The Architecture of History

Every medieval city had its castle – a dense shadow with pennants bearing complex ancestries and windows shaped like black crosses.  Yet at the same time these cities distanced themselves from such symbols with cathedrals.  Reaching high enough to touch the throne of God, built on such a scale that buttresses were needed to hold up man’s holy ambition – they proclaimed a population’s declaration of worthiness and hope for salvation.

The Cathedral of Siena is a 13th century design of pinnacles and portals, of lunettes rising over pediments;  carved with Gothic mysteries and biblical fears and promises.  Granite philosophers, apostles and gargoyles observed from carved recesses the developing city below them; the peculiar route of history it would take.

Beauty and the Bible

According to legend, Siena was founded by Remus’ sons, Senius and Aschius.  When they left Rome, they rode horses that thundered through myth and across the dry plains of central Italy.  The symbolic colors of the city were taken from the flanks of their horses – one black and one white – and are seen on the marble flanks of the cathedral.

By 1263 construction on this monument to belief and legend was finished.  A countryside of domes, towers and columns had finally come together in a Gothic wish for earthly deliverance.  In 1339 further building was planned, which was to begin in 1348.  But it didn’t.  All that remains is a striped shell; there is no ceiling to be carved and gilded;  the windows were not blessed with stained glass:  there were no  miraculous births of colored light.

Siena But Not Heard

1348 was the year of the plague, the Black Death.  What began as a rumor of pestilence fouling the silk and spice routes of China, Lepanto and Egypt, became reality as trade ships came to port in Europe, bearing caches of a ferocious invader.  No one blamed the rats living in the dark corners of the ships.  No one blamed the streets streaming with filth.  They blamed the devil, sowing disease across Europe like an awful crop.  They blamed an angry God, not impressed with their cathedrals.  They blamed the sins of man.  They blamed the Jews.

Siena Cathedral was never finished.  But do the microbes continue to live – taking sanctuary in a web of breathing spaces within the marble?  Are they suspended, caught like tiny dinosaurs in amber?  Do they circulate within the architecture, worlds of bacteria that had changed man’s world – his way of living?   Is it suitable imprisonment – or is it life – or is it proof of  a terrifying history?


11 responses to “The Architecture of History

  1. Boy that’s spooky…

  2. Yes, castles with windows shaped like crosses and cathedrals with windows shaped like rockets. And people declaring damnation from above while fleas spread plague from down below.

  3. I’d never heard the story of that cathedral before! Very cool!

  4. dora – isn’t it? First the singing of masses at its initial completion, and then silence.
    pyrit – the filth of that time! And yet the glamour!
    stevebetz – I had never heard of that story either; I came across it reading one of my favorite history books: ‘A Distant Mirror’ , by Barbara Tuchman. It’s 600 pages of the terror/beauty of the 14th century.

  5. There’s jsut something magical about old stone architecture. The stories, the engineering, the marvel of it all…

  6. Wondeer!! Thank for the post and you nice blog. I hope to
    link a good news by Vaite in reanaissance and expecially medieval on
    II mediueval period. It’s in Italian words and video about his history in
    Italy . Goog vision Jacopo Here is the link:

  7. I have always found it fascinatingly sad that such buildings were built. The same with the pyramids. The engineering and design – astonishing! The way the construction occurred – horrifying. Just goes to show what you can do when you keep people poor and ignorant, I guess.

    On the plus side, there are plenty of answers to the mystery of the plague in those chunks of stone and wood! History’s mysteries revealed in teeny tiny bits!

  8. Really interesting Aubrey.

  9. /thrdjk/ I just realized I hadn’t added you to my settings, Aubrey! I’m so sorry–why din’t you tell me? I’ve left others out too and wondered where are they??
    Unless you don’t want me to be a peep anymoar… 😦

  10. The most in admiration in this “holy “impressive gigantism, don’t see how often those who had to suffer through the worldly power erecting those places, are still mocked in stone.
    Some “saint portals” or frieze, are early comics describing the domination about the heretics/cathars who s stolen wealth got use to build “the official version”of what to believe, legitimating the destructive violence.

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