Thursday, June 11, 2009

Living with the Past: the Naked Remodel

When you visit old cathedrals, you're supposed to think about the architecture, the art, the history, the soaring grandeur, the holy spirit. Me, I think about the bricks.

At least, that's what I was studying at the Basilica di San Antonino in Piacenza. The first church on this location was built around the year 350. Then in the year 850 they disassembled it and moved it - yes, moved it, according to my guidebook - to a town more than 100 kilometers from here. (Or maybe something was lost in translation.) Anyway, the existing church was begun in the year 870.

The octagonal tower was built in two phases, first in the year 1004, then the upper section with windows in the late 12th century. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can see in the octagonal tower a change in the color of brick at two points - and that's what fascinates me.

Bricks that are manufactured in different centuries are going to look different. So is the workmanship of the craftsmen who apply them. Also different will be the amount of wear and tear.

I couldn't get close to the tower, but I could get as close as I wanted to the pronaos - that thing in front with the huge arch. So I studied the bricks of the buttresses of the pronaos.

There are at least four phases of brickwork in just this small section. I don't know which are repairs and which are simply changes of material in the original process of construction. The mortar changes, too, in both color and style of application. I like to imagine those rounded, smaller bricks near the bottom as salvaged from some ancient structure. I'm a little worried about the lack of visible mortar among them - but I assume somebody's keeping an eye on things. Above those rounded bricks, I like to imagine the blackened ones as recovered from a fire in some earlier era. I like to imagine a swarm of craftsmen over a string of centuries manufacturing bricks in big ovens or hauling old bricks from ancient ruins in groaning ox-carts. I see them mixing mortar, troweling, embedding, scraping, leveling, squinting with one practiced eye, assembling scaffolds, climbing ladders, hoisting and tuck-pointing, arguing and sweating, drinking, taking long breaks for lunch, going home to their children and watching them grow, teaching them how to lay bricks in a good and workmanlike manner. For me that's the soaring grandeur, the holy spirit.

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