Quiet Grandeur and Layers of Beauty: Cagliari Cathedral

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Cagliari Cathedral, or the Cathedral of St Maria and Cecilia, Duomo di Cagliari, Cattedrale di Santa Maria e Santa Cecilia, Cagliari, Sardinia

Cagliari is not a particularly large city, even though it is Sardinia’s capital.  It feels more like a mildly prosperous north Italian town that has the money to make things pretty, but the good taste not to go overboard.  The Cathedral reflects this and certainly from the outside doesn’t seem too prepossessing.  

But then I’ve got to remember not to judge a book by its cover.

The church was originally built in 1254 and after enlargement and the addition of a bishop’s palace, it became the city’s cathedral in 1313.  Subsequently there have been restorations/re-builds/pointless meddling, but not too much, considering the fact that it is a cathedral.  In 1669, the Genoese architects Domenico Spotorno and Francesco Solari saw to the church getting a major face-lift  – the walls were raised, vaults and domes were created, replacing the wooden roof, and a new pulpit was inserted.  It still bears the coat of arms of the Archbishop de Vico.

In 1702 the facade was attacked – it was turned from Romanesque into Baroque.  This addition, described by DH Lawrence as looking ‘sausagey’, was demolished in the 1930s, when Francesco Giarrizzo attempted to go back to its Romanesque origins and was inspired by Pisa Cathedral in his efforts.  The result is decidedly odd – it looks out of place with the rest of the square – which is mainly 18th century – and its dinky, column-filled facade doesn’t match the stumpy tower on the side.

The interior works better for me.  It’s a lovely mix of Gothic and Baroque and on a bright day, like the one I visited on, the whole place gives the impression of being wonderfully airy and light.

The stone pulpits by the main doors were made in around 1160 by Guglielmo da Innsbruck (or da Pisa) and were actually in Pisa’s cathedral before being given to Cagliari in 1312.  The pulpit was divided in the 17th century, for some reason, and the two parts were placed in their current location.  They are lovely and once your eyes adjust to the light, you can see that the details are really wonderful.  

Of all the monuments, the grandest is to Martin I of Sicily, built in 1676-80.  Curiously, the King died in 1374/6, so it’s interesting they decided to construct something so overblown three hundred years later…

The new pulpit is very baroque, but there are traces of the older church in front of the altar.  The four lions supporting the altar’s steps are also by Guglielmo da Innsbruck/Pisa, and have wonderfully mischievous expressions.  There’s one in particular who seems to have just looked up from devouring his prey, and sees he’s being watched, and says, “Oh, hey.”

If you go down into the little staircase behind the lions, you’ll end up in the crypt.  Also known as the Shrine of the Martyrs, this space was built under the auspices of Francesco Maria de Esquivel, who was Archbishop, in 1618.  He is buried at the top of the staircase and looks a bit like George Michael.  Actually, the crypt makes the Cathedral worth visiting by itself – there are three chapels, containing 179 niches and even more relics of local martyrs lifted from the necropolis around the Basilica of St Saturnino and elsewhere.  

Divided over three chapels there are 179 niches which contain relics of martyrs that were found in the eager excavations that took place around the Basilica of St Saturnino.  And why this sudden need to re-house these martyrs?  Well…

The story starts in the general scheme of the 17th century, when finding yourself some new martyr bones was the height of cool.  The eager Catholics of the south Mediterranean were particularly guilty of this, and it’s not surprising that there were many newly credited saints in this period.  What is interesting, however, is the fact that these finds were not automatically accepted by Rome.  There were many highly educated and intelligent people around the Pope who routinely shot down the unacademic work of overly eager (and manipulative) guys who tried to introduce a new martyr into the mix.  

As well as just lovin’ new relics, the Archbishop had another reason for his campaign.  The city of Cagliari had a bad relationship with Sassari, a city at the north of the island, which had its own Archbishop and its own agenda.  The two centres were desperate to be named the Primate of Sardinia and Corsica – a purely honorific title which would create closer relations with Rome.  They also wanted to gain the favour of the court in Madrid, since the island was still under Spanish rule.

So, on the 10th June 1614, the Archbishop of Sassari, Gavino Manca de Cendrelles, ordered excavations to begin in the seaside town of Torres (now Porto Torres).  By the 22nd workers had discovered the relics of the paleo-Christian martyr Gavinus and his companions, Protus and Januarius.  They also discovered a ton of inscriptions and grave goods, but most importantly, there were other human remains.  These were gleefully proclaimed to be the relics of martyrs.

Cendrelles milked the event for all he could.  He published a short pamphlet on his finds and sent a copy to the King of Spain, Philip III.

The news of these relics spread.  Down in Cagliari, Esquivel was plotting his next step.  On the morning of the 6th November 1614, excavations began around the site of St Saturnino.  By the early afternoon, the workers had found bodies – and immediately assumed they were martyrs.  This seemed to be backed up by a partial inscription found the next day which was interpreted as reading: “Sancti Innumerabile”, which insinuated that all those buried around it were martyrs.  All 338 of them.

As well as building a nice new home for these relics under the Cathedral, Esquivel published a lengthy treatise on these amazing finds, which underlined the extraordinary, pious heritage of Cagliari.  He sent his book to Philip III and Pope Paul V.

Judging by the lukewarm reception from Rome, neither Cagliari nor Sassari fared well in this war of martyr-excavations.

But on the plus side of all this rivalry we have been left with a very pretty space to explore.  Its prettiness is in the details, and so, predictably, it doesn’t photograph as well when taken as a whole.  It feels a bit like a Roman bath-house from Pompeii and it’s really quite dark, so it takes a while for the eyes to adjust.  Once they do, you really see just how much is going on here – you have the stone, marbles, painted details… and martyr after martyr enduring nasty deaths.  It’s all awfully pretty, and really fun to explore.

On the right, as you descend the stairs, is the Chapel of St Lucifer, dedicated to the first bishop of Cagliari, who is buried under the altar.  At the other end is a Roman sarcophagus which holds the bones of St Antioch.  

There is also a fine monument to Marie Joséphine of Savoy, the wife of Louis XVIII of France.  She died in exile in Hartwell House in England and was actually buried at Westminster Abbey in 1810.  However, a year later she was moved to Cagliari Cathedral, where her brother, King Charles Felix of Sardinia, erected a simple, classical monument to her.

Moving across the hall, we get to the Chapel of St Saturnino, which contains the relics of the saint in a 2nd century Roman sarcophagus.  There is a second Roman sarcophagus which contains the relics of 10 saints, while a third contains 9.  There is also a memorial to Victor Emanuel I of Sardinia’s son Carlo Emanuele who died of smallpox at the age of two in 1799.

Moving back upstairs into the church, there are more chapels to see.  All of them are pretty and have some beautiful art work.  One statue worth mentioning in in the Chapel of Our Lady of St Eusebio:  according to legend, it was brought back to Cagliari by St Eusebius of Vercelli in 362 from Palestine.  Ahem, yeah right…

The chapel was restored in 1933 by the architect Angelo Vicario and I’ve not been able to find out if he also did the very interesting paintings that date from that period.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen 1930s bombshells as saints before, but they are very elegant and look like they’ve stepped out of Hollywood.  I know it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I liked them.  I also really appreciated the fact that the shadows cast by the cherubs in the central painting were like the ones being cast by the statues around them.

Just before we close the post, I just want to point out that there is another Roman sarcophagus hidden in the Cathedral.  If you leave the building and turn left, you’ll find this side door – and above that is yet another sarcophagus inserted amongst the medieval decoration.

So In Summary

There is something about Italian cathedrals which really appeals to me.  Cagliari Cathedral was grand, as befits a major cathedral, but not overblown, with decorative elements that were tasteful and balanced (that awesome monument to Martin I was also tasteful and balanced, in its own way).  Naturally the crypt is the most unique part of the building and makes the Cathedral worth visiting in itself, but if you give the rest a chance, there are some really lovely elements that stay with you.  It was a highlight of our visit to Cagliari.

Further Information

It is free to enter all areas of the church.  There is a website, with a slightly simplified entry in English, but good for them for doing it at all!:  www.duomodicagliari.it

There is also a little Treasury museum which is basically only open at the weekend.  It has some really beautiful objects – including a possible van der Weyden – so it’s a shame that if you are a midweek visitor you miss out.  It’s also a real shame that you can’t take photos.  Do visit if you can – I wish I could have written a post about it.

How to Get There

You can walk to the Cathedral from the old centre of Cagliari, but it is on a steep hill, so you may need a bus.  The transport website for Cagliari is not very user-friendly for the non-Italian speaker.  So, here’s the city’s official transport website: www.ctmcagliari.it – with some English information on Cagliari buses generally.  Here is a pdf of the bus map.  Now you’ve worked out what route you want to take, pop over here for a list of the bus numbers, so you can see the schedule of your bus.

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