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"I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with
blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns." (Revelation 17:3)
This Biblical inspiration for the stained glass window entitled "The
Seven Heads" (shown here) is an appropriate allusion to the lack of
reverence implied in the newest addition to Cefalù's splendid twelfth
century cathedral. "Addition" to a medieval structure? Yes, the
folks responsible for the preservation of architectural and cultural assets
in Sicily decided, some years ago, that the addition of coloured windows
bearing abstract designs would enhance this Romanesque-Gothic structure
built in the Norman-Arab tradition with Byzantine (Greek) influences, appropriating
taxpayers' money on the project. The bishops of Venice, Milan and Bologna
might never consent to such a thing, but the Diocese of Cefalù acquiesced
to the proposal of artist Michele Canzoneri, whose abstract, mixed media
(glass, acrylic, fiberglass resin) windows have little to do with the ecclesiastical
architecture of medieval or Renaissance Europe. Fortunately, glass offers
less permanence than stone; the windows can be removed easily enough, though
at some expense, in twenty or thirty years. It would not be the first time
that a Sicilian church was restored to its intended form.
In most countries, this kind of modification, based on artistic whim,
ceased to be a serious social force by the 1980s. Even allowing for delayed
reaction and effect in Sicily, it is surprising that such a proposal could
have been taken very seriously in a place that boasts a great historical
and artistic heritage. Few of Sicily's medieval churches were built in the
pure Gothic style encountered in northern and central Europe, or even northern
Italy. (Messina's crumbling church of Saint Mary of the Germans is an exception.)
Instead, most are structurally Romanesque. The mosaics in some Sicilian
churches are an element typical of the Eastern (Orthodox) church, where
coloured windows still are not very fashionable. Even the Renaissance failed
to make coloured windows popular in Italy. When these have been added to
existing (Baroque) churches, including Saint Peter's in Rome, they have
usually been discreet, or at least traditional, in design. Had that been
the case at Cefalù, visitors would express less amazement.
The emergence of abstract artistic movements during the twentieth century
may be seen as a legitimate cultural and social development, but few abstract
expressionists sought to modify pre-existing works of art. When did any
of them seriously suggest repainting the Mona Lisa? At best, they may have
reworked a photograph or printed image of Da Vinci's masterpiece, but the
curator of the Louvre would not have permitted them to touch the original.
Viewed as a work of art, why should a medieval cathedral be any different?
Italian revisionists point to architectural "evolution" such
as the architectural modification, in a less enlightened era, of medieval
Romanesque churches into Baroque ones. Unfortunate though it may have been,
this was part of a widespread artistic, and even philosophical, movement
in certain parts of Europe. In recent times, the stucco and plaster of some
of these churches has been removed to reveal their medieval magnificence
(the Magione and Saint Francis of Assisi in Palermo come to mind). The idea
is that an architectural work should be viewed as it was conceived by its
That's what millions of visitors come to Cefalù each year to see.
Until now, Cefalù Cathedral has been subjected to few alterations.
In Italy, many artists and architects suffer from narrow-minded perspectives,
or outright misconceptions, fostered by their lack of exposure to outside
influences. Many travel, but few speak other languages (especially English)
which would facilitate a more profound knowledge of the world and its complex
history. It is impossible to consider Sicily's multicultural heritage without
knowing something of the civilisations that brought it to Sicily, and this
is where many Sicilian historians fail. In the case of Cefalù Cathedral,
preservation necessitates familiarity with the medieval societies of Normandy,
Greece and northern Africa, as well as Italy. Abstract art just isn't part
of the picture. A work of art, even when it's a church, should be allowed
to speak for itself. With these newest "additions," Cefalù
Cathedral is being deprived of that opportunity. The scarlet beast has reared
its ugly heads.
About the Author: Architect Carlo Trabia has written for various magazines and professional journals.