THE GOLDEN MEAN IN CHURCH FACADES

Milan, 15 March 2017

Many years ago, when I first visited Italy, one of the things that struck me was the very flat facades which Italian churches had. In the Basilica dei Fieschi, the topic of my last post, we came across a typical example of the genre.

These facades were so different from the much more vertical and more articulated church facades of Northern Europe which I was used to. I throw in here pictures of la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, Cologne Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey as examples of what I mean.



Much more than these facades, I find that the facades of Italian churches, with all those acres of flatness, can be quite boring, if not downright ugly, to look at unless something is done to liven them up. Consider, for example, the facade of the Florentine Church of Santo Spirito, which my wife and I came across in our recent visit to Florence.

I mean, look at that! It’s just like staring at a blank wall from your office window. Every time we crossed the square in front of it – which, given the location of our rented apartment relative to the locations of the places we were visiting, was quite often – I would comment disapprovingly on the facade’s drabness, its flatness, its total boringness until my wife finally remarked with a touch of asperity that I was repeating myself. But I mean, look at it!

Somewhat less flat but just as drab are the facades of those Italian churches – and there are many – which for some reason never got completed, initially because of lack of money, or quarrels about proposed designs, or the start of wars, or the break-out of pestilence, and thereafter simply through inertia. The facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, also in Florence, is an excellent example of this type.


Those rough bricks are just crying out for an elegant, visually interesting facing to be added. That, of course, was the plan. A competition was held, which Michelangelo won. His facade that would have looked like this.

He had gone so far as to choose the marble for the facade. But the Medici pope who was paying was short of cash. So Michelangelo had to choose a cheaper stone. Then the Pope died. Then there was a war. Then Michelangelo was called to Rome by another pope, and that was the end of that. There have been at least three attempts since then to complete the facade, the latest no more than a few years ago, but all have come to naught.

Of course, it is not automatically the case that a finished facade will look better than the original bare brick. Personally, I think that Michelangelo’s facade would have been a definite improvement. But that’s because I’m a fan of simplicity in design, and Michelangelo’s has all the looks of a simple design. Take a look at this facade, though, built more or less at the same time that Michelangelo’s wasn’t.

This is the church of the Certosa di Pavia, which my wife and I visited a few days after our visit to the Basilica dei Fieschi. It was a Carthusian monastery whose creation had been ordered by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan. The church was to be his family’s mausoleum, and therefore had to be suitably magnificent. For this purpose, he gave the monks access to large amounts of funds which they could only use to embellish the church. So when the Carthusian monks started on the facade, only the best was acceptable, and the more, the better. To the fundamentally sober facade, a riot of Renaissance statuary and bas-reliefs were added, covering every square centimetre of the facade’s surface. Let me zoom in on just a few of the details.


Luckily, all this hue and cry in stone does not overcome the overall effect, which is really very pleasing on the eye.

Not so in the case of Milan’s cathedral.

Here, the statuary and other embellishments on the facade have gotten completely out of hand. The effect is not helped by the over-the-top statuary and embellishments having invaded every square centimetre of the entire outer envelope. All this gives one the feeling that the cathedral is drowning in white marble froth.

So where does this all leave us? Well, I suppose we have here yet another example of Aristotle’s principle of the golden mean: we should always seek the middle ground between the extremes of excess and of deficiency. So in our case, neither facade-less nor frothy facade.

With this in mind I invite readers to go back to facade-less Basilica of San Lorenzo. What design could we propose to Florence’s city fathers? Let me immediately say that the obvious proposal of simply finally installing Michelangelo’s design won’t fly. This was there the very recent suggestion by the-then mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi (who, fyi, went on to be briefly Prime Minister of Italy). This proposal was shot down, on the grounds that putting up Michelangelo’s facade now would be akin to making fake Louis Vuitton handbags (that precise simile was not used, I hasten to add). So a copy of an old design is out. Which is a pity, because I think that the facade of the Florentine church of San Miniato, for instance

or of Pisa’s cathedral

would both nicely fit the golden mean principle.

Personally, I think we should take our cue from San Miniato’s use of colored lines, although maybe to avoid the criticism of simply copying the past, we could adapt a more modern approach to line-drawing: a Mondrian style, for instance.

A follower of Mondrian’s actually adapted the style to a building facade, although in this case it was a very secular subject, a café in Rotterdam.

Given the ecclesiastical nature of our subject as well as its venerable age, I think we would need to go for more muted colours than Mondrian’s signature blues, reds, and yellows. Perhaps we could adopt the more muted hues of his earlier works.

If I had access to an app which would allow me to make architectural drawings, I would come up with a design to propose to readers. Instead, I will just leave it to their imagination as to what a Mondrian-like facade on the Basilica of San Lorenzo might look like.

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Facade Basilica dei Fieschi: my photo
Facade Notre-Dame cathedral: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathédrale_Notre-Dame_de_Paris
Facade Cologne cathedral: http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ma/htm/related/ma_cologne_cath_01.htm
Facade Westminster Abbey: https://www.colourbox.com/image/london-westminster-abbey-west-facade-image-3357405
Facade Santo Spirito church: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Facciata_di_santo_spirito_01.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_lorenzo_Facciata.JPG
Facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo – Michelangelo’s design: http://www.fiorentininelmondo.it/it/home/143-san-lorenzo-e-la-facciata-di-michelangelo.html
Facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.visual-italy.it/IT/lombardia/pavia/certosa/
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Certosa_di_Pavia
Detail facade Certosa di Pavia: http://www.settemuse.it/viaggi_italia_lombardia/pavia_certosa.htm
Facade Milan cathedral: https://www.pinterest.com/mayavnt/duomo-milan/
Milan cathedral from side: http://topsy.one/hashtag.php?q=DuomodiMilano
Facade San Miniato church, Florence: https://www.gonews.it/2014/09/23/i-monaci-di-san-miniato-al-monte-chiedono-aiuto-per-il-restauro/amp/
Facade Pisa cathedral: https://www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/it/amp/Cattedrale-di-Santa-Maria-Assunta-a-Pisa/
Mondrian: https://www.themodernhouse.com/journal/from-the-archive-spruce-apartments-by-architect-amin-taha/
De Stijl café: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/264727284317842292/
Early Mondrian: http://www.pbase.com/bmcmorrow/image/143392523

 

AMBROGIO DA FOSSANO DETTO IL BERGOGNONE

Milan, 13 December 2016

A week or so ago, I had an appointment just off Milan’s corso Garibaldi, to discuss a possible presentation that I could make on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how companies could incorporate them into their CSR programmes. Since I had grossly overestimated the time it would take for me to walk there, I found myself at the meeting place with half an hour to spare. Looking around for some way to kill time, I spied a venerable-looking church across the road and decided to go and have a peek, to see what hidden treasures it might contain (every church in Italy beyond a certain age – 250 years, say – contains treasures to be discovered).

The church in question was the Basilica di San Simpliciano. As its title of basilica suggests, this is a very venerable church indeed. It was one of four basilicas wanted by the great Saint Ambrose, Doctor of the Church and bishop of Milan from 374 to his death in 397 AD.
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Ambrose planned to have one such basilica on each of the four main roads leading out of Roman Milan.

The church was completed by his successor, Saint Simpliciano, who also had himself buried here; his bones have been venerated ever since, lying under the main altar but now clothed and masked – a skeleton is not quite the thing anymore.

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Unfortunately, very little of this original church remains. I say unfortunately because I happen to be very fond of early Christian mosaics. I’m sure the church’s interior would have been covered in mosaics like the one whose photo I give above, itself a mosaic shard which has survived because tucked away in an obscure corner of an even more venerable Milanese church, the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. Cluniac Benedictines took over San Simpliciano in the 800s, and by the 1200s they had completely renovated the church in the styles then all the rage, Romanesque with a little bit of early Gothic. These styles have stamped themselves on the church’s exterior appearance.
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Unfortunately, hardly anything remains of this period’s internal decorations. One imagines that the walls would all have been frescoed; all that is left is this hand raised in benediction, tucked away in some obscure corner of the church.
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Thereafter, with each passing artistic phase various alterations were made, in the process destroying the harmony of the whole. Here, for instance, a side chapel in the Baroque mode was added.

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To all this was added more obvious vandalism. The church and the adjoining cloisters were turned into barracks by the occupying troops of Revolutionary France; no doubt the church was turned into stables for the troops’ horses (a fate common to many churches, it would seem). I’m sure the French soldiers would have taken pleasure in destroying the church’s decorations, much as ISIS troops have taken pleasure in sledgehammering and dynamiting every non-Islamic work of art that has fallen under their control, and much as Mao’s Revolutionary Guards took pleasure in smashing anything they could lay their hands on from Old China. But bad as all this was, the nadir for San Simpliciano was the 1820s, when some artist who will remain unnamed stuccoed over everything and painted scenes of a painfully sucrose sentimentality – one side chapel in this style has been kept.
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After the Second World War, it was decided that there was nothing left to do but to strip more or less everything away, down to the brickwork. This has given the church a certain rough simplicity, very pleasing to the eye (to mine at least).
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We have to remember, though, that this is a very modern style. None of the original builders or later fiddlers would have dreamed of maintaining such a naked simplicity. Churches were built to demonstrate the glory of God, and naked brickwork definitely didn’t make the cut.

All this I learned from some posters tucked away in a corner (so tucked away that I nearly missed them). I knew none of this on entering the church. What immediately struck me instead was the fresco in the apse behind the main altar.

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Even though it was much obscured by the 1820s main altar (something that was already fiercely criticized when the Artist who will Remain Unnamed installed it), its brilliant blues and reds amid all that raw brick jumped out at me and beckoned me to come closer. Which I did, threading a passage between the main altar and the outer walls of the church. The view was well worth the threading.
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It is a fresco (I later learned from the posters) from 1508 celebrating the Incoronation of the Virgin Mary, painted by il Bergognone (or, to give him his full name and title, Ambrogio da Fossano detto il Bergognone). We see Mary, meek and mild, being solemnly crowned by her son Jesus, God the Son, in a ceremony presided over by God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, within a rainbowed arc of seraphims, cherubims and angels

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and with saints and others laypersons (no doubt donors and other Very Important Persons) looking on.

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Thank goodness it was placed high off the ground, otherwise those French revolutionary soldiers would no doubt have destroyed it. With my heart well warmed by its beauty, and my mind well primed by the posters, I hurried back to my meeting, arriving a little breathless but just on time.

I have to say, Bergognone is not a painter that I am at all familiar with. In writing this post, I have mugged up on him a little. He was active primarily in Lombardy, and although works of his have leaked out to many major museums in the western world the bulk of his output is still to be found in and around Milan. Since Saint Ambrose initiated my description of San Simpliciano, let me throw in here a painting Bergognone made of that saint

which hangs in Pavia’s monastery complex, the Certosa.
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Bergognone was particularly active in the Certosa di Pavia. My wife tells me we have visited it, but I have no memory of doing so (a situation which is becoming alarmingly common). I think I will add it to my ever lengthening list of places around Milan which we will go and visit, once Spring beckons us forth like hibernating bears from the apartment.

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Photos: mine, except the following
Saint Ambrose mosaic: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant%27Ambrogio
San Simpliciano exterior: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano
San Simpliciano interior: https://www.tripadvisor.it/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g187849-d1899819-i87445764-Basilica_di_San_Simpliciano-Milan_Lombardy.html
San Simpliciano Bergognone fresco overview: http://www.italiamedievale.org/sito_acim/contributi/simpliciano.html
Bergognone’s Sant’Ambrogio: https://forum.termometropolitico.it/274962-7-dicembre-s-ambrogio-vescovo-e-dottore-della-chiesa.html
Certosa di Pavia: http://www.pavialcentro.it/monumentos/monastero-della-certosa-di-pavia