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Divine intervention: Renzo Piano's huge new basilica in southern Italy reconciles the spiritual and practical needs of modern pilgrims.

Appropriately, for a nation at the epicentre of Catholicism, the Italians adore their saints. Padre Pio, a mystical Italian Capuchin monk famous for his bleeding stigmata and miraculous healing powers, is a recent and popular addition to the pantheon, formally canonised by the Pope in 2002. Contemporary sainthood generates enormous physical and commercial demands, however. Padre Pio's home and final resting place of San Giovanni Rotunda, a small town in the impoverished heel of Italy, had become seriously overwhelmed by the demands of modern pilgrimage (some 8 million visitors annually), swamped by a flotsam of cheap hotels and souvenir shops. Renzo Piano's newly completed basilica (AR March 2003) is an attempt to rationalise and dignify this public urge to venerate a remarkable individual and commune with the divine. As a measure of its significance not only as a major piece of architecture, but also symbolic of the wider relationship of religion to the modern world, the building's dedication ceremony was solemnly shown live and at length on the main Italian state broadcasting channel.

In an era when church building is widely regarded as a marginal activity, Padre Pio's basilica is a considerable act of faith. Thirteen years in the making, it is the largest modern church in Europe, capable of accommodating 7,200 worshippers, with room for an additional 30,000 who might swell the capacity on feast days, standing outside in an adjoining piazza. In many ways it acts as a reconciling bridge between the ancient mysteries of the divine and the more humdrum expectations of the modern world. The spiralling, shell-like plan can hold a huge congregation, but there is still a strong sense of individual intimacy. Despite its size, it is deliberately anti-monumental, its low curved bulk spread across a hillside on the edge of the village, and its green copper roof merging with the primal Arcadian landscape of southern Italy. As Piano observes: 'The topography of the site is very interesting. You don't see the landscape in the immediate vicinity, you see the sea--beyond there is a sense of the infinite rather than the local. There are almond trees all around and a sense of calm in the air. This is how we started to build up a sense of place.'*

The great parvis for open-air worshippers recalls a Classical Greek theatre set in the landscape, with the man-made and natural worlds brought together in a powerful symbiosis. Commentators have also noted other aspects of pantheism--the shallow domed form evoking pagan archetypes such as sacred burial mounds, cosmic mountains and the circular tents of nomadic tribes. Conventional Christian symbolism seems curiously played down--a handful of crosses, a pilgrimage way and a minimal campanile--but this seems in keeping with the project's deeper mystical undercurrents. As Edwin Heathcote points out, it is, in effect, a cult building, constructed around the remains of a latter-day shaman, healer and holy man, whose life and powers, despite being rubber-stamped by the Catholic authorities, remain a profound and even disturbing enigma.

The most obvious physical expression of this unconventionality is the organic plan form broken up by a series of stone arches that radiate out from the central altar, where the remains of Padre Pio now lie. The church was one of the last collaborations between Piano and engineer Peter Rice, and reflects Rice's interest in using stone, a traditional structural material, in radical new ways made possible by advances in structural theory and the computer-guided precision cutting of stone. This ensures an even distribution of stresses within each block, so making structural performance more predictable. Since it is just as economical to cut each block independently, it also allows a greater variation of sizes. So each of the 21 arches can accommodate a different span, up to a staggering 50m, possibly the largest stone arch ever constructed. Composed of blocks of pale Apricena marble, the free-standing arches curve through the vast space, anchored and secured by internal stainless steel cables. In their grace, slenderness and technical ingenuity they are a modern version of the flying masonry of Gothic cathedrals. Slim metal ribs flare out and up from the spinal arches to support the copper-clad roof, its overlapping scales resembling a giant turtle shell.

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Inside the great vaulted space, the converging arches lead the eye to the central altar, brilliantly illuminated by shafts of direct sunlight--a literal and spiritual beacon in the surrounding gloom. Materials are deliberately unostentatious, in keeping with the austere spirit of the Capuchin order, which conceives the church as a welcoming open house, rather than an aloof, overpowering monument. To this end, a simple glass wall, partly covered by a fabric screen printed with an image of the Apocalypse, is the only boundary separating the church from its huge parvis, dissolving the physical and symbolic thresholds between the sacred and the everyday. In its exploration of stone and light, the relationship of building to landscape, and of humanity to the divine, this is a building of many parts, striving for and achieving a quiet yet powerful transcendence.

* Quoted in Church Building, no. 71, September/October 2001, p6.

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Title Annotation:Architectural services
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:873
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