Se mai continga che ‘l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra,
sì che m’ha fatto per molti anni macro,
vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra
del bello ovile ov’io dormi’ agnello,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra;
con altra voce omai, con altro vello
ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte
del mio battesmo prenderò ‘l cappello… [Paradiso; 25.1-9]
[If it comes (and may it come) to pass that the sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have lent a hand — so that it has withered me over the years — should overcome the cruelty that bars me from the beautiful fold where I slept as a lamb, an enemy of the wolves that make war on it; then, with another voice, with another fleece I shall return as poet and receive the laurel wreath at my baptismal font…]
So wrote Dante of Florence, ‘la mia terra‘ as he thought of it, the city from which I have just returned. It’s not hard, even across so extraordinary a span of time, to understand the sorrow of an exile (who has not occasionally just wished to go home?) but it is perhaps worse when Florence is the home to which you can never return. Sure, the Florence of Dante was a Florence before the great Duomoand before the Medici renaissance, the enduring institutions that characterise the city for today’s visitor, but there are certain things about the city that seem endlessly renewed: the great hills above it, the lazy Arno river, the long-setting Tuscan sun over the red roofs. It is not idle or stupid to say there is something special about the place.
I’m glad, of course, to be visiting in the present day – when I can wander through the Uffizi, marvel at Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, be possessed by historical vertigo while admiring the tomb of an Antipope, escape into the backstreets without an umbrella in the driving, warm rain and eat and drink more than can possibly be healthy. Yet there are also, undoubtedly, drawbacks to visiting Florence today. Certainly moreso than France, Italy has retained some sense of religious duty, and often one can expect to be reproached if behaving too irreverently in its great churches, or even refused admission if dressed ‘immodestly’ (bared shoulders are an affront to Christ, as I discovered to my chagrin while in Rome a few years ago) – but increasingly this form of authority is retreating from the most profitable of attractions, and it is this transformation from ‘Church’ to ‘attraction’ that struck me.
I grew up Catholic, severely so, with Vatican II and the monstrous guitar-strumming that passes for a lot of modern Catholicism bypassed my mother’s church, which considered ‘modernism’ the most grievous of temporary aberrations, a blip that would pass quickly in the Church’s somewhat more eternal perspective. Though I am no longer anywhere near that creed, there are undoubtedly innate responses that Catholicism bred in me (from an appreciation of ritual, to a somewhat heterodox appreciation of the psychological virtues of an almost-polytheistic devotion to saints, to rather lax morality happy to sin now and repent later) and while I find its formal theology monstrous on an incomparable scale, I also find it fascinating, improbable and not the absolute evil that many believe it to be. All of which is to say the use of the sacred building is not alien to me – its upturned nave the boat of pilgrims, its architecture an echo of the New Jerusalem. Whether its provoked by the marvels of the Vitruvian canon, the semi-instinctive power of the golden ratio or simply a couple of thousand years of accreted culture coupled with deep-seated memories of ringing golden bells, opalescent lettering on a chasuble and rising smoke, walking into a cathedral has the power to take my breath away.
At least I thought so. I walked into the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, and after a few minutes had to slump alongside one of the pillars. It wasn’t a consequence of the vast spaces of the cathedral, its towering arches or incredible dome, but the hundreds of milling tourists, clustered all under the dome, glowing phones and cameras held aloft in a dutiful substitution of recording and consumption for awe or engagement. they milled and marched about endlessly, cameras held before them like a raging mouth, recording everything for oblivion, transforming the cathedral into tiny talismans and markers of cultured taste. No pause: arches, paintings and domes endlessly sucked through the lens of the camera. Thousands, eyeless in Florence.
The obvious conclusion, of course, is that God is very Dead indeed, and this is the crowned achievement of capitalism, the reduction of meaning to a series of markers that can be purchased, recorded, appropriated and catalogued in the comfort of one’s own home. But that really is the obvious conclusion. What interests me is that there are (of course) meanings, sensations and positions of the self implicit in the space of the cathedral that cannot be appropriated simply by paying for an ever more accurate and megapixelled camera: what was the complex position I found myself in?
When I stood in the nave and stared up again, who was I? I found myself longing to somehow reach out and touch the faith and terror of the builders of the cathedral, who could undoubtedly find the vast points of the cathedral reaching up behind the cross to a dies irae who saw everything. I longed for my feelings entering church as a child, where I could feel Godness pouring off everything like electricity, when I knelt in front of the elevated host unsure whether to stare or look away, but really unable to move my eyes. And then also myself now, who sometimes feels dim echoes of that holy terror, but who looks up at those vast, sad hopeful arches, themselves built in a desperate, yearning grasp to the heavens. On the still air, I could smell the memory of incense.
I am undoubtedly all of these people together, various selves rubbing up against each other, and more, horribly dislocated in time, adrift, free, not quite in one self or another. I sat for a long time looking at Michelino’s La commedia illumina Firenze (image above), which shows Dante staring over an impossible Florence, a Florence that could not have existed in his time, that had not yet been built, a city lost to him. Strange and unexpected afterlife, Dante wanders through the 15th century, behind him looms the Inferno strange and out of time itself, his one hand gesturing to timeless hell itself, but his eyes looking away, lingering over his city, la mia terra.
Then this cathedral itself a strange mix of contiguous times, against each other and not quite touching. The bell rung, and out marched the priest and his servers, thurible swinging, almost like ghosts, with the faithful gathered in the pews close to the altar — the tourists, thinned out but not gone, swung round to take in this new sight, some of them shutting away their cameras out of some sudden respect for an encounter with a human being entirely out of their time. These worlds carefully existing beside each other, somehow miraculously not colliding, somehow barely infringing on each other – the priest’s eyes lowered in procession, somehow concentrated on another world where the vast span of the cathedral remained an incredible, unageing monument to a timeless God. The flash of a camera went off, frantic, recording. As I backed out of the cathedral, thinking on the Vitruvian assertion that the coherently constructed temple is built just like a human body, I watched the priest’s lips brush the stone of the altar.