The Church of San Lorenzo in Portorotondo is one of the most memorable examples of modern religious architecture. This tiny gem is the work of three great artists: Andrea Cascella, Mario Ceroli and Gianfranco Fini. The magnificent cross outside the church is made of two granite slabs intersecting on a circular base, sculpted by the ever skilful local masons. The interior welcomes believers and non-believers alike.
Its simple volumes are dominated by a splendid vault in the shape of an upturned boat, with thousands of figures carved into its Russian pine timbers – a lively, bitter-sweet picture created between 1969 and 1975 by the young Mario Ceroli. At the centre lies the Judgement Day, in which ecstatic and desperate figures clawing at themselves, tearing their hair out and biting their hands, intertwine. A dove flies upward to the bright outside world. Along the wave-like walls, we have the Last Supper, the Rainbow, the Tree of Life, the Flight into Egypt and the Holy Women.
Five concentric circles converge at the altar by Cascella, over which we have the Deposition of Christ. Just in front of it, we have Jacob’s Ladder spiralling around and around, linking heaven and earth, just like a cormorant diving headlong into the sea.
The silhouettes that decorate the entire interior belong to the people who have made Portorotondo’s history. Alfredo Beltrame, Giorgio Dalla Valle, Paolo Sanna (the head mason) Nicolò and Luigi Donà dalle Rose, Mario Ceroli, Ceroli’s assistant, Ascanio Palchetti, Gianfranco Fini, Giorgio Nocella, and Renato Salvatori – their faces are all there in the Last Supper.
Under the Rainbow, the symbol of good fortune and a metaphor for the future, there are the children of the Portorotondo pioneers. Conte Luigi’s daughter is there on the right and his nephew is the child playing ball. The Tree of Life is on the right of the Rainbow. It’s the family tree of the Donà family. Its branches represent the family members: the first figure carved into the trunk is Clelia Donà, mother of Counts Luigi and Nicolò, not only the heart of the family but also of Portorotondo.
Father Lorenzo is seen on horseback while the higher branch is reserved for Nicolò and Luigi with their wives and children. Then there’s a host of friends, family and relations too. In the Deposition, behind the altar, you’ll recognise Ferreri and Renato Guttuso. Depicting the people who commissioned the art, the artist’s contemporaries, and slipping in a self-portrait have both been part of Italian and international artistic tradition since the 14th century.
There are so many stories about the church and the people connected with it. The scrambles to be included in the friezes, the fact that the faces of the Madonna’s were those of Ceroli’s lovers and were often abruptly changed, the day that Judas was found with his head on back to front… These are just little facts that do nothing to detract from the deep symbolic meaning of the church, however.
When you walk through San Lorenzo’s door you are hit by a visceral emotion. You feel the life emanating from the images, the almost chaotic movement of the figures and yet also a deep sense of balance, spirituality and peace. There’s a perfect relationship between sculpture and architecture, an equilibrium we owe to architect Gianfranco Fini’s great talent for coordination.
Time, hard work, concentration, passion. That’s the right word: passion. A boundless passion yet rational, clear and inexorable. The church was later on completed with the bell tower, a new door and the rose window.