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.
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.”
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.
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.
On this hill, pagans worshipped their sun god. Here too, the hermit Minias worshipped Christ at the time the Emperor Decius demanded sacrifice to the pagan deities. Minias was a refusnik. Thrown to lions in the amphitheatre, burned, stoned, decapitated, still the young Armenian would not die. When Rome had done its worst, he calmly reattached his head, walked across the waters of the Arno, climbed the hill to the spot where his bones now lie, in the crypt of the basilica. Some say aristocratic relic hunters absconded with him to Metz. But in August, in what remains of the day, a shaft of sunlight falls on the foot of Christ in a mosaic over the choir, pointing downwards to what remains of the saint.
San Miniato al Monte was founded at the first millennium on the site of the saint’s hermitage high over Florence. In Florentine Romanesque style, it belonged first to the Benedictines, then the Cluniacs and from the 1370s, the Olivetans, who are still its custodians today. Robed in white, these men live a rich, unadorned life of prayer, poverty and the Spirit. Writers, philosophers, confectioners, mathematicians this small, kind community of 12 is as far as it is possible to be from the soutane-swishing, sombreroed wannabe-clerical aristocrats downtown. Buffed, primped and perfumed they sweep along Florentine pavements straight from a Fellini movie or the 1950s. Sleek as starlings, they flutter around piazze, their murmuration murmurings not about Populi Dei but Precepta Romana. They used to bother me until Paolo Sorrentino’s insane and ingenious The Young Pope made them ridiculously delicious. “I got passion in my pants and I ain’t afraid to show it”. Pass me that papal tiara. I’m Sexy and I Know It. LMFAO.
Though I am no longer a Catholic, the monks welcome me—and all—as belonging to the people of God. They have made San Miniato “a place of peace, beauty and hope for Florence, according to the prophet Isaiah, ‘a house of prayer for all the peoples’.” Through the years, I’ve got to know them. They have prayed for me and my children, guided us, protected us. In the days and hours my father lay dying in Ireland, they kept vigil with his soul.
In July, I see them swelter on the altar. On stolen trips in December, I watch them freeze inside icy walls; one by one succumbing to the cold, then bronchitis, so that gradually, Vespers becomes a quartet, trio, duet, until finally, a solo voice scours the columns salvaged from ancient Roman settlements, to a percussion of coughing, wheezing, sneezing. Salute!
When I first lived in Florence on sabbatical, every morning, after the school-run cappuccino, I’d race up the hill to San Miniato for my double-espresso for the soul. For me, the abbey is not a place, but a condition. From my first visit 15 years ago, I experience it as a sense in stone. And I’m not alone. In his book The Secret Zodiac: The Hidden Art in Medieval Astrology, the British writer and photographer Fred Gettings says the church possesses “an almost palpable feeling of ancient healing power”. For me, the only places comparable are the Hill of Tara in Ireland or the Temple of Minerva in Assisi. Visitors stride into the abbey—It’s Tuesday so I guess this is Florence – only to be atomised by its energy. As they leave, less-sensitive companions are ebullient. ‘Those remnants of frescoes, Gaddi dying before finishing the panels behind the altar, those mysterious monks, that crazy zodiac in the aisle, all those occult symbols? This is just the best.’ Beside them, the atomised are white, silent. Later, in Connecticut or Colorado they will ask, ‘what happened’? Laugh you may. But remember this. 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.”
As I think of those first days at the abbey, I remember Grigore. He waits for me in the mornings with his sandpapery, two-kisses. From the abbey steps we watch discombobulated young Americans on their junior year abroad; German pensioners managing the minor miracle of brandishing guidebooks and crutches; Japanese photographers draping brides thin—so thin—in ivory silk and skin against jasmine, roses, marble, grooms, the city itself. At Ognissanti, All Saints, we spy on the city’s signore in their pearls and furs, making for the family tombs in the hilltop cemetery attached. Their pooches, jewelled-and-jacketed, toddling, snuffling ahead, their bums pink-and-puckered from the cold, babywipes or modesty, mini emissaries to this silent republic of the dead.
If these high-society women would forfeit a single Reserved place in a city obsessed by status and privilege, this would be it. But at Ognissanti, resigned to their fate, they wander among the mini gothic chapels, marble angels, scent their ancestral vaults, like the colony of feral cats, who find civic sanctuary there. Now and then they stop at headstones bearing porcelain, sepia cameos of hirsute, stunned babies, almost of their own generation. Nicola Vespucci, Caterina Neri, Massimo Giovanelli: infant Italians claimed by the Spanish Flu, 1918. With rare exceptions, they ignore Grigore, these latter-day Dives to my Lazarus of Bucharest.
Below us on these mornings, the Palazzo Vecchio’s golden lion, rampant, roars across Piazza della Signoria. White frost on red tile, red roof. Two domes: carnelian for the Catholics, celadon for the Jews. Violet Fleurs-de-Lys flap like prayer flags across the Renaissance city, signalling history with France and hysteria over Fiorentina.
The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore, a confection of pink, white and green, sparkles straight from the pages of a fairytale or the shelf of local sweetmaker, Migone. Squat palaces, morbidly obese, anchor what from our cockpit, are miniature bridges strung like pearls across the Arno. Any second now, foundries of bronze bells will strike the eighth hour. For a millennium at least, they have signalled invasion and investiture, war and peace, plague and death, famine and floods, work and rest; pealing births, marriages, murders of princes, dukes, bishops, popes, heretics, to all within their sound.
From this vertiginous spot, Florence is a gigantic chessboard. I imagine archangels lining up their Kings in the Bargello and Palazzo Strozzi, their Queens in the churches of Badia Fiorentina and Orsanmichele, clocks poised, time stopped, moves forced, taken. When we lived in a 19th-century palazzina in town, often at night I would wake to a faint metropolitan rumble. If I slipped silently down the 72 stone stairs, stepped out into the warring streets, would I catch the arcangeli mid-move, betrayed by a slight, steadying motion, my hand on a stone wall sensing a palazzo out of breath? An owl-feather loosed, suddenly, from its high copper-piping, floating on the dark. That San Miniato al Monte, alone, could keep watch over such sublime politics is witnessed in the threshold of one of its doors. The white marble reads Hac est Porta Coeli. This is the Gate of Heaven. And Grigore, the beggar, is its keeper.
Or, he was. Grigore had angina. In pain one night he sought medical help.
In treating him, staff called immigration. Highly unusual in a city that, post-war and Fascism, has a finely-honed loathing of informers. For Grigore, a Roma, a 90-day order to quit ensued. But since he was a stalwart of the abbey, and the monks live the message of the Gospel, they rallied the community to hire him a lawyer. Grigore won his right to remain. Then, almost immediately, he disappeared.
I miss Grigore and think of him as we light our candles, head out of the abbey into the dark, down towards Piazza Santa Croce, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the floods in November 1966, when the Angeli del Fango—Mud Angels—flew from all over Italy and the world to save Florence’s art. As the abbot Dom Bernardo prays for the angels, I look down at the zodiac wheel laid in the nave by Byzantine astrologers and astronomers on 28 May 1207, possibly at sunrise, to honour a stellium in Taurus. Some say this zodiac wheel was Christianised, the 12 astrological symbols, representing the 12 apostles. Others, however, point to the occult significance especially of Taurus, Cancer, Pisces. The occult here and at other Florentine sites is for another day.
The abbey has yet to give up all its astrological and astronomical secrets. Since the whip-hand of reason and the rational is impoverishing us literally and metaphorically, I hope it keeps its mysteries. In life beyond the abbey, bottom-lines, bonds, phantom growth, yields, divert us from the urgent and essential. Our planet is at its hottest for 115,000 years. Financial insanity presented as fiscal sense is best summed up in The Great Gatsby.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
In that mess, inequality is at 1929 levels. Economic growth or payrises are impossible when Tom & Co own 50% of everything in the US and Daisy & Associates own 55% of everything in the UK. Last time we had deflation it took Auschwitz for people to realise that, maybe, just maybe, a different system might be better?
At the abbey, their system is the opposite of our material striving. According to the Rule of St Benedict, the monks pray eight times a day, connecting with Spirit even in the fragments of seconds. With Matins at 04.30 they break sleep to keep vigil with Christ. At 06.30 in Laudes they greet the first rays of the sun, celebrate Christ’s victory over darkness and death. From thereon, they keep the rhythm of Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline. In between, Dom Stefano runs their small shop that smells of cypress, espresso, cures, liquors, unguents, honey from the holy bees—le api sante—kept by enclosed nuns at Rosano. Through SMS, you can order a handmade dessert. Lebanese Dom Ildebrando makes a lemon cake to die for. Dom Bernardo keeps an important connection between the spiritual, cultural and civic life of the city. All of them care deeply for their elderly brothers, particularly the old abbot who once preached unforgettable sermons and lives now in the havoc of forgetting. In that alone, they are truly men of God.
When I arrive in Florence for half-term holidays, the air is ominously warm for November. All week we’ve marvelled at late roses, third-bloom wisteria, abundant new strawberries. At time of writing, after inevitable, spectacular storms, the Arno is swollen, raging. It’s 6th November. Two days after the catastrophic floods of 4th November 1963 and 1333. As we search for the family of otters at Ponte alle Grazie, my son reminds me that the statue of Mars swept off the Ponte Vecchio in 1333, still lies deep in the riverbed. The sirens of the Vigili del Fuoco wane. The too-warm wind carries the bell of San Miniato over the waters.
Miriam O’Callaghan is a mother, speechwriter, and Florence lover. She has written for The Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Sunday Times.