The church of St. John the Baptist (Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista) is a very small, simple building situated in the Piazza S.Giorgio at the heart of the beautiful town of Varenna on the eastern shores of Lake Como. It is so undemonstrative – so nondescript – that it can easily pass unnoticed; indeed, even should it be noticed it is not obviously a church. Most visitors to Varenna do not ‘register’ the building because, from the outside it is constructed out of grey stone with no adornments. It could, I imagine be taken as an old workshop, a place for carpentry and wood-turning, perhaps a pottery or or even a garage.
However the Romanesque building dates back to the eleventh century and, despite its modest retiring self-effacing exterior, the interior tells a different story. The inside walls are graced by fourteenth century frescoes and although they are in an advanced state of deterioration they have come to reflect a far more contemporary aesthetic of beauty-in-decay. Sixteenth century frescoes in the apse are in a somewhat better condition.
When I visited the church in the late summer of 2020 (in the course of exploring how objects are displayed or presented for whasotever their purposes might be) I was lucky enough, soon after entering, and glancing at the frescoes, to come face to face with a sacred text. It was placed before the altar. I was immediately struck by the dignity, simplicity and sheer presence of the book itself. It was not specially illuminated nor was there any supporting text to explain or enhance its presence. The book was simply there, resting on a lectern and directly in front of me.
As I contemplated the book, the altar behind, the subtleties of light and shadow and the history-suffused environing walls of the church, I felt a quiet delight at the way time-past and time-present can be combined in a perfect synthesis.