Romanesque Art in Southern Italy

In Italy, the Pisan Romanesque style extended up to Sardinia by those times a colony of Pisa. The Pisan style influence was apparent even in great Tuscan cities like Florence and Siena. In the hills across the Arno River in Tuscany, near Florence, stands the church of San Miniato al Monte from the eleventh century. This church is divided into three naves by columns of classical proportions and gives the impression of an early Christian basilica. The elegant altar standing before the crypt was added during the sixteenth century. This church of San Miniato has a beautiful Byzantine mosaic over the facade’s pediment and the building is regarded as a beautiful jewel of the Italian Romanesque architecture.

The basilica of San Miniato al Monte (Florence, central Italy) built in 1018 is considered one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany.
Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, interior with the apse and the central nave.
The Byzantine mosaic on the facade of San Miniato al Monte.

Another archaeological enigma are the beautiful churches of Tuscania. One of them, St. Peter, is mentioned in a document of the year 628; the other church, St. Mary, seems older though both were restored around the eleventh century during the height of the Lombard artistic influence. The interior of these churches (very similar to each other) has a strong medieval look. The exterior of the Tuscania churches is more suggestive than their interior; in their facades of white marble are embedded fragments of reliefs, both Barbarian and Byzantine in style, which were taken from older Lombard churches.

The rose window and the loggetta of the church of St. Peter in Tuscania (province of Viterbo, Lazio Region, Italy).
Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Tuscania, (Province of Viterbo, Region of Lazio, Italy) consecrated in 1206. It is very similar to the nearby church of St. Peter (see picture above).
Detail of a Cosmatesque floor in the church of the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome.

In this period begun to form the Roman school of marble craftsmen and decorators called the School of the Cosmati, because for several generations most of the masters in this art came from the Cosma (Cosme) family. The art of these Roman marble craftsmen is of great originality. In order to perform their job, they owned large blocks of porphyry and red granite slabs, which at that time could only be found in Rome because before they used to be part of some ancient Roman baths and villas’ floors. The Cosmati cut these blocks in circles or squares and then applied them on the surfaces forming central rosettes in the main axis of a church, while for the rest of the surfaces they designed interlocking mosaic friezes in marble also carved into regular shapes. Many churches of Rome received this decoration, which sometimes involved a great deal of manual work since some were destined for huge basilicas occupying vast areas. These marble craftsmen also embellished churches of Rome and surrounding areas with “liturgical furniture” decorated with strips of mosaics made in shiny marbles and gold. The chandeliers that they forged as Easter candle holders are particularly wonderful; their ambon*, held on rich ancient columns, and spandrels in mosaic are also famous, as well as their lecterns* decorated with eagles with wings wide open and that were used to hold ecclesiastical books. This artistic skill of the Roman marble craftsmen spread through southern Italy and northern Europe: for example, two tombs at Westminster Abbey in London were coated in this Cosmati style decoration or Cosmatesque.

Cosmatesque decoration from the cloisters of San Paolo fuori le Mura (Rome).
Detail of the Romanesque pulpit (ca. 1207) of the basilica of San Miniato al Monte (Florence).
The Cosmatesque pavement in front of the High Altar of the Westminster Abbey (ca. 1268) (London).
A Romanesque noble house in San Gimignano, XIth century (province of Siena, Tuscany, Italy).

Although many Italian Romanesque churches are well known, the private houses for human habitation are still in obscurity. The residences of noblemen were fortified, even those that were inside the city’s walls. In the Romanesque period, many houses of the nobility had as last refuge the square tower; in San Gimignano, near Florence, there are still several old houses with their square brick towers, thin and tall, without openings but only with some small arrowslits*. In Pisa, there is a “Street of the Towers”; in these cities surrounded by walls, towers came to be fortifications to help defend the city against foreign attacks. In Bologna there are two leaning adjacent towers looking in opposite directions (almost tangent between them) that once belonged to two feuding families. These towers stand as surviving witnesses of the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines, as well as are some well-preserved Romanesque castles with towers and large rooms covered with flat wooden ceilings.

Two famous towers from Romanesque noble houses in the city of Bologna (Emilia-Romagna Region, Italy). The 97-meter tower Asinelli and the 47-meter tower Garisenda.

In the territories ruled by the Southern Italian Norman kings, the Byzantine influence was less noticeable than in Sicily; instead, they received some Lombard influence which extended southward along the Adriatic shore. San Nicolas de Bari, the great cathedral of Apulia, is Lombard in structure and decoration with large arches applied on the outer walls.

The Basilica di San Nicola (Bari, southern Italy) consecrated in 1197.
Interior of the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari showing the compound pillars typical of Lombard architecture.

On the facades’ doors of the great churches of Southern Italy, the decorative elements multiply and bands carved with reliefs overlapped on the archivolts in a way that almost predicted the exuberance of the future Baroque. The doors of the Altamura church give a clear idea of this Romanesque decorative style typical of southern Italy with their adjacent columns supported by lions.

Main portal of the Altamura Cathedral (Altamura, province of Bari, Apulia, southern Italy).

In addition to decorative sculpture, another monumental sculptural art is found in the small reliefs of the ambon, chandeliers and altars of the churches south of Rome. The pulpit of the Cathedral of Salerno, from the late twelfth century, is decorated at the corners with figures like caryatids; in its capitals and arches’ spandrels there are angels in relief that seem to anticipate the Renaissance. Similar images are present in the ambo of Sessa Aurunca and in that of the Cava dei Tirreni Abbey, near Naples. But the masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture in Southern Italy is the wonderful ivory altar of the cathedral of Salerno, a gem made of small ivory squares placed together to depict biblical scenes. This altar was later dismantled to be partially reconstructed, so it is unknown what the original disposition of its marbles could have been.

One of the Romanesque pulpits of the Salerno Cathedral (Salerno, southern Italy).
The pulpit of the church of St. Peter and St. Paul of Sessa Aurunca (Campania, Italy).
The beautiful main altar and crypt from the St. Matthew Cathedral in Salerno (Italy).

Thus, a school of Romanesque sculpture independent from that of Byzantium formed in Southern Italy. This is of great importance, particularly for the development of Gothic art in Italy, because the southern regions of the Italian peninsula seem to have anticipated significantly in their artistic development towards Gothic art.

During the Romanesque period some interesting sculpture was produced in the north of the Italian peninsula, but perhaps less original than those from the south. Some of them seem simple Italian interpretations of Byzantine models such as the Ivory of the Museum of Bologna. Some others, however, are cold imitations of Germanic sculptures, such as the silver front piece of Citta di Castello. But some of these Italian northern sculptures are indisputable masterpieces of European Romanesque art such as the marble door of San Zeno of Verona from around 1140 by masters Niccolo and Guglielmo, as well as the sculptures, full of freshness and popular spirit, that Benedetto Antelami executed in the late twelfth century for the baptistery of Parma and for the “Porta dei Mesi” of the cathedral of Ferrara.

The beautifully carved marble doors of the Basilica of San Zeno of Verona (Northern Italy).
The “Cycle of Months”, a group of high reliefs created by Benedetto Antelami (c. 1150 – c. 1230) to decorate the Baptistery in Parma, a masterpiece of the Romanesque-Gothic style built between the 12th and the 13th century.
Details of the reliefs from the “Porta dei Mesi” on the south side of the Cathedral of Ferrara (northern Italy) made by Benedetto Antelami. Antelami’s sculptures and reliefs are characteristic for their realism and the strong emotions depicting within the context of the formal artistic concepts prevalent at his time.


          Ambon or Ambo: From the greek meaning “step” or “elevate”, a pulpit or lectern in a church, the official term for Catholic pulpits.



Lectern: (From the Latin lectus, past participle of legere, “to read”) is a reading desk, with a slanted top, usually placed on a stand or affixed to some other form of support, on which documents or books are placed as support for reading aloud, as in a scripture reading, lecture, or sermon.


Arrowslit: A thin vertical aperture in a fortification through which an archer can launch arrows.


9 thoughts on “Romanesque Art in Southern Italy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s