Renaissance Verona: Giovanni Maria Falconetto and the Chapel of San Biagio in the Church of Santi Nazaro e Celso

Church of Saints Nazaro and Celso

The chapel of San Biagio in the church of Santi Nazaro e Celso, in via Muro Padri, Verona, preserves some of the city’s most important examples of Renaissance painting. Giovanni Maria Falconetto (1468-1534) designed the chapel and created its decorative programme, beginning the latter in 1497.

Renaissance in Verona
Church of Saints Nazaro and Celso, chapel of San Biagio

Although Francesco and Domenico Morone also contributed to the painted decoration, Falconetto was the only one to sign the work, printing his name twice in capital letters, in one case beneath the figure of St Luke in his guise as a painter. His work as an architect was closely tied to his association with Melozzo da Forlì and Pinturicchio and the influence of their new approaches and ideas. The innovative aspects of his work partly reflect modern models found in central Italy, while others were drawn from the Byzantine domes in and around Ravenna, well documented in the gallery of apostles at the base of the drum of the dome.

Gian Maria Falconetto
Gian Maria Falconetto, San Luca, detail

Falconetto then continued his activity in Verona working in the cathedral, where he is documented between 1500 and 1503, working first in the Cappella Maffei and then in the Cappella Calcasoli. The predominance of fictive architecture in his frescoes reveals their utopian character, almost as if they were pages in a weighty treatise on architectural design. The buildings are rich and imaginative, and filled with all’antica details, but the figures that populate them are often isolated and inserted into narrow niches. Falconetto packed his paintings with archaeological finds, with the spirit of a discoverer and collector similar to the one that underpins the work of humanists like Felice Feliciano and celebrated artists like Andrea Mantegna, who painted the San Zeno Altarpiece between 1457 and 1459.

Renaissance in Verona
Gian Maria Falconetto, lunette of the northern wall

Falconetto painted all the lunettes on the south and north walls. The figures of saints are among his best work as a painter, flanked by numerous monochrome Biblical friezes. On the north wall, around three putti playing musical instruments, we find Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and the Sacrifice of Isaac. Whereas Falconetto decorated with south wall with a sea thiasus loaded with evocative iconography and inspired by Mantegna’s Battle of the Sea Gods and the ancient sarcophagi he had seen in Rome.

Gian Maria Falconetto
Gian Maria Falconetto, frieze with marine thiasus, detail

The painter filled the entire middle register of the chapel with an exhaustive display of his antiquarian knowledge, with a meticulousness as yet unknown in Verona. In Rome, Falconetto’s attention had been concentrated on the more easily accessible vestiges of ancient sculpture: sarcophagi (many of which reused in churches as funerary monuments, baptismal fonts and altars or to decorate piazzas) and reliefs on triumphal monuments, in particular the Arch of Constantine. Falconetto therefore favoured traditional decoration with monochrome motifs that imitated the sculpted marble, friezes and candelabra prized in 15th-century humanist circles.

Renaissance in Verona
Gian Maria Falconetto, lunette of the southern wall, detail

The whole chapel was conceived during the humanistic period when attention to Greco-Latin classicism prevailed. The inscriptions, written in the style of Roman capitals, addressed an elite audience of men-of-letters well versed in ancient literary sources, as indicated by the inclusion of the mask of Jupiter Ammon in the keystone of one of the chapel’s fictive painted arches.

Gian Maria Falconetto
Gian Maria Falconetto, mask of Jupiter Ammon

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FrescosReligious architectureRenaissanceVenetoVerona