Architectural Proposal for the Basilica of St. Benedict of Norcia by Anthony Ferraro

[LAJ is always pleased to feature young and upcoming architects and today we are featuring an article by Anthony Ferraro, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's school of architecture. As many of our readers will know, the beautiful basilica of San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy, suffered catastrophic damage as a result of an earthquake a few years back. The following is his proposal for what might be done in an instance such as this. -- SRT.]

In 2016, a massive earthquake devastated the rural town of Norcia in central Italy, destroying every church within its walls. Amongst these was the Basilica of St. Benedict, a centuries-old church built upon the birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica (Figs. 10 and 11). The Basilica of St. Benedict, as it was before the earthquake, sits on the largest and most important piazza in Norcia (Fig. 12) along with two other civic buildings: the Palazzo Communale and the Castellina. The Cathedral of Norcia is also close by, down a side street by the Castellina. Of all these buildings, the Basilica is afforded the most honorific place on the piazza as well as on the main urban sequence connecting the western and eastern gates, and a loggia is built on its southern flank to capitalize on this. The church itself, like many others in the city, is a gothic structure with classical and baroque renovations, which can especially be seen on the interior (Fig. 13). The scars of previous restorations are evident as well, with numerous arches and windows that have been filled in with masonry. There is a crypt level accessed by stairs in the nave, though this does not lead to the ruins of St. Benedict’s house: those are located to the north side of the church, nestled in the exterior corner created by the transept and the nave. The ruins are about a meter below the floor level of nave, and as such, higher than that of the crypt, and are treated almost as an archeological site with a metal walkway above them. The whole monastery complex is intimately woven into the city fabric, with a public covered passage and various shops on the first level of the monastery complex, including a brewery run by the monks. 

 Figure 10: Basilica di San Benedetto in Norcia, before the earthquake. ( (Accessed April 30, 2022) 

 Figure 11: Basilica di San Benedetto in Norcia, after the earthquake. (Picture taken by author) 

The cloister itself is an irregular courtyard with cells disposed on the upper level. As mentioned, the monastery as a whole sustained serious damage from the earthquake in 2016 such that much is unsalvageable. The church is almost completely destroyed, with only the base of the tower still standing on its own and both the apse and façade propped up by scaffolding. More remains of the cloister, but it is structurally unstable and is in a mostly unusable state, save for the butcher’s shop on the southeast corner, with many areas also propped up by scaffolding. Thus, construction of a new basilica and monastery is necessary.

There have been calls for a modernist reconstruction - this project puts forth a classical proposal for both the Basilica and the attached monastery, seeking to create a new church “as if the original builders had returned and, in their spirit, availed themselves of all the erudition complied in the interim, revisiting the design and correcting its errors.” The resulting building is not a copy of the original, but an idealized version. This project seeks to rebuild the Basilica of St. Benedict under this philosophy, continuing the work of the original architects to its full fruition and completing the up-until-now unfinished classical renovations.

Fig. 13. Interior of the Basilica
In the design of churches, architectural character, in the context of the building’s relation to man in the public realm and to God in the liturgy, is of central importance. As physical embodiments of the spiritual heart of a culture, and as the emblematic house of God, churches should express the most noble of artistic qualities while remaining in continuity with architectural and theological traditions, and they should be the centerpieces of the public realm, furnished in an honorific place, in order that their beauty and moral authority may have a sanctifying and solacing effect on our lives. In consideration of this role and purpose within society, the architectural character of churches should be first and foremost anagogical, alluding to the divine and lifting our minds to God. Further, the three principle means by which character manifests the purpose of a building are “1º by the forms of the plan and of the elevation; 2º by the choice, the measure or the manner of ornament and decoration; 3º through the massing and the kind of construction and materials.” 

The proposed design accomplishes this criteria in numerous ways. In terms of “the forms of the plan and of the elevation,” the new Basilica refines what existed before the earthquake, taking the original ideas and subjecting them to a more rigorous, classicizing methodology, which can be seen to various extents in other churches in Norcia. Thus, the old character of the building is preserved in the more pleasant proportioning and greater monumentality of the new. In light of this, the proposed design improves the anagogical character of the building. The new modular plan, as mentioned previously, allows for a greater clarity as well, with a more pronounced hierarchical sequence. The elevated choir and the dome above add to this effect, calling out the most holy spaces of the church. The design of the “ornament and decoration,” relying on the original ornamentation as precedent, is also arrayed to emphasize the sacred places in the church, with the altar itself being a prime example. Relief carvings of garlands throughout the Basilica, in effect, visually consecrate the building and are also appropriate symbols of celebration certainly welcomed by the city as its most prominent civic structure is restored. In order to convey a sense of permanence, stability, and monumentality, the new church will be given a sturdy “massing” with thick walls and buttresses, though maintaining an appropriate verticality. The “kind of construction and materials” remains in keeping with local precedent, allowing the new church to represent the greatest aspirations of its cultural context and to serve as its spiritual center. As such, this proposal for the restoration of the Basilica of San Benedetto will restore the spirit of Norcia, bring balance to the civic realm, lift our minds to God, and provide a model for forthcoming ecclesiastical architecture.

Anthony Ferraro is a practicing architect specializing in sacred and classical architecture. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture and has received a number of awards for his work, including the Henry Adams Medal, the Ferguson and Shamamian Prize, and the John Russell Pope Award

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