: 02.09.2010




Sta Croce & the Pazzi Chapel



The Sta Croce, early summer, around 10 o’clock in the morning, 1981. Only particular details remain, for the rest there is a generalised atmosphere, a feeling about smells, sounds, textures, the light and sequences.(see note below) We’ve had our coffee and escape the heat gathering outsid. We enter the church, relishing the cool within proffered by the passive, all absorbing, inscrutable stones moulded and shaped by manifold desires. In the end they tell us our own stories. The slow deliberate stroll around the religious landscape of the church becomes something of an act of gratitude. Some of it is boring. The smell is dusty and very vaguely repellent. I had had to prepare a presentation on the Legenda Aurea as depicted in the main apse. It had been painted in the 14th century by Agnolo Gaddi. In the library at home I had discovered an indulgently published translation of the legend by Morris & Co. I was allowed to read the book with its luscious typography in the special reading room; sitting over it, it had felt a bit like prayer. I never really liked praying. Things change. I decided to tell the story of the legend just as I imagined Gaddi had meant to, the story in its organised narrative space. I would have liked to speak to emperor Constantine’s mum, but she was long dead. I tried to find a rhetorical tool to explain the purpose of the story, the purpose of the frescoes, the purpose of the composition, the purpose of the church and the purpose of the artist as well as the purpose of the patron. I looked for the purpose behind the architectural spaces Gaddi depicted and tried to enjoy the awkwardness of the gestures and movements as well as the framed spaces of the story. My joy was its purpose for a while. Architectural space in 14th century Italian painting sometimes has the quality of a De Chirico, Saenredam, and sometimes that of a Carel Willinck or Escher. But mostly it is all its own. It becomes the structuring and the rhetorical support of narrative. Thereby it achieves a  lightness, an openness and a frankness which could be taken for a wish but is too unsettling. One looks for depth, things to be more difficult than they are. Space depicted and described is a practice of philosophical attitude. György Konrád got it right when he said that "Describing cities is a method of practicing philosophy".(see note below) Take for example the descriptions of the street by Céline as his autobiographical hero Bardamu enters New York, having laughed heartily at its verticality. I wish I could have heard the tone of that laugh. Céline doesn’t describe it. I have my suspicions. Nevertheless he manages to read people from the way they use their space and the way space creates the conditions and special opportunities for behaviour and its observation. He uses space, turns it to his own use, portrying blackness, melancholy, cynicism, bitterness, loss and occasional almost angelic surprise at the contradiction of his miserable expectations.

Particularly beautiful elsewhere in the Sta Croce is Maso di Banco’s Raising of the wise men in the Forum in the Bardo di Vernio Chapel nearby. His depiction of the Forum Romanum is magisterial, so enigmatic, flat, silent and above all, open-ended. After the elation of having my presentation well received by our professor, we walk on. He is a virtuoso whistler and loves Rossini. It keeps him happy. We decide to go to the Pazzi Chapel. As we manoeuvre ourselves through the stone corridors we hear music. The professor’s face changes, twists a bit. It is Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle being practiced in one of the rooms adjacent to the chapel. We listen. We are allowed to look on for a while but not too long. Nevertheless, we begin to learn the music, the architecture of music, quietly in the room as long as we are allowed to, and later at the description of it during dinner. None of us had heard it before. But the enthusiasm of the moment is infectious. It would help shape our taste in music, our taste in the past. And then the Pazzi Chapel. The heat is closer now. The stone is no longer able to absorb the heat and carry it away. The smell mingles with that of the grass outside. The music can still be heard in the distance. Particularly because we allowed it to begin to change our lives. We keep the sound with us. We cannot whistle that well. Sounds of the street are also trying to get our attention, but we are still strong. Phrases of delight, mild and joyful irreverence practised over and over again, echoing in the resonant chambers of our weak minds. And then the chapel itself, with its modest but finely etched surfaces, its carefully drawn lines, its quiet balance, its small awkwardnesses in the corners, which make the space explain itself; the wealth of story, its lack of pomp; its refined grammar of lines and volumes. The way it accompanies our walk…

In the end all that remains are the smells, Céline, Voyage au bout de la nuit.

transl.from a dutch edition of Kerti Mulatság, (1985)



Contact me at: jacob@voorthuis.net

copyright © jacob voorthuis 1994-2010

All written material on this page is copyrighted.

Please cite Jacob Voorthuis as the author and Voorthuis.net as the publisher.