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On (Not) Reading a Romanesque Altarpiece

Day Three. I’m sitting in an anteroom of the Cathedral San Martin in Lucca. Called a sacristy, it’s a side note off the huge main cathedral space with its stained glass and frescoed ceiling, its tessellated floors and soaring archways. The exterior of the cathedral is known for its striped pattern and the stripes show up here too in the corner columns holding up the ceiling. It’s a language I don’t know how to read.

Cathedral. Lucca

Here in this room are the duomo’s greatest hits: a funeral monument by Jacopo Della Quercia and an altarpiece by Fra Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio. But I can’t figure them out. The altarpiece itself is a vertical mishmash of seemingly unrelated ideas: a semicircle on top of a square bound by a horizontal ribbon of separate pictures and anchored by a marble slab. The horizontal band, called a predella, seems to be a series of non sequiturs lined up next to each other like a proto-storyboard. The altarpiece as a whole is held together by its rigid geometry: the columns on either side of the main tableau serve as bookends. But what’s going on inside? What are you trying to say? I’d ask of my students. Indeed, I’m reminded of an essay I used to teach– E.M. Forster’s “Not Looking at Pictures” in which he does exactly this: he struggles to understand how to “read” a painting of St. George and the dragon, finally enlisting help from an art historian.

Here’s what I could see for myself. The central image by Ghirlandaio is astonishingly beautiful: the gilt haloes shine brightly, delicately etched, as four saints gather around a madonna and child. The baby Jesus stands with a finger poised as if instructing his elders from his mother’s lap. The image is a symbolic window into the church itself, reflecting its architecture and patterned floor. Like the cathedral, the deep perspective draws the viewer/worshipper into the interior, up the carpeted steps, behind the central figures, and past the theatricality of those parted golden curtains. If the painting is a church, the vertical lines of saints flank the madonna to form each nave, and the madonna’s halo, appropriately, is the altar. The composition, then, has a logic that the content doesn’t…for me, which is no surprise since no one imagined me as its audience.

Luckily I have an art historian at hand too–in my sister, who wrote a dissertation on Romanesque art. When I relayed my confusion she shrugged. The connections between the parts of an altarpiece were subtle and complicated, she explained, but there would have been something there even if we may not be able to discern it any more. Sometimes the relationship was of part to whole: the narrative of the predella might refer to a character in the painting, just as the altarpiece echoes the church itself. Sometimes there were implied relationships about donors or saints’ days or doctrine…. There could be lots of connections between the parts, she said, but the composition was never random. The cathedrals were living documents to be read and embodied by parishioners. Even the facades were designed to reinforce the messages within.

There weren’t many parishioners in the cathedral today. I saw one woman praying but everyone else seemed like a tourist, wandering vaguely through the space, peering at inscriptions and snapping photos. But the sacred imposed upon us and no one spoke or interacted. With everyone left in their quiet solitude, I could sit on a pew and type this out on my phone, glancing up to look some more. If it seemed like I was just texting, no one cared. Random mournful sounds emerged from the organ, as if it were being tuned.

I look again, still reaching for some understanding of the room as a whole. There are blank spaces on the wall where something was moved and other wall paintings arranged higgeldy piggeldy around the main attractions. The other focus of attention is the tomb of a young noblewoman, Ilaria Del Carretto, preserved in Carrara marble by Jacobo Della Quercia. (I admired the snow-like white-tipped hilltops of Carrara on the drive to Lucca but couldn’t get a good photo from my phone). What is she doing here, this anachronistic teenager, her dog devotedly stretched out at her feet for all eternity? Her flesh is oddly creamy; her features barely register in profile. Her head rests on two hard pillows. Life-size, she watches impassively, eyes closed, while the infant Jesus is circumsized in a huge tableau over her head. Quercia spent two years on this work, immortalizing this girl in 1407. She was moved here to this room in 1995 after restoration. Her survival into the 21st century seems utterly random.

Jacobo Della Quercia, tomb of Illaria del Carretto
Illaria’s tomb, in a different location. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Incoherence. These stories are elusive and their forms unfamiliar. There is no “original” art here and no authentic experience that hasn’t been altered ad infinitum. This location was consecrated in the 800s, the church begun in the 1100s, then continually and continuously restored, with interruptions like the plague of 1348. Those frescoed ceilings made their Pre-Raphaelite appearance in the 1800s. My experience today, though, clearly meant something to me because I’ve spent hours writing and thinking and conversing about it. It began as a jumble of loosely-related ideas, but it was the strongest impression of my first three days in Italy. I’m traveling with my sisters and their teenage children, reminiscing about our trips to Europe together as adolescents and how foreign it all felt. It was like being pushed into a deep lake, a shove into the unfamiliar. That has not been our own childrens’ experience today though, we noticed. Blame globalization or iPhones or their generation, but they know this place before they get here. To be fair, this medieval walled city seemed familiar to me too. The boutiques, the cobblestones, the trattorias…. I’ve seen them elsewhere. Inside the cathedral was my first return to that welcome sense of utter confusion and novelty, which is what we travel for in the first place.

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