of Mantua stands an abbey dedicated to St Benedict, known in Italian as “San Benedetto in Polirone.” It was founded at the very beginning of the 11th century by a count of Canossa named Tedaldo, grandfather of the famous countess Matilde. Towards the end of the century, she donated it to the Pope, who in turn handed it over to the abbey of Cluny, from which time it became an important center for the diffusion of the Cluniac reform in northern Italy. As is the case with so many ancient Italian churches, it was later rebuilt, incorporating several parts of the earlier structures; this was done in the 1540s by the architect Giulio Giannuzzi, usually known as Giulio Romano (1499 ca. - 1546), a close collaborator of Raphael who worked on several important projects for the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. The church contains many artistic treasures, including a collection of very nice terracotta statues by Romano’s contemporay Antonio Begarelli (1499-1565), which are shown below. Nicola took a very large number of photos when he visited the abbey last December, and we will have at least one other post of them, possibly two.

Guilio Romano’s façade; the upper part with the loggia was added later, in the 18th century.
Part of the old monastic cloister; the monastery was suppressed during the Napoleonic invasion and plundering of northern Italy in the 1790s.
The main door of the church, carved in 1547.
The main nave seen from the back of the church. Romano’s work on the interior was mostly a matter of restructuring the previous building, which was partly Romanesque and partly Gothic, by covering it over with new decorations in the late Renaissance (or early Mannerist) style.
Here we can see where some of the terracotta statues by Begarelli are placed within the church. Northern Italy is poorly supplied with marble, but terracotta (which literally means “cooked earth”) has the advantage not just of being what was available, but also considerably less expensive. The medium was therefore less prestigious among both artists and patrons, but on the other hand, churches which might never have been able to afford even one good marble statue could have several very good terracotta ones.
The organ, added in 1726.
The main sanctuary
Romano’s geometric decorations in the ceiling anticipate by 100 years some of the innovations of Borromini’s work in Rome.
The baptistery
Side chapels
The terracotta statues by Begarelli. I have cropped and joined several of these photos to save space, so these images do not accurately reflect their placement within the building. St Benedict.
Ss Paul the First Hermit and Anthony
Ss Jerome and Gregory the Great
Ss Placid and Maurus, disciples of St Benedict
Ss Nicholas and Christopher
Ss Justina (a martyr from Padua well known in northern Italy) and Scholastica.
St Martin, in the funerary chapel of a local noblewoman.
Ss Paul and Lawrence
Joshua, the successor of Moses
The Apostles Ss John and Andrew
Ss John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene
Ss George and Sebastian

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