Church of Santa Sofia
The oldest church in Padua, dedicated to Saint Sophia, was the original cathedral of Padua, built in the twelfth century on the site of a previous pagan temple.
According to tradition, the church was founded in the first century by San Prosdocimus, a disciple of Saint Peter, the first bishop of Padua and one of the city patrons together with Saint Anthony, Saint Justina, and Saint Daniel.
The church was built on the ruins of a Roman temple, probably dedicated to the Persian god Mithras. In the church’s basement are still visible the remains of Roman foundations and a sacrificial stone.
The current structure was erected in the twelfth century. It represents an important testimony of the Romanesque architecture in Veneto.
The first document in which the church is mentioned dates back to 1123 and refers to the delays in the completion of works caused by the devastating earthquake of 1117. But it was already a construction site since at least the ninth century, from when the semicircular apse is suspected to date along with the unfinished crypt.
The exterior is characterised by the use of exposed stone and brick. The facade was constructed from 1106 to 1127. Nowadays is visibly inclined, probably due to a subsidence of the foundation.
The facade has a vertical tripartite design and the central body is divided by a cornice. In the lower part is the large portal flanked by four niches, where there are visible fragments of fourteenth-century frescoes. A series of hanging arches frame the upper part, which is likewise divided into three sections, defined by a mullioned window in the centre with two windows on the sides and a lower rose window from the fourteenth-century restoration.
The most stunning element of the church is the large hemicycle apse, formed by the superimposition of three orders of blind arches, a gallery, and a large central niche, constructed in different periods.
The bell tower, built in the Romanesque-Gothic style, was added in 1296 and rests on one of the apse vaults.
The interior of the Church of Santa Sofia has a very simple structure, composed of a nave and two aisles separated by rows of pillars and columns, obtained from heterogeneous material coming from Roman and medieval ruins. The end of the central nave ends with an internal apse, which is grafted onto a chapel, datable to the seventh or eighth century.
The groin-vaulted stone ceiling was built in the fourteenth century.
After the Second World War, the church underwent significant interventions aiming to restore the primitive appearance of the church. Sadly, it led to the loss of most Late Renaissance and Baroque decorations. The nave has also recently been the subject of a long consolidation and restoration work and cleaning of the walls.
The interior is now relatively bare other than some anonymous fresco fragments, including a fourteenth-century fresco in the lunette above the presbytery, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints and Donors, a work of the Giotto school. Another anonymous fresco is the thirteen-century Madonna and Child, inspired by an illustration made for a manuscript by the scribe Giovanni da Gaibana. It is placed inside one of the niches of the semicircular apse.
A wooden crucifix of the fifteenth century is suspended over the presbytery. The main altar was decorated with an altarpiece made by Andrea Mantegna in 1448. The now lost painting illustrating Madonna with Child in conversation with Saints was the first independent work commissioned to a seventeen-year-old Andrea Mantegna, who in the same year was entrusted with the decoration of the Ovetari Chapel in the transept of the Church of the Eremitani.
In the right aisle there is a small lapidary and the altar of the Blessed Beatrice D'Este and an altarpiece Vision of San Francesco di Paola by the Paduan artist Giovanni Battista Cromer. On the left aisle, there is an altar adorned with a Pietà by Egidio from Wiener Neustadt.
Leaning against a column at the entrance is the holy water stoup, resembling a capital from the imperial age. This basin was used as a baptismal font in the nearby Church of Saint Catherine where, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, were baptised Livia and Gianvincenzo, children of Galileo Galilei, who was a professor at the University of Padua at the time.
On the left side, behind the entrance door, on the counter facade is the funeral monument of Ludovico Cortusio, a famous scholar and jurisconsult of Padua. In his last will, he famously forbade his friends and relatives to weep at his funeral. Those who mourned were to lose their inheritance, while on the other hand, the one who laughed most was promised to become his principal heir. Instead of black drapes, he stipulated that flowers and greenery should be used to decorate his house and church, and music and minstrels to replace tolling bells. When he died on 17th July 1418, all his wishes were accomplished and the ceremony had the appearance of a wedding rather than a funeral.
The Church of Santa Sofia still retains the title of provostry. The crypt is usually closed to the public, but from time to time, there are organised special visits to the church and the crypt.
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