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Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Cathedral of Memory (lost)


The history of the strained Christian/Muslim relationship in the Mediterranean area during the Renaissance 'might' have been painted, or rather mosaicized in the Cathedral of Messina, Sicily (Italy). The building had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1908; it was rebuilt "as was," and the long work of its embellishment was under way when. . . the church was destroyed again, this time by the air raids during WWII. It has been rebuilt once again, but the inner walls have remained blank.

In 1930 the project for the mosaics -- after a false start -- was entrusted to one of the main Italian artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860-1932). He however died quite soon, before completing the job, and many reasons led to a different solution. But, what would have made the cathedral unique was the series of pictures devoted to the most important episodes and personages in the religious life of the city of Messina, from Saint Paul preaching there (see, indirectly, Acts of the Apostles 28: 12) to the present era. Several pictures dealt with the clashes with the Muslim world in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including a map of the Battle of Lepanto, 1571.

Such images would probably be labelled as "politically incorrect" nowadays, but this would be a short-sighted approach. Having a cathedral adorned like that would have meant preserving the memory of centuries of flesh-and-blood interaction between the two cultures, though not always an easy one, that's anyway better than spending one's time playing with a smartphone and thinking that Muslims come from some other planet. And both peoples would have been honored by the great, innovative sacred art of Sartorio.

Gioacchino Barbera, Anna Maria Damigella, I bozzetti di Sartorio per il Duomo di Messina, Palermo: Sellerio Editore, 1989, pages 158, some 20 x 30 cm, with the reproduction of all the sketches and many other documentary materials. In the picture above: The death sentence on Antonio Duro, from Messina, who in 1473 'terroristically' attacked by stealth and set fire to some ships in the harbor of Constantinople.