Casertavecchia cathedral: diversity of styles on the Tifatini mountains

by Maria Carmela Cato

The cathedral of Casertavecchia, also known as Cathedral of San Michele Arcangelo, is dedicated to the holy warrior chosen by Longobardi as its patron saint and stands on the ground previously occupied by a temple, the foundations of which were found in the twentieth century.

The main material used for the construction of the Casertavecchia cathedral is tuff. The Duomo overlooks a rectangular square which has four granite columns at the corners, indicating the right of asylum of the church. Next to the Casertavecchia cathedral, which is located in the center of the medieval village, are the bishop's palace, the seminary and the rectory.

Facciata principale della cattedrale di Casertavecchia con il campanile - foto di Federico Quagliuolo
Main facade of the Casertavecchia cathedral with the bell tower - photo by Federico Quagliuolo

Casertavecchia cathedral: exterior

The construction of the Casertavecchia cathedral, as you can read from the marble tombstones placed on the three portals of the main facade, is due to the bishop Rainulf who began the work, to the bishop Nicholas I who continued them and to the bishop John I. which ended them.

The frontispiece is triangular and is decorated with intertwined pointed arches resting on six white marble columns, this motif returns in the transept, in the first floor and in the crowning of the bell tower. The façade of the cathedral has many animal figures, which according to medieval beliefs based on allegory, symbolized the faith in Christ.

The main portal is surmounted by a large window with an archivolt placed on shelves supported by Corinthian columns, which rest on two style lions Como-Apulian. The original building, with a basilica plan, of which there is the division into three naves, which correspond to the three external portals, was built on Cassinese model between 1113 and 1153, while the architectural elements were added in different phases.

The tribury represents one of the most important testimonies of the architectural decorations of ancestry Arab-Norman, as it is decorated with polychrome elements using stones in two-colored tuff, is divided into two parts, both characterized by intertwined arches, which in the first order overlap the windows.

The fake loggia on the inner band is decorated with Floreal patterns. The dome of the cathedral is conical in shape and is one of the most important examples of art Sicilian-Campania and it is a few years after the testimonies of the cathedrals of Ravello and Salerno.

In the last restoration of the 1930 the cathedral of Casertavecchia has been deprived of its baroque decorations, with the exception of the chapel of the Rosary, to restore its original medieval aspect.

Casertavecchia cathedral: the bell tower

The bell tower of the cathedral of Casertavecchia it was built in 1234 at the behest of the Bishop Andrew, it's tall 32 meters, has a square plan divided into five orders, of which the first acts as arch of access to the square.

The second, third and fourth orders each have one mullioned window for each side. Furthermore, the fourth floor is decorated with marble elements such as a human figure with a dove in his hands, virile heads and a bearded head made of tuff. The fifth order, on the other hand, is octagonal in shape with turrets at the corners.

Originally, the bell tower was more slender, with a pyramidal roof of 7 meters and four conical pinnacles placed on the corner turrets. L'current structure it dates back to the 18th century, at the time of the bishop Domenico Pignatelli. The two bells on the second floor date back to 1856 and 1958, while on the third floor there is the oldest bell, which dates back to 1577.

At the top of the pointed arch of the first order, the figure of a harpy can be observed and under the arch we find two tombstones that commemorate two important events for the community of ancient Caserta: on the left we remember the passage of the pope Benedetto XIII Orsini in 1729 and on the right tombstone theeruption of Vesuvius of 2 August 1707 which with its ashes darkened the sky above Casertavecchia for 11 hours.

Casertavecchia cathedral: the interior

Inside, the plan of the Casertavecchia cathedral is a Latin cross with three naves separated by ten arches on columns different from each other in height, material and structure, as they are bare columns, and the transept divides the naves from the three semicircular apses.

The central nave exceeds the lateral ones in height and the transept, in its central part, has a dome placed on an octagonal drum that dominates the surrounding space. The ceiling of the naves is a wooden trusses, while the cross vaults of the transept are in tuff and rectangular in shape. The floor is made of limestone slabs and is connected to the apse by five steps.

The interior of the Casertavecchia cathedral currently appears to us a lot austereThis is because both the medieval frescoes and the Baroque-style stuccos have been lost. The windows are unadorned and the column capitals are all in style Corinthian, except for one in the Ionic style, and are decorated with a foliage motif, except for three medieval capitals, recognizable as they are carved only on the side facing the central nave, moreover most of the columns are smooth and in gray cipollino marble.

Entering, on the right, in the first arch, there is the chapel of baptismal font, dating back to the fourteenth century, the original destination of the chapel is not known, it was most likely destined for the cult of San Cristoforo, in fact, in the Middle Ages it was believed that by turning one's gaze towards the saint one was protected from death without confession.

Near the pulpit, we find a fresco of the Sienese school of the fourteenth century depicting the Our Lady of Grace, the Virgin is seated and holds the blessing Jesus in her arms, who holds a scroll in her left hand. At the bottom right, it is possible to see some joined hands, most likely by the same client, according to a typical iconography of the time.

Having climbed the steps leading to the right transept, we find the tomb of Marco Antonio Alois, chaplain of Pope Julius II Della Rovere, while in the left transept the sarcophagus of Francesco de la Rath, count of Caserta in the fourteenth century, represented by a canopy and supported by two twisted columns and decorated in the center of the tympanum with the family crest or a rampant lion with the count's crown on the head and on the shoulders a strip with three glazed bands.

At the bottom of the left aisle we find the chapel of the Rosary, commissioned by the bishop Giuseppe Schinosi in the seventeenth century, inside which there is also his tomb, which modified the original structure of the cathedral, changing its style from medieval to baroque.

The exterior has a conical stepped roof, the interior, in the past completely frescoed, today is decorated by the polychrome marble altar and the canvas depicting the "Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic, Catherine of Siena, Rose and Pius V", by an unknown eighteenth-century Neapolitan.

At the entrance to the chapel, on the left, there is the Sacra Olea, dating back to the 14th - 15th centuries, a marble slab with two trumpeter angels carved in bas-relief, on the sides of the door four praying angels and at the bottom two door-holding cherubs, on the sides of the latter two crusader coats of arms surmounted by a miter.

Starting from the sixteenth century, most of the population of Casertavecchia began to transfer their civil and economic interests to the Torre village, located in the plain, a residential area that would later give rise to the current Caserta.

In the early 1600s the bishop Diodato Gentile moved the bishopric to Falciano, current fraction of Caserta, in the Palazzo della Cavallerizza, while in 1842 the Cathedral with the Chapter was also transferred to the new Cathedral of Caserta.

Bibliography

Izzo, M., Caserta and its cathedrals, Diocese of Caserta, Cultural Heritage Office, 2005

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