Firstly I should apologise for the longer-than-usual interval preceding this post; as you will see, it needed photos, and unfortunately my processing of photos is also backlogged…. Anyway, the background to this is that last year I had reason to pay several visits to Geneva. These were not for medieval studies, though I did wind up finishing what since July I’ve been hoping would be my next article during one, but you can’t stop a medievalist from medievalising just because he is become a temporary tourist, as I’m sure you can imagine. This is not to say that some purely touristic impulses did not overcome me…
… and even the actual work I did was kind of touristic…
… but of what I did there the thing that is most relevant for the blog was to visit the cathedral. Now this is well worth doing for several reasons, the most obvious being that it’s rather beautiful and in a lovely part of the city, but the next most obvious being that, like the Palau Comtal which became the Corts in Barcelona, there has been a lot of digging beneath it and the site has been kept open for visitors to walk around in! It’s tremendous.
It is also very extensive. I went twice, in the end, because on the first trip both my and my companion’s cameras ran out of battery, something that had happened to her on her previous trip. Something down there does not wish to be photographed, but we managed in the end. Each time it took a couple of hours to get round. This is basically because there is just a lot of history down there. You may just recall from a Leeds report I did a while back that Geneva Cathedral has a very long archæological sequence under it; there were once three separate ‘cathedrals’ in the same complex, two probably fourth-century to sixth-century and one eighth-century, with a separate bapistery out at the end, which were collectively replaced by a single Romanesque building around 1000 (of course) and then a Gothic one which forms the basis of what now stands. There was also an extremely posh episcopal palace just uphill which lasted until some point in the developments I can’t now recall.
The two big ones of course intercut not only each other but all three of the previous ones, and the Romanesque one adds to the pain by having been constructed with three different floor levels, the choir’s being raised well above the nave’s so as to give clearance for a kind of mezzanine crypt. The stratigraphy of that is bad enough for your head when you’re standing in it, but what I didn’t initially know is that there are even earlier remains, because not only was the whole complex built over Roman remains of the third and fourth century but the reason there was stuff here at all is a high-status burial of the third century whose occupant is still partly down there. All of this obviously intersects in the visible remains, so although the site uses different coloured tags to distinguish phases, when you’re looking at somewhere like this:
… it’s still not very easy to follow. Of course, there are remains of at least three periods in all parts of the site and often more, all cutting through each other, so plotting a route through it that aids understanding is pretty difficult. The recommended one pursues an uneasy compromise between chronology and contiguity, so that while it starts you with the earliest cathedral, in order to get to the next one it has to take you across the Romanesque nave, which it therefore explains, then up to the earlier baptisteries…
… by which time you’re almost next to the ‘Allobrogian’ burial…
… which you get to via a selective sculptural display picked from the whole sequence, via which you also return…
… on your way to the second cathedral of the sixth century, via unsigned Roman remains that the earliest cathedrals did not overwrite…
and then you come around a wall and find that what you are now looking at is the water supply for the baptisteries, now on the other side of the wall you’ve just reached!
After that it takes you via the episcopal palace and then suddenly the exit appears, leaving only a somewhat desultory array of sculpture that is either functioning as an advertisement, since it is visible from outside the entrance, or as a holding bay for stuff they couldn’t place.
In terms of the route, I’m not sure how they could do it better—the remains are where the buildings were—but it’s very confusing. Remembering where everything else is in relation to where you are now, still less how much of it was there at any given point, is almost impossible. I was very glad I’d heard Chantal Bielman’s paper, basically, and had someone there who’d been before to explain, or I would have been very lost.
Now, good signage would help a lot with this. There is a very useful composite maquette at the entrance, which could ideally be coloured in the colours they use for the different phases, but which could also be repeated on all the signs so that you could see what bit of that layout you were now seeing. The actual signage is quite informative, and mostly very well-translated, but is very hard to relate to the ruins as one sees them. There are reconstruction drawings on each sign, but they can obviously only represent one phase. They don’t always do this from the same perspective as the viewer now has, however, and the actual remains one can see are often almost impossible to locate in the drawing.
I do feel mean for criticising what was obviously a really difficult job to do because of the fantastic complexity of the site, but precisely because of that, the visitor really needs all the help they can get, and colour-coding of the signage might have helped. I have been told that the audio guide, which I steadfastly refused to use because
it cost extra money and because I hate the things, helped a lot, and it was keyed to individual locations so one didn’t have to follow a sequence with it, but of course in programming it they couldn’t know where exactly one was standing or what way one was looking… Perhaps I have just been working in museums too long not to see where improvements could be made, but I hope some day to come back and find this site more clearly explained.
That all said, it is still a fantastic site. The advantage of the complexity is that if one does stand in the right place for a while and slowly figure it out, you get a very deep impression of how each layer of the present not only rests on but interferes with the past and how it can be reconstructed. Perhaps a metaphor, eh?
The overall interpretation is also well done, so although working out where you are in the story and what of it you’re looking at is bewildering, that overall story is fairly clear. We start, as I said, with a high-status ‘barbarian’ burial, with a town collected around it, slowly moving uphill and in the fourth century some church arrived, becoming a cathedral by the sixth century (when King Sigismund of Burgundy, who had his main residence in Geneva, was hypothetically involved) and by which time the second cathedral was established to the east with what was already a sequence of baptisteries to the north that were supplemented and finally replaced by a third cathedral in the eighth century.
Now, let’s just pause there a minute because this is where the story gives me trouble. These three cathedrals are supposed to have been segregrated by function. The oldest one was the actual place of worship; the second one is supposed to have been a place for the instruction of the faithful; and the third was focused on the veneration of relics (they say ‘worship’ in the signage, but this seems just to be a translation issue since French ‘culte’ would cover both); certainly, it is focused on a high-effort burial in the centre of the apse whence sixth-century fabrics were recovered around the body when it was dug in 1979.
It’s the second, southern cathedral that bothers me, the supposed teaching cathedral. Now, let’s leave aside the point that probably only one of these can count as a cathedral at once, in as much as it was where the bishop’s seat was; why on earth would one build a functioning church, with an altar and a choir and everything, solely to teach people? The diagnosis, as far as I could understand it, comes from the fact that the building was distinguished by an ambo, a kind of stall in the middle of the nave with access only from the presbitery via an extended walled walkway.
This has been read basically as a lecturer’s stance, but even with the most one-way, rigid, rote-learning teaching style I find it hard to imagine a classroom in which the teacher would not sometimes want to get out and see what the students were doing. This seems to me far more like a preaching space. This makes me think more in terms of a public church built to allow the canons of the cathedral to appropriate the older northern building for their own liturgy, since we have cells that would have belonged to such persons attached to it, though it must be added to that that the episcopal palace is linked to the southern, not the northern cathedral and I don’t know which side of the dispute I’m setting up here that would support.
Anyway. I have many quibbles but the site is tremendous and well worth the price of entry. As I say, it is very indicative of the way that people live on the past, in several senses, and I recommend a visit if you’re in Geneva very much. The actual cathedral is also rather fine, but photography in the nave is forbidden and I didn’t get to the tower till a subsequent trip. That will appear in due course!
I would have liked to rest the discussion above on the site report, Charles Bonnet & Alain Peillex (edd.), Les fouilles de la cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Genève : les édifices chrétiens et le groupe épiscopal (Geneva 2012) but it was on sale at 120 Euros and I thought that was probably too much to invest in an argument for a blog-post. The site director did however do a shorter interim report in English, C. Bonnet, “The Archaeological Site of the Cathedral of Saint Peter (Saint-Pierre), Geneva” in Archaeology and the Christian Church, World Archaeology Vol. 18 (London 1987), pp. 330-340, and that’s quite handy.