The Old Cathedral (Duomo Vecchio), also known as La Rotonda because of its round layout and officially as the Winter Co-Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, is a Romanesque church in Brescia. The Old Cathedral is located near the New Cathedral (Duomo Nuovo), in Piazza Paolo VI.
The history of the Old Cathedral begins with the demolition of the ancient Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore de Dom, an early Christian structure built perhaps in the 7th century. The construction of the cathedral began in the 11th century and was completed in the first half of the 12th century.
Towards the end of the 13th century, Berardo Maggi, bishop of Brescia, made an enlargement of the presbytery and had the interiors decorated.
Between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, the architect Bernardino da Martinengo extended the presbytery to the east, covering it with cross vaults in Gothic style. Around the same time, the transept was also added, completed with the Chapel of the Holy Crosses on the left side.
In this phase of construction, Filippo Grassi, the future architect of the Palazzo della Loggia, also participated. The keystones are the work of the sculptor Gasparo Cairano, while Vincenzo Civerchio frescoed the walls of the church with the Stories of the Virgin, later lost.
Beginning with 1571, the reorganization of the church was made according to the directives of the Counter-Reformation, supervised by the architect Giovanni Maria Piantavigna. He, for reasons of symmetry with the already present Chapel of the Holy Crosses, built a new chapel dedicated to Santa Giustina on the right side of the transept, which later changed its name to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
At the end of the 19th century, the Duomo underwent a radical restoration, under the direction of the architect Luigi Arcioni.
Due to its characteristics and to the very high degree of conservation of its original structures, the Old Cathedral of Brescia ranks among the most important examples of Romanesque round churches in Italy.
The large cylindrical structure of the church is composed of regular blocks of limestone, interrupted by single lancet windows with round arches arranged on three different levels – the first on the walls of the ambulatory, the second at the base of the central cylinder and the third on the top of the latter, where the mullioned windows are replaced, towards north, south and east, by circular oculi.
The central cylinder is also decorated with thin pilasters arranged at regular intervals and crowned by a terracotta frieze with small arches, typical of the decorative art of the period.
In line with the presbytery, there is the entrance to the co-cathedral, which was built in 1571. The entrance is decorated with a marble portal in Baroque style, with a semicircular tympanum above, surmounted by a cornice.
The interior of the church is subdivided into various areas placed on several levels. Characterized by the sober solemnity of Romanesque architecture, it owes its present appearance to the 19th-century restoration work of Luigi Arcioni.
From the raised entrance, through the stairs built by the Piantavigna, you can descend into the circular ambulatory. The ambulatory is separated from the central nucleus, known as the Platea di Santa Maria (Auditorium of Santa Maria), by eight imposing pillars that support the large dome above.
From the auditorium, you can climb some steps to the presbitery, or descend into the Crypt of San Filastrio, the oldest structure preserved in the church, part of the ancient Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore de Dom.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Old Cathedral of Brescia is located about 1.2 kilometers from the Brescia railway station. The closest Metro station is Vittoria, located about 290 meters away. The closest bus stop is in Piazza Martiri di Belfiore, about 200 meters away, on the bus Lines 2, 6, 10, 11, 17 and 18.