Sori, 6 March 2017
It was a grey day in Liguria, with the threat of rain, so my wife and I decided not to go for our usual walk in the hills. We opted instead to go to Lavagna. Non-Italian readers might well ask where on earth that is, and indeed Lavagna doesn’t make it into most guide books on Italy, or only slips in as a footnote. As for Italians, if they know it at all it’s because blackboards used to be called “lavagna” in honor of the fact that the first blackboards were made of slate and since time immemorial Lavagna has been a major source of good quality slate.
Alternatively, Italians could know it as one of the many seaside places in southern Liguria.
But we were going there neither for the slate nor for the sea and sand. We were going for a church.
A bit of background is in order here. Lavagna sits at the mouth of the Entella river, whose valley was the principal fiefdom of the Fieschi, a powerful family in Genoa in its heyday as a Maritime Republic (they lost out to another powerful Genoese family, the Doria, in a failed coup in 1547, and dropped out of History; but that is another story). As befitted any powerful Italian family in the pre-Reformation days, they maneuvered to have one of their own elevated to the papacy. Their efforts were rewarded in 1243 when Sinibaldo de’ Fieschi, younger son of Ugo de’ Fieschi count of Lavagna, became Pope Innocent IV.
(The Fieschi hit the papal jackpot again in July 1276, when a nephew of Innocent’s, Ottobuono de’ Fieschi, became Pope with the name Adrian V; alas, he died very shortly thereafter, in August – but that is another story.)
As often happened, Pope Innocent IV decided immediately to embellish the lands of his family with a great church. It was to be a Basilica, no less, and was to be constructed on a little knoll several kilometers north of Lavagna. It must have been constructed very fast, because in 1245 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II swept through the Fieschi fiefdom laying waste to all, including the Basilica.
Innocent IV promptly excommunicated Frederic II. All this had to do with the eternal squabbles between Popes and Emperors, Guelphs and Ghibellines, but that is definitely another story. Suffice to say that the Pope ordered the Basilica to be rebuilt, which his nephew, as Adrian V, managed to consecrate in 1276 as the Basilica di San Salvatore dei Fieschi before his untimely death.
We can leave History now, for the Basilica which my wife and I visited was essentially the one consecrated by Adrian V. By some miracle, there had been little fiddling with it in the centuries that followed its consecration. After getting off the bus and walking along some fairly nondescript suburban streets, we finally got our first full glimpse of the church, from the back, across a vineyard.
As befits a church built in a valley where slate is king, shades of grey predominated, no doubt enhanced by the greyness of the day.
We walked around the vineyard and entered a lane that led us through the small historical nucleus of houses clustered around the church.
It led us into a delightful little pebbled piazza which sloped gently down to the entry door of the church.
It was as if a grey cloak had been flung on the ground in front of the church – no artificial leveling of the ground, just pebbles set in the earth.
The facade was a sober affair, grey slate with simple bands of white marble in the upper storeys.
There was little decoration, just a much faded fresco above the door and some simple but lovely little carvings along the edge of the roof.
The interior was equally severe and spare, with hardly any decoration.
This was more, I suspect, fruit of the latest restoration efforts which sought to rid the church of later additions than a reflection of what it actually looked like in 1276; I have to believe that the walls and columns were all frescoed back then.
The church was not entirely without decorations, however. Tucked away in a corner of the two little chapels flanking the main altar were an admirable crucifix carved from a cleft branch
and a lovely pietà made instead from a single branch
with the faces of Mary and Jesus barely breaking the wood’s surface.
Also giving onto the piazza was a smaller church.
Its creation actually predates the Basilica but its Baroque facade is the visual symbol of the original church’s complete restructuring over the ages. Beside it stands a palazzo of the Fieschi family built in 1196 and badly in need of restoration. With its white bands, its facade admirably echoes that of the church.
The piazza once had similar buildings all around it, but later constructions have taken their place.
We left the piazza by another lane. Looking back, we had one last glimpse of the Basilica.
As we turned away, we found ourselves in front of a door above which was a carved marble lintel.
NON TIBI SUNT TRISTES CURAE NEC LUCTUS AMICE
SED VARII FLORES
With a lot of help from Google, we managed to translate this as:
“Come hither, friend,
Sad cares and grief are not for you,
But rather flowers of many hues.”
Photos: all ours except:
Slate mine: http://www.ardesiamangini.com/azienda.asp
Lavagna beach: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/57630010
Innocent IV: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Innocent_IV
Frederick II: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_II,_Holy_Roman_Emperor
Church interior: http://artigullio.scuolaeformazioneliguria.it/3_beni%20architettonici/architetture%20religiose/Cogorno%20S.Salvatore.htm
Botticelli, Spring: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/