Tired of following the guide with the flag? Looking for something more authentic in Verona than a fake balcony? How about you try San Zeno Maggiore? According to legend, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette were married in the crypt. (Verona is full of “authentic” sites of this fictitious couple.)
San Zeno Maggiore is the finest and most architecturally important in Verona and one of the most important Romanesque churches in Northern Italy. The large basilica, with cloisters and a separate bell tower, was part of a Benedictine monastery that often housed the Germanic Roman emperors during the early years of Christianity. The standout building is easy to admire even without an understanding of all the underlying symbolism of the art and its history. Because it’s a few blocks removed from the center of Verona, San Zeno Maggiore can be peaceful even when the rest of Verona is unpleasantly packed with day-trippers.
The first church was erected here in the fourth century to house the bones of San Zeno but the present building dates mostly from the twelfth century, although the apse and roof are late fourteenth century. The separate campanile was completed in 1178 while the cloisters date from 1123 to 1313.
Saint Zeno (ca. 300 to 380) came from northern Africa but spent much of his life in Verona – first as monk but later as bishop. He is associated with fishing and often portrayed with a fishing rod. During the eighth century Charlemagne conquered Lombardy and put much of Northern Italy under Germanic rule for centuries after. The German (Holy) Roman Emperors treasured the region and often spent time and money here.
The church was just a part of a large Benedictine monastery, trashed by the French during the Napoleonic era, that often housed the emperors when they were in Italy. Only the watchtower (to the left of the church) and cloisters survived from this abbey.
The western façade displays Romanesque elements typical for the region. Two pillars are placed on the backs of two lions – justice and faith – and guard the church so evil elements cannot enter. The marble bas-reliefs depict images from the Bible as well as early-medieval themes.
The tympanum has San Zeno at the center and portrays the people of Verona, as was good politics at a time when Verona was a city-state. The roof cover helped to protect much of the colouring.
However, the artistic highlight here is the magnificent bronze doors. Of the around 20 similar doors that survived in non-Byzantine Europe, these are considered to be amongst the best. The exact artist and origin of the doors are unclear. However, the doors very much reminiscent of similar doors in Hildesheim in Germany.
Not all figures in the 48 panels can be identified but note San Zeno with a fishing rod. Furthermore, the bronze panels were not originally designed for this specific door and have probably been hung out of its original chronological order.
The large rose window in the western façade is in the shape of a wheel of fortune. It was created by Brioloto (1217-25) and is an early example of a style element that would be very prominent in later Gothic designs.
The freestanding campanile at San Zeno is typically Romanesque. It is 72 m tall with a double row of arcades at the top. The bell tower has six bells – the first cast in 622.
Entry to the church is usually via the cloisters at the opposite end of the church from the campanile. The beautifully restored cloisters are mostly Romanesque but some newer sections are Gothic. It was built between 1123 and 1313. From here, visitors can enjoy lovely views of the side of the church, with lovely horizontal stripes of pinkish red brick and creamy tufa stone. Typical Romanesque elements include the smallish, round arched windows and two rows of rounded arch friezes below the roof of the nave and the top of the church.
The church can be divided into three main areas: the triple naves of the basilica, the lower crypt, and the elevated choir or presbytery. Artworks adorn many walls but the architectural elements are just as interesting.
The presbytery and choir are elevated but can still be seen from the main church. The apsis is more Gothic in style and fully painted. It was completed in 1398 and therefore around two centuries newer than the rest of the church. The twelfth-century statue of a laughing Saint Zeno in red marble here is considered the most venerated in all of Verona.
However, the artistic highlight is the polyptych by Andrea Mantegna. This San Zeno Altarpiece (1457-60) is considered to have been the first major Renaissance artwork in Verona and served as inspiration for many local artists. The lower three panels (predellas) are copies of the originals stolen by the French during the Napoleonic era. (The originals are on display in the Louvre and in Tours.)
The crypt of San Zeno is very large, untypical for the region, and clearly inspired by the Kaiserdom (Imperial Cathedral) in Speyer, which was a major center for the Salian emperors who ruled the Holy Roman Empire at the time of the present church’s construction.
This is the oldest part of the church and partly dates from the tenth century. Note the individually carved capitals of the 49 columns. The crypt houses the remains of San Zeno, which are paraded on his feast day (April 12) or in Verona on May 21, in honour of the translation of his relic to the crypt on May 21, 807.
So, don’t get caught up in looking at a 19th C fake balcony, take time out to see something truly worthwhile while you’re in Verona.