The San Zeno Maggiore Basilica in Verona is considered a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque art. The main attraction is the altarpiece “San Zeno”, painted by Andrea Mantegna. Saint Zeno himself is buried in the church. On the portal events from both the Old and the New Testament are depicted.
San Zeno Maggiore Basilica Verona
Address, opening hours and entrance fee
Address: Piazza San Zeno. Telephone: +39 045592813.Opening Hours: March-October: 08.30-18.00 (Sundays and public holidays: 12.30-18.00); November-February: 10.00-17.00 (Sundays and public holidays: 12.30-17.00). Closed: Mondays. Entrance fee: 2,50 Euro. Children 0-11: Free of charge. Combi-ticket: Cathedral, San Zeno, Sant’Anastasia and San Fermo Maggiore: 6 Euro. Free with Verona Card.
The San Zeno Maggiore Basilica was founded by Pepin of Italy (son of Charlemagne and king of Lombardy) towards the end of the 8th century. (An earlier version of the church may have already existed).
The church was built on the site where the tomb of the patron saint of Verona was kept. San Zeno had been worshipped here since the 5th century.
When the Adige overflowed in 589, the water stopped exactly at the church door.
The current Romanesque appearance of the church is the result of a renovation after the earthquake of 1117. The apse was rebuilt towards the end of the 14th century and is Gothic in style.
The tuff stone façade is characterised by a row of red marble bifora’s that divide the church into two levels. The huge rose window was adde in the 13th century. This “Wheel of Fortune” was made by Brioloto and decorated with 6 statues symbolizing the different stages in the life of man.
The protiro was designed and made in 1138 by Nicolò and his helpers. The door is flanked by two lions. The arch is decorated with plant and animal motifs and statues of saints. The months are depicted on the sides. In the lunette the saint himself is depicted, with some of the miracles he performed.
The portal is a typical example of Romanesque sculpture. Both halves are decorated with 24 bronze formella’s (small square reliefs). On the left door are New Testament events, plus one mask. On the right half are 18 events from the Old Testament, together with 4 events from the life of San Zeno, one from the life of San Michele and another mask. Smaller formella’s on the inside show kings, saints and a sculptor at work.
To the left of the protiro are reliefs depicting events from the book of Genesis. This relief was made by Guglielmo in the 12th century. Also depicted here is a legend with Theodoric as protagonist. Its maker is unknown. On the other side of the door are events from the life of Jesus made by Nicolò. Scenes depicting battles between knights were made by an unknown artist.
The side walls of the basilica show stripes of alternating tuff and brick.
The interior is divided into three naves. The floor plan is that of a Greek cross. The naves are separated by cruciform pillars, interspersed with different types of columns. Some of the pillars originate from the Roman era. The wooden ceiling dates from the end of the 14th century.
Main works of art
There is a so-called ‘croce stazionale’, from the middle of the 14th century. This is a cross that was erected at a crossroads during plague epidemics and served as a kind of open-air church. The designer is Lorenzo Veneziano.
The octagonal baptistery is attributed to Brioloto.
The tub with a diameter of over two metres originally belonged to Roman thermal baths.
In terms of painting, the “Madonna with Child and Saints” triptych by Andrea Mantegna is the highlight of the basilica. The work, painted between 1457 and 1459, was robbed by the French in 1797. Most of the painting (with the exception of the predella) was later returned. The paintings that can now be seen on this predella are copies by Paolo Veronese.
The “Madonna and Saints” was painted by Francesco Torbido. A huge fresco from the 13th century depicts the “Saint Cristoforo”. The “Crucifixion” (late 14th century) was painted by pupils of Altichiero.
The red marble statue of a smiling San Zeno was made by a local 13th century artist.
The sarcophagus of three Veronese bishops (Lupicino, Lucillo and Crescenziano) was decorated by an anonymous artist in the 12th century with sculptures depicting events from the Gospel.
The apse has been protected with a fence since the 15th century. It is here that the relics of San Zeno are preserved.
The crypt dates back to the 13th century. It is characterized by 7 arches resting on capitals. The friezes of these arches were made by Adamino da San Giorgio. The frescoes date from the 13th and 14th centuries.
The bell tower is separate from the church itself. It stands on the right side of the facade and is 72 metres tall. Construction started in 1045. In 1120 the tower had to be restored. The earthquake of 1117 had caused too much damage. Like many buildings in Verona, the outer wall consists of alternating stripes of brick and tuff stone. Cornices divide the tower into storeys. The spire is located above a double row of triforas.
Already in Charlemagne’s time, there was a Benedictine monastery next to the basilica. This monastery was so important that a small town (Borgo San Zeno) developed around it. From the 10th century onwards, the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire often stayed in this monastery. It became an abbey, which was however suppressed in 1770. In the Napoleonic era it was demolished further and the material was used for new constructions. Only the tower and cloister survived the demolition.
The cloister is located to the left of the basilica and was built towards the end of the 3rd century. One of the walls around the square space probably dates from the early Middle Ages. Under the portico are fragments of paintings and sculptures. There are also several sarcophagi.
The tower is on the left side of the square. It is characterised by ghibelline battlements and was probably built between the 12th and 13th centuries. The interior is embellished by the fresco “Tribute of the People to the Imperial Power” (13th century).