The medieval city of Piacenza begins in Piazza Cavalli, built on the ancient Roman Campo Mario, the military field. This is attested by a stone inscription – “haes est ara Bellonae” – found during the excavations for the foundations of Palazzo Comunale, also called “Gotico”. Bellona was a mythological figure, wife and sister to Mars, the protecting god of armies. The Gotico, with its imposing structure, dominates the pivotal area of the city centre. It was built on the wish of Alberto Scoto in 1281, chief of the merchants and a Ghibelline nobleman of the city, a descendant of a Scottish knight who arrived in Piacenza in the army of Charlemagne. The Gotico was designed by local labour, and probably from Como as well. The convent and church dedicated to S. Bartolomeo were demolished to build the palace, which has a Lombard ogival style, with a band decorated with small arches, Ghibelline “swallow-tailed crenellation”, a central bell tower and two side towers. It is a remarkable example of medieval civil architecture whose linear structure qualitatively competes with similar palaces in the North of Italy. On a marble pedestal with a Gothic loggia with pointed arches stands the upper floor of Gotico. It has Romanesque characteristics, with round arches interspersed with slim tripartite windows. The contrast between the pink marble of the lower floor and the geometric cotto tiles decoration of the large windows on the first floor creates an effect of astounding beauty. On the short side, with its three arches, see the mullioned window and the sloping cornice that recall religious features. A lowered building adds up to the structure which has never been completed. A Madonna col Bambino, from the 13th century once preserved in a niche on the façade, is now exhibited at Museo Civico; the Palace preserves a copy thereof. The Gotico main room (40×16 metres) with a wood beam ceiling and paintings was restored and is now used to host various events.
Chiesa di san Francesco
Not far from Gotico Palace there is the church of San Francesco. Built between 1278 and 1363 on the wish of Ubertino Landi, it has a Lombard Gothic style with a cotto façade. Built by the Order of Friars Minor who had wished to enlarge their original small church, at the end of the 18th century San Francesco was transformed into a hospital and warehouse. After Napoleon’s exile it was given back to the religious order and in 1848 it hosted the celebrations for the annexation of Piacenza to the Reign of Piedmont.
Although restored several times, features at San Francesco recall the basilica in Bologna bearing the same name. Both churches were stylistically influenced by the Cistercian monastic architecture from Burgundy, for instance in the perimetry of the apse with apsidal chapels. On the façade it presents two buttresses, a rose window, pinnacles and peaks, as well as a 15th century main portal (the side portals were built at a later date), and imposing flying buttresses on both sides. On the right hand side there once was a cloister, of which today only a portico has survived.
San Francesco preserves on the inside commemorative stones of illustrious people, paintings, sculptures and remains of frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries. See the sculpture located in the portal lunette depicting San Francesco’s Stigmata (circa 1480). From Piazza Cavalli, walking on Via XX Settembre, you reach Piazza Duomo, the other focal point of city life. The square as we see it today was designed in the mid 16th century, under the papacy of Paolo III Farnese, who wanted to renovate the city of Piacenza before his son Pier Luigi would be assigned the duchies of Piacenza and Parma. Here lies the Duomo (information below).
From Piazza Duomo, entering Via Chiapponi, you reach Via Scalabrini and the church of Sant’Antonino, among the most interesting religious buildings in Piacenza for its complex iconography. This was an ancient Paleochristian basilica, built between 350 and 375 by San Vittore, the first bishop of Piacenza. It is dedicated to the legionary who was martyred near Travo, Sant’Antonino, the patron saint of the city; his relics are preserved in a urn under the main altar of the church. This building was the main cathedral of Piacenza from the 4th to the 9th century AD, but was almost completely destroyed during the Barbaric invasions, only to be rebuilt in 1014 and successively modified over the years. In 1450 the left transept was prolonged with a portico called “Porta del Paradiso”, a slim pointed arch surmounted by a mullioned window and decorated with pinnacles. Inside the “Paradiso” a commemorative stone recalls the meeting that took place here in 1183 to discuss the preliminary conditions for the peace of Konstanz between the representatives of Lega Lombarda and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
Inside there are interesting paintings and in the presbytery several frescoes by Camillo Gavasetti (1622). Beside the church, a cloister dating back to 1483. In the museum, polyptiches, illuminated antiphonaries dating to the end of the fifteenth century, silverware, chalices, reliquaries and a valuable manuscript of the year 840, belonged to King Lothair of Lorraine.
From Piazza Duomo, through Via Legnano, you reach Basilica di San Savino, among the most beautiful Romanesque architectures in the North of Italy before Lanfranco. The current prospect and the main portico were built between the 17th and the 18th centuries. Bishop Everardo built the church in 903, and it was rebuilt around 1000 AD by the Benedictine bishop Sigifredo, after destruction by the Hungarians who sacked Italy. San Savino was consecrated in 1107 AD by Bishop Aldo. The relics of San Savino – the second bishop of Piacenza, who died in 420 AD – are preserved in the crypt.
Restoration works at the beginning of the 20th century brought to light two precious polychrome mosaics from the 12th century. One is in the presbytery and represents Time eternally revolving, with humans trying to stop it, and useful only in practising the Cardinal Virtues: Prudence (chess player), Fortitude (knights fighting), Temperance (a man who restrains from drinking), and Justice (a King inspired by law).
The second mosaic is in the crypt and is composed of medallions floating on a background of rolling sea waves: it shows the months and the signs of the zodiac, as well as images about related work. Inside, the Romanesque-Lombard style is evident in the refined anthropomorphic capitals, stirred by demonic imagination, among racemes, vines, human and monstrous figures. Don’t miss the wooden Crucifix from the 12th century, by an anonymous author, above the altar.
Chiesa di Sant’Antonino
Following the traces of Romanesque architecture, return towards Via Roma and walk on it towards Via Borghetto. From here, past Banca d’Italia, you reach the basilica di Sant’Eufemia. The original building dates back to before 1000 AD, but only after 1100, on the wish of Bishop Aldo, was the temple assigned its rightful place and importance. It is indeed during this period that the slim portico was designed, supported by pillars decorated with precious Romanesque capitals. Inside, the church has three naves with final apses separated by pillars, and cotto prevails. According to tradition, Bishop Aldo wished to be buried in this church, but his remains have never been found; differently, the remains of Sant’Eufemia were discovered.
The Chiesa di Santa Brigida in Piazza Borgo was established in the 9th century, rebuilt in the 13th century, and underwent a series of modifications in the 18th and 19th centuries (when the façade was also redesigned); the bell tower is only a few decades old. Its Romanesque interiors was influenced by Gothic taste that altered the original structure.
The church lies in a historically important spot, where pilgrims, who from northern Europe went or returned to Rome, would stop and take part in rites, and find hospitality and assistance in the city. Piacenza and its province were indeed crossed by Via Francigena.
Among the other medieval churches, it is worth mentioning San Donnino and Sant’Ilario, as well as Fondazioni di Santa Margherita, which together with the crypt of San Savino and that of San Dalmazio bear the most ancient traces of the history of Piacenza.
From Templars to Dominicans
San Giovanni in Canale, located in Via Beverora, was built close to a small river. It was founded in 1220 by the Dominicans who occupied part of an area owned by the Templars; the cloister was destroyed during the Second World War. Around 1550 the church underwent a series of renovations which enlarged it adding three spans towards the façade, as well as extending the choir. The building has been restored several times, and preserves numerous elements of manifest medieval origin. On the inside it has three naves on a Gothic plan, with a wooden ceiling (restored decades ago), which give the church a barren but majestic character, with cotto decorations and white voussoirs.
Here there are numerous sepulchral monuments. A must-see is the funereal ark of the Scotti family (15th century), a sculpted sarcophagus in Verona stone; but also the trilobated aedicula of the Arcelli family, in Gothic style from the 14th century. Here there are numerous sepulchral monuments.
On the right of the church, close to the entrance to the old cloister, there is the tomb of the Guadagnabenes (14th century), a rich family of merchants and bankers, and the tomb (beginning of the 16th century) of the famous surgeon Guglielmo da Saliceto. On the inside there is also a 16th century painted tomb, a unique piece in Piacenza. In the Neoclassical cappella del Rosario there is a canvas by Gaspare Landi (“Salita al Calvario”), a painter from Piacenza who became director of Accademia di San Luca in Rome after Antonio Canova.
The gabled façade – in sandstone and pink marble in the lower half – is characterised by two buttresses and false galleries with slim columns. It has three portals, surmounted by porches decorated with sculpted lintels and capitals, as well as caryatids and decorated panels.
The central portal, rebuilt in the 16th century, still preserves the original lintel from the 12th century. The side portals, with columns supported by telamons were sculpted by apprentices of Wiligelmo and Nicolò. In the centre of the façade there is a large rose window (6.85 metres in diameter). The outstanding square-shaped cotto bell tower, on the left hand side, is 67 metres high. On top of the conical pinnacle, in 1341 Pietro Vago, the master builder from Piacenza, installed a revolving angel in golden copper.
On the side, the portal of the left transept has a porch surmounted by an aedicula protecting a 14th century Virgin with Child. The inside of the Duomo is mystical and very simple, a Latin cross plan with three naves, 26 granite pillars supporting the round arches. Note on some pillars of the central nave the reliefs dated after 1140, representing different crafts.
In the presbytery, a wooden sculpture from 1479, a wooden choir by Giangiacomo da Genova (1471) and 15th century Lombard statues.
The temple preserves numerous remarkable frescoes, from the 14th to the 16th century, by Camillo Procaccini and Ludovico Carracci. In the dome, frescoes are by Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, known as Morazzone (1625-26), and by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri also known as Guercino (1627). The frescoes portray Isaiah, David (Morazzone), Ezekiel, Hosea, Zachary, Haggai, Micah, and Jeremy, also Sybils, Stories from the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary (Guercino). The crypt has a Greek cross plan, with 108 Romanesque slim columns, and it preserves the remains of Santa Giustina. In the capitular archive there are antiphonaries from the 13th and 14th centuries, Lombard parchments, and a tryptych by S. Serafini titled “Storie della vita di Cristo” (1390).