Italy's new churches stir debate

Story highlights

  • Despite expensive price tags and celebrity architects, Italy's new churches have their critics
  • Some say the buildings are too materialistic and lack a connection with the past
  • Others have praised the architects for building a new vision of the future

(CNN)What is beauty? What role does it have in spirituality? Is it in the eye of the beholder?

These seemingly innocuous questions have snowballed into a bitter polemic on the Catholic altar, where a battle of aesthetic titans has ensued: religious scholars versus the so-called "starchitects" who have earned multimillion-dollar contracts to build megachurches for the new millennium.
    To arbitrate, Italian photographer Andrea Di Martino looked to find meaning in these newly built houses of God.
      "I wanted to photograph new-but-already-established churches from this millennium ... but I had to explain to a lot of people that I wasn't documenting the demise of the Catholic Church or even the loss of churchgoers but how these churches have now become part of the establishment," he said.
      From Turin to Rome, Di Martino zigzagged through cities where celebrity architects hoped their designs would add to Italy's great architectural landscape.
      Photographing the works of architectural giants such as Paolo Portoghesi, Mario Botta, Richard Meier, Renzo Piano and others, Di Martino explored whether there is a historical continuum with the traditions of Brunelleschi, Bernini, Da Vinci and other artistic geniuses whose religious reverence helped build some of the world's greatest monuments.
      Andrea Di Martino
      Di Martino used a formal approach, photographing these churches from an egalitarian perspective. His camera takes a centralized position to allow the architectural concepts to get fair play.
      Photography, he hoped, could translate the aesthetic decisions behind some very controversial and expensive designs that, to some people, are unrecognizable as churches.
      In Turin, which hosts the Holy Shroud, Di Martino photographed Botta's Church of Santo Volto. Standing in what was a depressed steelwork factory, the church has received endless accolades by design experts around the world. But it has also been criticized by Vatican members and religious scholars who say they are extremely materialistic, devoid of spiritual references and divorced from the Catholic dogma.
      At the other end of the discussion, these new architects are building a new vision for the future. Botta's work is often called "revolutionary" and "genius," and some have put it in the company of Le Corbusier and Niemeyer.
      The crux of the issue: Is there a continuum with the past? Does it follow the Catholic Church's norms, defined by decree, for what is a church?
      In an online interview, Botta acknowledged the struggle.