A Wolverine Abroad: Churches Churches Everywhere…

Mantova (Mantua)
Mantova (Mantua)

Yesterday I visited the town of Mantova and learned exactly how it felt to be really hungry in one of the yummiest countries in the world, and trapped inside churches and museums most of the day. It does not feel good, let me tell you. Not only are you famished, but you feel bad because instead of thinking, “ooo what an interesting painting” you are thinking, “I think this town is famous for pumpkin stuffed tortellini. As soon as this is over I’m finding the closest restaurant that serves it and ordering four plates!” That is not what one should be thinking while standing inside a ducal palace that consists of three separate time periods of construction and style, but what can you do? That being said, I would like to tell you about a building that we visited that as part of my art history class. And like 75% of the buildings you visit in Italy, this building is a famous church. Basilica di Sant’Andrea di Mantova to be exact.

We visited Saint Andrea’s because it was designed by Leo Battista Alberti, who was a famous Renaissance humanist figure. His works are among those that initiated the renaissance and produced aspects of the art and architecture that were later to be known as the high Renaissance. One of the most famous churches in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, has a façade designed by him which, like many of his works, was criticized by the catholic church for making buildings that seemed to resemble pagan temples. His humanist style using classical themes was trailblazing in what would become the most recognized architecture style of the Renaissance.

This class I’m in, so far at least, has only studied the artists and times leading up to the renaissance, and since my interests are more of the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, I have been kind of bored and haven’t really enjoyed the churches we’ve seen. But this one I feel is among one of my favorites in Italy. The façade had me guessing, because I thought it was strange and unfitting for its position in the city and its reputation. The façade itself was added later and instead of being put directing on the church’s face it is separated from the church by a large open barrel vault, which I admit is impressive. The geometric spacing and lack of decoration, however, leave me wanting more.

This feeling disappeared soon after walking inside Sant Andrea. This is one of few churches with one large center aisle, or nave. And it is wonderful! Right now the entire nave is covered by scaffolding, so you can’t see past four feet above your head. But walking to the main space at the front of the church and standing under the dome; that is amazing. Alberti designed a window on the roof of the church, in a structural feature called a “cappellone” or “ombrellone” (“big top” or “big umbrella”). This window fills the crossing point under the dome with so much light that reflects to the apse and the chapels adjacent to it. It is magnificent. The decoration is rich and luxurious like always and it’s finally reached the point in time where gold is toned down and the church is more elegant than gaudy. Thank you, Renaissance, for freeing us from the madness of the middle ages!

So what is it that I look for in a church? It isn’t a great priest or a certain faith. It isn’t the right crowd or food. It isn’t even the best artist. I just want something that will make me feel at peace and interested at the same time. Something beautiful that doesn’t go overboard. It’s not too much to ask, is it? Looking around at all of the “greatest” old catholic churches, I sometimes would rather have stayed outside (San Marco’s for instance…). But I have to say, I would pay to go back and see this one, especially after the scaffolding is gone and the restoration has made it even better! I would enjoy seeing more of Alberti’s works, especially I they are in this region, because that way I won’t spend a sack of cash to get to them.

I hope you enjoyed my art history lesson for today! J

Ciao ciao!

Danny Fob

Your Wolverine Abroad Blogger

(The pumpkin stuffed tortellini was AMAZING by the way).