Le Pareti di San Lorenzo

The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome con...
The shrine at San Lorenzo in Lucinain Rome containing the supposed gridiron used to grill Saint Lawrence to death. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trans: The Walls of Saint Lawrence

If, as a significant proportion of we tourists do, you head from the fountain, opera house and economic muscle of Piazza Ferrari down towards the old port, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll pass the Cathedral of San Lorenzo along the way as Via San Lorenzo is the widest and most direct of the routes leading from the harbour.  And yet, if you take this route, named after la cattedrale, you could easily pass the great church without realising it.  Approach it from the opposite direction and you can’t miss it.

This is because whilst Via San Lorenzo is broader than the narrow alleys of Maddalena, it’s still far from spacious, and so the towering walls of the cathedral become just a sea of greyness towering above you to the right, whilst a range of colourful shops and cafés draw your eye to the left.  What decoration there is is high above your head and so for many goes unnoticed, and because the piazza at the grand western entrance is quite small, you could well be past without further thought.

Perhaps it is fair that those toiling up the hill should have the greater reward.  From this direction the façade is unmissable with its bands of grey and white striped marble.  Whether true or not, I overheard a guide explaining that the use of this pattern was closely regulated by the city’s government so only those with real wealth and influence were permitted to use it.  No problem for the church then!

Striking as it is when standing back (as far as that small piazza allows), the true beauty is discovered when you get closer.  The masons who fashioned this marble in the 14th century seem to have believed it was a sin to leave the stone with a smooth surface, for there are carved flourishes wherever you look.

And then you start to notice more, at least if you’re facing the right way!

The side walls have interesting features too, yet these seem more randomly placed, as if they weren’t intended to be where they ended up.  Perhaps these pieced weren’t good enough for the facade, or were moved to their current locations when something better came along!  There’s an interesting parallel between this loose approach to the construction and the story of St Lawrence’s martyrdom.

He is usually portrayed with a gridiron, representing his supposed fate when martyred in 3rd century Rome, where he was one of the seven deacons of the city.  As such, his status would normally have meant his execution would have been by beheading (Latin passus est).  Some scholars believe that a slip of the pen rendered this as assus est, meaning “he was roasted”.   Like Magdalene the harlot, a legend was born.

But I digress.  As you look at these misplaced elements you realise that even the textures of that grey marble are beautiful, but then no one would ever pay sufficient attention to a grey church would they?  Back to the masons and their decorative façade then.




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