Thursday, September 9, 2010

San Zeno

Io fui abate in San Zeno a Verona
sotto lo 'mperio del buon Barbarossa...
I was abbot of San Zeno in Verona,
under the governance of the good Barbarossa...
--Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio XVIII.118-9

Today’s history tour took place in the eye of a storm. Last night it started raining; this morning, it rained; we had a brief respite in the afternoon, a couple hours of glorious hot sunshine, and then almost as soon as it got dark the rain recommenced, this time with lightning and window-rattling thunder. My apartment has a skylight, which is lovely, but now is letting in both noise and light, which is not exactly conducive to getting much sleep. Not that I’m complaining!

Today the fabulous A. led us to the basilica of San Zeno, which is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in Verona so far. The original monument to San Zeno was built in the fourth century, shortly after his death; construction of the three-level structure that is the current basilica began in the 10th century, was destroyed by invaders and earthquakes, and was finally completed around 1380. The basilica was built on the site of the old Roman cemetery, in honor of the city’s patron saint, and has been remarkably well preserved. After the Scala family lost political control and Verona came under the power of the Republic of Venice, it also took control of San Zeno; the abbots of the basilica's monastery were all appointed by the Doge, but they lived most of the year in Venice, which meant they pretty much left the church grounds alone. On the one hand, this preserved all the artwork, including the extraordinary frescoes adorning nearly every wall; on the other hand, this meant the buildings were not well maintained, and the monastery itself collapsed in the early 19th century (I think! just for the record, I don't take notes during these tours :-). The church grounds, which are extremely large, represent only one-third the area of the medieval complex.

I don’t know whether the fault lies with my camera, which doesn’t seem to like to focus from a distance of more than a few feet, or with my own self because I’m a lousy photographer, but unfortunately many of the pictures I tried to take came out blurry, so I have fewer to share than I would like. But here are a handful:

As you can see, the church is covered with scaffolding because it’s under restoration, so I didn’t take any other exterior pictures. Inside, though:

Here’s San Zeno, who was the first Bishop of Verona. You can also see him in the detail of the portico, above. He is, naturally, always depicted with mitre and scepter, because of his status as bishop; he is depicted making a sign of blessing (three fingers extended) because he converted the Veronese to Christianity; and he is depicted with dark skin because he was thought to be African. Legend has it he was born in Mauritania, though A. points out that modern scholars think he was probably European. But because he wrote about other African saints, it was thought that Zeno was African as well. And, finally, he is depicted with a fish hanging from his scepter as if from a fishing-pole. His great friend St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan--the mentor of yet another African saint, Augustine--described Zeno as "a fisherman of souls," and so he is represented in iconography with a fish.

This is the tomb of Giuseppe della Scala (remember those Scala guys? come il prezzemolo), onetime abbot at San Zeno--late thirteenth century.

He won a spot in Dante's Divine Comedy, though not a favorable one (he appears in Purgatorio); he was criticized for taking the position in the church not out of religious faith, but in order to further his family's political agenda. Even if one questions his piety, there's no doubt that he was materially beneficial; for example, he paid for the restoration of the cloister:

If you look very closely, you may be able to see that there are two architectural styles visible. The arches in the center are rounded (Romanesque) while the ones in the shady area on the left are pointed (Gothic). The Gothic arches are the more recent ones, and were part of Giuseppe della Scala's renovation project.

And speaking of architecture, here's another nifty thing I learned on the tour. Notice the red-and-white stripes along the outside of the building? You see this everywhere in Italian Gothic architecture, especially churches, I think. It's very beautiful. But it was not done merely for aesthetics. The alternation of terracotta bricks with marble blocks was actually a technique for strengthening a building against damage from earthquakes. If you look closely at the photo below, you'll see that, in fact, the stripes do not line up perfectly--proof that it wasn't just for looks!

Both the outer walls of the cloister and the inner walls of the church are lavishly decorated with frescoes. I'm heartbroken that more of these came out blurry, but I hope they convey some sense of the visual richness of this place:

More famous than the frescoes, though, is the immense 15th-century painting by Andrea Mantegna that stands before the altar.

It has always been described as a tryptich, because it is divided into three panels, but art historians point out that it is mislabeled. In a triptych, each panel is a separate image with its own vanishing point. In this Mantegna piece, the three panels are part of the same larger image and share a single vanishing point in the central panel. But this piece has been known as "the triptych" for so long that it's hard to break the habit.

This photo does not even come close to doing it justice, but rest assured, it is splendid: vivid, detailed, expressive. The festoon at the top is a funeral decoration; although Mary is holding the infant Christ and surrounded by important saints, she has a look of melancholy. She is standing on a red carpet, but underneath that is depicted Christ's tomb. In this painting she is called Madonna vittoriosa sopra la morte, the Madonna victorious over death. For the moment, at least. She knows the Sacrifice is coming.

I won't talk about the fact that the painting was damaged when Napoleon ran off with it, nor that the three small panels at the bottom are quick copies because the originals have been in the Louvre since the nineteenth century... you'd think they would be willing to put them back in their original place rather than having the artwork piecemeal all over Europe.

The basilica is also famous for its enormous twelfth-century doors, each covered in 24 meticulously worked bronze plaques:

Each of the doors has a plaque of a single face with an open mouth; this, instead of a doorknob, was where you gripped the door to open or close it.

There is a series of four plaques representing the miracles of San Zeno. In the top right, he's exorcising a demon that has possessed a young girl; in the bottom left, he's saving a man from falling into the Adige River when his oxen (also, apparently, possessed) ran off with his cart.

The Last Supper (Judas is below the table, as if he could drop into Hell at any moment):

I'm pretty sure this one is Salome with the head of John the Baptist:

I got a huge kick out of the detail of the dinner table. Knife, cup, bread--very civilized, apart from that floating head!

And finally, one of the last things I saw as I was walking out of the church was this fantastic, immense manuscript:

It was unlabeled, and I won't embarrass myself by hazarding a guess at the date (I am not a paleographer). However, I did totally impress one of my monk-classmates (yes, "one of"--there are a few!) by reading the Greek aloud and identifying the text (John 1:1, for those of you playing along at home: "In the beginning there was the Word..." Thank you, Latin Carol Celebration, for drilling this passage into my memory!).

When I came home for dinner I was feeling too lazy to cook, and I’d had pasta e fagioli three nights in a row, so I threw together this salad, another Veneto classic:

It’s arugula, bresaola (air-dried beef), and shavings of grana padano cheese (the local answer to Parmesan). Light and fresh, but pretty filling because of the meat and cheese. In the US a version of this is served as “beef carpaccio,” but the original carpaccio, it seems, doesn’t have arugula in it; this dish is traditional for bresaola, not raw beef. (The “real” beef carpaccio, created at Harry’s Bar in Venice ca. 1950, is simply thin slices of beef with a mayonnaise-based dressing. It was named for the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio [1460-1526], supposedly in homage to the vivid reds he used in his paintings.) But the combination of crisp, bitter greens and richly flavored beef is so seductive; almost every time I make myself a little steak at home, I plate it next to, or even on top of, a pile of arugula or occasionally watercress. The greens wilt a little from the heat and soak up the meaty juices, while still balancing the richness of the beef with their pungent herbaceousness. I love this combination so much that I will even order it in restaurants, breaking my personal rule of not ordering what I could easily make in my own kitchen. Earlier this summer I had a version of it at Nostrana in Portland, which does classic Northern Italian food with Pacific Northwest ingredients (in this case, local grass-fed beef). The chef drizzled the steak with a sharp garlic-rosemary-olive oil dressing. Simple enough to make at home, but so delicious and carefully prepared that it was totally worth restaurant prices.