If France’s total number of medieval cathedrals at nearly 130 is a surprise, medieval Italy’s is even more so: just ten short of three hundred, for a landmass less than half the size. Only really in the twentieth century dioceses started to be combined to bring down the number: there are currently 227 dioceses in the Italian Republic. Finding plans for the majority of these buildings would be a Heraclean task I will never ever do (edit: October 2022, as you can see by the new thumbnail I have now, kind of, see end of this blog post for the file), beyond my space-based animation of about a sixth of them, so take a look at that if you haven’t already.
That it is not uncommon for even medium-sized Italian towns to have cathedrals is possibly why duomo is more common a term than cattedrale in general Italian speech when referring to one of these buildings. Originally from Latin domus (house), but later literally meaning dome, it has no direct English counterpart for churches (but does have Dom in German and other languages). It also leads to even more blurring between “big church” and “cathedral” than usual: for instance, the duomos of San Gimignano (Tuscany) and Monza (Lombardy) have never been the seat of a bishop, yet they are often referred to as “cathedral” in English articles. Anyway, onto le grandi mappe:
I should say that I’m certain there must be a few cathedrals that I have missed in this map. Anything see that sprung up and disappeared before 1200 I’ve omitted, since I’m interested in surviving buildings most of all. Certainly around Rome, the sees moved about frequently, resulting in quite a few orphaned and co-cathedrals. Marking all of these would just over-complicate things. For instance, Porto moved from the chief imperial harbour after its dilapidations partly from raids by Arab pirates to the Tiber Island in the capital by the eleventh century, and then joined with Cerveteri and Selva Candida (San Rufina) by the twelfth. Since 1953 the bishop of Porto-San Rufina has resided at a twentieth-century Jesuit church. The seven suburbican sees of Rome were headed by cardinal bishops who presumably were involved more with the Lateran Palace than they were with their own dioceses. It was all very head-office round here, and indeed the peninsula in general.
These are all medieval sees, but not necessarily medieval buildings. By my reckoning, out of 290 cathedrals: 104 are essentially a medieval church inside and out, 106 are completely Baroque rebuilds, 34 are so remodelled so they might as well be Baroque rebuilds, 15 are remodelled but retain significant medieval bits, 12 I’ve classed as Renaissance (which means early fifteenth to mid sixteenth-century classical design), 10 are destroyed or in ruins (which is interesting in itself and I might write up at some point) and 9 are nineteenth or twentieth-century. The susceptibility of central and southern Italy to devastating earthquakes and the overwhelming influence of the Counter-Reformation coming out of Rome are to blame for that. Oh and also Italy becoming fascist and getting bombed to bits in strategic places by the Allies in the 1940s, most unfortunately the remodelled Carolingian-era cathedral of Benevento, which was obliterated 12-14 September 1943.
One interesting consistency, albeit non-architectural, of Italian cathedrals is their dedication to the Virgin Mary. Out of my 290 identified sees, an extraordinary 99 are straightforwardly dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (Saint Mary of the Assumption), with 11 Santa Maria Assunta and a secondary dedication, then a further 26 Marian dedications. In total, that’s 136, nearly half. Most of these dedications probably originate from late medieval rebuildings onward (e.g. the paleochristian cathedral of Santa Reparata in Florence was rededicated to the unique title of Santa Maria del Fiore 1294). The peculiar devotion to the Assumption likely owes to the important relic of the Virgin’s girdle, as caught by the Apostle Thomas after her ascent, brought to Prato from Jerusalem in 1141. The Assumption became an important subject of painting from the mid Trecento onwards. Influence from the Byzantine devotion to the Virgin via icons like the Hodegetria, Theotokos and Eleousa also surely contribute.
Why so many cathedrals? The main reason is that, like the south coast of France, its closeness to the early capital cities of the Christian Roman Empire (Rome, of course, then Milan 286-402, finally Ravenna up to 476) means that a lot of its bishoprics were founded in antique civitates as early as the fourth century, and never rescinded. Being an Italian bishop was an entirely different role to the prince bishops of the north: clearly not a plum job that came with lots of property like in England or Germany, and at best was a stepping stone to a cardinal or other prelate. Hence, unlike the vast dioceses in northern Europe, Italy’s cathedrals were built by municipal enterprise rather than the ambition and personal wealth of their bishops and chapters of canons, challenging the barrier between sacred and secular like nowhere else. Non-archiepiscopal cathedrals were only big if the city was wealthy: but from the twelfth century onwards, the republics of Italy were some of the wealthiest secular institutions in the Latin West, so there are plenty of bangers.
That the construction of cathedrals was driven by civic pride meant that there was less consensus what a “cathedral” ought to be than pretty much anywhere else in Europe. The aisled basilica was preferable, often with a long, continuous transept at the altar end. The influence of these largely came from the Imperial basilicas of Rome, and because those buildings had their altar at the west end, strict orientation of churches was much less of a concern for the peninsula than anywhere else in the Latin West. However, on the eastern coast, influence from the centrally-planned churches of the Byzantine Empire was strongly felt, and subsequently the massive gothic build at Siena in Tuscany with its hexagonal crossing ratified dramatic open polygonal crossings as a trope in Italian cathedral building. Municipal function also manifested itself in tall, free-standing bell-towers (so much that the Italian campanile is often used in English to refer to any such feature). The baptistery, which bestowed the first sacrament on all Christian citizens of a pieve, was also an important element, often detached from the cathedral. Most notable is Florence’s masonry-domed marvel, built in the second half of the eleventh century under the reign of Countess Matilda, in a distinctly Roman style with marble cladding inside and out that espoused that her pro-Papal stance against the German Empire.
And this brings us to the politics of trying to sum up the medieval architecture inside a modern nation state: Italy being more complicated than most. For much of the medieval period, the upper part of the peninsula was a collection of the territories of city states torn between allegiance to the German Empire in the north or the Papal State in central Italy. Broadly, the pro-imperial cities of Pisa and then Siena had the initial successes which led to gigantic cathedral projects, before falling flat on their faces to pro-Rome Genoa and Florence respectively. The southern part, which after domination by Norman Sicily largely became the Kingdom of Naples held by the Capetian House of Anjou, before it was absorbed by the Crown of Aragon. This huge variety of political units means that the story of Italy’s cathedrals is not tellable as a straightforward narrative like the development of the Romanesque in the German Empire under the Carolingian, Ottonian and Salian dynasties and the importation of developed Norman Romanesque on a huge scale to the Kingdom of England. In fact, it’s nigh-on impossible, but here’s me having a crack at it.
1/3. Roman and Romanesque Romanitas
Medieval Italy had of course, the benefit that it had inherited some of the largest buildings in the world from the Roman Empire, like the Pantheon (113-125) or the Baths of Diocletian (298-306), both having opus caementicium vaulting that likes of which wasn’t to be approached again until the masonry rib-vaults of the Gothic age a millennium later. Also in Rome, the basilica of St Paolo Fuori Le Mura (386×402), although massively damaged by a catastrophic fire in 1823, is still one of the longest churches in the world. Old St Peter’s Basilica (320s, completely destroyed 1506×1626) on the Vatican Hill next to the site of the apostle’s execution at the Circus of Nero, was the most imitated building in Western Europe. The Lateran Cathedral (320s, completely rebuilt in the ninth century, the 1360s, and the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries) also remains on its original plan of exceptional dimensions for a church even to this day. However, Rome itself almost completely ignored the Romanesque and Gothic styles, almost exclusively using the late antique manner to repair and build churches until the revival of the all’antica in the fifteenth century. They didn’t need to do any of that northern feudal posturing with pretend Roman buildings, because they WERE Rome.
Surviving imperial-era cathedral churches outside of Rome in Italy are extremely scant. The loss of Ravenna Cathedral, built at the beginning of the fifth century when it became capital of the Roman Empire, demolished from 1727 for a Baroque replacement, is lamentable. However, it should be remembered, with their huge span of wooden roofs, these buildings were a massive liability to maintain and extremely vulnerable to catastrophic fires. They were also of course, thrown up extraordinarily quickly as part of a chattel slave economy that Imperial Roman Christianity initially did very little indeed to reform, let alone abolish, right up to its eventual implosion by 476. Medieval states had to build up their economies through international trade before they could even attempt anything on a scale approaching anything a Roman Emperor could commission. Regardless, they got there in the end.
The most important Romanesque cathedral in Italy, and the first that approaches the scale of Imperial Rome, is often overshadowed (literally, depending what time of day it is) by its iconically wonky twelfth- to fourteenth-century campanile: that of the city of Pisa. Unarguably it was the most powerful Italian republic of this early period, exceeding even Venice’s maritime domination: hence the extraordinary ambition of the cathedral.
Begun 1063, and as that precedes the Norman church builds in the Kingdom of England after 1066, it can claim to be the most massive church building project begun in the world at the time. The largely marble-clad cathedral (partly using Tuscan limestones, which also forms its mass as rubble wall-core) has an enormously complex plan of double aisles down the nave, echoing the great Roman basilicas, and fully aisled transepts ending in apses which are almost like churches in themselves. Its rectangular crossing is marked with an elliptical masonry dome: its odd ovoid shape meaning it was likely was not planned from the start but added in imitation of the Salian Imperial cathedral at Speyer. This was possibly prompted by its confirmation in the Holy Roman Empire as the first independent comune in Italy c.1085, or its promotion to an archbishopric in 1091. Although the dome was probably originally hidden externally inside an octagonal stone lantern, with the current presentation of the dome exposed with lead cladding surrounded with a pretty Gothic loggetta dating from c.1383-9, it has a good case for being the first duomo to have a prominent central dome, prefiguring those at Siena, Florence, and ultimately New St Peter’s, Rome.
While the Republic of Pisa’s power in the Tyrrhenian Sea would nose-dive at the end of thirteenth century, both of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica are counted as medieval Italy for my purposes, because Pisa’s early control over them means their medieval cathedrals owe a great deal to theirs, albeit on a much smaller scale. That other great maritime republic, Venice (which had domains down the Dalmatian Coast, which I haven’t included in this, because, well, effort really: although I do have them all mapped), has the basilica of San Marco which, although perhaps most famous for its sizzling fourteenth-century ogival west front, under that and later accretions is essentially the building put up in the mid-eleventh century. However, it was not the seat of the bishop or later patriarch of Venice, but the chapel of the Doge’s Palace, and did not become a cathedral until 1807 (the medieval bishop resided at San Pietro di Castello on the east side of the city towards the Lido). While Pisa owed its mosaiced masonry semi-dome to Byzantine prototypes, San Marco owes a lot more to the Eastern Empire with its domes throughout, but also the centralised plan is surely a nod to Charlemagne’s Aachen and a reminder it was not built as a cathedral. Other cathedrals in the politically-complex region of the Marches, such as Ancona, similarly incorporated masonry domes, but also characteristically Lombardian motifs, such as portal columns resting on sculpted lions. The likes of which I am going to include here because I got up at like before 6 AM to see them: these two red marble lads either side of the main portal of the cathedral of Assisi (btw: it’s a big shock inside that the interior is totally remodelled Renaissance, boo). Yes, Saint Francis himself certainly saw these and probably also patted them on the head. I know I did.
Cathedral of San Rufino, Assisi (Umbria), begun 1140. W front, red marble lions flanking central portal
The other impressive eleventh-century Italian cathedrals are those on the heel of the great boot: a group around the Apulian capital, Bari. They of course, pale in comparison to the scale of the cathedrals going up in Norman England at the time, but considering that nearly every town round here had its own bishop, there’s still an impressive amount of monumental building going on here around 1100. Cathedrals (and other churches) in the Bari group are characterised by their consistently high-roofed basilicas ending in an contiguous transept before an apse.
Some of the cathedrals of the Bari Group (Apulia)
Into the twelfth century, some other Italian regions started to build cathedral churches on a scale prompted by the gigantism of Norman England. The Norman kings of Sicily from the mid twelfth-century had a strong centralised government which permitted the construction of large Romanesque buildings like Cefalù and Monreale. The cathedral of Palermo, like Monreale, was that peculiarly English setup of a cathedral run by Benedictine monks, and the church was built from 1170 on a scale befitting an English cathedral of the age, by its enterprising archbishop Walter Ophamil. Sadly (again) the interior has been neo-classified within an inch of its life. Poor thing.
In the north, Lombardy also gets in on its version of the Romanesque going in the early twelfth century, with the cathedrals of Modena, Parma, Piacenza and Ferrara sizeable buildings which largely survive intact today. Brescia is notable as a copy of the Constantinian rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (down to equalling the dimensions to within a metre). Although the fourth-century rotunda for the tomb of Christ had been copied in the west before (in 1020 a rotunda was built under King Canute at Bury St Edmunds, and in 1036 the Bishop of Paderborn obtained its precise measurements for the city’s Busdorfkirche), its recapture by the Latin Church in the First Crusade in which Pisan troops made a large contingent, prompted a flood of copies. Yet its use at Bresica as a episcopal church is exceptional.
2/3. Italian cathedral Gothic – such as it is
The greatest cathedrals of Italy are undoubtedly those of the central republics built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in often long protracted campaigns organised by governmental committees. However, Italy was almost completely indifferent to the development of the Early Gothic style in twelfth-century Capetian France and its rapid dissemination to England, Spain and Germany by the early thirteenth century in influencing its church design. Barletta is perhaps the only Italian cathedral with a Gothic chevet, built from 1313 due to the city’s links to the Crown of Anjou, who also facilitated the building of the cathedral of Naples partly over the Constantinian basilica of Santa Restituta from 1296. Both of these, like the churches of the mendicant friars, have extremely simple mouldings compared to anything episcopal in northern Europe: Naples arguably more keen to show off its antique marble shafts than anything else.
The only Gothic cathedral built in Italy during the first half of the thirteenth century was Siena, which established its office of the Opera dell Duomo in the twelfth century, and substantial building work was underway on the cathedral in the 1220s. After the city’s decisive Ghibelline (imperial) victory over then Guelf (papal) Florence at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, in which the citizens made a pledge to an image of the Virgin in a chapel of the cathedral, the monumental west front was added 1284-97 under Giovanni Pisano. Spurred on by their rivals the Florentines work on their cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore from 1294 onwards, Siena underwent a doubling of the length of its east arm in the fourteenth century, when it was planned that it would become a new “right” transept for a megalomaniacal project to reorient the cathedral via a massive nave from the existing south transept that would make it as long as the largest English and French cathedrals. However, their economy was so badly hit by the Black Death in 1348, the project was drastically scaled back to consolidating the extension as a choir and raising the clerestory of the original nave. Only one arcade, aisle wall and the unclad new frontage of the facciatone survives from the ill-fated Duomo Nuovo projection after its abortion in 1357, which today houses the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (including the remainder of the cathedral’s double-sided high altarpiece of 1308-11 by Duccio di Buoninsegna, after it was sawn up in 1771).
If Pisa was the defining titan of the Italian Romanesque, Siena was for the Gothic. Indeed, the Sienese surely took some inspiration for the marble cladding directly from their maritime Tuscan neighbours, especially since they post represented solidarity with the Holy Roman Empire. Orvieto, with its famous west front and similarly stripey interior, followed from 1290. Grosseto, a possession of the Republic of Siena is clearly dependent on the cathedral with its go-faster stripes, but the unassuming little cathedral of Sovana has columns striped with travertine from a century earlier. The line between Romanesque and Gothic is extremely difficult to draw in Italy, to the point of where drawing a line between the two is often a pointless exercise. Fun though.
Tuscan Cathedrals go fasta
3/3. The Renaissance and il Trionfo del Duomo
Florence really set out to outdo Siena in every way with one of the most massive cathedrals in the Latin West — indeed one of the biggest construction projects in the world — which regardless took over a century to be realised. The tighter pattern of buttressing on the N wall of the W part of the aisle (watch the video below) represents the original plan to replace the fourth-century basilica of Santa Reparata, abandoned in the early fourteenth century for one largely based around the construction of an enormous octagon crossing to utterly eclipse Siena’s contemporary extensions. From 1420 this crossing was finally capped with the planned masonry dome under Filippo Brunelleschi: the largest since Imperial Rome, and still the largest masonry dome in the world.
Florence’s ambition is only matched, if not quite outstripped, by the realisation of Milan Cathedral in the late fourteenth century. Formerly the capital of the Western Roman Empire, with many significant Romanesque churches built inside its walls, the city government established a plan to rebuild the cathedral on a world-beating level around the time of the ascension of Gian Galeazzo Visconti to the Duke of Milan within the Holy Roman Empire. From the project’s beginning in 1386, it was plagued by false starts and endless redesigns. One of the more notable recurring events in its extremely well-documented construction is the city calling in northern architects, largely to ignore everything they say. Most famous is the arrival of Parisian Jean Mignot in 1399, who clearly had fundamental disagreements with the Lombardians on how buttresses take thrust, and basically cannot accept anything other than that the whole scheme needed radically altering or it would all fall down. He was dismissed in 1401, and, luckily for Milan, turns out he was completely wrong on how masonry thrust works: the flyers Jean wanted would’ve done nothing.
The great masonry dome of Florence had two major imitators, the cathedral of Pavia (designed and begun 1488, but the masonry dome not realised until 1882-5) and St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. St Peter’s, is of course, not a cathedral, but you know, it’s a nice place to end. It was begun in 1506, going through the usual major revisions of design, beginning with Bramante’s centrally-planned church, and ending with the destruction from 1608 of the remaining part of the Constantinian basilica, that had inspired the scale of so many cathedrals and great churches north of the Alps, for it to be replaced with a longitudinal nave by 1626. Fitting that it was replaced with the iconic masonry dome that had been developed in Italy from both antique imperial and Byzantine models. The staggering scale of the construction project was funded mostly by the sale of indulgences, which was, funnily enough, one trigger for the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe. Hence why it’s quite fun to consider it the blow-out climax of the Italian middle ages rather than the apex of the humanist Renaissance.
Anyway, here are 151 of the 289 Italian cathedrals, which represents pretty much all of those that are pre-Baroque buildings.
It would be unscholarly for me not to acknowledge most of this was cribbed from Eric Fernie, Romanesque Architecture (Yale: 2014), with bits from Paul Frankl rev. Paul Crossley, Gothic Architecture (Yale: 2000) and Christopher Wilson, The Gothic Cathedral (Thames and Hudson: 1990, rev. 2000). Other specific stuff from Christine Smith, “East or West in 11th-Century Pisan Culture: The Dome of the Cathedral and Its Western Counterparts”, JSAH 43:4 (1984), and the summaries for the meandering builds of Siena and Florence from Tim Benton, “The Design of the Siena and Florence Duomos”, in Siena, Florence and Padua: Art, Society and Religion, 1280-1400, Vol. 2: Case Studies, ed. D. Norman (Yale with The Open University: 1995). I got bits from this book on church-building in Angevin Naples by Caroline Bruzelius that’s probably very interesting if I could read all of it. If you’re like me and you also dig obscure little cathedrals no one cares about, you’ll also want to take a look at this thesis about Sovana Cathedral.
As usual I have left credits on user-submitted Google Maps images, so thank you to those people who took the time to upload their 360s so I can do virtual visits and check out elevations. But could you please stand in the aisles more often. Cheers
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