10 - The convent of Santa Caterina

The Dominican convent of Santa Caterina was founded in 1359 by the Del Carretto family as a family chapel and place of burial.
The medieval church was rectangular with a central nave and two side aisles, which were divided by ogee arches supported by simple capitals of Finale stone.
All three ended in rectangular chapels in the Lombard style with groin vaulted ceilings and a straight, rather then jutting-out back walls.
On the outside, elegant pillars, made of Finale stone, are set along the gabled façade facing east towards the square and the town centre.
The extreme linearity of this structure, the simplicity of its volumes and the essential decorations all fall in with the architectural style of the religious mendicant or begging orders, to which the Dominican Preachers belonged and who served this church from its foundation up to 1864.
Large soaring single-lancet windows opened up onto the south side and the apse, while the exterior still features a Lombard band with small, entwined brickwork hanging arches, with a painted decoration of red dots, crosses and stars on a frame meant to look like terracotta tiles.
There used to be two doors opening out onto the south wall. The larger one, called the “Ladies’ door” was set within a 15th-century late-Gothic portal whose posts are formed by slight splayed pilasters and capitals with hook-shaped leaves surmounted by miniature heads and images of animals, which fall in with the late Romanesque decorative style.
Beneath the archway of the portal is a lintel of Finale stone with the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God between two Del Carretto coats of arms separated by thistle flowers and leaves.
The smaller “Gentlemen’s Door” is decorated with a fresco of the Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine, which is set inside the ogee arch with an à relief cross.
The two cloisters were built between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th Centuries and are based on architectural models from Lombardy, with an open gallery on the upper floors.
Carlo Domenico del Carretto’s influence can be seen all over this part of the building, as we know from his coat of arms on some of the capitals of the first cloister. Historical sources tell us that this important member of the Del Carretto Family was appointed cardinal by Pope Julius the II in 1505 and died in Rome in 1514.
The first cloister features a series of classicizing capitals decorated with stylized acanthus leaves and volute, bearing different renditions of the Del Carretto coat of arms.
The cloister and church were connected through an open atrium or hallway, with vaults supported by a central column and the bishop’s insigna on the capital.
The capitals on the western side of the second cloister are archaic whereas those on the remaining three sides are more refined with religious, secular, heraldic and floral motifs.
After a lively religious and artistic season at the Finalese convent between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th Centuries, the Dominican settlement slowly declined due to the historical turmoil that swept across the Finale in the second half of the 16th Century.
Despite repeated enlargements and refurbishments, difficulties inside the convent increased over the following centuries due to dwindling patronage from the Marquess and to a gradual replacement of the ancient Mendicant Orders by newly formed, more dynamic religious congregations.
The convent finally closed with the arrival of Napoleon’s troupes and was dispossessed by the provisional government of the Ligurian Republic in 1789. After that it was used a barracks, an army hospital and a prison.
With the re-instatement of the Savoia family in 1825, property of the convent returned to the Dominican Friars, however, the old church was no longer perceived as adequate to the needs of the time. Extensive modernization was decided upon according to drawings compiled by Finalese architect Domenico Porro, who turned the apse inside out and knocked down the medieval colonnade to create a single-roomed building.
The new church was used for little over 30 years, as in 1864 Italian ‘unity’ politics on ecclesiastic matters decreed that the convent should be closed, the Dominican community banished and the alter-pieces and furnishings transferred to the nearby parish church of Saint Biagio.
The building was then used as a prison until 1964. A tour of the solitary confinement cells in the 14th-century bell tower is well worth it.
The whole building was restored between 1992 and 2001 and the church is now used as a congress hall and auditorium.
The upper floor of the convent around the cloisters houses the Archaeological Museum of the Finale Area, which has been set up along the corridors where the doors to the former dormitory used to be with their painted portraits of prominent 17th- and 18th-century Dominican friars.
The building to the west is now part of the Oratorio de’ Disciplinati used for art exhibitions.
The walls of the so-called “sala degli archi”, literally “arches room” on the ground floor still bear traces of a medieval fresco painting. The atmosphere in the rooms on the upper floors is still similar to when the rooms were used as prison printing and weaving workshops.