Where can you see some of the finest Romanesque architecture in northern Italy? Where will you find spectacular frescoes, peaceful cloisters, and more? And where were Shakespeare’s most famous lovers married? The answer to all of these questions is the Basilica of San Zeno, Verona.
A Masterpiece Of Romanesque Architecture
The original church was built in the 5th century to house the remains of Saint Zeno. Later a monastery was founded on the site, and a larger church was built to cater for pilgrims. The current church of San Zeno Maggiore dates from the 12th century, and was completed in 1398.
The basilica, with its striped exterior of brick and stone, is regarded as one of the most magnificent Romanesque churches in the north of Italy. The interior, built on three levels, is full of frescoes and other art works. The church has a cloister and a separate bell tower.
Exploring San Zeno Maggiore
The church is built on three levels, with the main floor, crypt and a raised presbytery. The nave is full of medieval frescoes, some of them painted on top of one another. The altarpiece is a 15th century triptych by Andrea Mantegna.
A particular feature of the basilica is the bronze doors. Created over a period of several centuries in the middle ages, these consist of 48 separate panels featuring images of saints and other figures.
Look out, too, for the massive 12th century rose window. This is known as the Ruota della Fortuna (Wheel of Fortune).
An Ancient Crypt
The crypt is the oldest part of the basilica, with its origins in the 10th century. It is architecturally interesting in its own right, with arches, columns and stone carvings. Here you can see the sarcophagus that houses the remains of San Zeno.
Who Was San Zeno?
San Zeno is the patron saint of Verona (and also of fishermen and new born babies). Born in North Africa around 300 CE, he moved to Verona as a monk and later became a bishop. He is believed to have converted the city to Christianity.
Not much is known about San Zeno’s life although he is the subject of numerous legends. These include a story that he was swapped with a changeling at birth! What is more certain is that his relics are still in the church, his face covered by a silver mask.
The Romeo And Juliet Church
Wherever you go in Verona, you will see references to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The Basilica of San Zeno is sometimes known as the “Romeo and Juliet church”. This is because their wedding is supposed to have taken place in the crypt.
I’m not sure where this tradition comes from: the play just tells us that the lovers were married in Friar Lawrence’s cell. However, the dark recesses of the crypt do seem to be an appropriate setting for a clandestine ceremony.
The Monastery And The Bell Tower
To the left of the basilica are the tower and the cloister that are all that remain of the Benedictine monastery, which closed in 1770. The 14th century cloister has frescoes on its walls. It also has an unusual portico jutting into the grass (apparently this is where the monks would once wash themselves).
And to the right hand side is the campanile (or bell tower), housed in a separate building. Completed in 1178, the Romanesque-style tower includes arches, columns and Roman sculptures.
How To Visit The Basilica Of San Zeno
The Basilica of San Zeno is a 20 minute walk from the Roman arena. It is also a stop on the Hop On Hop Off Bus route.
Entrance to the Cloister is free. Tickets are required for the Basilica, but there is no charge if you have a Verona Card.