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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Building of Orvieto Cathedral

By Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908)

From ‘Notes of Travel and Study in Italy’

THE BEST Gothic architecture, wherever it may be found, affords evidence that the men who executed it were moved by a true fervor of religious faith. In building a church, they did not forget that it was to be the house of God. No portion of their building was too minute, no portion too obscure, to be perfected with thorough and careful labor. The work was not let out by contract, or taken up as a profitable job. The architect of a cathedral might live all his life within the shadow of its rising walls, and die no richer than when he gave the sketch; but he was well repaid by the delight of seeing his design grow from an imagination to a reality, and by spending his days in the accepted service of the Lord.

For the building of a cathedral, however, there needs not only a spirit of religious zeal among the workmen, but a faith no less ardent among the people for whom the church is designed. The enormous expense of construction—an expense which for generations must be continued without intermission—is not to be met except by liberal and willing general contributions. Papal indulgences and the offerings of pilgrims may add something to the revenues; but the main cost of building must be borne by the community over whose house-tops the cathedral is to rise and to extend its benign protection.

Cathedrals were essentially expressions of the popular will and the popular faith. They were the work neither of ecclesiastics nor of feudal barons. They represent in a measure the decline of feudalism, and the prevalence of the democratic element in society. No sooner did a city achieve its freedom than its people began to take thought for a cathedral. Of all the arts, architecture is the most quickly responsive to the instincts and the desires of a people. And in the cathedrals, the popular beliefs, hopes, fears, fancies, and aspirations found expression, and were perpetuated in a language intelligible to all. The life of the Middle Ages is recorded on their walls. When the democratic element was subdued, as in Cologne by a Prince Bishop, or in Milan by a succession of tyrants, the cathedral was left unfinished. When in the fifteenth century, all over Europe, the turbulent but energetic liberties of the people were suppressed, the building of cathedrals ceased.

The grandeur, beauty, and lavish costliness of the Duomo at Orvieto, or of any other of the greater cathedrals, implies a persistency and strength of purpose which could be the result only of the influence over the souls of men of a deep and abiding emotion. Minor motives may often have borne a part in the excitement of feeling,—motives of personal ambition, civic pride, boastfulness, and rivalry; but a work that requires the combined and voluntary offerings and labor of successive generations presupposes a condition of the higher spiritual nature which no motives but those connected with religion are sufficient to support. It becomes then a question of more than merely historic interest, a question indeed touching the very foundation of the spiritual development and civilization of modern Europe, to investigate the nature and origin of that widespread impulse which for two centuries led the people of different races, and widely diverse habits of life and thought, to the construction of cathedrals,—buildings such as our own age, no less than those which have immediately preceded it, seems incompetent to execute, and indifferent to attempt.

It is impossible to fix a precise date for the first signs of vigorous and vital consciousness which gave token of the birth of a new life out of the dead remains of the ancient world. The tenth century is often spoken of as the darkest period of the Dark Ages; but even in its dull sky there were some breaks of light, and very soon after it had passed the dawn began to brighten. The epoch of the completion of a thousand years from the birth of Christ, which had, almost from the first preaching of Christianity, been looked forward to as the time for the destruction of the world and the advent of the Lord to judge the earth, had passed without the fulfillment of these ecclesiastical prophecies and popular anticipations. There can be little doubt that among the mass of men there was a sense of relief, naturally followed by a certain invigoration of spirit. The eleventh century was one of comparative intellectual vigor. The twelfth was still more marked by mental activity and force. The world was fairly awake. Civilization was taking the first steps of its modern course. The relations of the various classes of society were changing. A wider liberty of thought and action was established; and while this led to a fresh exercise of individual power and character, it conduced also to combine men together in new forms of united effort for the attainment of common objects and in the pursuit of common interests.

Corresponding with, but perhaps subsequent by a short interval to, the pervading intellectual movement, was a strong and quickening development of the moral sense among men. The periods distinguished in modern history by a condition of intellectual excitement and fervor have been usually, perhaps always, followed at a short interval by epochs of more or less intense moral energy, which has borne a near relation to the nature of the moral elements in the previous intellectual movement. The Renaissance, an intellectual period of pure immorality, was followed close by the Reformation, whose first characteristic was that of protest. The Elizabethan age, in which the minds of men were full of large thoughts, and their imaginations rose to the highest flights, led in the noble sacrifices, the great achievements, the wild vagaries of Puritanism. The age of Voltaire and the infidels was followed by the fierce energy, the infidel morality of the French Revolution. And so at this earlier period, the general intellectual awakening, characterized as it was by simple impulses, and regulated in great measure by the teachings of the Church, produced a strong outbreak of moral earnestness which exhibited itself in curiously similar forms through the whole of Europe….

The immense amount of labor employed in the construction,—and of labor of the most diverse description, from the highest efforts of the inventive imagination to the simplest mechanical hammering of blocks of stone,—led to a careful organization of the whole body of workmen, and to the setting aside of a special building, the Loggia, on the Cathedral square, for the use of the masters in the different arts. Each art had its chief, and over all presided “the Master of the Masters,” skilled no less in painting, mosaic, and sculpture, than in architecture. The larger number of the most accomplished artists came at this time from Siena and Pisa, where the growth of the arts had a little earlier spring than in Florence. Whatever designs and models were required for any portion of the work were first submitted for approval to the head of the special art to which they belonged; and if approved by him, were then laid before the Master of the Masters, and the Board of Superintendents of the work. These officers occupied a house opposite the front of the Duomo, in which they assembled for deliberation, and where the records of their proceedings were kept in due form by a notary, who every week registered the works accomplished, the cost of materials, and the wages of those employed on the building.

Beside the masters and men at work at Orvieto, many others were distributed in various parts of Italy, employed in obtaining materials, and especially in quarrying and cutting marble for the Cathedral. Black marble was got from the quarries near Siena, alabaster from Sant’ Antimo, near Radicofani, and white marble from the mountains of Carrara. But the supply of the richest and rarest marbles came from Rome, the ruins of whose ancient magnificence afforded ample stores of costliest material to the builders not only of the Papal city itself, but of Naples, of Orvieto, and of many another Italian town. The Greek statuary marble which had once formed part of some ancient temple was transferred to the hands of the new sculptors, to be worked into forms far different in character and in execution from those of Grecian art. The accumulated riches of pagan Rome were distributed for the adornment of Christian churches.

To destroy the remains of paganism was regarded as a scarcely less acceptable service than to erect new buildings for Christian worship. Petrarch had not yet begun to lament the barbarism of such destruction. The beauty of the ancient world was recognized as yet only by a few artists, powerless to save its vanishing remains. Not yet had the intoxicating sense of this beauty begun to recorrupt and re-effeminate Italy. A century later, Rome began to preserve in part the few remaining memorials of her ancient splendor; and not many years after, the Renaissance, with its degraded taste and debasing principles, set in, and the influence of ancient art on modern morals was displayed.

The workmen who labored in quarrying at Rome during the winter retired in summer to the healthy heights of the Alban mountains; and there, among the ruins of ancient villas, continued their work, and thence dispatched the blocks, on wagons drawn by buffaloes, to their distant destination. The entries in the book of the records of the Fabbrica show with what a network of laborers, in the service of the Cathedral, the neighboring provinces were overspread. Thus, under date of the 13th of September, 1321, there is an entry of the expense of the transport of marbles, and of travertine for coarse work, from Valle del Cero, from Barontoli, from Tivoli, and from Rigo on the Tiber; and on the 11th of the same month, sixty florins of gold and fourteen lire in silver were paid for the transport, with sixteen pairs of buffaloes, from the forest of Aspretolo, of sixteen loads of fir timber for the soffit of the Cathedral, and one beam of the largest size. Again, there is an entry of the payment for bringing four great pieces of marble, of the weight of 8,100 pounds, from the quarter of St. Paul at Rome; and a little later another for 14,250 pounds of marble, also from Rome. On the 21st of June, nine lire and eleven soldi had been spent in the purchase of an ass,—“quem somarium Mag. Laurentius caput Magistrorum operis et Camerarius emerunt pro portandis ferris et rebus Magistrorum operis Romam.” From the quarry of Montepisi came loads of marble for the main portal and for the side-doors; and from Arezzo, famous of old for its red vases, was brought clay for the glass furnace for the making of mosaics. On the 3d of August, a messenger was dispatched with letters from the architect to the workmen at Albano, “Magistris operis qui laborant marmora apud Castrum Albani, prope Urbem.” Such entries as these extend over many years; and show not only the activity displayed in the building, but also its enormous costliness, and the long foresight and wide knowledge of means required in its architect.

Trains of wagons, loaded with material for the Cathedral, made their slow progress toward the city from the north and the south, from the shores of the Adriatic and of the Mediterranean. The heavy carts which had creaked under their burdens along the solitudes of the Campagna of the Maremma, which had toiled up the forest-covered heights that overhang Viterbo, through the wild passes of Monte Cimino, or whose shouting teamsters had held back their straining buffaloes down the bare sides of the mountains of Radicofani, arrived in unending succession in the valley of the Paglia. The worst part of the way, however, still lay before them in the steep ascent to the uplifted city. But here the zeal of voluntary labor came in to lighten the work of the tugging buffaloes. Bands of citizens enrolled themselves to drag the carts up the rise of the mountain; and on feast days the people of the neighboring towns flocked in to take their share in the work, and to gain the indulgences offered to those who should give a helping hand. We may imagine these processions of laborers in the service of the house of the Lord advancing to the sound of the singing of hymns or the chanting of penitential psalms; but of these scenes no formal description has been left. The enthusiasm which was displayed was of the same order as that which, a century before, had been shown at the building of the magnificent Cathedral of Chartres, but probably less intense in its expression, owing to the change in the spirit of the times. Then men and women, sometimes to the number of a thousand, of all ranks and conditions, harnessed themselves to the wagons loaded with materials for building, or with supplies for the workmen. No one was admitted into the company who did not first make confession of his sins, “and lay down at the foot of the altar all hatred and anger.” As cart after cart was dragged in by its band of devotees, it was set in its place in a circle of wagons around the church. Candles were lighted upon them all, as upon so many altars. At night the people watched, singing hymns and songs of praise, or inflicting discipline upon themselves, with prayers for the forgiveness of their sins.

Processions of Juggernaut, camp-meetings, the excitements of a revival, are exhibitions under another form of the spirit shown in these enrollments of the people as beasts of burden. Such excitements rarely leave any noble or permanent result. But it was the distinctive characteristic of this period of religious enthusiasm that there were men honestly partaking in the general emotion, yet of such strong individuality of genius that instead of being carried away by the wasteful current of feeling, they were able to guide and control to great and noble purposes the impulsive activity and bursting energies of the time. Religious excitements so called, of whatever kind, imply one of two things: either a morbid state of the physical or mental system, or a low and materialistic conception of the truths of the spiritual life. They belong as much to the body as to the soul, and they seek vent for the energies they arouse, in physical manifestations. Between the groaning of a set of miserable sinners on the anxious seats, and the toiling of men and women at the ropes of carts laden with stone for a church, there is a close relation. The cause and nature of the emotion which influences them are the same. The difference of its mode of exhibition arises from original differences of character, from changes in religious creeds, from the varied circumstances of different ages. It is a difference exhibited in the contrast between the bare boards of a Methodist meeting-house and the carved walls of a Catholic cathedral.