The city of Verona, from the old town to the suburbs, has more than forty churches. A big number for a city of this size. The most important ones, in terms of their historical and artistic heritage, are the four which are run by the Associazione Chiese Vive, the association of living churches.
Three of them, the cathedral of Santa Maria Matricolare, Sant’Anastasia basilica and the church of San Fermo, are in the old town, within the broad bend of the Adige river, whilst the fourth, the basilica of San Zeno, is a short walk from the centre, in the San Zeno district dedicated to the city’s patron saint.
The cathedral, lapped by the waters of the Adige in the northernmost point of the old town, is just a short walk from the Ponte Pietra bridge. Rather than calling it a cathedral, we should describe it as cathedral complex, since it includes the San Giovanni in Fronte baptistery and the church of Sant’Elena, where you can see the remains of the first paleo-Christian basilica built at the request of Saint Zeno, who was bishop of the city at the time. There is also the Biblioteca Capitolare, the Museo Canonicale and the Canonici cloisters, always green and well mown, a quiet little corner of peace. When you enter the cathedral of Santa Maria Matricolare, the first thing to strike you are the richly decorated side chapels, featuring works of art produced over several centuries of Venetian control. One that really stands out is the Cartolari-Nichesola chapel, which contains the altarpiece of the Assumption by Titian, his only work in Verona.
San Zeno Maggiore basilica
As I mentioned before, to visit San Zeno basilica you need to take a walk from the city centre, past the Castelvecchio and along Regaste San Zeno next to the river. After a few minutes, you arrive at the church dedicated to the city’s patron saint, one of the most spectacular examples of Italian Romanesque architecture.
On the outside, look for the rose window by Brioloto surrounded by the "wheel of fortune”. Six small sculptures depicting the mixed fortunes of man: the person seated on the throne is at the peak of his fortune, he falls down until he is almost destroyed by fate, before getting back up and climbing back onto the throne. On the inside of the church’s portal, you can see the remarkable bronze tiles with scenes from religious life, depicting the New Testament (on the left) and the Old Testament (on the right). When you enter, you will find yourself face-to-face with a masterpiece of Renaissance art: the triptych by Mantegna, better known as the Pala di San Zeno, recognised as the first fully Renaissance altarpiece to be painted in northern Italy. The Sacred Conversation depicts Madonna with Child in the centre, surrounded by a number of saints (each identified by an object they are holding). While you are here, do not miss the magnificent cloisters, which date back to the 10th century.
History and legends of San Zeno
We do not know what twists of fate brought the North African saint and fisherman to Verona. What we do know is that he dedicated himself to the monastic life and became bishop in 362 AD. It is interesting to learn why he is often shown holding a fish. Legend has it that as a bishop he was so humble that he would still go fishing in the Adige for food. Furthermore, the fish symbol is a reference to the fisher of souls, a phrase said to have been uttered by Jesus to the Apostles before sending them to baptise and preach the Gospel: “You are fishers of men”. This is exactly what Saint Zeno did in his work, converting pagans.
The Basilica of Sant’Anastasia
From Piazza Erbe, take Corso Sant’Anastasia, an elegant street full of antiques shops, that leads to this splendid church. Famous for its reddy-pink colour and for being the biggest church in Verona, the basilica of Sant’Anastasia has a number of frescoed chapels, huge columns of red Verona marble and beautiful monuments. Of all the many masterpieces in this church, you should try to seek out the fresco of Saint George and the princess by Pisanello. It is high up in the Pellegrini chapel, to the right of the high altar. One detail you will notice as soon as you enter the basilica are the hunchbacks which support the fonts, representing the efforts of the people of Verona to build the church. And it is said that touching their humps brings good luck!
San Fermo, the church within a church
As you walk down the river, right next to the Ponte Navi bridge is the church of San Fermo, a fine example of north Italian Gothic style. The upper, built with alternating courses of bricks and blocks of tuff stone, conceals inside a small Benedictine church from the Roman era. The lower church, very sober and austere, contrasts starkly with the richly frescoed upper section, and contains the relics of the martyrs Saints Firmus and Rusticus, killed in 304 AD on the banks of the Adige. If you look higher up inside the upper church you will see the most notable part of this church: a spectacular wooden ceiling in the form of an upside-down ship’s hull, a real one of a kind, more than 53 metres long and decorated with the faces of 416 saints.
Entrance to these four churches for worship or religious purposes is always free of church.
Visitors are asked to pay a modest entrance fee, which is used to ensure the continued preservation and availability of these precious buildings.
Entrance to one church: €3.
All-in-one ticket for entrance to all four churches: €6 (€5 concessions).
For more information, visit: www.chieseverona.it
The view of the bell towers from the Opera Don Calabria
If you want to see all of Verona’s churches from above, there is a fantastic vantage point far from the crowds from the terrace of Opera Don Calabria. A walk above Giardino Giusti which is well worth the effort. It offers a unique view of the bell towers sticking up above the rest of the city.
It makes for a fantastic photo of the city of love’s skyline. Do you want to explore more of Verona’s churches? I would recommend to anyone interested in churches, history and religious sites to take the tours of Verona Minor Hierusalem. An association of volunteers which promotes churches which have virtually been forgotten, along itineraries to enrich your knowledge of our culture, faith and history.