A never-ending space

Mantova Museo Urbano Diffuso

Despite the numerous ups and downs that the church has suffered over the years, its interior still astounds, not only for the beauty of the proportions but above all for the empty space, which leads one's gaze to the walls and the surfaces of the chapels. Meanwhile, the light that penetrates through the small, round windows creates an ambience of wondrous suspense.

Light and Shadow
The interior of the church is a curious combination. Not only was it built during an extensive period of construction with numerous redesigns, not only was it renovated over the centuries, but the existing roof actually differs from Alberti's original design. The church was abandoned, and in the 19th century was treated with little respect by Austrian soldiers from the nearby barracks. After the third war of independence when Mantua became a part of Italy once more, the local authorities gradually converted it into a Famedio, a memorial site for the fallen soldiers.

In 1925, it was reopened and inaugurated as a Famedio by Benito Mussolini, following works by the engineer Andrea Schiavi. While it may have been controversial, the Schiavi restoration at least returned some charm to the church interior. Some scholars believe that for the initial project, Leon Battista Alberti may have been inspired by the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, the inventor of perspective, and by the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo and the Pazzi Chapel near Santa Croce in Florence in particular. Amedeo Belluzzi rightly points out, however, that Alberti's attention was focused on the circular form, which in his view prevails in nature, given that nature tends to "ensure that all its products are absolutely perfect". What is undeniable is that Leon Battista wanted San Sebastiano to be truly unique, drawing up the square and circle figures which can be seen quite clearly elsewhere at Mantegna's House nearby. Moreover, the brilliant idea of creating a raised section, with an underlying non-medieval crypt, illustrates how overall the building possesses the quality of an ideal, almost suspended space, ideal for celebrating the virtues of the Prince and, perhaps, for housing his tomb.


Echoes of a Roman Pantheon are clear to see. But Leon Battista Alberti was responsible for an unparalleled refinement of style. The chapels open to the left, the right and the back from the square central section. They are rendered all the more spectacular by the semi-circular qualities of the apsidal half-cylinders, which highlight the arms of the cross from the centre. It is thanks to the chapels that the arches are not as high as those that determine the overall appearance of the church interior. There is a circular window between each minor arch and each arch in the apse, flooding the interior with light. In all probability the original design did not correspond to what can be admired today. Nonetheless, the initial intention can still be seen in the form of the original style.


Here is the decorative element of the cornices and pendentives, which probably cannot be traced back to the time of Alberti, but most certainly pre-date the Schiavi restoration. It is conceivable that they were constructed during this vast intervening period. As Calzona notes, however, a simple solution that was part of the original project should not be ruled out, as the function was to interrupt the gaze and create a barrier between the vault and the arms of the Greek cross. The subtle interplay of the recesses and their pendentives is also quite striking.


The faux pendentive is depicted with an imaginative 16th century style, becoming more incomplete the further upwards you look.

There are different groups of fallen soldiers commemorated in the memorial chapel, or Famedio. In 1930, the monument to the Martyrs of Belfiore that stood in Piazza Sordello was dismantled. The urns and ashes were brought to this church. Other displays pay tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War. Alongside the plaques that honour the fallen of the Second World War, of paramount significance is the monument that commemorates the Resistance, which was constructed by the sculptors Albano Seguri (1913-2001) and Aldo Bergonzoni (1899-1976).

The Crypt
The church's crypt is a highly evocative place, which can be reached by going down to the area under the vestibule, between the two 20th century staircases. It is punctuated by 24 plastered pillars, engraved with plaques that commemorate the fallen of the First and Second World Wars. In addition, there are five wooden poles on which some of the Martyrs of Belfiore were hung, and a box that contain their remains. Although criticism is often made of the inconsistency between the upper and lower parts of the church, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the crypt was an integral part of Alberti's initial plan. In fact, the entire complex is based on the relationship between the lower and upper part, with the latter made possible thanks to the most secret place at the base of it.
A radiant sun
Here is one of the three slabs from the decorative elements of San Sebastiano which are now kept at the City Museum for conservation purposes and have been replaced by copies. The three exhibits are similar, but not identical. All are carved in tuffaceous limestone. This exhibit shows two winged putti holding up a wreath, at the centre of which is the Gonzaga device of the radiant sun. It should be recalled that in Ludovico Gonzaga's Charter of Heaven, the sun appeared in the Middle Heaven as an omen of certain glory.

Here, the winged putti are supporting the marquis coat of arms of the Gonzagas, which appears in the middle of a wreath. Debate still rages on about the artist behind these three valuable works. Of the numerous hypotheses, those particularly worthy of note are the illustrious example of Donatello, Fancelli on the design of Mantegna and Pellegrino Ardizzoni. Moreover, there is little agreement about the meaning of these sculptures. Nevertheless, scholars all agree about the quality of these works, which can probably be attributed to an original harmony between the various ways of understanding sculpture in the late 15th century.


The back of each slab features a cup-like vessel, from which two large acanthus leaves spring forth, lending symmetry to the rectangular space. Each is completed with a floral pattern.

Credits: Story

Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by:
Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova)
con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova )

Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator:
Sebastiano Sali

Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Giovanni Pasetti

In collaborazione con / in cooperation with:
Stefano Benetti (Palazzo Te e Musei Civici)

Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli

Redazione / Editors:
Erica Beccalossi
Sara Crimella
Carlotta Depalmas
Veronica Zirelli

Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Veronica Ghizzi
Paola Somenzi

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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