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San Nicola’s church

The ex-monastery of the Augustinian Order of Almenno was built in response to the open will of the people as it was expressed in a “public and general Council” that was held October 29, 1486, by the representatives of the neighborhoods of “Almenno di Sotto” (Lower Almenno), “Almenno Superiore” (Upper Almenno), and “La Porta” (The Gate). This will was expressed as a vow and a token of gratitude towards the Agostinian Order of the monastery of Bergamo, who had sent Friar Alberto from Sarnico during the two previous years in order to fill the void left in the local clergy by the dead of the plague of 1484-5. This had caused, especially in Almenno, many human losses. The monastery should have included also a church consecrated to S. Maria della Consolazione (St. Mary the Consoler) and to S.Sebastiano and S. Rocco. The chosen place was originally located within the “Brugo”, that was fortified for safety reasons. Father Pasquale Gazzaniga, though, who is considered the founder of the monastery, preferred an outer place, better located than the territory of Almenno, along a slope “Ubi dicitur Umbriana” in the neighborhood of “Porta”, where vineyards already prevailed.

The laying of the foundation-stone took place on August 10, 1488, by the hand of Father Agostino from Crema, who was the prior of the monastery of S. Agostino of Bergamo. After only two years, the building was almost completed. The life of the monastery was always very lively and at the center of the religious activities of Almenno. The Augustinian fathers must have been held in great consideration and treated with much benevolence. In a few years, thanks to bequests and purchases made with charity money, they became the owners of a large part of the municipal ground and so wealthy that they were able to lend money even to the monastery of S. Agostino of Bergamo. During the plague of 1630-31, that cut the population down to one third of its previous number, the inhabitants of Almenno were greatly devoted to S. Nicola from Tolentino, to whom the church was then consecrated. The monastery of S. Nicola functioned as a monastery until 1770, when the Senato Veneto confiscated the building and sold it to some private owners.

The church has a rectangular plan with a single aisle that ends with a presbitery of the same width. Each of the side walls is occupied by a series of six chapels, separated by as many round arches and covered with vaults. Along the upper part of the side walls there runs the women’s gallery (matroneo), overlooking the aisle below and provided with mullioned windows with two ogival lights. The church has a saddle roof supported by powerful ogives corresponding to the lateral chapels. The intrados is a structure made partly of wood and partly of brick frescoed panels. These are of original and fine taste, though much altered by the corroding action of humidity. The external face of Tornago pink-stone masonry, the roofs of pantiles and the dimensions and volume ratios set the whole complex – monastery included, of course – beautifully in its environment. S. Nicola’s represents an evocative and exemplary model, among many from the past, of a perfect encounter between building and context. The church facade once plastered, rises as a theatre scene preceding the actual building, and surpassing it in height, well beyond the roof level. The two high lateral windows, the 15th-century main door, the central rose-window, and the niches containing the statues of S. Nicola and S. Agostino with the Virgin Mary all suggest strong references to the facade of the church of S. Agostino in the Upper Town.

Between the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, the internal walls were almost completely covered with Baroque stucco-work, especially in the lower part. They have now been partly restored to their original state in order to reveal the numerous frescoes that adorn them. The quality of this stucco-work – some of which is by Giovanni Sanz – and their corroding action on the underlying frescoes – have not yet allowed the total uncovering of what is concealed, partly also by the lime that was spread abundantly on the walls during the plague of 1630. Most of the frescoes, and some of the most remarkable ones, are due to the Bermasque painter Antonio Boselli from S. Giovanni Bianco. His are Lo sposalizio di S. Caterina (The marriage of S. Catherine) located in the third chapel on the left side; La Madonna con il bambino e offerente (The Virgin Mary with the Child and a Commissioner) (1518); S. Pietro in Cattedra e Battesimo di Gesù (St. Peter Preaching and The Baptism of Jesus), located in the sixth chapel on the left. Some other frescoes, by unknown painters, should be mentioned: Lo sposalizio della Vergine (The Marriage of the Virgin Mary) (1537) in the fifth chapel on the right; the frescoes located in the sacristy; episodes from the Lives of S. Rocco and S. Paolo, in the first chapel on the left; the image of the Madonna del Buon Consiglio (Our Lady of the Good Counsel), frescoes of the 16th century with the La Madonna tra S. Sebastiano e S. Rocco (The Virgin Mary between S. Sebastiano and S. Rocco), S. Antonio, Gli Evangelisti. Some paintings of particular value finally complete the pictorial decoration of the church: L’Assunzione di Maria Vergine in cielo by Cifrondi, La Trinità (1517) by Andrea Previtali; la Sacra Famiglia by Bassano; S. Agostino e S. Tommaso da Villanova (St. Augustine and St. Thomas from Villanova). As a last thing, the tombstones on the church floor must be mentioned, which bear the names of the buried people and some sculptural decorations.