Little Italy: AHA alum Helena Roy looks at Italianate churches in Britain

One of the most exciting things about studying History of Art in Italy is that you don’t have to go to a national gallery to see a Titian, or to a pay an entrance fee to see a Michelangelo. Wandering around churches is as good a way as any to discover and experience incredible artworks.

A highlight for me when I did the Northern Italy trip in July 2012 was Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin(1516-18) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, in Venice. Once inside, the Basilica exudes calm and history beyond the bold edifice of brick, and the painting is spectacular – even more so because it’s in such a spiritual setting.

The brick exterior of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice
Titian’s 'Assumption of the Virgin' (1516-18) at the altar of the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Titian’s 'Assumption of the Virgin' (1516-18) up close

England is by no means short of interesting and beautiful places of worship, but Italianate churches are a different kind of impressive. Oddly, there are one or two dotted around England – including a stunning one in the middle of the Herefordshire countryside.

St. Catherine's Church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire

St Catherine’s church in Hoarwithy, Herefordshire, is an isolated treasure. Hoarwithy is a small village tucked away on the River Wye, and the church itself rests on a high hillside. Prebendary William Poole, Vicar of Hentland, decided to build it between 1870 and 1900, as he found the original style ‘an ugly brick building with no pretensions to any style of architecture’. Designed by architect John Pollard Seddon, it was built in the Italian Romanesque style, with a detached campanile. The brick exterior conjures a vague link to the Venetian Basilica, and the warm terracotta tone brings warmth to the English landscape that surrounds it. Inside there is a rich mosaic of Christ in Glory, installed by an Italian workman who had just worked on St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of the filigree and detail in the church is copied from Saint Vitale at Ravenna in Italy.

The cloister at St Catherine’s in Hoarwithy
The ‘Christ in Glory’ mosaic above the altar at St Catherine’s, Hoarwithy

Similarly placed in the English countryside is the Italianate church in Wilton, Wiltshire. The Hon. Sidney Herbert begged his mother, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke, to rebuild the ancient medieval church of St Nicholas, which had fallen into a severe state of disrepair. Accordingly, it was built in the Italianate style which he so loved,  on a Roman basilica plan and complete with a campanile. Inside is the fantastic Capocci Shrine, with twisted black marble columns removed from a shrine at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

St Mary and St Nicholas parish church in Wilton, Wiltshire
The south door of St Mary and St Nicholas church, Wilton
The interior of St Mary and St Nicholas church, Wilton

Finally, there’s St Peter’s Italian church, slid in between houses in Clerkenwell, London. Built at the request of St Vincent Pallotti, it was for the growing number of Italian immigrants in London (by 1850 nearly 2,000 had settled there). It was modelled by architect Sir John Miller-Bryson on the Basilica San Crisogono in Rome, and at the time of its opening, in 1863, was the only church in England in the Roman Basilican style. This year it celebrates its 150th anniversary which will be celebrated at their annual processione held in July.

St Peter’s Italian church, Clerkenwell, London
The interior of St Peter’s Italian church, London

All of these churches are stunning (as the picture-heavy nature of this post testifies). If this post needs a moral, it is this: go exploring. You never know what you will come across, and you might find a little bit of Italy where you never expected it.

With thanks to Wikipedia, Wiltshire Council, St Peter’s Italian Church and wyenot.com for photos