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from issue no. 11 - 2011

In the silence of our churches

“Churches are domus Dei. I’ve always thought it crucial that in a big city it should be possible to open a door and see the little light that indicates the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist”. An interview with Paolo Portoghesi on his eightieth birthday

Interview with Paolo Portoghesi by Paolo Mattei

“Perhaps the very fact of being born and living in Rome developed my conviction that in architecture, and not only in that, tradition is a vital matter, and that there can be continuity in change. Rome has changed radically many times, but always holding on to its deep-seated unity and continuity. My ideas are without doubt influenced by experience of the city”.

Paolo Portoghesi, one of the best known exponents of Italian postmodernism, takes Rome as his starting point in giving an account of his historical opposition, in the debate on architecture that began in the ‘sixties of last century, to the more extreme attitudes of a rationalism that wanted to make a radical break with the past and with tradition in favor of an exaggerated and abstract functionalism. According to the Roman architect there is no dialectical opposition between the old and the new, between tradition and modernity, but only convergence and continuity.

Now retired from his chair at the University of Rome in “Geoarchitecture” – a course he set up to teach students to respect the history and peculiarities of the places where they might build – one of the foremost experts in Roman Baroque and the work of Borromini, an architect, critic and creator (among his most famous achievements are the Casa Baldi, the Mosque in Rome and the Church of the Holy Family in Salerno), Portoghesi has just turned eighty. His birthday was celebrated in early November in the Vatican, in the Sistine Hall of the Library renovated by him and soon to be re-opened as a reading room for scholars. On that occasion Portoghesi presented a model of a church, dedicated to St Benedict, which he had designed in homage to Pope Ratzinger.

We went to see him in Calcata, in the province of Viterbo, a beautiful town perched on a tufo mountain overlooking the Treja valley. Here, less than fifty kilometers from Rome, Portoghesi directs his studio and works on his many and varied projects. In a few months his second mosque will be inaugurated in Strasbourg: the first was that in Rome, opened in 1995.

We asked him some questions about his life and his ideas about the architecture of churches.


Paolo Portoghesi [© Giovanna Massobrio]

Paolo Portoghesi [© Giovanna Massobrio]

Professor, let’s start from Rome.

PAOLO PORTOGHESI: I was born there and never moved from the city till I was eighteen. I’ve always loved it and I’ve never stopped studying it. I’m a product of the human situation in Rome, to which I have devoted many books and much research and from which I continue to learn new things today. Its ability to speak to someone like myself born there, but also to those who visit for any reason, is inexhaustible.

What are the places you most often visited and loved as a young man?

I was born in the heart of the city, in Via Monterone, in an old building owned by a prince. My father, who was also an architect, had reopened the original door of the building, first closed centuries ago after the assassination of a cardinal. I lived a stone’s throw from Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza that I saw every day going to school, in Vicolo Valdina: that was my first regular tour, which touched on the square of the Pantheon, passing by Via della Maddalena. Just as regular was the path that took me to my grandparents in Via della Chiesa Nuova 14, a building known because it was the headquarters of the “Comunità del Porcellino”, a meeting place of some of the leading figures in the Constituent Assembly, such as Lazzati, Dossetti and La Pira.

What was your relationship with the faith as a boy?

My family was Catholic. I made my First Communion at the Sisters of the Cenacle, in a beautiful park near the Janiculum. But I went through the war at a particular time in my life, between late childhood and early adolescence, and because of a series of family issues I was very isolated at that time. I often spent entire days without leaving the house. I remember during the “Winter of the Germans”, between 1943 and 1944, I almost never went to school. So in my early religious training, the aspect of participation in parish life, then quite ordinary, was entirely lacking. My development was much more complicated than that of my peers. I was very envious, for example, of my brother, who attended the Jesuits at the Collegio Romano and was among very lively young people. I have always nourished my relationship with the faith as something within rather than as something shared with others. In that solitude I read many books, including some religious ones.

What kind of books?

I had a special liking for French Catholicism: Charles Péguy, Jacques Rivière, Georges Bernanos, for example. I loved, of course, Pascal also. And, a little rebellious like all young people, I was fond of Rimbaud. I experienced my personal relationship – troubled, not at all peaceful – with the Church through the mediation of those great figures. Then I had a period of detachment, and in 1959 I joined the Socialist Party in the desire of finding in that line of thought the possibility of continuity with what had been my Christian experience until then. I came back to the Church in the ‘eighties, then lived with particular intensity the experience of designing and building churches.

In the debate on the architecture of churches you criticized the tabula rasa ideology, the break with the past and with tradition.

My thinking on that is well summed up by the Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first of four Constitutions of Vatican Council II, issued on 4 December 1963, which on the matter of liturgical innovation recommended that ‘new forms spring organically, in some way, from the existing forms’. Those words also apply to the innovation of architectural forms and types of churches. So often in recent decades, they have gone unheeded.

Why, as you see it?

Because, since the ‘sixties of last century, architects in their debates have set the concepts of the spiritual Church and the church as building in radical opposition, notions that tradition indicates as complementary. The sacrality of the Christian building was also put in doubt. Today there are those who conceive of a Christianity without a temple. That is a huge mistake. It’s enough to think of the Eucharist, the Real Presence of the Lord celebrated and kept in the churches, to understand that they are domus Dei, houses of God. The etymology of the English word church and the German Kirche is suggestive here: kyriakòn, which means ‘that which belongs to the Lord’. I’ve always thought it crucial that in a big city it should be possible to open a door and see the little light that indicates the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist.

The dome of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Francesco Borromini, in the Rome district of Sant’Eustachio [© Foto Scala, Firenze]

The dome of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza by Francesco Borromini, in the Rome district of Sant’Eustachio [© Foto Scala, Firenze]

What have been the results of these interpretations in the architecture of churches?

Confusion, lack of distinction, first of all. The location of the traditional liturgical points of attraction – altar, tabernacle, baptistry, pulpit – has been completely rearranged, and that has led to such paradoxical solutions as the one adopted for the church of Christ the Redeemer in Modena, where altar and pulpit are at the extremes of a central corridor, on both sides of which the faithful, divided into two opposing groups, look into each other’s faces, moving their eyes from time to time, now right now left, following with difficulty the movements of the celebrant between the two poles. Unfortunately, this model of church – in Germany known as ‘communio’ – is one of the most popular internationally. Ratzinger says something very fine on this in his book Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy, in which, quoting Josef Andreas Jungmann, one of the authors of the Sacrosanctum Concilium, he explains the ancient shape of the liturgical assembly, ‘Priest and people knew they were walking together toward the Lord. They do not close in a circle, do not look at each other, but as wayfaring people of God, they are on their way to the East, towards Christ who advances and comes to meet us’. There it is, many recent churches, like that in Modena, reflect this loss of the ‘cosmic dimension’ to the liturgy...

What do you mean by ‘cosmic dimension’?

It was the underlying reason why at one time during the Eucharistic prayer, faithful and celebrant faced east, the direction that “in close relationship with the ‘sign of the Son of Man’, with the cross, that announces the return of the Lord”. Ratzinger says again, explaining how the act was not ‘celebration facing the wall’, it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people’: the priest, Ratzinger observes, ‘was not then considered so important’. The loss of the feeling of that aspect has generated on the one hand a certain kind of rhetoric – what is called ‘clericalization’ of the liturgy – the dynamic in which the priest becomes the center of the celebration, the protagonist of the event, and on the other, almost in reaction, it has given rise to the ‘creativity’ of the groups that prepare the liturgy, who primarily want to ‘bring themselves’. ‘Attention’, Ratzinger continues in his book, ‘is ever less directed to God and what the people who meet here do is ever more important’. All this has led to considering the church a place of meeting, an enclosed place, erasing the two constants that have characterized the typological development from the early Christian era to the Baroque age.

What constants?

First of all the perspective depth intrinsic to the longitudinal structure, which expresses the journey of the people of God towards salvation and the approach of Christ, the coming out ‘of our small groups to enter the great community that embraces heaven and earth’, Ratzinger says again; and then the dizzying upward stretch, with the domes and the drums: the Church, one reads, inter alia, in People and House of God in St Augustine, ‘does not have its foundation under it, but above it and so its foundation is also its head’. In short, what I mean is that men do not go to church as they go to a community center, to exchange a handshake, but go there because there is this approach with the Lord. The architecture of the churches should evoke this aspect of encounter with God. It cannot simply celebrate the presence of the community as something enclosed. A church is not the headquarters of individual groups or movements, or a meeting place. It is a small fragment of the universal Church. This thrust towards universality must emerge in the architecture, certainly not through splendor and complexity. Indeed, I would say that today simplicity is a profound element through which one can draw on this universality.

Are there examples of modern church architecture you judge positively?

Yes, I think of Antoni Gaudí, Alvar Aalto, Rudolf Schwarz, Giovanni Michelucci... They are examples of how creativity can avoid conflicting in any way with concern for tradition, which is a legacy to be built on.

When did you begin designing churches?

In the late ‘sixties, when I built the Holy Family in Salerno. But that is a ‘signed’ church...

In what sense?

It is the one most applauded by the critics because of its straining of an idiom, the typical bulilding because in a style recognizable within the terms of a debate that can find its place in a history of architecture. From the early ‘nineties I started designing churches putting in brackets the issue of personal expression – the language – to pay more heed to the needs of clients and to try to fulfill their desires.

The ceiling of the Rome Mosque [© Paolo Portoghesi]

The ceiling of the Rome Mosque [© Paolo Portoghesi]

Do you recall any other churches you designed with particular pleasure?

Well, I was very involved and excited with Our Lady of Peace in Terni. After the business of the Mosque of Rome, which lasted twenty years, I went back to thinking of a church, the designing of which was proposed to me in 1998 by the then bishop of the diocese, Franco Gualdrini. I was seized by a flood of feelings, ideas and images that sprang from the titles chosen: the Holy Trinity and the Virgin bringer of peace. I immersed myself in reading about Mary and became convinced of the symbolic identification of Our Lady with the star and light, images closely related for me to the memory of the Litany of Loreto I heard after the recitation of the Rosary in my grandparents’ house during the war. I was gripped by the verses of the Akathist hymn – ‘Star herald of the sun ...’ – ; by the medieval hymn of the Vespers of Mary, the Ave Maris Stella, the triplets of Dante in the Paradiso – ‘Here you are to us noonday torch / of charity...’ –; and Péguy’s words in the Presentation of the Beauce to Our Lady of Chartres, – ‘Star of the Sea... Morning Star... / here we come towards your illustrious palace, / and here is the offering of our poor love, / and here the immense ocean of our pain...’. Those Christian verses recalled to my mind the poem Alla foce, la sera [At the river mouth in the evening] by Caproni, not really a champion of the faith in the traditional sense, but a poet dear to me: ‘I saw her high above the sea. Very high. / Beautiful. / / Infinitely beautiful / more than any other star... I did not know the name. / The sea / suggested Mary to me. / She was by then my / only star. / In the dimness / / of the night, I lost / surprised myself by praying. / / She was the Star of the Sea’. I was very glad: I had found the shaping core of the building, the star ideogram, whose first applications of the groundplan of a church date back to the Baroque, even though forerunners can be traced in the Middle Ages.

What features did you want the new church to have?

I wanted it to represent recollection: silence is important in churches, silence is the condition of access to the sacred. Then I wanted to focus on ‘poverty’, rather than wealth. That’s why I decided on a wooden roof, as in medieval churches.

Will the maquette of the church dedicated to St Benedict, which you gave the Pope, now be made?

I don’t know ... It was first and foremost a tribute to Pope Ratzinger. And it is also a hope that St Benedict will protect his Europe in these difficult times.

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