Pope Clement XI (1700-1721) ordered Francesco Bianchini (1662-1729) to build a Meridian Line. Bianchini was the Secretary of the Commission for the Calendar. He chose the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli because of the stability of its roman walls and foundations and its suitable dimension. The Line built by Giandomenico Cassini (1625-1712) in 1655 in San Petronio, Bologna , was the model for Bianchini, who improved it by allowing the observation of stellar transits.
Pope Clement XI inaugurated the Great Sundial on October 6, 1702 , the annual
Feast of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order, whose statue is in the entrance of the Church. Carthusian monks ruled this Basilica for three centuries until 1884.
It is not the shadow which shows the time, but the light. At the astronomical noon a sunbeam, entering the church from a coat of arms near the ceiling, crosses a meridian line drawn on the floor. The intersection point changes according to the various periods of the year; these are indicated by inscriptions and by inlays showing the signs of the zodiac and the stars of the related constellation. The sundial allows also the calculation of Easter and the position of the Pole-star.
Otranto Cathedral or the Cathedral of Santa Maria Annunziata (Saint Mary of the Annunciation) is the most important Christian church in the Italian city of Otranto and is the seat of the Archdiocese of Otranto. It was consecrated in 1088.
The mosaic running the whole length of the nave, sanctuary and apse is 12th century in date – it was commissioned by the first Latin archbishop of the city, Gionata, and created between 1163 and 1165 by a group of artists led by Pantaleone, a Basilian monk from the monastery of San Nicola di Casole. It shows scenes from the Old Testament and chivalric cycles, as well as figures from medieval bestiaries, arranged alongside a ‘tree of life’, showing human experience from the Fall to salvation.
A great mistery of art and faith has been kept for eighteen centuries in Otranto. This small town, at the tip of Salento, is famous in Mediterranean history for being besieged, conquered and sacked in 1480 by the Turks who attempted to build an Ottoman bridgehead on Christian Land. The last 800 men who withstood the attack were decapitated. The Otranto’s Martyrs’ skulls are stored in glass shrines by a side altar of the cathedral. Muslims demolished its facade but they didn’t dare to destroy the inside, with its most precious treasure: a monumental mosaic covering the entire floor of the cathedral like a lavishly decorated carpet of colorful stones. It stretches for 16 meters, from the entrance to the altar. Crafted between 1163 and 1165, it is the largest in Europe, almost intact, resilient to the damage and wearing effect of time.
Thus, under a visitor’s feet a fabulous, old time cartoon is shown. A spectacular encyclopedia that in the central nave revolves around the Tree of Life, a very long trunk with several rows of parallel branches. Two minor trunks run throughout the aisles. Among the ‘vegetable spaces’ biblical stories are depicted: Adam and Eve driven out of Eden, the building of Noah’s Ark, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba…And hidden among them, central characters from medieval tales can be found unexpectedly: King Arthur and Alexander the Great, as well as pagan myths such as Samson, Diana and Atlas. In a series of circles the twelve months of the year are depicted with their various seasonally-related working activities, in other words earthly everyday life. Elsewhere life in the Next World is evoked in Heaven and Hell. Some sixteen medallions hold the whole medieval bestiary with its ambiguous symbolism, while domestic, ferocious, exotic animals and bizarre creatures run around like in a fantasy free zoo. Along the path queries grow. Why are the Tree of Life’s roots not sunk in the ground but rested on two elephants, a male and a female? Where does the cat in boots come from? What does a bearded centaur do with a chessboard on his head? What’s the meaning of the writing PASCA next to a winged griffin?
Among many obscure meanings that divide scholars, the overall message is hard to understand. The creator – the mosaic’s director- was a monk named Pantaleone, while Gionata was the Bishop who commissioned it. Who was Pantaleone really? He maybe lived close to Casole monastery, a prestigious center of study and prayer during the Middle Ages: a bridge between the Mediterranean’s Eastern and the Northern Europe’s Western cultures. Veritably, the pavement is a pictorial document of a hodgepodge of learning and tradition occurring in multifarious cultures, during the time when Byzantines and Normans chalenged each other. Perhaps a valid suggestion that does not explain, though, what Arnold Willemsen, a great German scholar, has called “the enigma of Otranto”. In medieval churches visual decoration (frescoes, mosaics, icons, scrolls) served the dual purpose of proselytizing and educating the worshippers. The mosaic tells with folkloristic vividness about the main Christian preaching on the world’s origin, the battle between Good and Evil, virtues and vices that have been marking the human condition and its spiritual outcome. However there are other hidden meanings, religious, moral and political in nature. Lately, the esoteric trend brought up by novelists such as Umberto Eco and Dan Brown, as well as by movies and TV shows, has fostered obscure interpretations: the Holy Grail, Kabbalah, the heresy of Gnostics…
Compelling stories that risk, though, taking over the real emotion. A direct and personal experience that no 3-D Avatar style movie can beat, because it is mind and eyes engaging, it excites memories, imagination and knowledge. Like an Ipad or an Xbox emerging from the darkness of the Year One thousand.
The layout of the monthly activity / Zodiac roundels, which are just to the west (underneath) of the crossing and span the entire width of the nave. January is top left, then read as you would script to December in the bottom right hand corner.
GIUSTO de’ Menabuoi, c. 1378
Dome Fresco, Baptistery, Padova, Italy
The vision of paradise is followed in the next lower section of the dome with scenes from the Genesis. They begin beneath the figure of the Virgin with the Creation of the World, which is depicted in an extremely unusual form here. Outside the sphere of the fixed stars, represented by the signs of the zodiac sits the creator, borne by cherubim and seraphim, before the golden backdrop of the crystal sphere. In the circular zone within the heavens are the orbits of the planets, and in the innermost circle is a world map that depicts not only Italy and the Mediterranean area but also the rest of Europe, North Africa, and Asia.
painted by Paolo Caliari (Veronese) – 1528-2588
Villa Barbaro, also known as the Villa di Maser, is a large villa at Maser in the Veneto region of northern Italy. It was designed and built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio, with frescos by Paolo Veronese and sculptures by Alessandro Vittoria for Daniele Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia and ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and his brother Marcantonio an ambassador to King Charles IX of France.
In 1996 UNESCO declared the villa to be part of a World Heritage Site, “City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto” which includes more than twenty villas. It is open to the public.
On the ceiling in the Hall of Olympus Veronese illustrated the Divine Wisdom surrounded by planetary gods with the related zodiac signs. In teh corners are the personifications of the 4 elements: Juno – Air, Vulcan – Fire, Cybele – Earth and Neptune – Water. In the cameos are depicted Love, Fertility, Abundance and Luck.
The Apartments of the Elements, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy
The Apartment of the Elements consists of five rooms that were the private quarters of Cosimo I. The walls contain allegorical frescoes depicting Fire, Water, Earth and (on the ceiling) Saturn.
This is the suite of rooms that were used by Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife Eleanor of Toledo while they lived at Palazzo Vecchio. They are ornately decorated in grand Renaissance style. Giorgio Vasari took over the decoration of these rooms upon the death of Battista del Tasso. This was his first commission for the Medici, beginning a long and very profitable relationship.
According to tradition, the martyr St. Miniatus, who was suffered during the persecution of Decius in the 3rd century, was buried on the hill where the church bearing his name now stands. It was the idea of the bishop Hildrebrand to build the basilica, together with the adjoining Benedictine monastery, on the site where it was believed that the relics of the saint (today preserved in the crypt of the church) were found.
Work was begun in 1018 and was completed about 1207. The new church which was built on the site of an earlier church reflects the various stages of its construction in its different parts, from the crypt to the elaborate marble floor of the nave. The beautiful façade, of green and white marble in the Tuscan manner, has a blind colonnade in the lower register. The mosaic on the pediment showing Christ in benediction between the Virgin and St. Miniatus dates from the beginnnig of the 13th century. The polychrome marble decoration of the facade is also a feature of the interior, dominated by the raised presbytery.
The church, which is one of the masterpieces of the Tuscan Romanesque, combines a basilical plan of classical origin with typically romanesque elements; some of the capitals are Roman and others are romanesque. The oldest decoration is the mosaics and the marble inlay work, of which the most important is the central part of the pavement. This area, which retains its original decoration, shows interesting figurative motifs, enriched with symbolic significance. The beautiful Zodiac, which is originally a pagan motif, here assumes a Christian symbolic value, according to some, by its subdivision into twelve signs which allude to the twelve Apostles. The area of the apse is also richly decorated, with superb marble inlays on the altar, the enclosure and the pulpit, and is dominated by the beautiful mosaic bearing the date 1297; it depicts Christ in benediction between the Virgin, St. Miniatus, the symbols of the Evangelists and the kneeling donor, and it is characterised by a technique making use of strong chromatic contrast.
The sacristy is decorated by a cycle of frescoes of Episodes from the life of Saint Benedict by Spinello Aretino (c. 1387), commissioned by Benedetto degli Alberti. In the chapel of the Crucifix, the little tempietto at the end of the nave, to house the famous Crucifix which supposedly inclined its head to St. John Gualbert who had pardoned the murderer of his brother, the church received several new masterpieces. In 1447 Piero de’ Medici commissioned Michelozzo (or, according to another theory, Alberti) to build the chapel of the Crucifix, the little tempietto at the end of the nave, to house the famous Crucifix which supposedly inclined its head to St. John Gualbert who had pardoned the murderer of his brother. The eagles are the emblem of Calimala, the Merchants’ Guild that from the 13th century onwards was responsible for the maintenance of the church.
The Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in the left aisle constitutes an extraordinary gem of the Renaissance having preserved a combination of architecture, painting and sculpture as it was originally conceived: it was built to contain the tomb of James of Lusitania, Cardinal of Portugal, who died very young in Florence in 1459. Several of the major artists of the Renaissance worked in this chapel, having been selected and commissioned by the Cardinal’s uncle. Possibly designed by Antonio Manetti, with the later involvement of Rossellino, it is a kind of jewellery box adorned with painting, stone and coloured marble. It required the collaboration of Luca della Robbia for the ceiling in glazed terracotta with the Cardinal Virtues (1461), and Antonio Rossellino for the magnificent Tomb with the effigy of the Cardinal (1461-66). The painted decoration was entrusted in part to Alesso Baldovinetti, who painted the Eight Prophets in the pendentives and the Evangelists and Doctors of the Church in the lunettes as well as the Annunciation. He was succeeded by the Pollaiolo brothers, who painted the two curtain-drawing Angels on either side of the altarpiece depicting St. Vincent, St. James and St. Eustace, which is also a work by the same artists (now replaced by a copy; the original is in the Uffizi).
Sunrise at San Miniato tells a silent, mystical light story. I was captivated by the Sun shafts’ warm illumination of the zodiac pavement. The central image was a Sun symbol, although at that time the Earth was believed to be the center of world. The Sun represented the religious life, and the Moon was the church and the congregation.
Inside the church, the Sun’s rays fall on the elegant arc of the Taurus bull on the marble pavement. Had I stood there at sunrise 793 years ago and looked into the Florentine sky, I’d have seen the new crescent Moon nestled between the planets Venus and Mercury, with Saturn hidden behind the Sun. It was an astronomical phenomenon—a stellium in Taurus—and the builders of this basilica chose this date, May 28, 1207, at sunrise, for the installation of the zodiac mosaic. (Editor’s note: The stellium is in the constellation of Taurus, not the sign. If you run a tropical zodiac chart for this date, the stellium will be in Gemini.)
The medieval astrologers looked to the constellations as well as the traditional zodiac. The Taurus constellation, Pleiades, was large, overlapping into the sign of Gemini. Taurus, the sign of Christ’s incarnation and the church’s patron saint, San Miniato, is a fixed earth sign. (Editor’s note: Taurus is the sign of manifestation on Earth, not Jesus’ birth sign.) It was the kind of “grounding” energy one wished to capture when building a lasting monument of spiritual incarnation. A Latin inscription lies on the floor nearby. When translated, it states the time, date and names of the planets involved with the stellium. Daily sunrise heralded by the Taurus arc silently reminds us of Christ’s rebirth.
In early Christian time, the symbol for Christ was the fish. One finds this symbol in the catacombs representing the Piscean Christ Age. I observed the curious fish symbols on the church’s marble façade. Two mermen were each eating a fish! The Pisces sector of the zodiac floor also held mysteries. The fish were parallel, rather than swimming in their usual opposite directions. It was as if they were pointing to something and at the same time suggesting actual feet. Opposite the fish was the symbol for Virgo the virgin. My eyes followed the alignment of the fish to discover a painting of the Virgin Mary.
Pisces is associated astrologically with the feet that walk the path. I was placing my feet on the heavenly floor by standing on the pavement. A sense of antiquity and serenity swept over me as I followed the direction of the pointing fish and made my way down the aisle. A matching set of fishes appeared at the entrance to the raised choir, pointing upward like arrows. They led me into the apse, where a beautiful mosaic of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint Miniato filled the upper chamber. For a few days each year a shaft of sunlight falls on Christ’s foot, then disappears. The foot points downward toward what is directly underneath the mosaic. This is where the bones of Saint Miniato himself lay in their resting place in the crypt. The set of symbols forms a cross, the two fish marking the horizontal line while the vertical Christ line moves to the crypt.