Construction Site for the Jubilee

Written by  Carlo Bassi
One place, three masterpieces, one large restoration.
In recent months, after over fifty years in oblivion, the parts of the apse of the Cathedral damaged by the bombing in 1944, elements of an extraordinary complex dating from the great days of the Renaissance, have been the order of the day in the press as well as the subject of much political debate. Of these parts, the first, in chronological order, is the bell tower.

We know that its creator, as authoritative historical sources are by now convinced, was Leon Battista Alberti. An archaic Alberti who designed his "Roman monument" with its arches linked by an emphatic chiaroscuro, but without neglecting the markedly Romanesque stylistic cues of the exterior of the cathedral alongside which the bell tower had to stand.

Perhaps Alberti was inspired by French models here, perhaps his was a precise and autonomous decision drawn from his memories of them: one thing is sure, however, and that is that the characteristic features of this great sculpture clearly indicate its Romanesque origins. Origins that are the same as those of the great wall of the apse with its reiterated curvature.
As for the dates, about seventy years separate the start of work on these two components. Those were fecund years in the development of that magical period we call the Renaissance, years that allowed Biagio Rossetti, the architect of the apse, to free himself of his Medieval or late Gothic roots to master the new culture, filtering it through local materials and styles, until he transformed it into an extraordinarily effective and autonomous language.

Here, therefore, two separate stylistic developments are visible in two adjacent structures that both originated in the same Medieval crucible: the French or German Middle Ages, in the first case; and local late Gothic culture, in the second. In any case, for us, the bell tower and apse constitute two seminal architectural texts: and the fact that we can see them side by side, contiguous and legible at one and the same time, is something that gives us much to reflect upon.

The third work in question is the great painted semi-dome incorporated by the upper curve of the apse, within the choir of the Cathedral: the chief work of the great Ferrarese master Sebastiano Filippi known as Il Bastianino. Bastianino began painting the dome of the choir in 1577; and in the sequence we are describing the dates have a specific significance.

Again, over seventy years separate his fresco from the architecture that contains it. We pass from Medieval architecture, to the Renaissance, right down to the conclusion of the Renaissance, when the last embers of Michelangelo's mastery were quenched by the noble but melancholy dissolution of Bastianino's style.
All this, in years long gone by, was nearly lost. Clusters of allied bombs fell, first, on the walls of San Paolo, causing carnage in an air-raid shelter (eighty dead); more bombs fell in the space between the Cathedral and its bell tower. This was in 1944 and, since then, these places have echoed only to whispers, until 1988, when their memory emerged from oblivion.

On visiting these places as a tourist, but perhaps also as a citizen of Ferrara - unaware, if young, of the storm of fire and steel that rained down on the city - one wonders about the reasons for so much criminal neglect.

Marc Augé wrote: «Memory and history blend in cities. Each of the inhabitants of a city has a personal relationship with its monuments that, in their turn, are witnesses to a deeper, more collective history. In this sense the urban itinerary taken by each individual is a way of appropriating history through the city. Clearly, this reference to history is not deciphered exactly by each of those who take the path, but it involves all movements, in particular when the itineraries of the inhabitants and those of visitors meet, as these last remind the citizens that, for others, their 'life picture' may be an object of curiosity and admiration».
The 'life picture' of the citizens of Ferrara regarding the problem of the bombing and the victims, over a thousand of them, is that of psychological removal. Which concerns not only young people, but also their elders who lived through the tragedy: a total and deliberate ignorance of the dramas that overwhelmed half of the families of Ferrara in those years, not to mention almost fifty per cent of the city's buildings.

It must be said that, as far as the Cathedral and its surroundings are concerned, a major factor behind this removal was played by the miles of red tape that prevented anyone from understanding how the plan for the recovery was to be put into practice.
This was all documented in a White Paper that was to play a determinant role in the solution to the problem. Reading between the lines of those pages one sees the entire history and development of the culture of restoration.

The conclusion determined by the White Paper and by the heated debate in the press alike, was sanctioned when experts from the Monuments and Fine Arts Service, in approving a final and definitive plan, affirmed the theory of the "document-that-becomes-a-monument", which establishes the principle whereby we should conserve all testimony to every trauma suffered by a monument: nothing of the vicissitudes of the monument and none of its history must be lost.

Clearly, the great apsidal dome frescoed by Bastianino does not fall within the framework of this complex of problems. The generous financing for the restoration of the frescoes springs from the liberal hand of the Fondazione of the Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara. But a fortunate coincidence makes it possible to begin this restoration together with the restoration of the architecture of the apse and the sacristy, financed by the Fine Arts Service.

And all this is going to happen in concomitance with the recovery of the area around the apse, which principally involves the construction of a new sacristy, a fundamental structure within this sacred area that the Cathedral has had to do without after the bombs destroyed the Eighteenth century choir that had replaced the older Sagrestia Nova.

Therefore, albeit by different bureaucratic and administrative routes, the construction site that is about to open within and outside the apse of the Cathedral and its surroundings has all the look of a major restoration effort destined to complete, in years to come, a plan that both the city and art experts have long been calling for.

A single site, therefore, for three grandiose restorations that will supply the 'picture of life' of Ferrara's citizens with new stimuli for remembrance; for visitors, there will be further reason for admiration; while the culture of the city will finally have a level of compensation commensurate with the poetic dimensions and historic depth of the place.