Sunday, May 25, 2008

Duomo-Measuring Contest

There are few representations of power more ubiquitous in Italy than churches and few churches have more thought put into their construction than the cathedral or duomo of a diocese. Despite a church's professed function as a monument to the piety of the people who construct it, the construction of churches is often caught in the politics of local and regional rivalry. Siena and Florence had just such a rivalry in the early fourteenth century. After Florence built its duomo, which is one of the largest in world, Siena, determined not to be outdone, drew up plans for its own, larger church. Unfortunately for Siena, the plague struck halting construction. In this picture, you can see front walls still standing that would have made up the nave of the massive church had its construction gone forward.

The power function of the cathedrals can be ascertained simply by observing them close up. Both Florence and Siena's cathedrals have massive green and white facades. This picture, of the duomo in Florence, was difficult to take. The facade is simply too big to fit within the camera's frame standing in the piazza in front of it. The structures are certainly impressive now, but they must have been awe inspiring in the fourteenth century. With few buildings in existence of such a large size and with the knowledge of math, geometry, and art put into the design of these cathedrals being so rare, they must have appeared to truly have the sanction of a higher power.

In addition to their massive size and artistic complexity, both churches have very high bell towers. They would be able to reach the entire town and perhaps neighboring areas by ringing the huge bells in these towers. In fact, in Siena, the bells are so loud that we found them to be a bit of an annoyance when visiting. They would ring for a couple minutes each hour and were easily heard, even inside our hotel. These bell towers may not seem significant on face, but the ability to sound the bells thereby regulate the conception of time held by the people in both towns is fantastic. The church became the default arbiter of the passage of time since its bells would have announced the hours and times for worship.

This massive, and apparently unused, twenty-four hour clock is located above the main door of the the Duomo in Florence. The piece is very confusing because, as an American, I tend to think of churches as one of few places that never have clocks and so far my understanding has not been challenged except in this case. However, in light of the bell towers and the capacity of these cathedrals to mark the passage of time for the community, the clock makes more sense.

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