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CHURCHES ARE NOT CONTAINERS TO BE FILLED

PUBBLICO & PRIVATO/Tomaso Montanari

Endless pandemic: museums are closed. But, at least, churches are open. Suggestions of rebirth when this is all over.
No one knows exactly how many churches there are in Italy. It is estimated at around 95,000, 85,000 of which are cultural assets, and as such subject to protection.

What guidelines should be followed by a ‘policy on ancient Italian churches’ that really aims to be at the service of knowledge and of that ‘full development of the human person’ that Article 3 of the Constitution sets as the supreme objective of our common existence?
The first is that churches are not containers to be filled. Not easy to accept in an age that cannot recognise a dignity of autonomous life to the Colosseum: and yet this is true, churches are not “empty”. On the contrary, they are “full”. But even though the emptiness of their spaces, immense even on today’s urban scale, strikes us negatively, in the asphyxiating and anxiety-inducing density of our daily lives, to enter an ancient church, to stay there even without a precise reason, is to breathe.

To think: entering a world governed by other rhythms, other colours, other lights, other perspectives. By another sense of time. In a society that relies on the theorisation of the lack of alternatives (existential, cultural, political), old churches are a radically alternative world to our own: a world that can be known simply by crossing a threshold.

The point is to continue to make it possible to cross that threshold. This is why I find the project “Chiese a porte aperte” (open churches), launched by the Consulta Regionale del Piemonte e della Valle d’Aosta per i Beni Culturali ecclesiastici and the Fondazione CRT, truly praiseworthy. Twenty-three small churches and chapels in little-visited areas and Alpine valleys automatically open their doors through a telephone application, which also provides (for those who do not wish to look for themselves, or simply pause in silence) a historical explanation of the monument: “Anyone can choose their own route, return several times in solitude, as a private visit, or in a group. Free of charge”. It is the simplicity of this idea that seems exemplary to me.
Of course, there is nothing to prevent churches (even when they are consecrated) from hosting concerts (but not for payment) or conferences or becoming centres for contemporary art or libraries: in short, non-commercial cultural activities. We should remember, however, that we don’t always need to give meaning to an empty box. Just as one can certainly make music, or recite poetry, in front of Botticelli’s Venus or Raphael’s Deposition: but it cannot become an alienating rule, which ends up cancelling the work itself.

And if we really want to turn an ancient church into a museum, we have to remember what a museum is. Let’s take Santa Maria Novella as an example: a great basilica full of history and art, with a huge convent attached. If that convent were to house a centre for research and documentation on the history of the church, bringing together the now-erratic works and housing photo libraries, archives, seminars, and the daily work of a community of researchers, then it could well be said to be a museum. But how many such centres are conceivable and sustainable?
Quite simply, Italy’s ancient churches should be open to the public, free of charge and constantly open to visitors, with all the support needed to understand them, but without distorting their ‘spiritual’ dimension: Article 4 of the Constitution is not afraid to use this word, stating that “every citizen has the duty to carry out, according to their possibilities and choice, an activity or a function that contributes to the material or spiritual progress of society”. Well, old churches also have this duty: and they perform it very well.
It is precisely for this reason that the Republic should find budgetary funds to restore, keep open, populate with knowledgeable custodians the civil and religious monuments donated to us by our forefathers. Unlike the flood of money currently being thrown into endless exhibitions at the service of private for-profits, into large ‘strategic’ projects, into culturally aberrant ‘cultural’ enterprises, that which is invested in ensuring a new life – of knowledge and humanity – for our ancient churches is blessed money, which yields a tenfold increase in social cohesion, equality, and the spiritual progress of society.
Kant wrote: “ Everything has either a price or a dignity. What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity” (1797). To be able to enter the Pantheon – Christian temple and civil temple – to simply leave a rose on Raphael’s tomb: this is something that has a dignity, and a value, that it would be unforgivable to erase.