Italian Churches

Modern Arezzo is a medium-sized city, the creation, so it’s said, of a canny local politician who forced both the railway and the motorway to bend their routes in order to take in Arezzo, thus ensuring the town’s future. But Old Arezzo, the old quarter, is compact and mercifully quiet. Old Arezzo is shaped roughly like a cross with the haft of the cross being the main street, the Corso, a steep mediaeval alley, nowadays for pedestrians only. The cramped buildings have all been converted into boutiques selling expensive clothing; “antique” restaurants with their menus touristico; and galleries full of hand-made jewellery, framed photographs and luxury leather goods. Walking up the Corso, you are surrounded by modern Italy in all its sleek materialism. But as it were at the ends of the two arms of the cross, a hundred yards to either side of the Corso, there are two piazzas. On the right, the Piazza Grande with its palace and banners and Vasari arcade was the old city’s secular heart, its centre for politics and war. On the left, the piazza and church of San Francesco was its soul. Between them, the two squares perform a balancing act, an architectural expression of the life of Italian cities during the Renaissance, which in turn was a reincarnation of the classical Greek city-ststaes with their own creative (and unstable balance) between Apollo and Dionysus.

The Piazza Grande is still a living square used by local people. One morning last July, they were sipping coffee under the arcade and watching workmen set up stands for a medieval-style Palio due to take place that weekend. On the other hand, the piazza which forms a sort of forecourt for the church of Saint Francis, is a small, plain and shadeless, a stone basin the sun strips bare of passers-by by 11am. The church itself is big and barnlike, smelling of old stone and sanctimony- or is it disinfectant? In this unremarkable building, between 1452 and 1466, Piero della Francesco painted his great fresco series depicting The Legend of the True Cross on the walls of the apse.

These days, Italy’s art and antiquities are much better cared for and organised than when I first visited Italy, 30 years ago, when great works were either left lying around, open to the elements, or permanently closed to the public. San Francesco has its own visitors centre and gift shop selling Piero watches Piero matches and Piero mugs, like every other upwardly striving museum and gallery. Once you’ve bought your ticket and entered the church, however, the human muddle and laisser-faire which are the saving grace (as well as the curse) of Italian life reassert themselves. Tickets are supposed to be timed, with visitors entering in groups, but no one paid much attention to the timing or the numbers. I waited in the front pews with a gaggle of other tourists until a bored-looking man in a flowered shirt let us into the apse. When the floodlights went on, it was like standing inside a giant, gloriously decorated egg. Piero’s luminous colours, his pale blues, sea greens and russet browns and reds; the sometimes ghostly outlines of his figures as they fade back into raw plaster; and his geometric, draughtsman’s compositions in all their modesty and austerity are the virtual opposite of modern high-intensity graphic design, but they serve a similar purpose. For once, the ubiquitous audio guides, like black plastic armatures, come in useful because Piero’s frescoes are narratives. They need to be seen but they also need to be read- or heard.

As Old Adam dies his son Seth places three seeds, provided by the angel who guards the gates of the Garden of Eden in the old man’s mouth. The tree which grows from these seeds will supply the wood for the Cross through which mankind will be redeemed. Later the wood is used for a bridge over Shiloh. On her way to visit Solomon, the Queen of Sheba crosses the bridge and falls to her knees having had a vision about the wood’s future. Solomon orders the bridge to be dismantled and the wood buried deep in the earth.

After the Crucifixion the Cross is lost. Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena, searches for it and tortures the only man who knows its whereabouts, the jew Judas, suspending him in a well without food or water for six days until Judas confesses. Guided by Judas, Helena’s men dig up the Cross. The wood proves its authenticity by bringing a dead man back to life. Constantine has his famous dream of victory under the sign of the Cross over his imperial rival Maxentius. Later, Emperor Heraclius wages war on the Persian king Chosroes who has stolen the Cross and used its wood in his own throne. The defeated Chosroes refuses to convert to Christianity and is beheaded.


A great deal of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art is like this. I’d forgotten how much of this art, part of the supreme legacy of mankind, is essentially didactic, as well as violent and bloody in its imagery. North of the Alps, the French mediaeval church, the church that built the great Gothic cathedrals, was a church of love, dedicated to the cult of the Virgin Mary and its later, secular offshoot in the quasi-religion of Courtly Love. Life in the outside world might be nasty, brutish and short, but the Gothic church was where men’s finer feelings found their expression- and also focused their aspirations, since the spire is that church’s signature art form.

It was a very different matter in Italy, whose Roman brand of Catholicism wasn’t a church of Mary, or even of Christ Himself , so much as it was a church for His saints and martyrs. Just as the Italian calendar is a riot of feast days, all dedicated to some saint, so Italian churches are like three-dimensional comic books- Piero’s fresco cycle unfolds in strips from ceiling down to head-height, like the blown-up comics page from a Renaissance newspaper- which tell the life stories of those same saints and martyrs. Or rather, they tell the stories of their suffering and generally violent death, since suffering and death are what make a saint and/or a martyr in the first place They personify a Christianity which may not be as perverse and sado-masochistic as the Spanish variety, but is gloomy and harsh enough. The message of its matchless paintings and frescoes, the parade of the blessed with their wheels and their spikes, their red- hot irons and their severed limbs, marching across wall after wall, as if they were a company of touring actors exiting one stage, walking around the corner and mounting another, runs something like this: the world is evil, living means suffering and enduring its torments, but if you do so with faith in Jesus Christ Our Lord, your reward will be salvation and everlasting life. And those who can suffer and endure the most, including the dismemberments, beheadings and the more inventive tortures, are the best, the elect, among you.

This is a very particular slant on the Christian message as well as a selective version of Christ’s teachings. Some of the reasons for it are obvious- the Church grown fat and established trying to hold on to its glorious, founding history as a persecuted sect. But the result is to stress the evils of the world rather than the grace of God’s mercy and salvation. In the unsteady balance between sword and spirit that characterised medieval and Renaissance life, this is an art that comes down on the side of blood and gore rather than love and light. As I trekked from church to church in central Italy and their endless triptychs and polyptychs and frescoes and individual canvases started to blur one into another, the only scene from Christ’s life I remember seeing widely represented was the Crucifixion itself. The Agony on the Cross. Most of the subjects were apocryphal or frankly mythical. Scenes from the life of the Virgin-itself a myth- were perennial favourites. There was the occasional biblical fantasy like the Legend of the True Cross. But the principal characters were the saints and martyrs whose adventures are recounted in The Golden Legend, the 1260 compilation by Jacobus de Voragine, later archbishop of Genoa.

A mediaeval bestseller, The Golden Legend was hugely popular in its time and for several centuries thereafter. It’s a farrago of tall stories, folk tales, anecdotes, myths and topos, the stock motifs that recur in hagiographies and religious biographies in general. With their graphic violence and frequent, supernatural events, the saintly biographies in The Golden Legend read like Hollywood B-movies and their heroes (and occasional heroines) live out lurid, action-packed facsimiles of Christ’s own story. The material in The Golden Legend is the stuff of popular art through the age. If we still lived in an age of faith, The Golden Legend would be prime source material for movies, the Marvel Comics of its day.

Apart from blood and gore, the main elements in these tales are mysteries and miracles. A typical saint’s biography involves birth; conversion; suffering and hardships, either due to persecution or self-inflicted to mortify the flesh; and then, after enduring the hardships, the saint receives the ability to perform miracles as a sort of down-payment on his or her real reward of Life Everlasting. The point of the stories doesn’t lie in their veracity or their status as historical records: they have none. The point is the audience, the people they’re intended for. The whole package-the constant feasts, the fireworks, the relics, the miracles, the rip-roaring adventures of the saints and martyrs- makes for a Catholic church that was and remains populist and universal rather than social or spiritual in the inward, Protestant sense. In the 15th century, it had the added benefit of using then state-of-the-art technology for media and communication- relics, frescoes, sermons, the regular magic of the eucharist.

As a northern European, I can’t conceive what it must be like to grow up in Italy, where even today the church is still woven intimately into the fabric of daily life. It seems to me the effect of such a total Catholic culture is bound to be infantilising. For example, it’s rare to see Italians reading a book while they’re sitting on a train or at a cafe. Instead, adults read those childlike comics and compilations of jokes and puzzles which are universally popular in Italy and baffle foreigners: how can the inhabitants of an educated European nation read such stuff? But if you put them in the context of the Pieros and the countless other serial religious images and narrative frescoes, it makes perfect sense. For four centuries, Italians have been used to absorbing information through the medium of the comic strip. Many pressures in Italy mitigate against the development of a progressive civic and political culture but the Vatican, in short-sighted defence of its own authority, is one of the main ones. Hence Pope John 23rd’s rapid beatification of the stigmatic priest Padre Pio, whose cult makes him the poster boy for a Catholicism headed backwards rather than forwards, to the Middle Ages and a world full of mysteries and miracles, where peace and progress are confined within the rhetorical gestures of a Papal homily while cruelty and bloodshed hide in plain sight on church walls. All contents mike bygrave 2014