Wednesday, January 29, 2014

San Rufino, Assisi's cathedral

San Rufino at sunset

As promised a little while ago, I'd like to introduce you to my all-time favorite medieval church façade, the magnificent 12th century romanesque front of Assisi's cathedral.  This medieval church is dedicated to San Rufino and houses the saint's relics.

This may well suggest two questions to you:
  • What, exactly, is romanesque, anyway?  
  • And why just the façade?
 To answer the second one first, in the 16th century they baroqued the poor thing to death on the inside (sorry, I think my biases are showing...), thereby making it much less interesting to someone who studies the middle ages.   Not that there aren't still a few very cool bits, and of course there's all that history (see earlier blog post about three important baptisms).  But what is authentically 12th and 13th century is that intricate, astonishing façade.  (Also the bell tower, which actually includes some even earlier components.)

Romanesque arch

As for the second one, there's a simple distinction between medieval arches (round arch = romanesque = earlier, pointy arch = gothic = later), but of course there's lots more to it than that.   Not that I understand much of it; I don't really speak architecture.  But I did find this passage helpful (from Architectural Guides for Travellers:  Medieval Tuscany and Umbria, by Anthony Osler McIntyre):
Gothic arch

The name Romanesque indicates the style's debt to classical architecture.  As a living architecture it was partly an inheritance from the Lombards, who had ruled in Central Italy until the eighth century, and to some extent from the Carolingian architects who had followed them.  Yet the medieval artist grew up surrounded by real classical buildings, as were so many of the structures he demolished to build the new civic palaces or churches.
This author does seem to know his pediments from his cornices, though he's a tad shaky on the history (Saint Clare was Saint Francis's sister?!?  I think that would have surprised both of them quite a bit!).

But we are (I hope!) less shaky on the history, on this blog.  So here's a bit of the history of this church:

The Duomo of San Rufino honors - naturally enough - San Rufino, a 3rd century martyr and the patron saint of the city of Assisi.  (What?  you may say.  It isn't Francis?  No, Francis is one of the patron saints of all of Italy.  Rufino gets Assisi.) 

As early as the 5th century here was a chapel dedicated to San Rufino on this spot, which many believe to be the site of the Forum from Assisi's Roman days.   Traces of a Roman retaining wall survive under the floor of the current church.

Santa Maria Maggiore

In the 11th century Bishop Ugone built a new cathedral on the site.  At the time this building was constructed, Assisi's cathedral was Santa Maria Maggiore, but Bishop Ugone's version of San Rufino became the cathedral in 1036.  This version of the church projected farther out into what is now the piazza (and sometime parking lot) than the current church does.  Bits of it can still be seen in the crypt, and also the lowest part of the bell tower. 

Piazza (and parking lot)

Bell tower
In 1134 the decision was made to tear down the old church and build the one that stands on the piazza today.  Construction on the new building, designed by an architect known to us as Giovanni of Gubbio, began in 1140 and finished around 1228, though it was 1253 before it was consecrated by Pope Innocent IV.

Innocent IV
Saint Francis knew this church well.  Born in around 1181, Francis (who died in 1226) probably watched as this church was completed, and saw the decorative details as they were added to the façade over the years.  One wonders which aspects were already in place when he first preached there, around 1210 or 1211, and which were yet to come.

Saints Francis and Clare
Saint Clare would have known the church well, too - in fact, this church may be where she first heard Francis preach.  Clare's childhood home is right next door to the cathedral.  She could have stepped out her front door and reached the central portal of San Rufino in about a dozen paces.

The remarkable façade, with its biblical and animal motifs, is thought to have been modeled on Spoleto's cathedral, shown here:

The building is constructed of white stone from Mount Subasio and of travertine.  Mount Subasio produces stone in both white and pink, and in Assisi the two have often been used together to graceful effect:

The lower part contains three doors.  An arcade rests on the cornice, and a central rose window, consisting of three concentric circles, is surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists and held up by three telamones or atlantes standing on the backs of three fabulous beasts.  These little guys are my favorite part of the whole church; I find them utterly charming, for some reason.

 Each portal is surrounded by rich carvings, with geometric and plant motifs,  animals, and fanciful creatures.  Sculpted lions and griffins flank the portals; one lion is eating a human being, the other a goat.  (One source says that the first represents "the pagan sacrifice" and the second "the Jewish sacrifice," but I've also read that the lion eating the man is a reminder of martyred Christians.)

Main portal

The blank space at the top of the façade may once have been intended to house a mosaic, or may even have once contained one.  This whole area is a later addition, probably 13th century.

The lunette over the main portal pictures a figure of the Blessing God, crowned like a king and with an outstretched hand that some find reminiscent of contemporary depictions of the emperor Frederick II, who had childhood ties with Assisi and may have contributed to the building of this church.  On one side is the Madonna, nursing the infant Jesus; on the other, a figure representing either San Rufino or Saint John the Evangelist.

Frederick II
The bell tower's oldest extant bell dates from 1287.  At the tower's base is a vaulted Roman cistern.  The one-handed liturgical clock tells 24-hour time, with the day ending at sunset.

And since sunset is perhaps the best time to view this beautiful and evocative church, I'll leave you as we began, with a view of the cathedral at the close of the day.

Images in this picture:  Frederick II, Saint Francis, and gothic and romanesque arches are in the public domain by virtue of age.  Photos of the loggia supported by carved heads and of the detail around the main portal are licensed to Wolfgang Sauber under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license via Wikimedia Commons; the picture of the griffin is similarly licensed to JoJan (Georges Jansoone); and the picture of the Cathedral of Spoleto is similarly licensed to Italiamedievale.  Other photos are by my husband Tim Heath, who holds copyright.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

In fair Assisi, where we lay our scene

Well, okay.  Apparently I blew it.  I was hoping for at least some participation in my story/picture caption contest, announced last week.  I got - zilch.  

So I won't try that again.  Admittedly, we're all busy, and you'd have to be (1) feeling playful, (2) seriously into time-wasting, and (3) fairly glib at this sort of thing for it to have been fun and worth doing.

Still, I did promise a story of my own, so I will attempt to deliver (though it's actually more of a vignette than a real story).  This is what happens when my inner surrealist attempts to devour my more sedate medievalist.

The idea was this:  I presented four photos of faceless mannequins clad in medieval costume, taken inside the Rocca Maggiore in Assisi, and hoped that people would place them in the order of their choice and then create a story from them.  

This week in our files I found another faceless being, above, and so I'm presenting her to you as our storyteller.  She's not in Assisi; she's visiting from Boccaccio's old digs in Certaldo.  Let's call her something appropriate, like, say, monna Bianca Senzafaccia.

Bianca says: 

Two households, both alike in dignity
(though that's not saying very much, I know),
Did come together in a mood of amity,
To feast, and dance, and maybe watch a show.

The Voltivuoti clan feared losing face,
But loved to party, dancing with abandon.
 Although the Gambeperse shared that fear,
They also didn't have a leg to stand on.

Lisetta and Vanna of the Voltivuoti had set up their embroidery display as far as possible from the musicians.  They weren't attracting much attention, but then, neither of them really had an eye for design.  They stared blankly at the arriving guests.  Vanna was seething inside, but her face revealed nothing.

Buoso and Tessa blindly followed Guido into the hall.  Somebody - was it Donato, perhaps? - called to Buoso, "Come on!  Shake a leg!"  How insensitive, thought Buoso, instead shaking his head sadly.  Simply not an option.  Meanwhile, Serafina and Angela had hit a dead end.  Serafina couldn't see any way to get into the hall, and Angela too was drawing a blank.  Tessa had somehow managed to get the train of her gown out in front of her, which meant her next step was likely to be a disaster.  "Klutz," muttered Serafina.  "She doesn't even see the problem, and it's as plain as the nose on her face."  "Well, that explains a lot," said Angela drily.

Guido rather envied Donato his fur capelet, for the hall was chilly.  Perhaps that was why the vielle was so hideously out of tune, he thought.  Guido's own white cloak covered his leglessness well enough, but was not particularly warm.  The two mysterious pilgrims at the end of the table stood there, perfectly expressionless.  No doubt they were waiting for edible alms, Guido though, though there was as yet no sign of the feast on the table - only two odd items that looked rather like tuning forks, or possibly wrenches.

In the musicians' gallery, the Gambeperse family band was desperately trying to get its act together.  Pina banged the drum energetically while Antonio struggled with the vielle.  He had no idea what had happened to his tuning wrenches, but he really needed them.  The singers had just warbled their way through a motet, Piero and Cecco singing tenor and bass respectively.  Piero's hair flopped in his face.  He wasn't ready for this, he realized - he had only been singing this part for a short time, and always with other tenors, and he was simply unable as of yet to stand on his own two feet.  Piero wasn't doing much better; he kept staring at Vanna over in the opposite corner, with her embroidered whatever-it-was.  She must have been aware of his gaze, though her face never changed.  Even furious, the woman could knock his socks off, not to mention shoes, and feet, and legs. 


Ahem.  Okay, so much for that.  All photos in this post are our own; next week I'll get back to history and be my usual serious self again.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rockin' the Rocca - story/caption contest

The Rocca Maggiore, Assisi

This week I am in the mood to be entertained.  To that end, I'm going to provide four pictures of an exhibition within the magnificent castle pictured above, and I'm asking you, my clever and creative readers, to use them to create a story.  Or, if that doesn't appeal, I'd like you to assign captions to these pictures.  I will write something along these lines myself, and whatever you send me, whether privately or in the comments, will then appear along with my version in my next blog post.

If I select your entry as the best, your reward will be to have your work featured here for the admiration and adulation of your peers.  I may also come up with a prize, but so far I haven't thought of anything, so no guarantees there.

The Rocca on its hill

 Perched high on a hill, this formidable structure glowers down at the town of Assisi.  It's been doing this for quite a while; this version has been in place since the late 14th century, but an earlier castle, built by 1174, was torn down by a mob of townspeople which might have included the then-teenager Francis of Assisi.

Inside this castle we saw a curious exhibition:  faceless mannequins, dressed in the sorts of medieval costumes the people of Assisi love to wear for their Calendimaggio celebrations.   Click here to see a slideshow of this colorful spectacle; here to watch a short video. 



The mannequins were arranged in various poses around a hall.  Presumably they are meant to represent some of the people who would have lived and worked in this castle, long ago.  They might have walked on this floor, or one very much like it:

Perhaps they went up and down these stairs:

And maybe they looked out this window:

But we don't really know anything about who they were, or what they did.  So, next I'll show you the four pictures we're using in this contest.  If you wish to write a (very short) story, here are the rules:
  • You may place the pictures in any order you wish (but do specify).
  • You may write one paragraph about each picture.
  • Or, if you prefer, you may offer a caption for any or all of the pictures.
 The pictures:

Picture A

Picture B

Picture C

Picture D

There.  That's all there is to it.  Tell us what these silent, faceless people were all about - entertain us, amuse us, edify us.  You have about a week; I'll look forward to seeing what people come up with.  Enjoy!

Images in this post are my husband's photos and he holds copyright, with the exception of the two Calendimaggio pictures, which the photographer has placed in the public domain.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

An ancient church, three significant baptisms: San Rufino

San Rufino, Cathedral of Assisi (photo by Raffaele Carloforti, before 1901)

San Rufino.  This magnificent Romanesque church has stood on its elevated piazza in Assisi for around 900 years, and two earlier versions occupied its space before that.  From its vantage point on what was once Assisi's Roman forum, it looks down on the rest of that very vertical Umbrian hill town.  Named for Saint Rufino, the third century martyr and bishop of Assisi who is the city's patron saint, Assisi's cathedral has a magnificent 12th-century façade which I will be blogging about in the near future, complete with lavish illustrations, but for today I want to concentrate on three baptisms that occurred here in the 12th century:
  • Francesco di Pietro di Bernadone (who was to become Saint Francis)
  • Chiara Offreduccio (to become Saint Clare)
  • Frederick Hohenstaufen (to become Holy Roman Emperor and a whole bunch of other things)

Francesco and Chiara

Taking these baptisms in chronological order by birth, we'll begin with Francesco.

Francesco was born in 1181 or 1182, in Assisi.  He was the son of Pietro, a wealthy merchant, and his wife Pica.  Although biographical information about him is sketchy and draws heavily on legend, much of it supplied after his death and canonization, a few themes do recur.

It is said that his father was away on business, probably in France, when Francesco was born (Pietro bought and sold luxury fabrics).  It is also said that the child's  baptismal name may have been Giovanni, and his father Pietro may have changed it when he returned from his travels.  

Francis's parents (statue in Assisi)

One legend says that a pilgrim, begging for food, knocked at the door of Pietro and Pica's home on the evening of the day of the baptism.  After eating, the guest asked to hold the infant.  To the nurse's surprise, Pica agreed.  The mysterious pilgrim studied the child and then said, "Today two children have been baptized in this city; this one will be among the best of men, the other among the worst."  (This incident is cited in Adrian Houses's biography, Francis of Assisi:  A Revolutionary Life, and is based on one of the early Lives of Saint Francis.)  

As a novelist, I find that this legend raises two questions:  the first, naturally, is who was that other child?  But no one seems to want to tell us the answer to that, so we move on to the next question, which is:  why only two?  It was usual at this time, in the Italian communes, for a mass baptism to take place on Easter Saturday, involving all of the children born since the previous mass baptism, and performed with great pomp and circumstance, welcoming the new Christians not only to their faith, but to citizenship in their city.   The population of Assisi at this time was between 2000-3000, so Easter Saturday would surely have seen more than two candidates for baptism.

(As Dante has his ancestor Cacciaguida say, when they encounter each other in the Divine Comedy, "... and in your ancient baptistery, at once I became both Christian and Cacciaguida.")

Baptism was considered a vitally important sacrament, as it was believed that unbaptized children would not go to heaven when they died.  Thus, when there was any doubt about a child's health, emergency baptism could take place at any time.  In fact, laypersons could administer baptism in a pinch.  And given the extremely high infant mortality rate of the time, it's obvious that not every child waited for the next Easter Saturday to be baptized.  Francis had health problems all of his life; perhaps he was not a sturdy infant, and a baptism was performed soon after his birth. (Alternately, perhaps we shouldn't believe the legend.)

So we don't really know whether Francesco was baptized on Saturday, the 28th of March, 1182, or some other time.  But we do know that he (and also Chiara and Frederick) were baptized in this font, which you can barely see through the metal grille):

Chiara was born into a noble family in Assisi.  Like many others of their social caste, her family lived near the cathedral - in fact, pretty much right next door.  Here are pictures of the placque proclaiming that building to be Chiara's childhood home, and also the small shrine inside the doors of the house:

On our recent trip to Assisi, we also stayed within spitting distance of San Rufino, and were awakened to its bells every morning.  I think I can safely attest that the young Chiara rarely got a chance to sleep in.

There's a legend attached to Chiara's birth, too:  it's said that her mother, Ortolana, was fearful as her time for delivery approached, but when she prayed in front of a crucifix, she heard a voice telling her, "Woman, fear not, for safe and sound you shall give birth to a light that will greatly illuminate the world."  This is said to be why she chose the name "Chiara" (Clare, or clear) for her daughter.  Chiara's birthdate was July 16, 1194, so if she was included in the mass baptism, it would have been quite a few months later, in early spring of 1195. 

And that leaves Frederick.  Some of you may remember my most recent blog post, which concerned the unusual circumstances of his birth (see here). Things didn't get any more normal for Frederick, certainly not for a while, maybe not ever.  His mother, who was off to help her husband claim a throne, handed him over to the Duchess of Spoleto for safekeeping while she was away.

Constance, handing off Frederick to the Duchess of Spoleto

Some say that he spent his early years living in Foligno; others say it was Assisi, because the Duke of Spoleto was often in residence in the Rocca, a castle perched even higher up than the cathedral and dominating the town (in more ways than one). 

The Rocca

I think the latter may be more likely, since at that time Foligno was a bigger city than Assisi, and there would have been no particular reason for his baptism not to have happened there. 

I doubt if Frederick's baptism was part of a mass baptism on Easter Saturday.  It seems to have been a festive occasion, with processions, and with many dignitaries on hand to do honor to the royal boy.  Some say that the lad's parents had wanted his baptism to be performed by no one less than the pope himself, and that it was the Duke and Duchess of Spoleto who made the decision, in the absence of his parents, to go ahead and have it done in Assisi.  Here's a picture of Frederick's parents, and of his baptism:

Frederick had been born just a few months after Chiara; had they both been involved in a mass baptism, it would have been the same one.  His birth was on December 26, 1194.  His baptism was a public event.  Adrian House speculates that everyone in town would have known about this important occasion, and that it is very likely that the young Francesco (about 13 at this time) would have been there, to see the procession and the crowds if not to observe from within the church. 

I'd love to tell you more about what a baptism ceremony entailed in 12th century Assisi, but it is fiendishly difficult to pinpoint exactly how it was done at a particular time and place.  

We do know some things.  Preparations for the mass baptisms began months ahead of time, with infants being enrolled and then attending scrutinies, during which they underwent exorcisms, vows (usually spoken by their godparents), and anointings.  We know that a male child likely would have had two godfathers and one godmother, and a female child two godmothers and one godfather.  We know that the first male child baptized would receive the name Giovanni (in honor of John the Baptist) and the first female child would become Maria (for the Virgin).  (We don't think, however, that this explains Francesco's original name of Giovanni, if indeed that's true, because we suspect that the honor would have gone to a child born to a family of the nobility.)  We know that the newly baptized infants would be clothed in pure white garments (though how long the garments stayed that way on newborns is anybody's guess).  

But every city had different rituals, different traditions.  Nothing was standardized yet, and everything was in flux.  So for much of what went on, we can only guess. 

But we do know that the baptismal font pictured above hosted three remarkable individuals, and that the magnificent church of San Rufino looks very much today as it did to Francesco, Chiara, and Frederick.

Images in this post are in the public domain or are my husband's photographs (to which he holds copyright), with the exception of the baptismal font photo, which is licensed to Georges Jansoone (User name JoJan) via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, Wikimedia Commons.