Coming Attractions? The New Basilica of San Benedetto, Norcia

In October 2016 tragedy hit Umbria in central Italy, leveling the beloved basilica of Saint Benedict in Norcia. Following the time of the quake, the devastated Monks of Norcia wrote a statement on their website asking for financial help in building both the Basilica of San Benedetto and their other site at San Benedetto in Monte. As they wrote on the website: “Our rebuilding efforts are directed to two monastic sites in Norcia: one at the Basilica of San Benedetto, the other at San Benedetto in Monte. We humbly ask that you participate by making a financial contribution to this project, which will deepen the monastic roots in Norcia and help bring hope to the people and region.”

However, Renato Boccado, who was named Bishop with the title ad personam Archbishop of Spoleto, which includes the Diocese of Norcia, informed the monks that the reconstruction as well as the design was under his jurisdiction and that that same design would be in a “modern style” of architecture.  Boccado was ordained in 1977 when Italy started and has continued to build all new churches in the modernist tradition. Boccado, like most of his generation, was raised when Vatican II had declared that the Church had “no official style”. One wonders what would have happened had Sacrosanctum Concilium been expanded to say that the Church had no official style however the Catholic Church has the most expanded and fullest vernacular of art and architecture in global history. That the Church's treasury includes the Cistercian, where what may be considered barren and as empty still holds the fullness of God, and the Rococo, where there is no such absence in describing the presence of God.

Although the monks appealed to the USA, it was a native Umbrian that seems to be coming to their rescue. Enter Brunello Cucunelli, the designer and native of Perugia, who has offered his help and assistance to the American prior, Father Folson Cassian, to sponsor the reconstruction of the entire project.

In the United States, one continually sees restorations and renovations of Catholic churches; Italy, however, has yet to turn that corner in either its new constructions or in its renovations of those churches that lost their architectural and artistic patrimony due to modernism. There is not one church designed for the Ordinary Form that has made any accommodations to date. In older churches, where the ad orientem altar from the usus antiquior still exists, a free standing table/altar is set on the lowest plane of the sanctuary.   There is another reason and that is the state. Restorations of all art and architecture, secular and sacred, must come under the consideration of Bene Culturale. This means should a church have a fresco, good, mediocre or bad, that is it need of cleaning, conservation or restoration, or an inlaid marble altar from 800 A.D., it can’t be touched. But in the case of rebuilding the basilica in Norcia, this design decision was taken out of the hands of the monks by the Ordinary and not the state.

As the Benedictine Monks of Norcia are the only Order given the special apostolate of celebrating both the Extraordinary and the Ordinary Forms of the Roman Rite, how will this new design accommodate both forms in its new design especially if the design is modernist by an architect unfamiliar with the liturgy?

The founding prior, Father Cassian Folsom, writes:
The history of the liturgy shows clearly a multiplicity of usages within the one Roman rite. It is thanks to many years of studying the liturgy that I came to see the importance of this unity in diversity. In fact, I argued this point in the presence of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger at a liturgical conference held at Fontgombault in France in 1997. As a liturgist, I would also like to say that there is no perfect rite; there are positive and negative aspects in every liturgical tradition. The only perfect liturgy is the heavenly one.... At the risk of oversimplifying, I would say that the Ordinary Form stresses rational understanding, speaking in prose, as it were. The Extraordinary Form provides rich food for the intellect also, but relies heavily on gesture, symbolism, intuition, silence, ritual action without words, speaking in poetry, you might say. Man knows both rationally and intuitively. He needs both prose and poetry. If the two usages, like two different cultures, can patiently live with each other over time, they can become friends.”
Regardless of liturgy, his Excellency wants the new design to be a “tourist attraction.” So Stefano Boeri, who never designed a church or chapel, but is most famous for the “vertical green house,” was brought in by Archbishop Boccado. Needless to say the new basilica should not be less impressive than what was, but the attraction should be to the faithful whether they be residents of Norcia or visitors. The continual denial that modernism is indeed a tradition is part of the problem.

"Greenhouse Towers" by Stefano Boeri
One the one hand it cannot be denied that the original structure and design of the basilica was not the original in that it had undergone at least three renovations and restorations which is both common and typical in many of Europe’s older churches. This type of accumulative order, this layering of centuries, is next to impossible to reproduce as those same needs are no longer in place. Yet the word or term “classical” is absent from every conversation regarding any design discussion here. Why is that? Perhaps it lies more so in the discussion of modernism in Italy itself. The current theme in Italian history of art and architecture is that modernism began with Cimabue and thus it only follows that anything new is rinascimantale and therefore of quality.

On July 14th, when the campanile of San Marco collapsed in Venice the motto became, “com’era, dov’era” meaning, ”what is was, where it was” This is not what the archbishop is considering. But the dov’era, where the basilica was, is in place. It’s the com’era, how it was, that seems to have everything in hold which is perhaps where it should be for now.

The region is lacking of architects who can design an new basilica in the tradition of the former structure. In fact David Napolitano, a native of neighboring Foligno, is perhaps the most equipped architect in entire region. He currently has more American clients for his ecclesiastical designs than clergy in Italy as Italians have become somewhat stuck on modernism and the notion that all new things are automatically renascent. The paradigm of modernism has always been one of 'what is new is good' and not 'what is good is new.'

Norcia is a testing ground for much of Italy. Of course a reconstruction, a copy of the former structure may not be the best for many structural reasons and architectural reproductions rarely work as they try to replicate designs that were accumulative and developed over various periods. Perhaps the solutions lies somewhere between “com’era dov’era” and simply doing nothing until the good replaces the new, quality replaces novelty, and all is done for the greater glory of God.

Just as its founder Saint Benedict revolutionized the Church, we now look at Norcia, the little town nestled in the hill of Umbria, the Convento d’Italia, to take the lead. Now comes the time to decide how its reconstruction will evolve. What will prevail depends heavily on who will prevail. O Nursia!

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