Symbols of Eternity

Centuries before the EU was ever thought of there was something that unified Europe beyond the dark days following the collapse of the Roman Empire. It wasn’t politics or even faith; it was architecture – Romanesque architecture, which has an amazing homogeneity wherever you meet it in Europe. Saint Stephen’s chapel in the Tower of London has a similar build and atmosphere as (for example) local church San Martino al Greppo.

What is this atmosphere? First, there is that mystical darkness enveloping one when entering the nave – a comparable kind of darkness one meets in the sanctuaries of Egypt’s pharaonic temples and obtained by having narrow, slit-like apertures opening out onto the world. 07272013 009 Second, there are the round arches extending from structural supports to decorative features, and seen in the outer friezes and facades which eventually became so elaborate in Luccan (and Pisan) churches. There is also that womb-like, curved apse housing the sanctum sanctorum (and often an area of further decorative elaboration). The round arches and curved apse are both features taken from the ancient Roman basilican plan which, indeed, had two such apses, one at each end of the building (and which can sometimes be spotted in Romanesque churches such as the remarkable one at San Piero a Grado near Pisa).

All this was to change with the advent of the gothic.

In France church walls transmuted from solid support to skeleton-like ribs framing stained glass windows and the arches turned into what we all know and love as “pointed gothic”.

In England, the curved apse was largely ditched for a straight conclusion and the cathedrals did not quite go for the Gallic verticality but were more comfortably spread out.

In Italy, apart from a few outstanding examples like Milan’s Duomo, verticality was not really understood at all – for example Florence cathedral nave has the grammar of gothic but the space of the early renaissance with its wide arches and horizontal trims. In fact, Italy largely ignored the Gothic and went straight from Romanesque to Renaissance and beyond, which was easy considering that the basic features like the rounded arch were retained.

Architecture is often described as frozen music and regardless of how many pointed arches there are in a building, it doesn’t make it gothic if the particular spatial sensitivity isn’t there. With the going out of fashion of the Romanesque architectural unity among Europe’s ecclesiastical buildings disintegrated.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on light and frescoed ceilings, which came in especially after the counter-reformation, meant that many Romanesque churches were adapted. Side walls and facades were extended upwards. The narrow windows were filled in to be replaced by large square ones. Wooden roof trusses were covered over by vaulting allowing painting. This happened to a lot of buildings in our province.

Especially in Lucca, you can see chunks of walls which appear to belong to a Romanesque building (the wall masonry at that time was almost Inca-like in its precision – something to be seen, admired and not covered with stucco) but which have been used merely as material on which to devise renaissance and baroque modifications. You can see this particularly well in the church (now auditorium) of San Romano. Luckily for this valley of the river Lima, funds did not permit all those drastic changes and, hence, we have some of the least-touched and finest Romanesque buildings in the whole of Tuscany.

Why such good examples here? Because the Via Francigena, the main mediaeval pilgrim highway to Rome from Canterbury, passes through this valley and, with its traffic, came money and commerce.

The exhibition, curated by the local section of the Lucca Historical Institute and inaugurated yesterday in the Sala Rosa of the Circolo dei Forestieri at Bagni di Lucca, emphasised this point by presenting some very finely taken photographs of several of our  beautiful Pievi: those of San Cassiano, Vico Pancellorum, Controni, Sala and Corsena.

As part of the introductions to the exhibition Mayor Betti made an impassioned plea for the Islamic dish, brought here by a soldier at the time of the first crusade and part of the San Cassiano church façade (it has since been replaced by a copy and the original exhibited at the Palazzo Guinigi National museum in Lucca) to be returned and displayed in the new museum of San Cassiano (whose opening was one of the first things he did when appointed to office and which contains Della Quercia’s wonderful Cavaliere. See my post at on this). 07272013 008 So far his pleas have met with some opposition, making me think, on a larger scale, that the chances of the Elgin marbles ever being returned to the Parthenon are one in a billion billion.

People talk about International Gothic but Romanesque was much more so, even extending to decorations presenting symbols which were familiar to the largely illiterate population of those times: the chess-board indicative of the fight between good and evil or the quandary about right and wrong decisions, the dragon eating its own tail as a symbol of eternity and all those perpetual knot-figures so familiar in Celtic art.

The photographs are so good and the explanations so interesting that, with the addition of a route-map and church plans, the whole thing could be got up into a really good guide-book for the area. Why isn’t it then? Lack of money for publishing it, I’m afraid, although there is a good chance that much of the material will find its way on Bruno Micheletti’s Facebook page in the near future. Perhaps a dedicated web site might also be a fruitful idea.

Micheletti also brought up the question of Romanesque churches in Lucca province that have disappeared or are in an utterly ruinous state. Of twelve such churches six are in the Val di Lima and I’d never even suspected of their existence. Looking at photographs I saw buildings eaten up by jungle-like foliage but with significant ornamental features still discernible. I must find out these buildings before they completely go.

The “Simbologia del Romanico nelle chiese della Val di Lima” (“Romanesque Symbolism in the churches of the Val di Lima”) photographic exhibition continues until the 11th of August in the Sala Rosa of the Circolo dei Forestieri at Bagni di Lucca. Opening times are 10:00 to 12:00am and 5:00 to 8:00 pm. See also the istituto’s facebook page at


6 thoughts on “Symbols of Eternity

  1. Pingback: Happy Hermits | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and beyond)

  2. Pingback: Two Knights Come Together at San Cassiano | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

  3. Pingback: Great Romanesque churches in our part of the world | From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Two

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