I chose Salisbury Cathedral as my emblem for lightness. One of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world, Salisbury Cathedral is also the tallest medieval building in northern Europe. Its spire soars 404 feet off the ground; together with the tower, it adds 6,397 tons to the building.

How did medieval architects, using nothing more than hand tools and basic math, manage to create such an impressive structure? The answer lies in the development of the flying buttress. Before these were invented, builders compensated for height by making the walls of a structure thicker to provide enough support for the roof. Take a look at any Romanesque cathedral and you’ll see what I mean; they’re all squat and dark like fortresses. With the advent of the Gothic style, however, builders wanted to build cathedrals that were tall, but without the weight of the walls. They wanted the walls to be thin enough for stained glass windows, which would open up the inside of the building, letting in light and color.

The pointed arch allowed walls to bear the weight of higher buildings, but it was the flying buttress that really revolutionized cathedral building. The buttress is connected to the wall of the cathedral; it provides support by transferring the weight from the wall into the buttress, which is then anchored to the ground. By shifting the burden off the walls, the buttress allowed for tall cathedrals whose walls were composed almost entirely of stained glass.


To me, this perfectly exemplifies Calvino’s definition of lightness. The cathedral as an object seems to defy the laws of the universe, when in fact, it merely manipulates those laws to its own advantage. When I walk inside a cathedral, my eyes are immediately drawn up, and I’m filled with a sense of awe. Going inside a cathedral is a spiritual experience for sure, whether the visitor is religious or not. Personally, I’m amazed at the extraordinary amount of human effort and ingenuity that went into building a cathedral. It’s incredible that people could dedicate their whole lives to building a cathedral they might not live to see completed. It’s very like Calvino’s description of lightness in literature symbolizing a flight to another world, a momentary transfiguration from a mortal human to an infinite being. The feeling may last only for a moment, but it is a testament to the power of literature that it evokes this sense of awe and wonder in us.

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