THE CHURCH OF SAN LORENZO - CATHEDRAL
The church stands on the hill of the Cathedral and is believed to have been the first inhabited nucleus of the city of Viterbo, with people living there since Etruscan times. The name of the pagus which was active in the V and IV century B.C. is not known to us. It might have been Surna, referring to the God of the underworld Suri whose presence was justified, according to popular belief, by the sulphurous emissions which are present in this area. An unconfirmed legend has it that a pagan temple in honour of Hercules stood on the ancient “castrum”. This theory is backed up by the pieces of marble and the fragments of inscriptions which were discovered in the second half of the last century. In the times of the barbaric invasions the Vetus Urbs resumed its primitive role of a safe refuge and became the “Castrum Biterbi”, the first nucleus of the expanding Medieval Viterbo. Therefore the cathedral stands on the ruins of that pagan temple dedicated to Hercules of which we are symbolically reminded today in the city’s crest. The first mention of the church, which was at that time a simple parish church, dates back to the year 805 in a document in the Farfa Register “plebem S. Laurentii infra castrum quid dicitur Viterbium”. 1192 was the official year of the consecration. It was erected as a Diocesan see. The city’s most splendid period was in the last half of the XIII century when it hosted the Pontifical court and was the stage for events of European importance. We particularly remember the curse that Clement IV made against the Swabians on the day before Good Friday in 1268, when Corradino, the last of the Hoenstaufen, led his armies over the horizon of the plain below the Bulicame on 22th July. Later on, Clement IV expressed pity for this young man “who went away like a lamb being led to the slaughter.” In the second half of the XIV century the bell-tower was rebuilt in a Gothic style with a Tuscany influence. The restoration and extension works carried out in the XV-XVI centuries were headed by, among others, the architect Maestro Danese di Cecco of Viterbo, Bishop Sebastiano Gualtiero and Cardinal Giovan Francesco De Gambara, who is to be thanked for the re-modelling of the ancient Romanesque façade. Other modifications in the second half of the seventeenth century would bring about, as was the fashion of that time, the hiding of the last traces of the medieval church. The cathedral suffered serious damage during the air-raids of May 1944 and was subsequently restored in the ancient Romanesque style, with the closing off of the Canonic chapel behind the central apse and the side chapels which were created in the late sixteenth century by the architect Ludovico Contorno. The demolition of the vaults brought the trusses of the roof to light. On one of them we can now see the words: “Anno Domini MCCCCLX tempore pape Pii II hoc opus fecit magister Paulus Mattie et Santes”.
The church of San Lorenzo is the result of a long series of interventions which have considerably changed its original Romanesque plan. Extensive work was carried out after the bombings of 1944 with a radical neo-medieval conception leaving its mark and bringing about the elimination of the baroque vault with the Glory of Saint Lawrence painted by Urbano Romanelli and the plugging of eight of the ten side chapels built in the sixteenth century. The structure is now set out in a Basilican plan with a nave and two aisles separated by two rows of columns that hold up round arches This support system is all that remains of the remarkable building erected in the XII century. The basis follows the requirements of the classic attic model as do the refined capitals which are the work of the several renowned engravers which were inspired by the Corinthian or composite models. In the central nave we can still see the original Cosmati style floor, even though work was carried out on it during a restoration in 1876 and many of its stone elements were substituted. The first chapel in the right-hand aisle is dedicated to Saint Catherine (1) and decorated with an exquisite frescoed cycle where we can find the Virgin enthroned with Child in the episode of the Mystic Wedding of St. Catherine, a Saint (St. Agatha?), St. Ambrose and St. Peter Martyr at the sides, and St. Francis and St. Bernard, in the upper register. The cultural milieu of the Perugino with influences from Anonimo Antoniazzesco leads to the attribution of the cycle to Antonio del Massaro, also known as “Pastura”. The rose window which illuminates the chapel was saved from the medieval ancient façade of the church. The Bonaparte chapel can be reached from this room. It is in a state of neglect and houses the remains of the tomb of Letizia Bonaparte, the cousin of Napoleon III, who is portrayed in a bust by the celebrated Sienese sculptor Giovanni Duprè (1817-1882), which today is on display in the adjacent Museum del Colle del Duomo. The monumental marble baptismal font (2) by Francesco d’Ancona (1470) can be found in the right-hand aisle. The small temple with its triangular base over the basin is covered by a small dome with imitation lead sheets. The three sides are decorated in bas-relief with the figures of the Saints John the Baptist and the two Patron Saints of Viterbo, Ilario and Valentino. On the wall we can see a canvas portraying the Decollation of St. John the Baptist, a work by Anton Angelo Bonifazi. Then we can see the Sacred Family and St. Bernardine (3) by Giovan Francesco Romanelli (1612-1662) and the tomb of Cardinal Matteo Eustachio Gonnella (who died in 1870). In the same aisle we can find the chapel of the Saints Ilario and Valentino (4), which was designed in 1696 by the architect Giovan Battista Contini and decorated by Ludovico Mazzanti, the creator of the canvas showing the martyrdom of the two saints, which stands on the altar. Francesco Ferranti, also known as “L’Imperiali”, painted the canvases showing the martyrdom scenes of the two saints portrayed on the side walls (1740) and in the dome we can see the Evangelists painted by the more modest Maestro Giovan Battista Mari of Viterbo. Two small canvases can be seen between the side columns which are said to portray the two patron Saints whose remains are kept in two silver containers in an urn which is visible behind the metal door in the left-hand wall. In the same aisle we can also see a canvas by Marco Benefial portraying St. Lawrence administering the Communion, and one by Vincenzo Strigelli (XVIII century.), (1684-1764) with St. Bartholomew (which was removed and can now be seen in the adjacent Museum). Behind the main altar (5), there is a small door (which is usually kept closed) leading to the so-called Big chapel (the Chorus of the Canons) which was erected in the sixteenth century by Bishop Sebastiano Gualterio and decorated with the pictures by Giuseppe Passeri (1610-1689), which are partly covered by the fake-medieval apse built following the restorations carried out after the 1944 bombings; the altar is covered by the altar cloth portraying St. Lawrence in glory by Giovan Francesco Romanelli (1648) commissioned by Cardinal Brancaccio in 1641. In the second aisle, in the small apse, we can see the remains of frescoes from the XIV century (6) portraying the Saints Paul and Peter. To one side of these there is a remnant of the gridiron which documents the presence of St Lawrence. The tablet of the Madonna della Carbonara (XII century) used to be found here but has now also been placed in the Museum. A tabernacle from the XVI century with the words Sacra Olea sec. is inserted in the wall. On the wall, after many vicissitudes, the tomb of Pope Giovanni XXI was inserted (Pietro di Giuliano of Lisbon1271-1277, the Pietro Ispano in Dante’s Divine Comedy) (7). He was elected Pope in 1276 in Viterbo and died the following year after his chamber in the adjoining Papal Palace collapsed. On the walls of the aisle, just beyond the entrance leading to the Chapterhouse we can see two canvases: one of St. Lawrence (Benefial, 1684-1764) and the other of Blessed Domenico Barberi (1792-1849) by an anonymous artist. In the middle of the aisle we find the St. Lucia chapel (8), commissioned by the Bussi family in the XVI century, and decorated by Paolo Guidotti da Lucca at the beginning of the seventeenth century. On the altar we can see a canvas of the Madonna with Child and St. Lucia by Ludovico Mazzanti. In this chapel we can also see a wonderful XVII century wooden crucifix. The sacristy (9) contains beautiful wooden furnishing commissioned by Cardinal Muzio Gallo in the eighteenth century. The sacristy door is decorated by a beautiful marble portrait of the wealthy client (who died in 1801) sculpted by Agostino Penna. Further along the left-hand aisle we find an exquisite tablet dated at 1472 (attributed to Gerolamo da Cremona) portraying the Redeemer and the Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Leonard and Peter Martyr (10) along with a canvas by Carlo Maratta (11) (1625-1713) with St. Lawrence and the poor. The remains of some frescoes of the XIV century have come to light near the entrance on the contra-façade (12), among which the Madonna enthroned with Child is particularly noteworthy.
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