I don't know about anyone else, but I've always been encouraged to think of Italy as the land of the Renaissance
; which is problematic because it's not at all clear that many people outside the academic art scholarship world know what the Renaissance actually is
. A lot of what popular culture calls "Renaissance art" is actually baroque
, for example, and his remodelling of Rome), and the beginnings of it (was it Giotto
the painter? Leonardo
the visionary? Brunelleschi
the architect? Who started?) are equally shrouded in uncertainty.
I had a funny interlude with my best friend on a recent trip to Italy, when she asked me when the Renaissance started, and, due to an intellectual failure on my part, I couldn’t quite describe the synthesis created by a near-simultaneous explosion in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and poetry; an explosion which in turn stemmed from a deep shift in attitudes in favour of what we now call humanism (which has got not much at all to do with the human, and lots to do with the Classical — Rome and Greece, that is). Exasperated by what I saw as her wilful ignorance of the historical connections between Dante and Michelangelo, whatever I thought at that moment those obviously were, I eventually blurted out "well, it's not as if they had an opening ceremony, you know!"
The point being, these two facts - that Italy is uniquely and inescapably linked to the Cinquecento Renaissance in art and literature, and that few people are in a position to know it when they see it - coexist quite happily it seems, and play a big part in the official Italian tourist advertising effort (which is just huge, it being one of the country's most important industries). I think this links in with what I said in an earlier post about parts of Italy feeling like a theme park - a Renaissance theme park as it happens.
But of course Italy was not a vacuum, a blank spot on the map, between the Vandals
' sacking of Rome and the notional starting point of the Renaissance. Quite a lot happened, actually, thankyouverymuch. And on this trip we were privileged to get a glimpse into what that might have been like.
Our first opportunity came with the Duomo in Milan. It’s basically a Gothic cathedral – of sorts – which you don’t see a lot of on the tourist trail in Italy. I say of sorts, because construction on it started relatively late in the Gothic construction boom, and lasted for 350 years, which basically means that Salisbury Cathedral had fallen down and been rebuilt twice before it was finished. By the time it was more or less done (it still isn’t, really – they keep tinkering with it, but I think it was Napoleon in 1805 who decreed that the final touches be put on that basically make the building what it is today), needless to say the rest of Europe had moved way on architecturally. But the Milanese liked their fancy pinkish church, and responded to the jeers one can imagine them enduring from their snooty neighbours in Florence or Pizza by adding yet more flying buttresses, stained glass windows, spires, curlicues, gargoyles and cherubs on every available surface, plus I think they may have built some surfaces that have no other purpose other than to bear ostentatious decoration.
The overall effect is, as I remarked at the time, of a crumpled up lace handkerchief - but very beautiful and in surprisingly good taste. Most of the back of the church is breathtaking stained glass, some of it quite modern; this is both gorgeous and interesting, as it is rare that one gets to evaluate stained glass art in an ecclesiastical
context these days. The inlaid marble floor is also some of the loveliest I’ve seen, and there are a few curiosities such as the brass Midsummer meridian at the entrance, running across the width of the building and dotted with marble inlays of the signs of the Zodiac
. We haven’t found any explanation for this in any of our guide books, so it’s a mystery! Coming from Britain, and being used to the austere majesty of Your Minster
and Bath Abbey
, it’s very exciting to get a glimpse into what those might have looked like before they’d been Cromwell
The crowning, ahem, glory of the Duomo is unquestionably the roof however; it’s accessible by lift, thank the lord, and immensely worth a visit. It’s just astonishing how much effort was put into perfecting the statuary that no one except for the pigeons was ever really going to see up close; and wandering through the excess of it all on a sunny day really is like a walk through a snowflake. Spectacular.
From Milan we headed out to Verona on a day trip, where we got to see to even earlier churches, both in the Romanesque style. The Duomo has had some additions and improvements made to it during the Renaissance that robbed it somewhat of its authentic grandeur, but is still an impressive building. It helped that it was very cool inside on an extremely hot day, and that the thoughtful Veronese piped soothing classical music into it. Very restful, and, inasmuch as two such determined atheists can be said to feel such things, spiritual.
One of the things art historians like to tell you about the Gothic revolution in church-building is that the innovation of the flying buttress enabled much larger windows to be built, and that pre-Gothic churches were dark and gloomy affairs. Personally, I’m not so sure about the first bit – Romanesque churches do have windows, and I’m sure they would have been brilliantly lit by candles as well, much as Orthodox churches still are today. However that may be, though, what they never mention is that the scarcity of windows meant that there was lots and lots of available wall to paint frescos onto, and in fact the Duomo of Verona is – literally – plastered in very high quality works. Most of them are from the Cinquecento or later, though you can see a few crumbling relics of earlier works that are very Eastern, Byzantine in style almost – fascinating. What really tickled me though was that the paintings are usually used as borders or surrounds for the small, privately dedicated chapels dotted along the nave, and that just occasionally territorial conflict breaks out between them (and the rich patrons who commissioned them, no doubt) and something like a cherub’s elbow or a bishop’s mitre ends up poking out of it notional frame and butting into the neighbouring scene of classical columns or whatever.
Through a back door of the church one gets into the beautiful yet simple Baptistery, as well as the remains of several earlier churches dedicated to local saints. This is where Verona delighted me most, for literally underneath one of those there were found Roman remains – I think they were of an early period church, but am not sure as I’ve lost the fact sheet we were given – of very high standard, with well preserved mosaic floors and other delights. The canny archaeologists and preservation experts have somehow managed to suspend the existing chapel floor, intact, right over the ruins, which are visible through large mezzanine like openings in the floor, well it and easily perused, so that you’re walking in two periods of history at the same time, admiring the differences and similarities. Genius!
The other Romanesque church in Verona took some finding, as it’s a little out of the centre of town. As mentioned before, it was a very hot day, and we were weary and in much need of a cool resting place by the time we reached St. Zeno’s. The first thing that struck me about it was the beautiful way in which the builders alternated white limestone and rows of red bricks to create a simple but effective decorative motif on the outside of the building, and the second was that it absolutely bloomin’ huge. Again, we are often told that Gothic engineering enabled people during the High Middle Ages to build higher than was possible before, but the architect of St. Zeno’s obviously had not gotten the memo telling him that Romanesque buildings are supposed to be squat and heavy looking.
The inside is not just immensely tall, but also built on three levels, which adds to the dizzying effect. Very low on the window ratio, the walls and pillars are dotted with the occasional fresco or twenty (I found it interesting how back in those days they obviously didn’t feel that they have to create a coherent “theme”, but just stuck artworks on the walls how and where they fancied them), most of them dating from the early Middle Ages to just about the very beginning of the Renaissance, giving a rare picture of stylistic coherence that was, again, fascinating to experience. A large modern oil painting of Jesus on the cross, covered in real nails, did not at all spoil the atmosphere, and was seemingly much admired by local worshippers.
Seeing these places has left me with an interesting impression of Renaissance Italy; not the textbook one of admiration for all the things gained and achieved by it, but a slight sadness for the things that were lost, papered over, demolished, done away with. Fashion in architecture is always a destructive force – many a wonderful building has been lost to either whim or ideology. But I think Europe is missing more than just a few pretty churches from Dark Age Italy. The Catholic Church during and after the Reformation and subsequent religious wars did a very good job of branding itself, creating a unique physical identity which is inseparable from the Sistine Chapel, Santa Maria Di Fiore, or The Last Supper. The side effect was to sever the stylistic link, the cultural umbilical cord that had connected East and West (even after the trauma of the Schism) in Europe; seeing those frescoed heads on the wall of the Duomo in Verona, dressed in heavy Byzantine robes and adorned with ringlets and sculptural jewels, really brought home to me how notional and artificial the divisions within what was once called “Christendom” really are.
We look on Eastern Europe now as if it were somehow other, a different place with different priorities and ideals, but who’s to say that this is truly so? It seems to me as if we’re doing the work of the most divisive forces in European history – religion and politics – for them, when the reality is that you could walk from Istanbul to Dublin (well, a couple of ferry rides would be indicated) and find an unbroken chain of relation and influence throughout. This is a Good Thing™. I’m glad I have been awoken to it.