San Salvatore was an ancient and powerful monastery of Pavia. The historical sources date the foundation of the original core of the church in 657. Ariperto I constructed a lararium for his grave, dedicated to St Salvatore. The monastery was built by Adelaide of Bourgogne, and after by Ottone I, who renewed it in 969, after the period of decline until 924. In 1436, a first bull of the pope Eugenio IV ordered to join the complex to Santa Giustina and to host in the monastery of Pavia the Benedictine order of the Observance. In 1473, the abbot of San Sisto in Piacenza, mediator for the Observance, took the power of the monastery. The new church became very important in 1585, when the ashes of Ariperto and Adelaide were transferred here, as written on the memorial tablets. In 1782, the monastery was suppressed and submitted to the Austrian jurisdiction, and in 1829 the cloister was used as college of Pontoneers. Desecrated in 1860, also the basilica was given to the Pontoneers. From 1873, the destiny of the monastery is diverging from that of the church: the monastic complex was given to the Ministry of the War, whereas the basilica, inserted in the list of the Provincial Conservative Commissions from 1868, became subject of a heated discussion to reopen the church to the cult (the twenty-year dispute ended in 1900 with the payment of 5000 lire to the Ministry of the War).
The complex is mainly composed by two big quadrangular courtyards, sided to the east by the church of San Salvatore. Between the western side of the church and the northern courtyard of the complex there is a little cloister. To the west of the main cloister, there is a transversal body (former refectory). A further courtyard opens to the west of the northern court, marked by and ancient building to the north and two recent constructions placed to close it longitudinally. The southern part of this area is occupied by nineteenth-century buildings used as shops, stores and garages. All the buildings have no more than two floors over the ground, with the exception of the western side of the main cloister with three floors. The ex refectory and the most northern body have a level under the ground. The access to the complex is from the square preceding the church and from the southern alley. The church shows a Latin-cross plant with three apses, with cross groined vaults according to a Gothic planning out.
The basilica of Santissimo Salvatore is one of the most beautiful monuments of the city not only for the architecture, that signs the passing from the Gothic to the Renaissance, but also for the rich decoration that covers the interior and attracts the attention. The numerous works of art show the faith of a many clients, during the centuries.
The interior of the church, with three naves, show a fine classical decoration, datable at the beginning of the sixteenth century: grotesques, ornaments with angels, circles and monks’ portraits on the trabeation, clipeus with prophets on the apsidal gores and Doctors of the Church on the lunettes. With the interior spatiality of the building, the frescoes are elements of the Renaissance modernity, inside a monument still linked to a Late-Gothic taste for other respects.
It’s dominated by big paintings on canvas of the end of the seventeenth century. The rich frescoed decoration dates back the beginning of the sixteenth century, with prophets, Doctors of the Church and Evangelists. The wooden choir was created in the eighteenth century; very interesting is the wonderful stone altar, with reliefs and inscriptions with golden heightening, signed by Antonio da Novara and dated 1504.
St Benedict’s chapel
It’s situated on the left of the main altar. It’s dedicated to St Benedict, founder of the order. The central fresco depicts the Saint flanked by the first disciples, St Placido and St Mauro. The walls are all frescoed with episodes of the Saint’s life and miracles: each episode is completed with a short caption.
St Martin’s chapel
It’s placed on the right of the main altar. It’s dedicated to St Martin of Tours. Born in Pannonia, the Saint spent his youth in Pavia, where he was given also his upbringing and education. Started off on the military career, in the suburbs of Pavia he run into a poor half-naked beggar and he gave him half of his cloak. All the event is here represented. On the lunettes and on the walls there are episodes of his life.
St Mauro’s chapel
It’s the fifth chapel on the right. Mauro was a St Benedict’s follower and collaborator. On the walls, there are painting on canvas representing episodes of his life (beginning of the eighteenth century). The St Mauro’s blessing for the recovery of the sick gave origin to the peculiar piety of people of Pavia to this Saint. This is the reason why the recurring and official noun of the church is basilica of San Mauro.
The first chapel on the left stands out with all its beauty: the youthful frescoes of the painter Bernardino Lanzani show in a lively way episodes of life of St Maiolo of Cluny: from his opposition to the Saracen troops along the Alpine passes, to the reconciliation of Adelaide of Bourgogne with her son Ottone II, until the rescue of sailors from the Rhone river, near Avignon.
St Antony abbot
It’s the fourth chapel on the left. Here, other frescoes of the prolific Lanzani’s workshop describe scenes taken from St Antony’s life: among episodes of contemplative life, there is the final comparison with the sin, personified by the devil.