The Taranto Cathedral, 1964–70

By Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas

Excerpts from the catalogue.

The project of the Taranto Cathedral was born out of the need to create a religious centre closer to the new direction in which the city was expanding. The International Institute of the Liturgical Arts, charged with the project, and Archbishop Guglielmo Motolese chose Gio Ponti to create it. From its genesis in 1964 to its inauguration in 1970, this building was reworked repeatedly until the Milanese architect arrived at a design that transmitted his conception of the sacred. Multiple sources of inspiration accompanied his reflection: the whiteness of Puglia’s traditional architecture, the austerity of Franciscan spirituality, and the stone dentils of Gothic cathedrals.

Tarento Cathedral, 1964-1970
© Luca Massari

Faced with need to give the cathedral a character of both bareness and grandeur, the Milanese architect solved the problem by opting for the creation of two facades: “One, the lesser one, for entering the church. The other, the greater one, accessible only to the view and the wind: a facade ‘for the air’ […] with eighty windows open onto ‘the vastness,’ which is the ‘dimension’ of the mystery of the eternal presence of God.” Referencing the biblical ark and Taranto’s maritime tradition, the building eventually took the shape of a ship with a rectangular-plan nave surmounted by a curtain, a double cement wall 41 metres tall rising from a withdrawn position, in the middle of the building. Hexagonal-shaped openings perforate this double wall and allow the immensity of the sky to filter in. This way, the perception of the subtle play between light and shadow varies continuously according to the weather. Ponti chose materials of an austere quality: reinforced concrete, left visible in certain places, and a coat of white in the extension of the Mediterranean tradition. In the building’s interior he also opted for a simple décor of flat tints of colour ranging from yellow to green.

Around the structure, Ponti imagined an island of greenery whose unconstrained appearance would recall the Garden of Eden. In front of the cathedral, a reflecting pool composed of three levels splits in two the vibratory quality of the rays of light traversing the facade. (…)

Green is the prevailing colour in the church’s interior: the almond green that covers the bays and the floor tiling with more intense tones poetically unite the interior and exterior. The cathedral was supposed to be as if “attacked by the green”4 of climbing plants partially covering the curtain and, in a pantheistic conception, symbolically linking the Earth and the sky. This intent was grasped by the citizens of Taranto who, immediately following the inauguration, offered plants to supply the garden. Today, due to the chaotic development of the neighbourhood, the cathedral’s immediate surrounding no longer, unfortunately, transmit the architect’s vision. But the openwork silhouette, where material and light merge to become “metamaterial,” still drives to the extreme this tension towards transparency.