There’s no place colder than the Lombard plain in January, and nowhere colder in Lombardy than the vast echoing church and cloisters of the Charterhouse of Pavia. It is a magnificent edifice, built by the piety of the Sforza and the Visconti, who are buried there. The Carthusians themselves have voluntarily withdrawn, as the tourists interrupted their contemplative silence. But there are still monks there, Cistercians, who act as tour guides. When the last tourist leaves for the day, the place must seem pretty empty.
But for a better picture of all that is wrong with the contemporary Church, try Pavia Cathedral: the first stone was laid about a thousand years ago, and the place is still not finished. Worse, it is falling down before completion: vast buttresses of undressed concrete hold up the huge dome, which is supposed to be the biggest in Italy after St Peter’s. The cathedral is immensely impressive, but somehow lacks soul, and gives one the terrifying impression of a Church in inexorable decline.
My Italian journey started in Genoa, which was a mighty power roughly 600 years ago. Even in the 18th-century Genoa was a fine place, as the palaces along the Via Garibaldi and their art collections attest. Then came industrialisation, and after it, a slow industrial decline.
Nevertheless, Genoa is still Italy’s biggest port. The city is horribly scarred by an elevated motorway along what was once its waterfront, and the modern port development is nothing special. Coming in from the airport, you see the collapsed bridge that made the news recently, claiming 42 lives. That disaster is emblematic of modern Italy, for many assume that the bridge’s construction was faulty from the start thanks to corruption in the building industry.
The picturesque old city, a labyrinth of alleyways, is populated almost exclusively by new arrivals from Africa and Asia. The graffiti on the walls assures us of noble sentiments to the effect that the world belongs to everyone and borders are a crime; that only fascists want to protect the nation state. Despite this, for the first time ever, Genoa has elected a right-wing mayor and Italy itself has a government that has vowed to do something to stop the tide of immigrants.
Graffiti is instructive in Italy, a country where a free press is a relative novelty and newspapers and television stations make no pretence at impartiality. In Pavia, an ancient university town, some of it is in Latin: Ama et fac quod vis – “Love and do what you will”, which is St Augustine. I also saw “The greatest disruptor of society is ignorance”, without any reference given. St Augustine would not agree. But Plato and most moderns would.
Turin is a revelation, home to the saints, wrapped around by snowclad hills, and under a bright blue sky. Under and over various altars, asleep in their glass coffins, you can see Don Bosco and Blessed Giuseppe Allamano, founder of the Consolata Missionaries. Don Bosco’s wonderful church, the Basilica of Our Lady Help of Christians, is also home to the foundress of the Salesian nuns, St Maria Mazzarello, and the boy saint Dominic Savio. Down the road, in the cathedral, just a few chapels from the Holy Shroud, is Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
And what did they all have in common? A strong desire to do charitable work with the poor, the deprived and the destitute. There’s a lesson for the contemporary Church in the saints of Turin.
Apart from the saints, Turin is the city of the House of Savoy. Never was there a more successful dynasty. They started off as counts, then became dukes, then kings of Sardinia, then kings of united Italy, before becoming emperors of Abyssinia in 1936 and kings of Albania in 1939. Then it all went wrong, and the monarchy was narrowly voted out in 1946.
Essentially French, always marrying Bourbons and Habsburgs, and very rich, they turned Turin into what it still is: Europe’s greatest baroque city. The pictures they collected (Veronese, Rubens, van Dyck) are worth seeing; the architects they employed were peerless: Guarino Guarini, a priest of the Theatine Order, and Filippo Juvarra. And to do the garden they got André Le Nôtre. The results, all around you in this enchanted city, are breathtaking.
When not instructing artists, architects and gardeners, the family were praying. A large number of the Savoy clan are saints and Blesseds. Both Christine of France (Queen Henrietta Maria’s sister) and her daughter-in-law, Jeanne Baptiste de Nemours, each in turn regents of the duchy, chose to be buried in the Carmelite habit. John Milton, their contemporary, scorned this custom, writing in Paradise Lost: “And they who, to be sure of Paradise, / Dying put on the weeds of Dominic, / Or in Franciscan think to pass disguised.” Great poet, ghastly man.
Faced with either English Puritanism or Savoy piety and opulence, there really is no choice, is there?
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald