Sunday, June 20, 2010

Churches as Projections of Power:
Bergamo and St. Petersburg

I like to visit European cathedrals, basilicas and such-like for the art and architecture but they are also great studies in social order and in particular, the projection of power. Here are some recent notes:

One, Bergamo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, near Milan. There's a cathedral here, the Duomo di Bergamo, a presentable if not electrifying pile, with a somewhat forgettable Tiepolo in he apse. But what makes it interesting is that right cheek by jowl is another church--Santa Maria Maggiore, which you could easily mistake for the Cathedral, were it not that the Cathedral is right next door. I really didn't get the story straight. One remembers the old joke about "that's the church whose doorstep I will not cross, so help me God!" But I get the impression that the explanation here may be even simpler than that: some sort of town-down dustup, in permanent truce, never quite resolved. The fun part is that the "other" church, though not a Cathedral, does seem to have some sort of "bishop's door" in the (east?) wall. The catch is that it appears to be 16 feet off the ground, with no stairway. One can only wonder how many bishops they lost before they figured that one out.

[Bergamo, by the way, is the birthplace and last resting place of Gaetano Donizetti. But if the Verdi industry is all over Verdi's natal turf, the Donizetti industry is almost nonexistent. On the other hand, I suppose going home to die crazed with syphilis at the age of 50 is not exactly what the guys down in publicity were hoping for.]

But more about churches: St Petersburg, i.e., Russia, where I note three. There is first of all St. Isaac's Cathedral, right there in tourist central, just down the street from the Hermitage. It's not exactly awful but it is a grey, gloomy lowering 19th-Century hulk that seems capable of sucking the fun out of any party (back in the 70s, I climbed the steps to the observation deck and greeted the 16-stone babushka whose job was to stand up there all day--in any weather, I assume--to warn you not to take pictures of the navy yard across the river).

Second, Kazan Cathedral, not that many blocks down Nevsky Prospect (and why does one city get two cathedrals?). It is even larger than St Isaac's and, if anything, even more grey and menacing--these Russian autocrats didn't want you to think of churches as having anything to do with fun.

But third and most interesting, just a short way from the Kazan Cathedral, is the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, and this one is the one that looks most like what a tourist would expect: onion domes and bright colors. You could easily take it for an ancient foundation but no: work was begun in 1883 and completed only in 19o7. Another oddity: it seems to have been built in the middle of the street, or canal or both.

What's going on here? The answer is that it was built on the very spot (so they say) where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. So: it was commissioned almost immediately after the assassination, under an injunction that the architects stick to a traditional Russian design. The dynasty, of course, stayed in power until 1917, and if that isn't church isn't a projection of power, why I don't know.

[It languished, of course, in Soviet times, but later went through a massive overhaul; it was reopenened again in 1997. The walls are covered with mosaics that are, granted, marvels of craftsmanship, although the pictures end up looking a lot like the ones in my Classics Comics when I was a kid.]

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