Big Churches in Little Europe: San Lorenzo

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San Lorenzo’s, Perugia

Sometime you are wandering through an ex-Roman fortified hill town in northern Italy admiring what the Romans did for others and you realise that the big building ahead of you is possibly a church, or a fort, or a town hall. It is hard to tell because around the square with the massive fountain are huge civic buildings that all are roughly the same size, are made from the same stone, have just a few random windows and balconies and share much of the same roof.

It turns out that one of them is a church.

In the ancient order of things, every big town had a bishop and a cathedral. Parish priests were for rural villages and roving work. In the last hundred years a lot of rationalisation has taken place and the vast majority of these bishops and cathedrals have been downgraded. In Italy it is now traditional to talk about the Duomo for the big church in the centre of a town and nobody uses Cathedral much unless they are being very precise.

Parugia is in a large hill fort town that the Romans left to the locals and the big building to the north of the square turns out, indeed, to be the Duomo.

Inside it has typical 13th century northern Italy stone work. It is easy to go ho-hum but there are in fact very few buildings that old anywhere in the world that could be put to everyday use. The ceiling paintings are a mish-mash of renaissance styles with a good dose of rococo and whatever else seemed like a good idea. I liked them and spent hours staring up at clouds and colour and splendour. Obviously there is quite a bit of scaffolding around because the only way a building like the Perugia Duomo is going to stay up is if you keep putting it back up faster than it can fall down.

Perugia is an amazingly delightful city to spend a few days in and if you are a musical fan, go for one of the festivals they hold there. The Duomo hosts quite a bit and the other buildings around the square in the neighbouring villages do their bit. The local university has one of the best music faculties in Europe as well.

Nobody objects to cameras anywhere including in the church so you can you can take pictures to remember the place. It is easy to compose good photos inside.

Unlike many churches with their strict cruciform layout, Perugia is built like a huge hall with sticky-outy bits. The services take place up the front but there is no special place for the choir to sit - they fit to one side by the organ console (which is also on the ground floor next to a pillar). Behind the altar area is a small chapel with seats fixed in a circular array and I am sure that is used for private prayer. After my time in the church, I am sure you could use pretty much anywhere in the church to sit down and contemplate the ineffable because apart from the odd person wearing too little (one girl was asked to cover up a bit) there didn't seem to be too many rules being enforced.

I did stay on for the Saturday evening vespers and vigil mass during my visit. The vespers were completely opaque to me as I don't speak Italian (at least not to the level to follow an unfamiliar church service) and the music was dreary. I don't think that the musical tradition of the big church institutions of much of Europe have the same support as the Anglicans give theirs.

The mass however had the organ playing, which I can report is played by an extremely skilled musician, and a visiting choir who knew what they were doing (they sang a Latin choral setting).

There was something about the church which I came to admire. The understated way that the staff went about their business while setting up before the service, the ability of the organist and the integrity of the people who came along all contributed to a sense of order and significance.

Once I got home, I looked up the Duomo status of Perugia. Not only has the town kept its bishop and therefore the church has kept its role as a cathedral, but the bishop is one of the few Italian Archbishops. To give this some context, England has 2 and the UK has only 5 archbishops in total. This was a church that was free, easy and welcoming (provided you were dressed for a European city and not for the beach) but still had the confidence to take itself and the people it served seriously. Mind you, with Assisi as the next town on the railway line and also under this cathedral church's protection, a little religious gravitas is not inappropriate.

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