Magazine article Humanities

Amid Rubble and Myth

Magazine article Humanities

Amid Rubble and Myth

Article excerpt

EXCAVATING BENEATH FLORENCE'S CATHEDRAL

Clues from a Latin biography, a dozen Roman palace walls, and a nonexistent saint have solved one of the older riddles in European scholarshipthe origins of the church that once stood beneath Florence's cathedral. Taken together, the biography and decades of archaeological excavation and interpretation explain the origins of the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore. Unraveling this riddle tells us a good deal about how medieval culture worked, and how contemporary scholarship can still open doors that were once regarded as sealed forever.

During my direction of the Florence cathedral excavation and after, I have used archaeology to draw a sketch of the earliest years of medieval Florenceyears for which documentary history is almost completely silent. Solving the mystery of St. Reparata's church, the ruins of which lie beneath the Duomo, represents a fragment of my work, but it illustrates the methods and reasoning necessary in studying medieval archaeology.

The hardest of my tasks was to date and theoretically reconstruct the St. Reparata ruins, determine why the Florentines had picked that particular building site, and why they had incorporated large chunks of a Roman palace into the building's walls. I also had to figure out why the Florentines dedicated the church to Reparata, an obscure-in fact, nonexistent-martyr with no clear connection to their city.

The nonexistence of St. Reparata became an acute political issue in 1352, when Naples played one of the crueler tricks of medieval history on Florence. Florence, strangely, and perhaps tellingly, claimed no relic of Reparata even though she was patron of its cathedral. But a town in Neapolitan territory did. Legends related that the body of Reparata, who had been martyred as a teenager in 250 at Caesarea in what is now Israel, had floated across the Mediterranean to a port north of Naples about six hundred years later.

The Florentines asked the Neapolitans for Reparata's right arm, which they reverently carried in procession through the city the next year. But when the Florentines unwrapped the arm for placement in a reliquary, they found that Naples had sent them nothing more than a plaster cast. Whether this deception stemmed from the Neapolitans' reverence for the body of Reparata or, conversely, from their own doubts about its authenticity, we shall never know.

Naples's treachery pushed the Council of the Republic of Florence to hold a special session in October 1353. Its aim was to discover who Reparata was and why the Florence Cathedral had been built in her honor centuries before. Finding no documents, the Council was left with the old and unreliable legend that Reparata had engineered Florence's victory against some two hundred thousand Germanic troops who had besieged the city in 406. The victory of 406 is a historical fact, cited even by St. Augustine in his City of God, but Reparata's participation in the events is so improbable that even in the Middle Ages few Florentines appear to have believed in it.

In consequence, Florence declared that the Virgin Mary, and not Reparata, would be the patron saint of the new cathedral it was beginning to build as a replacement for St. Reparata's church. In 1412 the Republic forbade citizens to even mutter the name Reparata as the cathedral's title-saint. When the Duomo opened a generation later, not one of its sixteen altars was dedicated to her.

What is striking in this tale of St. Reparata is how little the Florentines of the late Middle Ages knew of their own early medieval history. By the time of Dante, even though the church of St. Reparata was then still standing, the Florentines had no clear-cut idea of its age, its original name, the patron who built it, or even why it was built. In contrast, the earlier and far betterdocumented ex-cathedral of San Lorenzo stood just a few blocks away.

The last parts of St. …

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