The next time you happen to be in front of the cathedral in Como, Italy—and I hope it is soon—take a moment to look at the stone porches protruding on either side of the main entrance. You can't miss them. They dwarf every other statue on the façade. Each porch houses the seated figure of a man holding tightly to a book. Like pheasants under glass, both are protected by reinforced glass enclosures.
Who are they? Why do they deserve such special treatment?
You'll have to search long and hard in your typical guidebook to find the answer. Most guidebooks will tell you that the cathedral is made entirely of marble, that it dates from the late 14th century, that it was built over the remains of an 11th century basilica, that its architecture is a pleasing blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles, that the figures are the work of the Rodari brothers. But they don't tell you who these figures are.
Before I open the envelope to reveal their identities, it might be useful to look at some other cathedrals. Here is a schematic of the balustrade at the top of what is arguably the most important Roman Catholic Church in the world, St. Peter's in Rome. The twelve apostles flank Jesus, six on each side. St. Matthias would be the one at the far right, the one, according to the Acts of the Apostles, who was chosen by lot to replace the perfidious Judas. What do all these figures have in common? Well, for one thing they are all Christians.
Or consider the façade of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in the United States and arguably the most important Catholic Church in America. On its door you find images of St. Patrick and St. Joseph, St. Issac Jogues, the first priest of New York, St. Frances X Cabrini, patron saint of immigrants, and Elizabeth Seton, the first American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. In the tympanum above the door is the figure of Christ surrounded by the twelve apostles, again six on each side. What do all these have in common? Like the figures of St. Peter's in Rome, they too are prominent Christians.
That is why the dominant figures on either side of the cathedral in Como are so interesting. Neither is a Christian. It isn't everyday you find a Roman Catholic cathedral giving pride of place to non-believers. The figure on the left as you face the door is Pliny the Younger, the one on the right his uncle, Pliny the Elder.
Why are they there? The answer is simple: they were both born in Como. This says something important not just about the cathedral but about what the citizens of Como hold dear.
Pliny the Elder, author of Naturalis Historia (Natural History) , the model for all subsequent encyclopedias the world over, was born in Como in the year 23AD. He was an author, a naturalist, a philosopher and a naval commander. If you sail Lake Como, you will see on the eastern side of the lake opposite the Villa del Balbianello an isolated villa built on the site where, as a young man, Pliny puzzled over the reason why a mountain stream seemed to turn on and off like a lawn sprinkler. He mentioned it in Book II (p. 141) of his Natural History, "In the Canensian Territory, near the Lake Larius, there is a large Fountain, which every hour continually swelleth and falleth down again." (Larius was the Latin name for Lake Como.)
Pliny the Elder was also a hero. He died in the year 79AD. The year of his death should ring a bell. It was the year that Mt. Vesuvius exploded. Pliny the Younger (62-120AD), the Elder's nephew, was there to record the catastrophic event that not only destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum, but Pliny the Elder as well. The younger Pliny barely escaped to tell the story. Vesuvius sent stone and ash 20 miles into the air. A pyroclastic wave of gas and ash crashed down the sides of the mountain at speeds upwards of 450mph. It buried the surrounding countryside under 20 feet of volcanic fallout.
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