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

 

A FLORENTINE HOLIDAY

Milan, 22 February 2017

We have just come back from a little holiday in Florence (ah, the joys of retirement! go where you like, when you like). Since neither my wife nor I had been back to Florence in the last 40-50 years (me, the former; my wife, the latter), we decided to celebrate her birthday by going on a little jaunt down there. We agreed that we wanted to visit at least the Uffizi galleries, to see what its new German director was up to, as well as Pitti Palace and its gardens, the Boboli gardens (neither of us having ever visited this complex, we discovered, after comparing notes). The rest would be up to chance and whatever took our fancy.

So decided, my wife took the management of the trip into her very capable hands. Having heard decades of horror stories about the queues to get into the Uffizi, she booked the tickets on-line, along with a time slot for the visit. To be on the safe side, she did the same for Pitti Palace and the Boboli gardens. She found a place to stay on the left bank of the Arno, a five-minute walk from Pitti Palace. And she booked tickets on the bus to get us there and back (much cheaper than the train; we are retirees, after all).

Thus prepared, we set off and spent five days in the city. We visited, in the following order, Pitti Palace; the Boboli gardens, the ticket for which included a visit to the gardens of the nearby Bardini Villa; the church of San Miniato; the Uffizi galleries; the church of Santo Spirito; the church of Santa Croce; the Cathedral, along with its Baptistery and museum; and, finally, on the way to catch the bus home, the church of San Lorenzo and its Medicean library. In between, we strolled through the streets of the city center, crossed the Arno several times a day using the Ponte Vecchio as well several of the other bridges which straddle the river, and last but not least enjoyed delectable dinners in a number of the trattorie located around where we were staying.

I will not bore readers with the details. Let me just point out what were some highlights for me, the things that come back to mind as I sit here writing this:

Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo, hanging in the church of Santa Croce.
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A magnificent painting, with this luminously serene Christ pulling the dead from their graves. All that more wonderful knowing that this painting was terribly badly damaged in the big floods which struck Florence in November of 1966.

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The mosaics in the dome of the Baptistery.
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I was not expecting to see such magnificent late Medieval mosaics in that beating heart of the Renaissance which is Florence (the church of San Miniato also has a great mosaic in its apse).
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A wooden crucifix carved by Michelangelo and tucked away in a corner chapel of the sacristy of the church of Santo Spirito.
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Absent are the finely sculpted muscles, the blood and the gore, that you find in most crucifixes. Just a slim body hanging on the cross.

Donatello’s take on the prophet Jeremiah: a tough, uncompromising figure.
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A copy can be seen on the Cathedral’s campanile, while the original is in the Museo del Duomo, the Cathedral Museum – a great museum, by the way, recently redesigned and now a really very pleasurable museum experience.
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In the same museum, the unfinished Pietà by Michelangelo.
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A statue which, as I have related in a previous post, transfixed me during me first visit to Florence forty years ago.

Botticelli’s Annunciation, in the Uffizi.
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With such grace does Mary suggest that she is not worthy!

Of course, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Spring, are also magnificent, but I have seen and re-seen them so many times now in a thousand pictures that my senses have been dulled towards them.

Also in the Uffizi, Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino and his wife
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That Duke, what a wonderful, wonderful face!

Talking of faces, look at those of the shepherds in Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, also in the Uffizi.

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Such rough and honest and simple faces!

The view of the Brunelleschi’s dome from the gardens of Villa Bardini.
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We were taken completely by surprise as we rounded the corner of the villa and found Florence at our feet, with Brunelleschi’s dome soaring above the houses. As Leon Battista Alberti wrote in 1435, one year before the dome was finished, in his book De Pictura, “who is so hard or so jealous as to not praise Pippo [Brunelleschi] the architect upon seeing that structure so large, erected above the sky, broad enough to cover all of the Tuscan populace with its shade?”

And who is so hard or so jealous as not to praise Giorgio Vasari the painter, for his fresco of the last judgement which covers the inside of that dome?
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Bronzino, Descent of Christ into Limbo: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/santacroceinflorence.wordpress.com/2014/03/18/bronzinos-1552-social-network-page/amp/
Floods, Florence: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/projects-for-50th-anniversary-of-florence-and-venice-floods/
Mosaics, Baptistery: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:File-_The_mosaic_ceiling_of_the_Baptistery_in_Florence.jpg
Mosaic, San Miniato: https://www.flickr.com/photos/edk7/16383376970
Michelangelo, crucifix: https://www.visitflorence.com/itineraries-in-florence/fifteenth-century-wooden-sculpture.html
Donatello, the prophet Jeremiah: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donatello,_geremia,_1427-36,_dal_lato_ovest_del_campanile_02.JPG
Museo del Duomo: http://viaggi.corriere.it/viaggi/eventi-news/firenze-inaugura-il-nuovo-museo-dellopera-del-duomo/
Michelangelo, Pietà: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/297589487853635778/
Botticelli, Annunciation: http://historylink101.com/art/Sandro_Botticelli/pages/26_Annunciation_jpg.htm
Piero della Francesca, Duke of Urbino and wife: http://www.abcfirenze.com/musei/MuseiFoto_i.asp?N=238&Foto=Uffizi-D22.jpg
Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/111.html
View of the cathedral’s dome: https://www.pinterest.com/enamoradoitalia/villa-bardini-firenze-florence/
Vasari, Internal fresco of cathedral dome: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_del_Brunelleschi