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.



Decay (Habana 14)

Readers of some of my posts about Venice may recall that one of the things I love about Italy is the crumbly, flaky, rusty, textural quality of the buildings there, buildings that have that weathered exteriors but, being Italian, often very stylish interiors.

Havana presented me with a different sort of decay.  Weathered?  Almost certainly, since apart from the baking heat this part of the world is a regular host to hurricanes and tornadoes.

The humidity brings another adjective to the crumbly, flaky, rusty list too.  Mouldy.  Many buildings bore patches of blackened render as evidence of this, but every banknote seemed to have a musty smell too.

So decay was everywhere, but because of the poverty in Cuba this was no superficial affectation.  Peer through the windows of many buildings and there was no stylish interior.  Vacuous concrete spaces, darkened by a lack of electric lighting and furnished with plastic garden chairs were a common sight.Havana-12

There is evidence of attempts to restore some of the grander buildings, but even this seems to lack heart.  A short walk from the huge restoration projects of the Capitol and National Theatre is a roofless shell held up by an exoskeleton of scaffolding.  Scaffolding that has itself been cocooned in a wall of creeper resulting from a long period of inactivity.

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Wearing a hat against the Havana sun is commonplace, but when sections of balustrade are falling to the street you probably want something harder.Havana-5

Texture (Venezia 36)

Before we left I warned J that I’d probably be photographing a lot of random features during our trip.

“Like what?” She asked.

“Oh you know, walls, doors, paving, plaster.  That sort of stuff.”

I wanted them to use as textures, overlaid layers in Photoshop that can bring colour and contrast to images in new ways.  (Check out the work of Jessica Drossin if you want to know more)

There is of course so much more to appreciate than deliberately out of focus images of mottled subjects, you can appreciate them for their own beauty; swathes of stucco interrupted by cracks, dents, holes giving way to networks of crumbly red brick beneath, interspersed with and bordered by white water-resistant marble, held together with bands of oxidising ironwork.  Venice has many treats for the eye.  For those who see by touch there is much to enjoy too.