Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Roman Bath as Renaissance Church
The baths of Imperial Rome inspired some of the greatest churches of the renaissance.
Particularly the Baths of Diocletian in Rome, completed ca. 300 AD, which covered 32 acres and could comfortably accommodate 3,000 bathers. The complex included changing rooms, gymnasiums, libraries, meeting rooms, theaters, concert halls, sculpture gardens, pools of hot, medium, and cold water with virtual steam rooms and saunas near the furnaces, all executed in marble and mosiac. Designed to dazzle with its splendor, it was a PR project. Diocletian had never been to Rome. He was a soldier-emperor. But he had heard of the beauty and the popularity of the Baths of Caracalla built almost a century earlier and his mandate was simple -- the baths bearing his name would be bigger, better, grander and more beautiful than those built by Caracalla.
Walking inside Redentore, and especially in San Giorgio Maggiore, the two greatest Palladio masterpieces of the Venetian renaissance, this provenance is triumphantly clear. All that's missing are the steaming pools and naked bathers. The arches and apses and domes that now shelter the holiest religious icons, once closed their loving arms around the public baths of the most notoriously decadent city in history. Unless you are Fellini, it's useless to try and imagine what might have transpired in all those giant marble tubs.
Re-imagined by Palladio these spaces are sober, majestic, monochrome, and subject to the constant interplay of light through the well-placed windows that take their name, Diocletian Windows, or Thermal Windows (from terme for bath) from the Baths of Diocletian.
Palladio's windows are clear bottleglass, the sun through them is as white as poured steel. Raise your eyes above the religious statues and paintings -- from the top of the first order upwards -- and you are in a pagan space with its joyous interplay of circles and arcs and straights, and absent the tubs and the gambling and the whores, it is equally suited to the religious purposes to which it has been put: it is grand and elevating.