There are few, if any, churches in Western Europe to rival Barga’s Duomo for sheer provocative mystery. From its near-cubist architecture to its peculiar relationship with a distant mountain arch, the great marble edifice overlooking the Serchio Valley is an encyclopedia of questions that yield few unambiguous answers.
Now comes the painter Keane, who has been documenting Barga’s daily life and rich past for two decades, with 52 canvases that profoundly deepen the mystery. They draw on 212 extraordinary bas-reliefs, mounted so high on the outer parapets of the edifice that passersby and parishioners alike seldom notice them. The age of the sculptures, their provenance, their creators — indeed their very purpose and intention — are all unknown.
In a sense, they relate a hidden chronicle in full light, a narrative that defies precise definition but invites the sort of imaginative speculation that often yields more essential truth than the dry facts of pure documentation. “None of this work is simply decorative,” Keane says of the Duomo carvings. “The more I studied it, searching to understand what it meant, the more potent it was for me.”
What lies at the crux of Keane’s own fascination with the walls of the Duomo, the saga that emerges from his paintings and their venerable subject, is one of history’s great transitional moments. Peering out from their airy niches, human figures, animals and symbolic floral designs invoke a lost world in which Central Italy was neither obstinately pagan in the waning sense of its Greco-Roman and Etruscan origins, nor fully Christian as it would become by the 12th century. They blend both of these currents with far more ancient local folk traditions, and powerful allusions to the gods of Norse-Germanic Lombard invaders who descended on the Serchio Valley 1,500 years ago and gradually displaced its Latin ruling class.
An archer, hair flung back in the frenzy of the chase , sends an arrow across the void from one relief to another, and into the neck of an enormous bird perched heavily atop groaning trees. Enigmatic moon-faced warriors, dragons, bulls’ heads, serpents and snarling serpent-tailed dogs fill adjoining panels, writhing in fury or gazing ominously forward. Set among them, in prolific array, are abstract interpretations of flowers and foliage — most frequently geometric trees. No inscription accompanies them; they speak wordlessly in an archaic iconic language.
What does it say? We can only guess. But what seems inescapable is that the tale is far older than the date of origin commonly ascribed to Duomo, sometime in the 10th century. At the very least, the iconic narrative bespeaks a counter-current in the annals of this city and its surrounding region, a submerged collective memory.
At least one clue to its meaning may lie in the Duomo’s unique and distinctly unusual orientation. Catholic churches, in accordance with 2,000 years of liturgical tradition, are aligned along an east-west axis, so that priest and parishioners will pray facing toward the rising sun, symbolically alluding to Christ’s resurrection. The Duomo is not merely off axis, but seems precisely “aimed” at a giant natural arch on Monte Forato across the valley in the Apuan Alps. Twice per year, as observed from the main Duomo portal, the sun appears to set twice — the doppio tramonto — first above the Apuan ridgeline, then reappearing in a concentrated stream of light through the Monte Forato arch, where it sets once again. Even today, Barghigiani gather before the Duomo to watch the doppio tramonto, a ritual that may date back more than 3,000 years to a time when the area was inhabited by sun-worshipping Liguri tribesmen, who may have built a temple on the very site of the present church.
The sunset-fixed orientation suggests that this church, more than any other that comes to mind, has visibly absorbed both pre-Roman and pre-Christian beliefs and customs into its Christian identity. What Keane argues, in his representative selection, is that the synthesis is repeated in its exterior ornamentation. The familiar Greco-Roman and Mediterranean motifs of most Italian religious structures give way to figures borrowed almost directly from prehistoric carved granite steles found across the Garfagnana and Lunigiana regions. Pay a visit to the remarkable archeology museum in Pontremoli, on the Magra River north of Aulla, and you will encounter the cousins of those moon-faced Duomo warriors among ancestors of the Liguri, believed to have been related to the Celts — who inhabited what is now the Province of Lucca a thousand years before the Roman Republic. You will also see the same intricate Celtic “Solomon’s knot” that is one of the Duomo’s most prominent abstract designs.
Travel 2,500 km further north, to the Universitets Historiska Museum in Lund, Sweden, and you stand among stone pillars that depict the “tree of life,” a central symbol of Nordic and Lombard mythology, executed almost precisely as it is in Keane’s Duomo canvases. You will also meet a flowing-haired bowman: he is Ull, the charismatic god of archers and hunters. As for the Duomo archer’s target in an adjoining niche, it is tempting to imagine that he is Hraesvelg, a malevolent Nordic deity known as the “corpse swallower,” who often takes the form of a huge bird.
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).