In 1219 Reginald of Orleans, a follower of Domenico Guzman, founder of the Dominican Order of preaching monks, moved the existing small community to San Nicolò delle Vigne, where today stands the basilica of San Domenico. At that time, however, it was in the outskirts of the city, in the middle of vineyards, thus the name of the small church. (One can still see vineyards while walking in Villa Ghigi, not too far along off of Via Mamolo just past the Piazza di Porta San Mamolo.) San Domenico himself arrived that same year and, before his death in 1221, had made it an important center for the Order. Since that time, the history of Bologna and the work of San Domenico have been closely intertwined.
River stones that recall a medieval past cover Piazza San Domenico massaging my feet through leather-soled shoes as I approach the church. Two copper statues on top of high columns stand there, the one in the center of San Domenico (1627, designed by Guido Reni) and the other of the Madonna (1632, Giulio Cesare Conventi). Perhaps more interesting to me though are the other two pyramidal structures that rise up. They are the tombs of two revered heroes of medieval Bologna. My first reaction to them had been "I wonder what prince or famous warrior they memorialize?" However, Rolandino de'Passeggeri was an important notary and government official (1305) and Egidio Foscherari, an expert in Church Law (1289). Bologna's heroes have always been her famous Doctors of the Law ("The University of Bologna: Alma Mater Studiorum").
I approach the main door of the church and allow San Domenico himself to welcome me as he looks down from the lunette, dressed in the characteristic white and black flowing robes of his order. His sweet bearded face and beckoning motion encourage me to enter. The quiet and coldness of the huge gray interior envelop me.
I stop outside the sixth chapel on the right and welcome the harmony and peace of the enclosed golden space. The white marble tomb of San Domenico shines from inside the shadows, as if lit from an inner light. As I look at the chapel I think of the time and collection of artists it required to create it. The tomb to honor San Domenico took five centuries to complete, from the thirteenth to the eighteenth. In our world of quick results and fast turnover, it is difficult to imagine. From 1265-1267 Nicola Pisano worked with others less famous to carve the saint's sarcophagus that depicts scenes from his life. Two hundred years later (1469-1473) Nicolò dell'Arca added the magnificent marble crown to the sarcophagus, considerd his capolavoro which defines him forever in art books. Did he believe it to be his masterpiece? Did the young Michelangelo Buonarroti realize that his angel holding the torch would resemble the David that we would all flock to Florence to see? The tomb, begun even before the time of Taddeo Pepoli (1337-1347), was still being created during the signoria of Giovanni II Bentivoglio (1463-1506). Pazienza . . .
The two torch-bearing angels, one on each side of the altar slab, charm me. I look at the one on the left done by Nicolò dell'Arca (1469-1473) and compare it to his La Pietà that I have just experienced in Santa Maria della Vita. The angel's quiet sweetness strikes me. The drama of the group of statues is missing. The gown dwarfs the angel's body. The face is one of a young child. There is no movement. Its beauty is simple, sweet, still, graceful, delicate.
On the other side of the altar is Michelangelo's angel, whose gown does not mask the strong body underneath, the pent-up energy. The young angel holds still for a moment, but his mind is on flight, movement. He would seem out of place in the angel-world. His athletic hulk holds a thick torch. He looks out brashly, not down demurely like his partner. I think about old Nicolò from Puglia and young Michelangelo. The angels are simple, perhaps the least complicated figures of the tomb, but in the comparison I can understand better the passage of time that the Ark represents.
Michelangelo also authored two other statues surrounding the crown of the tomb: San Procolo and San Petronio. I join the group of tourists that peer around its edges, searching them out. The statues proclaim themselves to even those unfamiliar with the two saints. San Petronio (second from the left in the front) holds the city of Bologna safely in his hands, while Roman San Procolo, his sword missing, stands guard, second from the right in the back.
As I continue toward the exquisite coro behind the main altar, I stop at Filippino Lippi's Matrimonio Mistico di Santa Caterina (1501), which hangs in the chapel just to the right of the presbytery. The lightness and brightness of its colors, especially the red of St. Catherine's flowing gown, glows in the dark hollow of the huge church.
Handwritten signs direct me to the choir. I walk into the huge space, which is normally draped and dark, but today brilliant with strong afternoon sun shining in through the immense windows. I go to the opposite end of the room and prepare myself to enter into the world of the monk Damiano da Bergamo (1528-1551). The choir consists of stalls formed by separate panels of inlaid wood, exquisitely expressive and complex. Scenes from the Old and New Testament show the monk's perception of his world and allow a glimpse inside, to see his heart and soul. With tiny slivers of wood, in tones that range from black to limpid beige, he has depicted living, breathing Madonna's, saints and townspeople. He has created action and drama. He has built hill towns and castles with walls and houses. He has shown ducks floating serenely down the stream while Saint Stephen is being stoned to death. Flowers pop up in front of the Nativity scene and skies move as the wind blows the clouds away. God looks down and angels too, just as the people look down from the windows above the flagellation of Christ.
I feel like I could walk in. No, I am pulled deep, deep into the space. I think of the Dominican monks whose backs over the centuries have felt the wood behind them and wonder if they felt the warmth of the wood, or its smooth hardness, or were they always too deep in prayer and contemplation to notice. I want to touch it -- to feel its smoothness and warmth, but I know I cannot. I rub my fingers together to help dissipate the urge that overwhelms them. I can only imagine its exquisite feel. I think of the artist and his patience. I think of his hands and his eyes, how tired he must have felt from the tedious work. I wonder if he ever thought about the joy and inspiration his work would give to us centuries later.
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