The Catholic religion plays a major role in the cultural life of Italy and consequently there are thousands of churches and cathedrals across the country. Every city has several major churches and even small towns and villages have their own churches and places of worship.
Italy is fairly unique in Western Europe because in most of the other countries the societies have become very secular, particularly since the Reformation. However, in Italy, religion, particularly Catholicism, has retained a central place in the life of the people in an authentic and heartfelt way.
This means that whether you are an Expat or a tourist visiting the country, it’s impossible to understand Italy without visiting its many churches and cathedrals. As well as the religious significance of the churches they are also store houses for some of the finest art in the world! Many of these paintings and artworks were commissioned by the church, or later donated to the church, and are usually based on Biblical themes.
There are three main things you have to look for when you visit a church in Italy, architecture, paintings and artwork and the relics of the saints.
Church And Cathedral Architecture In Italy.
There are several main periods of architectural styles which dominated church construction at different times over the last 2000 years in Italy. Having an understanding of the major periods of church architecture will allow you to appreciate the churches you visit much more deeply as well as give you a fascinating insight into the history of Italy and Europe in general.
The Byzantine Style – Medieval Period.
The true beginning of the Roman Church was initiated by The Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD. The Emperor’s edict, known as the Edict of Milan, made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. This also coincided with Constantine moving the capital of the Empire to Byzantium, which led to a whole new style of architecture emerging that was very different to the pre-Christian Roman architecture. As a result, this period of church building is known as the ‘Byzantine’ period.
Byzantine architecture is characterized by churches with large round arches and can be found all over Italy and the former Roman Empire to the East. One of the Italian cities which best reflects the Byzantine style is Venice, where St. Mark’s Basilica epitomizes this revolutionary period in Roman architecture. Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna is also a great example of Byzantine Style architecture.
The Romanesque Style – Medieval Period.
Between the 10th and 13th Centuries the Byzantine style began to evolve into the Romanesque following the end of the Dark Ages in Europe. During the Dark Ages, between the 6th and 10th Centuries, the Barbarian rule of Europe led to a huge decline in the economies, political and administrative systems and near starvation for most of the population.
Inevitably, the architecture of this period is hardly worth a mention in Europe and it was only when the Dark Ages came to an end that it began to become significant again. The architectural revival in the 10th Century is known as the Romanesque period, which is largely characterized by the construction of semi-circle arches and large cross vaults in churches. Italy was right at the center of the Romanesque revival and is home to some of the finest examples of Romanesque churches. These include:
- The Church of San Michele, in Pavia.
- The Cathedral of Parma.
- The Church of Sant’Ambrogio, in Milan.
- The Cathedral of Modena.
- The Romanesque period was fairly short lived, around 200 years, however it was an extremely important turning point in the architectural development of the church in Europe.
The Gothic Style – 13th-16th Century AD.
The Gothic style of church and cathedral construction originated in Northern Europe but was soon being employed throughout Italy and other parts of the South. The Gothic style soon began to influence architects in Italy who started to move away from the Romanesque style and take up new features and techniques in their own designs.
One of the main differences between the Gothic style and the earlier Romanesque style is that instead of round arches the Gothic style employs taller, pointed arches. The overall height of Gothic churches, and their proportions, also changed; creating churches with a height that was more than twice the width of the structure.
The Gothic period is also defined by the increased use of sculptures, gargoyles, bigger windows and elements of Moorish architecture, brought back by the Crusaders in the 11th Century. Although most of Northern Europe fully embraced the Gothic style it was never so dominant in Italy; nonetheless, there are several excellent examples of Gothic churches in Italy including:
- The Duomo of Milan.
- The Duomo of Orvieto.
- The Basilica of San Petronio of Bologna.
- The Palazzo Ducale in Venice.
- The Gothic period represents an exciting evolution of the Romanesque style and ultimately paved the way to even more radical changes in church architecture that were still to come.
The Italian Renaissance Style – 15th – 16th Centuries.
The Renaissance was one of the most intense outbursts of creativity and innovation in history which began in Italy and spread Northwards through the rest of Europe. The Italian Renaissance forever changed the culture and revolutionized art, science, music, and, of course, the architectural styles of church construction.
From the perspective of the leading figures of the Renaissance the Gothic style of architecture completely ignored the aesthetics of construction and lacked harmony, proportion and beauty. One of the primary features of Renaissance architecture is that it draws heavily on geometric forms and rationality; and therefore the pointed Gothic arches were replaced with round arches and the pillars and bricks were replaced with elegant columns. Another feature of Renaissance architecture is the frequent use of symmetry throughout the church’s design.
Two of the most famous Italian Renaissance architects were Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Their work completely changed the church architecture of Italy and left a legacy which is still hugely appreciated today.
Examples of Leon Battista Alberti’s finest work includes:
- The Basilica Of St Augustine in Campo Marzio, in Rome.
- The Basilica of San Marco al Campidoglio, in Rome.
- The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence.
- The Parish Church of San Martino a Gangalandi, in Florence.
Some of the most notable works by Filippo Brunelleschi includes:
- The Basilica of the Holy Spirit, in Rome.
- The Capponi Chapel, in Florence.
- The Cathedral of San Zeno, in Pistoia.
- The Pazzi Chapel, in Florence.
Although the architecture of the Renaissance period in Italy was largely defined by these two men there were other great designers working during the same period.
The Baroque Style – 17th-18th Centuries.
As the incredible Renaissance period came to a close towards the end of the 16th Century the new Baroque style emerged in its place. Baroque style architecture retained the logical and harmonious aspects of the Renaissance but it became far more elaborate and decorative.
Baroque architecture is largely characterized by incredibly ornate decorations and the use of marble in the churches, emotionally charged paintings and beautiful stained glass windows. Baroque architecture in churches aimed to give the church goer a sense of awe and wonder at the magnificence of God. The church space was almost seen as a type of theater where you would often see fountains, spiral stairs, statues, monuments and other elaborate decorative features.
The leading Baroque church architect of the time is generally considered to have been Michelangelo Buonarroti whose work transformed the face of many Italian cities. However, there were many other architects and designers working in the Baroque style.
Some of the best examples of Baroque church architecture includes:
- The Cathedral of Syracuse, in Sicily.
- The Papal Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, in Rome.
- St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, in Rome.
- The Church of the Immaculate Conception, in Palermo.
- The Basilica of Santa Maria Della Salute, in Venice.
The Paintings And Artwork In The Churches Of Italy.
As well as being religious spaces the churches of Italy have long been treasure troves of paintings, sculptures and other works of fine art. Many of these paintings and works of art were gifted to the church by wealthy patrons while others were directly commissioned by the church.
Naturally, these paintings and artwork have religious themes and frequently depict important moments in the Bible as well as the Catholic Saints and Martyrs for the Creed. Churches also housed amazing collections of silverwork, statues and ornaments which all required the very highest craftsmanship to create. The art in churches played a vital role in helping to inspire the congregations to emulate the lives of Biblical figures and Saints.
Stained glass windows are another central feature of the churches and cathedrals in Italy and depict everything from Biblical stories to the lives of the Saints. These beautiful windows not only illuminate the churches as the sun shines through but they also give the atmosphere a sense of dream-like wonder and awe.
The Sistine Chapel.
Possibly the most famous piece of church art, the incredible ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Located in the heart of the Vatican, the incredible ceiling fresco depicts 9 of the main stories from the book of Genesis and is considered to be one of the finest paintings of all time.
Caravaggio’s Paintings in the Santa Maria del Popolo.
Caravaggio is one of the greatest church artists to have worked in Italy and has left behind a large number of paintings, most of which are housed in churches around the country. The ‘Crucifixion of St Peter’ and the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ are housed in Santa Maria del Popolo basilica, in Rome, and are popular tourist attractions as well as religiously significant. Work by Raphael, Pinturicchio and Bramante can also be seen in the Santa Maria del Popolo, making it an incredible storehouse of priceless works of art.
The Relics Of Saints.
Churches have long venerated the Catholic Saints by storing relics that are either directly related to their life and the miracles they performed or else are actual parts of the deceased Saint’s own body! These relics became sites of pilgrimage for the church’s faithful, with many people walking thousands of miles to see them.
The Basilica di Sant’Andrea, in Mantua.
Housed in the basilica, deep in the crypt, is one of the most holy relics in Christianity; two receptacles that contain earth soaked in the blood of Christ that was spilled when he was stabbed with the spear while on the cross. Known as the ‘Preziosissimo Sangue di Cristo’, or the ‘most precious blood of Christ’, it’s said to have been collected by the Roman soldier, Longinus. Longinus repented of the sin of stabbing Christ with the spear; and so he collected the spilled blood in the soil beneath the cross, and brought it to Mantua in two receptacles, where it was eventually taken to the Basilica di Sant’Andrea, where it remains to this day.
Basilica di San Silvestro, in Capite.
The Head of St John the Baptist is a sacred relic that is kept in the San Silvestro in Capite and attracts many pilgrims and visitors each year. The church itself was actually built to house the sacred relic of St John the Baptist’s skull which is kept under the main altar. Within the basilica there are also beautiful stained glass windows which depict the story of his decapitation.
Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi, in Rome.
One of the more unusual collections of relics lay in the Santi Vencenzo e Anastasio a Trevi where 22 hearts of former Popes are preserved and kept as relics for people to visit. The Popes’ hearts are kept in marble urns with the names of the Popes engraved on the altar in the church.
The hearts come from Popes over a 500 year period, between the 16th Century, Pope Sixtus V, and the 20th Century, Leo XIII. Catholics who visit the church to venerate the hearts leave tokens of thanks when God answers their prayers.
Churches And Cathedrals Are Central To The Heritage Of Italy.
When you visit the churches and cathedrals of Italy it’s fascinating to see and understand the different architectural styles and how they fit into the overall historical narrative.
As well as the buildings themselves, the paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures and ornaments are absolutely outstanding and it’s hard to find anything anywhere that compares to the craftsmanship and skill that went into their creation.
No trip, or stay, in Italy would be complete without exploring the amazing heritage of the churches and cathedrals that are central focal points of society; and the more knowledge you have about what you are seeing the more you’ll get from the experience.