Some years ago, while on a Scottish National Trust working holiday archaeologically digging on the far-flung North Atlantic island of St Kilda, we were given time off if it was sunny, rather than the week-end. It may have been a sly move on the part of the SNT since there were rather fewer fine days than week-ends there!
I never thought I’d have to recourse to the same expedient in Italy but, in view of the most pluvial winter I (or anyone else) ever remembers, when I see signs of a blue sky I make every effort to take time off from any other task. On the last blue sky day (actually the blue only lasted the morning) I visited Barga.
It’s great to be in Barga now. Like a ghost town, especially around lunchtime, it makes a welcome change from the periods when its narrow streets are so crammed-full of bipeds that one can hardly move around.
I headed for the jewel in Barga’s crown which is, of course, the cathedral. I had the whole place to myself for the whole hour that I was there. It was quite marvellous!
Barga’s cathedral originates from an ancient castle church built around 1000. In the twelfth century a larger church was built, oriented in a crosswise direction to the present building whose facade corresponds to what was once the southern wall of the old church. The bell tower stands on what used to be its front entrance courtyard.
The idea of re-orienting a cathedral in a phase of enlargement is most clearly seen in Siena’s cathedral where the original nave was to be transformed into the transepts of a new, much larger building. The remaining parts of this ambitious never-to-be-completed scheme can be seen to the right-hand side of one of the world’s most heavenly buildings.
In the thirteenth century Barga cathedral’s present nave was built with, originally, a curved apse demolished in the sixteenth century when a new straight-ended one with two side chapels was built on a raised choir. I originally thought that Barga’s raised choir was built over a crypt as is the case with many Romanesque buildings, most notably San Miniato sul Monte in Florence, but there is no crypt under Barga’s choir – it’s raised because that’s how the level of the land lies.
Because of its various ad-hoc transformation Barga cathedral does not present a particularly unified exterior appearance. Its strength lies in its position on what was once the fortified acropolis of ancient Barga and in its massive, almost cubist, forms.
Barga cathedral has been extensively described elsewhere, in particular at
Even if your Italian isn’t brilliant you can follow the diagrams and enjoy the extensive photographs of Pier Carlo Marroni’s account there.
Here I’ll just point out here my favourite things about it.
I always the think the giant twelfth century wooden statue of Saint Christopher, the saint to whom the cathedral is dedicated, has a totemic power worthy of adoration from the remotest tribes in the New Guinea highlands:
The greatest delights are concentrated around the pulpit which pre-dates the great pulpits which make Pistoia’s churches essential viewing and is certainly up to the best of them.
The star and flower inspired motives on the cosmatesque balustrade surrounding the raised choir are magical in both senses of the word.
I have a soft spot for these felines.
From a later period come the gorgeous Della Robbie in the right side chapel.
I love the view through the cathedral’s main door, There is a spot within where the Pania Secca, fronting the Pania della Croce, looks even higher than it does from outside the building.
The clouds on the day I had the whole cathedral terrace to myself were ever changing and magnificent. I mused on a poem, “The Cloud”, written by that other lover of this area, Shelley:
I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the Blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers
Lightning my pilot sits….
I shall always love to seek places where I am quite alone….