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The Great Churches of Italy

No visit to Italy would be complete without stopping by some of the most beautiful cathedrals and churches in the world. Even if you’re not religious, these architectural masterpieces demand your attention just due to their history and their majesty. Let’s take a look at some of them and why you should include these stops in your tourist itinerary.

Your first stop should be in Monte Cassino at the Basilica Cathedral. Situated inside the Abbey of Monte Cassino located beween Rome and Naples, this historical place has seen the best and the worst of humanity over the centuries. The Abbey itself was founded in 529 AD by St. Benedict on the exact spot that used to be used by Greeks to worship the God Apollo. Over the years the Abbey itself has been destroyed and rebuilt no less than five times due to armed strife in the area, with the Basilica receiving damage over the years as well.

Abbey of Monte Cassino

The Basilica itself was consecrated in 1071 AD and has been rebuilt over the years, unfortunately at the loss of some of the historical frescos and canvas paintings on the walls due to damage too great to repair. But you can still see such wonders as “The Glory of St. Benedict” by P. Annigoni, taking up forty square feet and depicting St. Benedict and his followers. For trivia buffs there are also included three Popes in the foreground of this fresco – St. Gregory the Great, Pope Paul VI and St. Victor III. Why these three, you ask? Well, St. Gregory is known as the author of the first biography of St. Benedict.

Pope Paul VI not only declared St. Benedict to be the Patron Saint of Europe, but also reconsacrated the Basilica in 1964 after yet another major round of reconstructions, this from the ravages of World War II. And St. Victor III was also known as Abbot Desiderius, a major factor in the growth of Monte Cassino as a religious center in the 12th century.

The Abbey itself is still alive and thriving, allowing visitors to take a look inside the monastic life. Although certain areas have been restricted from the public, you can still enjoy the historical and spiritual aspects of this grand Cathedral and the surrounding area. But if you go please respect their privacy as you visit their home and their place of worship.

The Basilica of St. Francis is another wonderful visit into the past, situated in Assisi. Built in 1228, this Basilica sits on a hill that was originally called the “Hill of Hell” because it was used as a site to execute criminals. Of course, later on it became known as the “Hill of Heaven” when St. Francis’ body was laid to rest on that site.

san fancis chrch assisi
Basilica S Francesco -Assisi

Construction started a mere two years after the death of St. Francis, uncommon at the time. But the enthusiasm of the people to create the masterpiece pushed them to complete the lower Church in just two years, an amazing feat for that era. This enabled them to bring the body of St. Francis from where it had been resting in the Church of St. George to a new and permanent home. There are three parts to the church – the Upper and Lower Basilica and the tomb of St. Francis itself, which is situated under the Lower Basilica. In 1997 there was an earthquake that damaged some parts of the Basilica, but repairs were able to be done quickly and efficiently and were finished within two years.

When you visit the Basilica you’ll be enthralled with a variety of paintings that match any museum in the world. Inside the Lower Basilica you can see the famous “Madonna with Child” by Cimabue. Other works can be seen in the vault and sprinkled through the Upper Basilica as well, dating all the way back to 1277.

Giotto and his assistant painted twenty-eight frescos in the Upper Basilica, all taken from the life of St. Francis. His artwork is also found in the Lower Basilica along with other famous artists of that time period.

Public tours are available for groups or you can take a private one yourself, walking through the Basilica where so many others have tread. A small giftshop can provide a guidebook for you to thumb through while experiencing the vivid paintings and frescos, detailing the history of each and their place in the grand display around you.

For a final stop, why not visit the oldest church in Florence? San Lorenzo in Florence was consecrated by St. Amrose in 393 AD and remained much the same until the beginning of the 15th century when it was rebuilt in the Renaissance style that was so popular. The first thing you may notice when approaching this church is the bare facade – believe it or not, Michelango was supposed to paint these blank stones but the designs were never completed! Inside the church itself you can view many historical masterpieces, including such pieces as “The Wedding of the Virgin” by Fiorentino and “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” by Bronzino.

Attached to the Church itself is the Canons’ Cloister and the Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana, added in the 15th century. The cloister offers a quiet place to sit and contemplate life with a beautiful garden while the Biblioteca is exactly what you think it is – a library of ancient texts. While you can’t “check out” any of the manuscripts, it’s a testament to the Renaissance that these ancient works were preserved for posterity.

There is much, much more that each of these Churches has to offer, but there’s only so much space here! From beautiful frescos to historical reconstruction to ancient texts, these churches offer the visitor a plethora of visual and spiritual experiences like no other. No matter your religious affiliation, these stops will intrigue and thrill you as you travel around Italy.

By Sheryl Nantus

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