The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta

The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta

The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta

The Baptistery in Piazza Duomo, Città Alta, Bergamo must be the most peripatetic Baptistery in the world. It might not have travelled far but it moved often. Starting out inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore it was moved to two other places in the vicinity of the Piazza Duomo before ending up in its present location at the end of the 19th century.

It was designed in the 14th century by Giovanni da Campione. He was also commissioned to build the porch over the two, north and south, entrances to the Basilica as well as the ‘side’ entrance tucked away in a corner to the left of the red lions holding up the north porch.

I found it difficult to find out very much about Campione as the majority of work attributed to him seems to be connected to the already mentioned structures in Bergamo. It seems that all his efforts there took place in the period, roughly, between 1420 and the late 1460s. Where he came from, when he was born, where he went afterwards and when he died is still a mystery to me.

The Basilica lost its status as the baptismal church once the Cathedral was completed and that prompted the first move, out into the cold of the courtyard where it remained for a couple of hundred years before making its next couple of journeys.

It’s difficult to see the thinking of Campione in designing such a large structure to place inside the even larger Santa Maria Maggiore as it must have looked out-of-place from the start. Not only did he design the octagonal building, the statues on the outside (representing the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity; the Four Cardinal Virtues, Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Fortitude; with the addition of Patience to make the eight to fill the available niches) he created the marble bas-reliefs and statues inside as well as the font.

Considering its age and the number of times it has been moved it’s in a remarkably good condition, as can be witnessed by the intricate carved marble on the entrance arch.

The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta - Door Arch

The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta – Door Arch

Normally the building is not accessible unless being used for actual baptisms – when the private nature of the function means that visiting is not really on the cards. However, in my visit to Bergamo in May 2014 there seemed to be crowds of either Italian school children or pensioners going inside on private, guided visits almost every time I passed by.

During the first I came across, a school visit by primary children, I was able to get inside and have a look, quickly taking some pictures before the guide had the chance to break off from her talk to the children and throw me out. Unfortunately unless you are bare-faced and opportunistic there seems to be little opportunity to get a close-up look at Campione’s craftsmanship.

The colours inside, not unsurprisingly, mirror those on the outside. As well as a statue of John the Baptist, standing facing the font and the entrance under a bas-relief of The Crucifixion, there are seven other bas-reliefs in marble depicting the normal story of Christ from pre-conception to death.

The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta - Interior

The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta – Interior

The Piazza Duomo has grand buildings on all sides and the Baptistery is very much the smallest but it seems to fit into its present location and now looks as if it belongs where it took more than 500 years to arrive.

Butrint – a Greek and Roman story in southern Albania

 

Roman ruins at Butrint, Saranda, Albania

Butrint, Saranda

An archaeological site that goes back almost 2500 years, Butrint has the imprint of both the Greek and Roman civilisations. Important for its location to both those cultures it was also pivotal under Venetian rule, its decline only really beginning after it fell to Napoleon’s armies at the end of the 18th century.

One of the main visitor attractions in the vicinity of Saranda is the archaeological site of Butrint, about 14km to the south (after passing by the Dema Monument and through the town of Ksamil), easily reached by a regular public bus from the town centre.

One reason that makes it special is the fact that it was occupied by some of Europe’s principal civilizations starting with the Greeks, who first developed the site in the 4th century BC, followed by the Romans from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD, and then reaching a final period of importance and influence under the Venetians from 16th century until succumbing to the French armies of Napoleon at the end of the 18th century. It was subsequently occupied by a local despot but by that time it had lost its historic importance.

Especially interesting to me was the way the Roman’s just took over the Greek city and adapted, and extended, it to their own particular philosophy and way of doing things. For example, they expanded the theatre, built bath houses and other public buildings and altered the whole atmosphere of the place by constructing a huge Forum, Roman life revolving around that part of any city. culture.

This foundation was then later, literally, built upon by succeeding civilizations, with a development of the fortifications and a strengthening of the perimeter walls as the technology of warfare became more lethal and adept at breaking down a population’s resistance. Yes, the Romans built walls but their primary defence was the threat of total, complete and absolute destruction if anyone dared to attack a Roman settlement, something that was valid until the collapse of the Empire in the 5th century AD.

It’s not a huge site and a couple of hours is adequate to get a good idea of the place, at a reasonable pace. Each time I go there the level of the water seems to get higher and from what I’ve read this was a problem from many centuries ago, forcing the abandonment of some of the lower structures.

At the moment the orchestra of the Greek/Roman theatre seems to be constantly under water, to such an extent that terrapins are regular visitors. What this flooding is doing to the structure of the buildings I don’t know, but it can’t be good news.

So what do I recommend?

The changing manner in which the Greeks and the Romans put one stone on the top of another. There is a very distinct change in the way they constructed their buildings, although they had basically the same use. What I found interesting was the similarity in building style of the Greeks to that of the Incas in Peru. At Butrint, as in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, large, worked pieces of stone are fitted together as in a jigsaw puzzle, so that there are no straight lines, I assume for a similar reason, i.e. there are no lines which provide a weak point in the event of an earthquake.

Archaeologists working in Butrint during Socialism

Archaeologists working in Butrint during Socialism

When you follow the path and wooden walkway taking you to the theatre look to your left just as you are about to reach the stage and the bottom of the seating. This is partly under water but there is enough at body level to see the writing in Greek, carved into the stone. Some of these are declarations of manumission made by rich Greeks who gave ‘freedom’ to their slaves in honour of one of the many gods worshipped at the time. Very easy to miss if you don’t look for them but easy to spot if you know where to look. They are referred to in the small museum in the castle complex at the very top of the site.

One place that doesn’t get a great number of visitors, due to the fact that the forum area is in front of it and people don’t make the slight diversion off the main path, and that’s the well. It’s only a small well, but what makes it special is the way that the stone has been grooved by the hundreds of thousands of time, over the centuries, a rope has rubbed against the edge with a heavy bucket of water on the end of it. It looks like a row of badly worn teeth.

The Baptistery would be the place to see if preservation of the mosaic wasn’t the most important consideration. When excavations were made an intricate and very well-preserved mosaic was discovered. But like all mosaics the biggest threat comes from the elements (nobody really steals floor mosaics – they become a somewhat difficult jigsaw to reconstruct) and is permanently covered to protect it. This is a small circular structure to the left of the signed route, not too far from the lakeside.

The Basilica is interesting in the fact that it wasn’t a Roman building taken over by the Christians but one constructed at the end of the 6th century, close to the end of the Roman Empire. This is in the classic cross design which is the basis for most Christian churches and is in a surprisingly good condition. OK there are no walls and the roof has also gone the way of all things, but the main columns still exist and it doesn’t take too much imagination to think what it would have looked like in its heyday.

Continuing along the path it’s worthwhile taking a look at the different stages in the development of the city’s defensive walls. This illustrates the different ways of putting stones on top of one another and demonstrates the importance of the place in times past.

There are a couple of entrances worthy of investigation. The first is what is known as the Lake Gate, dating from the beginning of the settlement. Here take a look at the way the stones in the roof have been worked so they are curved. A little further along the Lion Gate (so-called because there is a carving of a lion devouring a bull’s head on the lintel) shows how the entrance was lowered so that anyone coming through would have to bow their heads. Inside this entrance there is a well and although it’s impossible to make it out now there were some colourful Christian wall paintings towards the top. The dampness of the area (now permanently in the shade) has destroyed whatever might have been there many years ago.

Many discoveries were made during the period of Socialism as research into the country’s past was considered important to get a greater understanding of its present. Butrint started to reveal itself but under capitalism such academic research only continues if a monetary value can be placed upon it. 

The small museum in the castle at the top of the hill is worth a visit. If it’s closed there will always be someone around who will open it up if asked. Here are displayed some of the artefacts found at the site.

One statement particularly attracted my attention when walking around the museum and this was in relation to the inscriptions about the freeing of the slaves down at the theatre. Many of the inscription refer to women who were freeing the slaves and were therefore wealthy and in control of that wealth themselves. It seems in the early Greek days, before what is now called the Classical period, women would inherit any wealth from their husbands, as well as being able to become wealthy in their own right. This position of women in society is considered an ‘advance’. The problem is I don’t believe the slaves would have been too concerned about the gender of their ‘owners’. And in that ‘advanced’ society this equality was still denied to poor women. It wasn’t until the liberation of the country from fascism in 1944 and subsequent years that women truly found a semblance of equality in Albania.

Practical Information:

The public bus leaves from the bus stop opposite the ruins of the basilica and synagogue, just along from the Town Hall (the Bashkia). It leaves, more or less, on the hour and half hour until midday and then on the hour for the afternoon and takes about 45 minutes. Cost is L100 each way.

Butrint is open from 08.00 till dusk, all year round. Entrance is L700 for an individual (although I was charged the reduced group rate, although by myself, of L500 the second time I went there).

The Butrint National Park Website, in English, gives a comprehensive description of the archaeological site and its history.