Holier Than Thou – Churches of the Salento (Feriae Augusti – 1a Puntata)
The simple fact is that they’re overwhelming — ornate and ravishing, kitsch and overwrought, badly lit or full of light that seems supernal. They’re either deserted or overcrowded; there’s either no caretaker to be found or there’s a small, fussy-looking woman who watches your every move with hauteur and evident disapproval: You’re dressed wrong, your shoes make too much noise, you’re there, quite simply, and you shouldn’t be because it’s not your church.
Almost all of them are at least partly in restoration, with ugly, sub-fusc canvasses tossed over altars or pulpits whose dusty marble or desiccated wood can be glimpsed beneath the rude drapery; stucco-white rectangles still bleeding plaster dust where paintings have been ripped from the walls like scabs; or thick cables and sections of metal piping from unfinished scaffolding strewn dangerously underfoot.
Often they are dirty, which breaks your heart; and sometimes they are homely and grim, which makes them seem unloved, these forlorn churches with paint-by-number Assumptions or cement columns covered in crudely done faux-marble trompe l’oeil that never fooled an eye. Sometimes the candles have been replaced with electric lights, and you flip a switch to send your prayer to heaven: no fire, no smoke, no heat, no smell of wax, no visible moment of combustion.
But occasionally they are glorious, and the urge is to become ever more still and to observe the thousand things that are near to hand and to wonder about the obsessiveness; the insistence on symmetry or the willful disregard of it; the gilding as it were of the golden lily; the exaggeration; the exuberance; the excess that seems devotional and solemn and the excess that seems frenzied and manic; the sense, inescapable, that you are not of the right scale to see all of it, ten meters above your head or hidden in semi-darkness or too near to be caught in just perspective. In Lecce, I asked someone why the dazzling Santa Croce, whose facciata towers over a rather narrow street lined with palazzi, was constructed in such a way that one could stand neither near enough to view the details of the baroque ornamentation nor far enough away to appreciate the entire, elaborate façade in its proper context. “Ah,” he said, “the angels see it!”