Constancy in Contingency

Reflections on San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

| Winter 2016

  • From its gold-eagled eyrie over the city, the 1,000-year-old abbey of San Miniato al Monte, sends out a message, Urbi et Orbi, to the city and the world: SOS.
    Photo by Oisin Patrick Murphy
  • In Ireland, an elderly woman is asked if she believes in the Sídhe or fairies. She answers “I don’t. But they’re there all the same.”
    Photo by Oisin Patrick Murphy
  • According to the Rule of St. Benedict, the monks pray eight times a day, connecting with Spirit even in the fragments of seconds.
    Photo by Oisin Patrick Murphy
  • San Miniato al Monte was founded at the first millennium on the site of the saint’s hermitage high over Florence.
    Photo by Oisin Patrick Murphy

It’s Friday 19th September 2014 and I’ve arrived in Italy for a long weekend. I wake in that post-late-night-flight delirium: where am I? Albanian in one ear and Italian in the other suggest the Strait of Otranto. But in the shuttered-dark, I feel the phantom vibration of flying, see Paris, Zurich and Milan, neurons firing in an atrous Europe. It takes the feel of almond damp, the smell of toasted coffee, the screech of parrots to answer the question. I am here in Florence at my extended family’s home. Their plumbing must be delinquent again if Aleksander from Albania is on the terrace.

Mediterranean Monsoon

In the kitchen, Barry’s Tea, Marmite, Cadbury’s chocolate and Hadji Bey’s Turkish Delight assure my welcome. The Kerrygold butter, Gubbeen cheese and Clonakilty black-pudding are in the fridge overnight. We make fresh coffee for Ale and ‘the boys’ who are downstairs, in the seminterrato, sorting out the devastation of two summer floods, rendering the family-room first a river, then a lake. It has been a dark, wet Italian Summer, cyclonic rain broken by violent storms. In west-coast Liguria rain fell at levels normally found in the Himalayas and the Philippines. In towns and villages, the living raced the dead, as cars and coffins slalomed down streets turned big-water canyons.

As the muratori and idraulici lash into brown bread slathered with Irish butter, all the talk is of climate change, global warming, apologies for leaving the family in the lurch. “Even a tsunami wouldn’t get my wife to leave Versilia” says Ale referring to the Italian obsession with spending not just August, but the entire summer, al mare. The flooded family is sanguine. “Siamo in Italia.”   

Monastic ‘Mayday’

It is a warm, strange day, furred with static. Outside, the birds are silent. After their bread-and-butter treat the cats, too, have disappeared. Under the bruise of a sky, the hills to the south look exquisitely tender. At 11.45 it is so dark, we switch on the lights. One of Ale’s team produces a rosewood rosary from his grandmother in Tirana, “in case it is the last day”. He is a prophet. Within the echo of the Angelus bell, a vengeful God opens a blue-black sky and power-hoses the province with thousands of tonnes of blue-white hailstones. They sweep over the roofs like a diabolical cavalry, obliterating our calls to the cats, slicing our skin like albino obsidian.

This sudden ice-storm rips through towns, farms, fields, eviscerating the market-gardens of Pistoia, tossing ancient umbrella-pines and cypresses like they were the thighs on Florentine women, outlawed by the edict of la bella figura. In town, waiters haul screaming pedestrians off the streets. Schools and museums are evacuated. The Uffizi replete with Botticellis, Lippis, Da Vincis is pounded, the Biblioteca Nazionale battered. When the air assault is over, residents creep out, crunching over centimeters of ice to find pets, equanimity. For the first time, I see Italians dumbstruck. They are giddy on a new, distinctly-medicinal scent: the sharp resin of thousands of mutilated trees. Necessary balsam in this Third Circle of Hell. From its gold-eagled eyrie over the city, the 1,000-year-old abbey of San Miniato al Monte, sends out a message, urbi et orbi, to the city and the world: SOS.

Peril, Pagans, Prayer, Power

It is fitting that San Miniato should sound the alarm. On occasions of the extreme, it takes the best to hold, notify, the worst. If we have left behind the Holocene of our existence, it is right that this message should be declared in a place that has been sacred for millennia, in a city that gave the Renaissance to the world and Dante Alighieri, Boccaccio, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Galileo, by birth or adoption, to humanity. Perhaps, more questionably, Florence established international banking through the Medici.  

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