Wednesday 28 January 2015

Florence and back

The trip to Florence went very well yesterday. Joaquim D’Souza and I took the 0950 FrecciaArgento to Florence S.M.N. We were wondering who would come to pick us up, and I was about to say to Joaquim, look at those two there, they look like Salesians, when I realized that they were: Casti and Kamil Pozorski, a young Polish confrere now incardinated into ICC. Casti was looking somewhat older, and we learnt that he had passed through a very bad moment after transferring to Florence, but was better now. Kamil instead turned out to be qualified in church history, and passationately knowledgeable about Florence. Since we had time, he took us to San Miniato on the hill overlooking Florence. I had been there once before, perhaps during the 26th General Chapter, but these places are worth visiting again. San Miniato is ancient, dating back to a small chapel erected over the remains of the martyr of the same name, and then rebuilt in the early Renaissance Florentine style, with the white and green marble striped façade that is well known from the Duomo, but very old inside. The Florentines consider San Miniato as the Gate of Heaven: Hic est Porta Caeli, we read on the marble step of one of the doors. Dante, at least, believed it was.

Inside we had an interesting meeting. There was a rather senior Olivetan monk standing there, and because of Abu Ghosh I helloed him and we introduced ourselves. His name was Bede, and the little tinkles of English in his almost perfect Italian betrayed him as an American, and he turned out to have visited India for one of the ecumenical or monastic or dialogue meetings of the 1970s. He had been to Mumbai, Pune and even Nashik, we were surprised to learn, and even remembered a few words of Marathi. In Pune he had met Sara Grant, and had stayed at Christa Prema Seva Ashram with her. In the south he had met Bede Griffiths (it was Bede who conferred his own name on this monk), and had reached just after Abhishiktananda had left the ashram. Fascinating to meet one of the ‘relics’ of the heyday of interreligious dialogue in India.

Lunch with the Florence Salesian community was interesting. Kamil said they had had some apprehensions about Bregolin, but were instead pleasantly surprised and delighted at the way he was fitting in. He said the community was very happy and was doing well. Besides Casti, they have also two from MOR: Errando, who I was surprised to find here, and the parish priest whose name I forget.

We spent a half hour chatting with Casti after lunch. He told us some stories which we had never heard from him.

At around 1445 Bregolin dropped us off at the bank of the Arno, and then Kamil took us for a walk around of Firenze sconosciuto. He serves as assistant parish priest in three small and very ancient parishes on the Oltre Arno, one of them being Santa Lucia de’ Mignoli a Firenze, and the other Santa Felicita a Firenze. The churches are gems, and full of precious works of art, at least those that have not been disposed of down the centuries.

Santa Lucia de’ Mignoli is situated on the Via Cassia coming from Rome. It contains a painting on wood of Santa Lucia dating back from 1300, and another rather famous one called Conversazione dei Santi, depicting John the Baptist and others around the Virgin. There used to be five other panels which have now been dispersed around the world, one of them depicting a young John laying down his clothes, Giovanni Battista nel Deserto. It appears that this was quite a popular theme in the past.

Next door is the local Lutheran church with two pastors, husband and wife, and a very good relationship between Catholics and Lutherans. Outside Santa Lucia, on the via Cassia, is a plaque commemorating the arrival of St Francis of Assisi in Florence, in 1211. As we walk gradually up the road, we turn left and arrive – surprise – at the house of Galileo Galilei, and his workshop next to it, with a commemorative plaque and nothing else, except some perhaps ancient murals on the outside. Down the road, instead, leads us eventually to Santa Felicita a Firenze. Here, the extraordinary Mannerist painting of the Deposizione dalla Croce, vivid colours and remarkable faces, the dead Christ being carried, not to the tomb, but to the altar, by angels and men, with Mary looking on in pain, and the artist himself lending his face at the extreme right. A remarkable composition, soon after Michelangelo. The church also has the first painting of the death of the seven young Maccabees that I have seen, with the mourning mother dominating the scene. It would appear that Santa Felicita herself had a similar story, and there is another painting showing her mourning over the martyrdom of her sons.

The church itself is a jewel, not surprising since the ruling Medicis used to attend mass from the balcony, or better their private secret passage over the city, with even an outlet allowing them to come down for communion. The passage or walkway can still be seen, and used to pass freely through private houses, churches, and so on. Parts of it can be seen still over the Ponte Vecchio and in the Palazzo Pitti.

And underneath the church, ongoing excavations of another ancient church, perhaps dating back to the Syrian Christians who seem somehow to have brought Christianity here, over the via Cassia. Parts of the via Cassia too, with tombs beneath it, inscriptions in Greek and perhaps in Syriac. The local historian was passionate, and we had to interrupt her explanations with a promise to return again.

And then Santo Spirito, with a work of the young Michelangelo: a crucifix carved in wood, a little less than life size, originally hanging over the main altar, and now in the baptistery, more accessible to the eye. A remarkable piece of work, though the Christ is somewhat too young and gracile, not surprising when you learn that it was carved – some say overnight – by the 18 year old artist, with a 14 year old boy, dead a few hours, as his model. The trademark close and accurate knowledge of anatomy, down to the torsion of the body because of the left leg crossed over the right for the crucifixion. The crucifix was believed to have been lost, but was rediscovered in 1962, or identified among the many works of art in the same church, painted horribly over and disfigured, and now restored. A remarkable piece, a for me unknown part of the history of Michelangelo. It would seem that his carvings and paintings reflected his own age, more or less. The Christ figure here is young; the David is somewhat older, but still very young; and the Christ figure in the Last Judgment of the Sistine chapel is a much older young man, as is also the Adam of the creation scene. (Angela Merkel had passed through the city the previous day, and the effects were still to be seen, mainly in the caricatures of imitation Davids with the face of Renzi. The papers also carried Adam-Renzi being created by God-Berlusconi – spoofing the Nazareno pact between the two politicians for the election of the next President of Italy.)

And finally a plaque commemorating Don Bosco: Don Bosco used to stay here, in the Uguccioni house near Santa Maria Novella, when he used to visit Florence – which, I learnt, was the capital of Italy before Rome became available. Vittorio Emmanuele II had even shifted from Turin to the Medici residence at this point. And our Don Bosco used to come to Florence to negotiate bishops for vacant sees. Talk about the politics of the Our Father. He was neck deep in politics. What he forbade to his sons was party politics.

And then the train, this time a FrecciaRossa – though I can’t tell the difference between FrecciaArgento and FrecciaRossa – back to Rome.

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