We must know how to manage our beauty. Interview with Archbishop Betori of Florence

A long and exclusive interview with the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori: we talk about the relationship between art and faith, the sacred in contemporary art, and how art is handled today even taking into account the fact that past masterpieces are often sacred works.

A long and exclusive interview with the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, on several topics. We begin by talking about the relationship between art and faith: are we able today to recognize the fact that so many masterpieces are sacred works? Is contemporary art still able to express itself in the sacred? Is the sacred art heritage being adequately valued? But there is also room for issues regarding management: for example, there is a lot of debate about the use of houses in the historic centers that see residents leaving to the suburbs and leaving the house in the center for income by renting it out to tourists. Is there a risk of urban and social upheaval with the proliferation of apartments for tourist use (and the consequent mutation of downtown services and stores)? All these issues are discussed in this interview.

Cardinal Giuseppe Betori
Cardinal Giuseppe Betori

AL. What do you think can be decisive in triggering in man that desire for the beautiful and the true that has driven him over the millennia to represent his respect and gratitude to his gods by creating altars and simulacra that were precious and beautiful? The beautiful is the splendor of the true one would say....

GB. The unity between true, beautiful, and good is in the classical tradition as well as in the tradition of Christian thought. We are convinced that within the heart of every man is inherent the desire for all three of these dimensions of reality; at bottom it is a search for the fullness of life. It is necessary for this to cleanse man’s consciousness of all the trappings that a culture of the ephemeral, of impermanence deposits on it, to react to “liquid” thinking, as Zygmunt Bauman has taught. It is necessary for man to rediscover the foundation, and thus of the true, the good and the beautiful. I am sure that in everyone’s existence the question arises sooner or later whether a full life is fulfilled in moving from one experience to another or in anchoring it rather to something true and great.

In order to worship his god, man has always decided to erect something that could stretch to infinity: an anthropological need of man, never satiated, that almost pitted one artist against another. And it could be said that Christianity has generated a numerically and qualitatively significant heritage over the centuries. How much do you think art can be a vehicle for evangelization?

Art is certainly an instrument of evangelization, but I would like to emphasize that it is particularly so for the Christian experience, because the Christian experience is not an undefined spiritual experience, but the experience of a God who becomes flesh. This makes the visual representation of the mystery present in people, in the facts of history belong to the very core of faith and is not simply an addition to give greater conviction to the realities of faith. Over the centuries, through the art promoted by the Church, the wonder of creation, of man made in the image of God and then the gift of his Son for us, his death and resurrection that redeemed us, has been illustrated. To give just one example, it is enough to see how Giotto in the frescoes in Santa Croce narrated the bond and relationship with Christ in the life of St. Francis, to understand how without art giving the image of the real we would have a Christianity outside of history.

And how much can it be today where sacred art has been reduced and young people have other canons of interest?

The problem is not the reduction of sacred art from a qualitative, or quantitative point of view: it is that today it is more difficult to identify the sacred in art, because art, in general and sacred, does not move according to defined and therefore recognizable canons. In past centuries artists operated, each with his own originality, within definite canons; this was in Byzantine art, Italian Gothic or Renaissance art. Today art refuses to propose itself according to models, so it is more difficult to read works, even those of sacred art. At the same time, as we said at the beginning, I believe that spirituality, the tension toward the infinite is inherent in man and goes beyond a specific religious motivation. For example, I think there is a great sacredness even in Lucio Fontana’s cuts, where you can well read an aspiration to the infinite. But even in the realm of the sacred there is no shortage of expressions that use contemporary forms and express a clear message of faith. Personally, I followed the elaboration of Mimmo Paladino’s Stations of the Cross, for a church I was in charge of, and I experienced that even a contemporary artist is capable of saying the sacred with intensity. But without shared canons today it is difficult to identify the sacred in art. This is also experienced in the Liturgical Lectionary of the Italian Church, where the multiplicity of languages becomes a reason for fragmentation. In our time there is no longer a common alphabet, and this not only in art; as a result, words are made up that are not then immediately understandable to everyone.

Has an artistic vein also disappeared? And is this perhaps a sign of a less living faith? Let me explain, modern churches are often anonymous, or worse just merely “functional” places for the orderly management of an assemblage of people, losing sight of the purpose of why we gather. What are your thoughts on this?

That churches are functional is not a negative factor: precisely because the church is made to accommodate an assembly, there is a need for spaces that express the dimension of communion that brings the assembly itself together and therefore lend themselves, are functional for that purpose. Rather than a prevalence of functionality over spirituality, the problem arises rather from the poverty of the signs of not a few contemporary churches, while there are, on the other hand, significant churches that convey very precise messages. I can refer for example in Florence to the Autostrada church designed by Giovanni Michelucci, where people pray, the community can gather in assembly, and at the same time the lines indicate a very perceptible transcendent dimension. Of beauty shines the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. I also find Mario Botta’s churches significant, and I discern a deep connection between faith and light in Massimiliano Fuksas’ church. I believe that the poverty of many churches depends on the lack of dialogue between architects and patrons; one wants from the architect a work, but to make it adhere to the mystery requires preparatory work, the kind that once developed in the very intense dialogue between theologians, men of culture and artists. Re-establishing this dialogue was one of the goals of St. Paul VI, taken up by St. John Paul II and then by Pope Benedict XVI, and there is no lack of this interest on the part of Pope Francis as well. As far as architecture is concerned, the CEI, for this reason, has increased competitions for the selection of designs for new churches. And according to the indications of the CEI, in our diocese, for the construction of a new parish complex, we started from an intense work of listening to the population, precisely in order to receive the feeling of the community of the faithful.

Often churches and diocesan museums have works that could be better valued in terms of knowledge by the faithful and also as a source of income, which is always useful to help those in need. How much does the idea of ’parochial’ doing (in the common negative meaning of the term that stands for something done the easy way) clash with managerial management of works of art?

We have to be careful not to separate the works from the context in which they were conceived and for which they were intended, we need to safeguard their original location as much as possible, and of course at that point the community has to take charge not only of the protection and custody, but also of the enhancement of the works. Our diocese has been engaged for years on this front: there is a curia office called “Catechesis through Art” precisely to bring out the faith content of our artistic heritage, and people are trained who are then able to pass them on in their home parishes. There is also a network of small territorial museums that seek to enhance the works that can no longer be kept in a church without putting them at risk of theft or deterioration; for these small museums we would like to take another step forward by creating a network among them. Last but not least, we have an excellence that is the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, which has been able to enhance both aesthetically and in terms of content the history of our Cathedral through its great heritage that has been precisely musealized. The appreciation it garners among visitors reveals that the purpose of conveying a message of faith through the heritage of history has been achieved.

There are cities, even in Tuscany, where secular events with a markedly religious character have become almost only folkloric events. I am thinking for example of the Bursting of the Chariot on Easter Day. Why do you think this transformation has taken place?

That the joy of Easter resounds even at a time of celebration should rejoice us; we should not be intimidated by anything that arises from a liturgical gesture and makes the event of salvation present to all. The mistake would be to exclude, to forget the founding root of this rite that for centuries has characterized Florence in the world for this unique way of celebrating Easter, of celebrating the Risen Lord. This is why the liturgical structure was first of all revised, reformed to recover and highlight the original link between the Easter Vigil and the Bursting of the Chariot on Easter Sunday. In a continuum, the fire lit with the three stones of the Holy Sepulcher on Holy Saturday night, once blessed, ignites the Easter candle, and with the flame of this the following morning in the Cathedral, at the singing of the Gloria, the Archbishop ignites a rocket in the shape of a dove that travels down the entire nave and triggers the bursting of the chariot in the square, thus the fire once again becomes the light of Christ that illuminates the entire city.

Are these cities attractive for their works of art first born of Christianity losing the meaning for which those works were made? What are they becoming if not open-air museums?

There is no doubt that if we have received this beauty as a gift, we cannot keep it hidden: it was made for everyone and we must know how to manage it. The problem lies in finding forms of enjoyment that are educational and are not limited to superficially grasping only the aesthetically beautiful, without understanding it at all. We cannot surrender to the fact that when you enter a museum and see a woman with a child, you do not understand that that is the Mother of the Son of God standing on her knees; this happens because the alphabet of faith is missing. The idea of doing catechesis through art could be an opportunity to have this alphabet reconstituted. There needs to be a meeting between the Church and those who have both civil, political, economic, and social management of this heritage for the good of all; it is easy to understand that if it is deprived of its faith identity, eventually an empty beauty will no longer attract anyone.

Is it right, in your opinion, to limit the freedom of enterprise to avoid the distortion of a set of things we call buildings that in relation to the actions of the people who frequent them determine what is a community and a population? Christ also died on the cross for human freedom. Yet to stop the distortion of our cities there seems to be no stopping it.

The freedom of Christ is another thing from economic liberalism, moreover I believe that society must give itself rules to think of a future for itself, and among the rules must be that of compatibility: we cannot exceed the limits that then destroy man’s natural habitat. If there is no longer a city, there is also no longer any desire or reason to visit it, and a city exists not because there are stones, but because there are people. If we paradoxically stop caring for our churches because there are no longer communities to attend them, and the churches collapse, what will the tourists come to see? It is in their own interest that there is a community to welcome them, and it is in the community’s interest to create opportunities for visitors to be welcomed. You can’t divide the world in two, but I think the issue of compatibility of any project, and the sharing of different interests, is absolutely necessary. Boundaries are essential to ensure the survival of any organism, from that of the human person to that of society.

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.