May 27 2010
The opportunity to visit some of the great churches of Europe has always held a very exotic appeal for this 52 Churches project, but the problem is most of my business travel takes me pretty much everywhere but Europe. A recent vacation in Italy – my first real leisurely personal trip through the country – yielded two wonderful opportunities to really experience the Catholic Church in all of its Italian glory. I took advantage, and on two mornings woke early for the first mass of the day.
The first was in Florence, Firenze, in the great cathedral of the city, the “Duomo” or more accurately Santa Maria del Fiore and the second was in Venice, at the Basilica San Marco the ancient basilica that looks, in the words of Hemingway, like a “damned Cinema Palace.”
The Duomo in Florence is one of the enduring symbols of the Renaissance, particularly its astonishing dome, which was designed by Brunelleschi and completed in 1463. I climbed to the top of the dome, all 462 steps, and overcame a severe phobia of heights long enough to cling to a wall and peer anxiously out at the city arrayed along the Arno Valley.
One of the great advantages of church tourism is that the tourist has a certain pious priority in gaining access to churches otherwise overwhelmed by lines of tourists paying steep admission fees. By inquiring of a quard standing by the door into one of the side chapels I learned the first mass of the day was at 7:30 am. The next morning I hurried through the alleys of Florence alone, dressed as respectfully as possible in jacket and tie, humming the words of the Band’s great “When I Paint My Masterpiece” while enjoying a few minutes of silent streets before the whining hornet drones of the Vespas and scooters ruined the atmosphere.
I entered early and made a brief tour of the three altars, trying the entire time not to gawk too much in front of the skeptical guards who doubtlessly thought I was a tourist just trying to get a free unobstructed tour of the nave and apse before the mobs arrived. Photography is permitted inside of the Duomo -- one of the few churches that do permit photography, but I didn't press my luck during that morning visit, but instead tried to determine which of the three "churches" or chapels within the Cathedral would be the scene of the mass, which I assume would be called "Matins."
The Duomo is the fourth largest cathedral in the world according to the guide books, and was built by the wool merchants guild of Florence in the 1400s. Given that the Medici fortune was based on wool, there is a certsin syllogism that the Duomo is not only Florence's most enduring landmark but also a monument to the power snd glory of one of the world's most powerful and illustrious fsmilies, one that gave the church several Popes, Queens, Kings, and overtime became the wealthiest family in the world. But I digress as this post is not a history lesson on the Medicis but a simple account of a trip to a great church.
I had read an excellent history, Brunelleschi's Dome, by Ross King, before visiting and would recommend the same to anyone anticipating a visit to the Duomo. It is an amazing tale of Renaissance brillance, of a true "Renaisssance man" Filippio Brunelleschi, an inventor, architect, and artist who not only pulled out an impossible act of engineering but in also invented some key construction tools and machines that were the technical marvels of their time, being sketched by Da Vinci and widely imitated as ground breaking enablers of architectural wonders.
For ten minutes I sat alone in the northern chapel, as the cancles there were lit and the rows of prayer benches looked promising. but as I got comfortable and gawked st the soaring arches, pendentives, mosaics and stained glass windows I realized the action was across the nave in the southern, Arno-side apse. Off I went, taking the usual back row seat, satisfied I was in the right place when a gaggle of nuns in blue and white habits paraded down the aisle and took the first few rows on the starboard side. A few worshippers joined them until there were about a dozen of us waiting for the procession of the priest and his assistant. In the game of "One of These Things if Not Like the Other," your's truly was the obvious choice, as I stuck out fairly obviously as one who had no clue what the drill was.
A bell rang, we stood, and in marched the priests.
The mass was conducted in Italian, and therefore my comprehension level was ten percent. mostly due to three years of Latin with Doctor Baade and Mister Burgess at Brooks in the mid-70s, three years of tedious declensions and genders that yielded a decent score on the SATs and enabled me to figure out some of what the priest was doing. The nice thing about morning weekday mass is the service is very accelerated and to the point. Prayers, a little Bible, Lord's Prayer, the Credo, some silent kneeling prayer, some communion, greet your neighbor, make the signo croce a few times, and all if over in sbout 30 minutes.
Of course there is far more than that going on. First off the priest's words do some amazing things in a stone cathedral the size of the blimp hanger in Mountain View, California. Second, you're genuflecting, kneeling, and praying in a space 600 years old, looking at a marble floor that is out of this world, and greeting the day under stained glass that was the 1400s version of George Lucas and the first Star Wars movie to the peasants.
More photos and details to follow when my internet connection improves.
Next, the Basilica San Marco in Venice