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San Biagio (Modena)

Mattia Preti in Modena

Preti's celestial dome

San Biagio is older than it looks. Begun in 1319, the church was thoroughly Baroqued in 1638. Little remains of the original outside of one tantalizing fragment of original fresco in the cloister by Tommaso da Modena, portraying Mary and Jesus in a mandorla, with St. Martin; this was discovered by accident during restoration in 1999.

Don't miss this church, and a chance to catch a rare northern appearance of one of the greatest Baroque masters, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Preti was from the strange plateau called the Sila, down south in Calabria, the place in all Italy furthest from any notion of Art. His nickname, the 'Cavalier Calabrese', gives an idea of the picaresque life he led, and it shouldn't come as a surprise to see him a follower of Caravaggio, a lover of dark deeds illuminated against the darkness. Preti had psychological depth, and a fanatical attention to detail, two qualities rare in his day; his best work comes with an electric spark the Emilian painters seldom manage.

Preti roamed Italy, spending much time in Rome and Naples, before he settled for good in Malta—he was a Knight of St. John after all—where he left some great work in the island's churches. Somewhere along the way Preti painted the dome and apse in Modena. No darkness here; the dome is sheer Hollywood technicolour, with the Lord himself, a host of saints and evangelists plus Adam and Eve swirling about in the heavenly vortex. Preti also painted a sweet Concerto di Angeli for the choir, where the angel musicians are kitted out with a full panoply of Baroque-era instruments, including slide trombone.

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Via Emilia

Hours daily 7.30am–11.45am and 3.30–7.15pm

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Renaud Camus