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Wednesday, August 16, 2023

A Pile of Heads: Gallarate and the Violence of Beauty

By:   Nicholas Rao
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A Pile of Heads: Gallarate and the Violence of Beauty

Gallarate is a hop, skip and a jump from Milan’s Malpensa airport. First settled by the Gauls, now in the Milan metropolitan area, the ancient town has an air of fatigue and confusion. Her run-down, somewhat dingy commercial facade betrays a heavily industrial past. Alleys and shopping galleries thread an eclectic mix of architectural styles, medieval and Romanesque, Liberty Style (from the late 19th century) and modern. With a foreign population of about 15%,[1] Gallarate’s low-income immigrant presence is striking.

Still, as throughout most European towns, the remnants of a flourishing civilization survive thanks to the presence of a Catholic church, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta (Our Lady Assumed), which stands in a central piazza near an older 11th-century church called San Pietro.

Santa Maria Assunta is young, as European churches go. She was built between 1856 and 1861, on the site of two older churches from the Early Middle Ages and Renaissance, while the extant belltower is 15th century. The modern basilica was constructed, by Giacomo and Pietro Moraglia, in an elegant Neoclassical style. The facade, by Camillo Boito, features the Assumption of Our Lady, who rises in statue from the ridge of the gable, faced by two angels, who flank her at a lower level. In niches on the facade are statues of the town patrons, Saints Eurosia and Christopher.basilica santa maria assunta

Inside the church, an expansive, richly ornamented nave, framed by mosaic floors and Corinthian columns, ascends to a cupola, one of the largest in Lombardy at 89 feet from floor to apex.[2] The barrel vault orients attention to a 19th-century marble high altar and a semicircular apse. Other pieces include a 16th century Marriage of the Virgin, painted by “il Morazzone,” and Giuseppe Rusnati’s Rococo side altar (once the main altar) with an exuberant marble carving of the Assumption.

Then we have the heads.

Your view of the high altar is restricted by a new, white marble altar composed of disembodied heads (faces, not skulls) packed in a pile between smooth marble slabs, like a sinister tramezzino (the Italian whitebread sandwich). Mainstream reports are not flattering about this “moltitudine di teste” (“myriad of heads”),[3] described as “accatastate” (‘piled, dumped,’ or ‘shoved’) between marble “sheets.”[4] “The heads represent saints, martyrs, and historical figures both secular and religious,”[5] famous sculptures, with an Antique Classical emphasis exemplified by a replica of the Pythian Apollo (c. 120-140 A.D.).

This aesthetic emission, come from the direction of one Claudio Parmiggiani, was formally consecrated by Milan’s Archbishop Mario Delpini on November 11th, 2018. Parmiggianni’s intentions for the piece are quoted in Avvenire.

Two bright, overlying marble sheets that, almost like the [Christological] pellican, restrain and protect a multitude of ancient heads; relics and emblems of a certain sacredness, a humanity, a totality.[6]

We live in an age when asserting the truth is considered an act of violence.

The fragility and disorganisation of the historic heads represents “humanity awaiting redemption.”[7]

The thing is ugly, and a Google search shows that most media buzz around the altar has honed in on the negative popular reception. According to La Repubblica, the altar has “perplexed many faithful.”[8] People called the design “horrible,” “disturbing” and “satanic,” with one Facebook user quipping, upon seeing photos, that an in-person visit was unnecessary—“I’ve already visited concentration camps.”[9]

“Come in person. … Change your mind. Art requires time and listening,” urges Monsignor Ivano Valagussa, Gallarate’s provost.[10] But he and Parmiggiani seem to represent a minority. La Repubblica calls the altar “polemical”— an odd characterization indeed for something that almost nobody likes.

The question arises, then: cui bono? Who finds this edifying? When my mother and I entered the basilica, one Sunday, before a Monday flight out of Malpensa, I was struck by the dissonance between this MoMAtic monstrosity (the kind of thing an Upper East Sider might ogle before cocktail hour) and who were actually in the pews to attend Mass, including immigrants with children. They had arrived for something beautiful, prayerful. They had not arrived to experience a morbidly tintillating paradigm shift. Even Parmiggiani and Monsignor Valagussa would acknowledge, proudly, that some aesthetic trauma, some creative restructuring of the palate, is part and parcel of the experience. After all, as far as I can tell—and this really is symptomatic of modern art—no one among the altar’s advocates has actually ventured to call it beautiful. They can’t, because it isn’t. And, if it isn’t, why is it there?  

We live in an age when asserting the truth is considered an act of violence. This impression is bound up with the American Experiment itself and the political theory that social harmony can finally reign when meaning is subjectivized.

Many modern philosophers, including Descartes, Hume and Kant, have one way or another rejected the Aristotelian intuition that meaning and purpose are built into things—that objects of our perception have an observer-independent identity. Instead, moderns assert that we impose meaning on reality. Voltaire epitomized this anti-Aristotelian spirit with his farcical Candide, whose Dr. Pangloss appears buffoonish for proposing that nature is orderly and designed. Actually, he lambasts Dr. Pangloss for two related claims: one, that nature is designed; second, that nature has an inherent disposition (you could even say a ‘vocation’) to uplift us. Voltaire wants his reader to laugh that Pangloss confuses artificial (man-made) order for natural (God-given) order. The physical world (for Voltaire) is not inherently meaningful, so it cannot be inherently beautiful either. Meaning and beauty are both artificial, and only our vanity makes us think otherwise.

Beauty has become unacceptable in public spaces, including churches, because it is commanding or, in a sense, "violent."

The French Revolution, while essentially modern, was not yet a perfect expression of modernism, because it promoted progressive atheism as universally true. The American Experiment, by contrast, passed from atheism to indifferentism, or agnosticism, by asserting that a society has no business embracing any specific order at all, beyond individual ‘meaning-making.’ Things ‘as they are’ give way to a world of things ‘as the individual interprets them.’

When there is a meaning crisis, there is always eventually a beauty crisis. As I already suggested, I think Voltaire makes this connection himself. If Dr. Pangloss is silly for finding the world inherently meaningful, then he is silly for finding it inherently beautiful.

Modern man, however, is not merely embarrassed to assert the truth. He is afraid to assert the truth. One reason is that he has been groomed to attribute all forms of tyranny and totalitarianism to the common seed of imposing ‘my’ truth on other people. Not falsehood, but imposition, becomes the arch-evil. He would rather suffer falsehood than impose truth. Thus, he is equally afraid to assert beauty, to impose ‘his’ beauty on others. He would rather suffer ugliness than impose beauty.

Commentators have provided excellent, point-by-point criticisms of Parmiggiani’s altar: its skewed Christological imagery and artist-centered aesthetic.[11] While these arguments are important, I’m more interested that in point of fact most people—including the altar’s advocates—do not find it beautiful. On some level, the modern psyche, and its movers and shakers, really don’t want beauty. Beauty has become unacceptable in public spaces, including churches, because it is commanding or, in a sense, "violent."

Beauty commands our attention. When something is artistically beautiful, its form, assembly or properties have been dictated primarily by forms, relations and properties that exist in nature. Artistic beauty heightens or accentuates a pre-existing, natural design. As such, beauty is less interpretation than disclosure. St. Thomas himself characterizes beauty as what is “pleasant to apprehend,”[12] meaning pleasant to ‘understand.’ We do not create what we understand; we assimilate or conform to it.

When we experience beauty, we are uplifted, taken out of ourselves, much as when we finally grasp how an organism or a machine works. Scientific and technical understanding are humbling, because they invite us into an order we did not create. Likewise, beauty’s order—whether natural (a sunset) or imitative (a painting)—invites awareness, not of our own creation, but of God’s. Artwork that is chaotic is proportionally self-indulgent, paying homage only to the artist’s doomed attempt at pure creation, creation ex nihilo. An artist who refuses to look around, to receive instruction from the patterns of divine creation, is in a state of rebellion. Ugliness is rebellion, because beauty is obedience—obedience to the divine authorship. Modern man hates beauty, because any kind of obedience violates his supreme value of individual sovereignty.

If, indeed, modern ugliness flows from intellectual arrogance, there is no better symbol for it than a disembodied head.

In the postconciliar aesthetics of a modern church, two themes dominate: barrenness and abstraction. I challenge you to identify a church, built or renovated to modern taste, that is ‘cluttered’ and overly ornamented, on the one hand, or raunchy and promiscuous, on the other. Modern churches are bare. They are ugly, sure, but ugly precisely for the absence of content or structure. They are quite literally ‘de-formed.’ Nevertheless, they are supremely tailored to modern values of freedom, independence and autonomy. When you walk into one, you become a pseudo-creator. You don’t actually create anything, but your imagination has free reign. You are like a painter staring over a blank canvas. Much like a minimalist art gallery, a modern church produces an impression of absence, of unmoulded potential, that flatters your mind. You become the interpreter, the visionary, the pilot of your own private spiritual experience.

Parmiggiani’s altar participates in this aesthetic of the ‘thought-provoking.’ It does not harmonize with its surroundings; it has no intuitive message; it beckons you directly into the private imagination of the artist. After flattering the artist, it flatters us; we congratulate ourselves for having made it significant by our own imaginative efforts. Such an aesthetic is, first, the product of modern rationalism, which vainly elevates man from Perceiver to Meaning-Creator. Second, it is the legacy of modern liberalism, for which freedom and independence are the only values. We would rather be wrong than obedient. We would rather be ugly than conform to a standard of beauty. Of course, this self-absorbed attitude is least appropriate in a church, where a person’s attention should be drawn outward and upward.

Parmiggiani may have gotten one thing right, at the cost of spoiling Gallarate’s historic basilica. If, indeed, modern ugliness flows from intellectual arrogance, there is no better symbol for it than a disembodied head.

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[1] “Resident Foreigners—Balance, Italy,” Gallarate, Knoema, July 2, 2023, accessed August 3, 2023,

[2] “Basilica Di Santa Maria Assunta,” Pro Loco Gallarate, accessed August 3, 2023,

[3] “Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta,” Licei di Viale dei Tigli Gallarate, June 25, 2021, accessed August 3, 2023,

[4] “Disano per la Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta a Gallarate (VA),” Arketipo, December 16, 2019, accessed August 3, 2023,

[5] “Disano per la Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta a Gallarate (VA),” trans. my own.

[6] Alessandro Beltrami, “Il nuovo altare di Claudio Parmiggiani a Gallarate,” Avvenire, trans. my own, November 13, 2018, accessed August 3, 2023,

[7] ibid.

[8] Lucia Landoni, “Gallarate, un altare con cento teste mozzate: polemiche per la scultura nella basilica,” La Repubblica, trans. my own, November 13, 2018, accessed August 5, 2023,

[9] Lucia Landoni, “Gallarate, un altare con cento teste mozzate: polemiche per la scultura nella basilica,” La Repubblica, trans. my own, November 13, 2018, accessed August 5, 2023,

[10] ibid.

[11] Cf.

[12] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II 27.1 Ad. 3, ed. by Joseph Kenny, O.P., (Benziger Bros. edition, 1847), trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, “St. Isidore e–book library,” accessed August 10, 2023,

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Last modified on Wednesday, August 16, 2023