At night it is visible from the highway, its portico illuminated and glowing white. For five years that is how I’ve seen it, glancing quickly from the passenger seat of a car, racing by. Each time, I reflect on Desiderius’ somber face as he offers his basilica to the enthroned Christ, and I wonder if that’s the closest I’ll ever get to it. It stands forty minutes from our house, maybe a little more or a little less, but I saw more of it when I lived an ocean away.
Romanesque architecture in Italy is characterized by a variety of regional styles that have in common a reliance on the early Christian past, and nowhere was its influence stronger than in Rome and the terra di lavoro. (Think of S. Clemente, which emulated its late antique models so well that it came to supplant the earlier church beneath it in the collective memory, until the day that Father Mullooly’s discovery revealed that no, it was not the early Christian church everyone believed it to be.)
In the second half of the eleventh century, Desiderius, abbot of Montecassino, built a small basilica on the slopes of Monte Tifata, not far from Capua. Endowed with a monastery (no longer extant,) Sant’Angelo in Formis was a satellite of the great Benedictine abbey. The medieval appearance of the mother house long since effaced, it is Sant’Angelo in Formis that stands as a monument to Desiderius’ patronage of the arts.
Built over an earlier church that was in turn built over a Roman temple, the basilica of Sant’Angelo preserves an antique pavement in opus sectile. Two arcades of spoliate fluted columns with Corinthian capitals separate the tall nave from its side aisles. Above the arcade and clerestory, a row of small alabaster windows bathe the interior with a suffused, almost golden light. At the altar end, the church terminates in three semicircular apses. Both nave and narthex are decorated with fresco cycles whose condition and relative completeness make them a rare survival from the era.
Among the frescoes in the nave is the Kiss of Judas, a noisy and vigorous scene with serene blue skies. I felt a pang of guilt every time I used it as an example of the stiff, naive style that Giotto had left behind. Back then I would have taken the train and walked from the tiny station all the way up the dusty road to the basilica. I would have done it in the heat of August, under the blistering sun. What have I become now that I settle for squinting at a white light from a distant passing car?
The frescoes were painted by two groups of artists, and it is easy to distinguish their works. The Byzantine masters that Desiderius invited to work at Montecassino painted those of the narthex; the Italian monks they trained worked in the nave. The cycle there begins on the right wall, with scenes from the Old Testament, and continues across the nave, with episodes from the life of Christ along the left. On the entrance wall is the Last Judgment, in its traditional position, and in the conch of the apse, Christ appears enthroned under the canopy of heaven, flanked by the symbols of the four evangelists. Beneath, St. Michael appears together with the other archangels, and these are flanked by St. Benedict and Desiderius himself, who offers a model of the basilica as a tangible form of his devotion.
The works in the nave, in particular the narrative episodes along the north and south walls, have a more dynamic, immediate style than those painted by the Byzantine masters. While the figural style relies on conventions like the red apples of the figures’ cheeks and stylized drapery folds, the figures are weighty and vigorous in their movements.
One day in early March, as Campania shook off the cold damp of winter, we talked of places to go in the springtime. I half-heartedly suggested Sant’Angelo, certain that it would be subsumed in the mass of errands and work and familial obligations. I thought of it, a hilltop beacon, gleaming, and hiding the blue skies of its frescoes inside its walls, and I sighed.
The first sunny weekend, he suggested the Reggia, and my heart sank at the thought of a day of hegemonic architecture. But I sensed a lack of conviction in his voice, and rather than wonder why, I decided to pounce on what I knew would be only a fleeting possibility. I imagined him bored as he dragged his feet behind me, and sighing as he ran to keep up with Pata, all the while I stared up at frescoes, transfixed by their celestial blue. I knew that I would be made to pay for my bold selfishness, but I decided that Sant’Angelo was well worth the price.
At the sight of the Arch of Diana, my eyes welled up with tears, and I ran through the gate to the basilica because five years was too long. Inside the doors, I slowed my pace, and, stopping beneath each fresco along the left wall of the nave, I let my eyes pore over every detail. And then, before the altar, I looked up into the the apse at the face of Desiderius, who long ago made his devotion tangible in all this stone and paint, and I smiled, as though in recognition of an old friend.