Anthony Symondson SJ on the splendid architecture inspired by the Shroud of Turin
Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin by John BeIdon Scott, University of Chicago Press £.52.50.
InApril 1997 workmen began to remove the scaffolding from Guarino Guarini's Cappella della SS Sindone in Turin at the conclusion of a restoration which marvellously revealed the architectural genius of the chapel for the first time for centuries. The marble surfaces had been cleaned, repaired and polished, released from centuries of clinging dust, candle soot, and saline efflorescence. Broken glass and deteriorated window frames were replaced, and Carlo Giuseppe Cortella's fresco of the Holy Spirit in the dome came into view.
Then an electrical fire occurred, fuelled by tons of wooden planking, and in six hours irretrievable damage was done to what John Beldon Scott describes as "a unique architectural expression of the human imagination". For the second time in its history the Holy Shroud of Turin, the supreme relic of Christ's Passion. narrowly escaped incineration. But it now no longer lies in the chapel built for it by the Dukes of Savoy in 165794. The diaphanous light that filters through the iron grids above the shrine illuminates emptiness dictated by modern standards of conservation. It is unlikely that it will ever return to Antonio Bertola's baroque reliquary.
In the whole of Piedmont it is difficult to find a good building in the style of the Gothic or Renaissance. It took a long time for the region to catch up with the rest of Italian art and architecture. The long-delayed development burst forth in Turin in a unique flowering; so much so that for the lover of 18th-century rococo and baroque there is no more attractive part of Italy. It was the public ostension of the Holy Shroud that helped shape the urban plan of Turin and its transformation into the Savoyard capital. It is the creation of an emancipated duke, Vittorio Amedeo 11, inspired by the glory of Versailles.
Guarini and his pupil Filippo Juvara were responsible for the beauty of Turin and Piedmontese baroque. Guarini was employed there towards the end of the 17th century, and few architects have achieved greater creative invention. Influenced by Francesco Borromini, the most innovative genius of Roman High Baroque, he translated his principles into palatial grandiloquence and was the master of the bold curve which found fulfilment in the Palazzo Carignan° and the churches of San Lorenzo and the Consolata.
But his masterpiece is the Cappella della SS Sindone, wedged on a high platform between the cathedral and the royal palace. There is an almost El Greco quality about the interior, paved with black marble and rising by a series of superimposed hexagonal black marble and gilt-bronze tiers that
'The chapel's geometry points to the sacred truth embodied in the Holy Shroud itself'
diminish in span as they ascend to the fantastic and unprecedented coneshaped dome of almost Oriental extravagance.
The meaning of Guarini's chapel embraces the intersection of three phenomena: an exceptional relic, an ambitious dynasty, and an architect obsessed with originality. The Holy Shroud came to Turin in 1578 when the ostension was officiated by St Charles Borromeo. It had entered the possession of Duke Louis of Savoy in 1453 and was kept at Chambdry. The arrival of the relic initiated a century's endeavour to realise the architectural accommodation of the Holy Shroud never achieved in France. Every European dynasty had a chief relic, and a Passion relic carried the most prestige. The Valois had the Crown of Thorns, acquired by St Louis; the Gonzaga of Mantua possessed the Holy Blood; and the Pope had custody of St Veronica's Veil.
They understood the possession of relics as a divine promise and a worldly means of achieving political stability and international legitimacy. This view is alien to us, but Scott demonstrates how the possession of the Holy Shroud aggrandised the ducal house, transformed the Savoyard state, and led to the urban transformation of Turin through the ostension pavilions of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Guarini was a Theatine priest, well known as a philosopher before he won fame as an architect. He was a mathematician first, and his complex spatial compositions are difficult to understand. His artistic imagination was founded on the belief that geometry was the fundamental component of the universe and Guarini's work evolved a theory of architecture raised from a geometric foundation. The abstract poetry and free construction of SS Sindone, the revolutionary use of conic sections, reveals his faith in geometry as evidence of the sacred truth embodied in the Holy Shroud itself.
Architecture for the Shroud is a work of serious scholarship and rare brilliance, and I must warn you that it is not written for the general reader. Smith described the pere, grinations of the Holy Shroud until it came to Turin. He goes on to analyse Guarini's work in the context of sacred theatre, geometry, the imagery of devotion and dynasty, and illusionist meaning. He concludes with an account of relic and monarchy in the urban setting in which successive ostensions are followed to the most recent in the Jubilee of 2000.
Magnificently illustrated in colour and monochrome on art paper, with plans and diagrams, it is a pleasure to peruse. Smith presents an original account of a subject so complex that layers of meaning surrounding the Holy Shroud are revealed like a sequence of transformation scenes. It is 20 years since I last visited Turin but Scott explains so much that I did not know or fully understand before that I long to return.