It’s 5am Monday morning in Italy. I’m sitting on a rooftop veranda outside my hotel room in Assisi overlooking the sleeping countryside. The moon is high. Later today we’ll be in Rome.
Our trip got off to a bad start. The story begins early Thursday afternoon at the Alitalia terminal at Newark Liberty Airport, where my daughter Sarah and I arrive to discover very long, seemingly unmoving lines and the news that our 5:30 flight was delayed at least seven hours. Over the next few days we heard that (a) the pilots were on strike, (b) they were watching the World Cup, or (c) issues from the previous day had affected numerous flights that day. I still don’t know what the issue was. By the time our flight finally lifts off at a minute shy of 1am, some of our fellow pilgrims have been stranded at the airport for over a dozen hours.
There are seventeen of us on the flight. Archbishop Myers is already in Italy with an early group. We’re the late group—now the very late group. We were originally meant to join the early group at Montecatini by catching a one-hour transfer flight from Rome to Florence. Unfortunately, given our mid-afternoon arrival time on Friday afternoon, we would have to wait nearly six hours for the next connecting. Instead, the tour people put us on a bus to Montecatini.
On the bus, driving through the Umbrian countryside, the trip officially becomes a pilgrimage for Sarah and me when she suggests that we pray our daily Rosary. As we cross into Tuscany the countryside offers more to look at. A friend in Hollywood likes to say, “If you doubt the existence of Jesus, go to Rome; if you doubt the existence of God, go to Tuscany.” It isn’t until Sunday, driving to and from Siena, that I’ll feel the full force of the second half of his thesis. On Friday, the mood is marred slightly by the (quiet enough) Michael Jackson and such the driver is listening to.
It’s 10pm by the time we arrive at our hotel in Montecatini, where we’re met by our tour guide, Laura, along with representatives of the archdiocese. We’re not completely surprised that Laura doesn’t know that a small breakfast snack on the plane was our last meal. She thought we would eat on the road, but we were given only a quick pit stop. A few pilgrims are expressing distinct testiness, though couched in good humor: “We’re trying to be good Roman Catholics,” one says. Hasty plans are made to take us out for pizza and wine. Though six hours shorter than any other Friday in Sarah’s or my life, it’s been a long day.
Saturday morning we’re joined for breakfast by Archbishop Myers. On the bus ride to Florence, beginning (or, for the earlier participants, continuing) a pattern that will shape the rest of our time, Monsignor Michael Andreano leads us in a Rosary.
Florence’s historical center is a medieval town, so our tour of the narrow streets is a walking tour. Although our first destination is the Academia dell’Art del Disegno, home of Michelangelo’s David and his unfinished Slaves—a major thrill for the art student in me—the highlight of the day is our visit to the city’s architectural crown jewel, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, where Archbishop Myers celebrates a private Mass for our group.
Nearly 150 years in the making*, immense and magnificently finished without in alternating horizontal bands of light and dark marble, the Gothic cathedral is surprisingly sparse inside, with the exception of the lavishly painted interior of the dome, a Last Judgment with the Blessed at its crown and scenes of perdition around the perimeter. Because Sarah is sensitive to that sort of imagery, we don’t pay the eight euro apiece to climb the stairs to the dome.
Opposite the cathedral is the Baptistery, an immense structure that looks bigger than our entire parish church. The reason for the freestanding baptistery, I learn with interest, is that historically the doors of the cathedral were open only to the baptized, so baptisms had to be celebrated outside its doors. (Other churches in the diocese were not so exclusive, but for the cathedral you had to be baptized.) Ghiberti’s golden doors for the baptistery, fittingly depicting ten scenes from the Old Testament, were christened “the doors of Paradise” by Michelangelo.
The other church on our Florence tour is the Franciscan church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross). This church too is most impressive on the outside, though only the front façade is finished in marble. The most striking feature is an immense Star of David near the top. Our guide tells us that the façade represents an ecumenical and even interreligious collaboration, funded in part by wealthy Protestant families and designed by a Jewish architect!
As charming as this story is, it’s overshadowed by what strikes me as disheartening modern reality. The piazza in front of Santa Croce is completely filled with an enormous construction project: a sports arena for mini soccer. Only a narrow perimeter permits one to circumnavigate the former piazza from the west end, where one now encounters a massive wall sporting a Hyundai logo, to the church at the east end. The space in front of the church will still be a gathering place for the community, but the piazza, the open space with its unobstructed view of the church, is gone. Sports fans will cheer under the shadow of that massive Star of David, but the stadium, not the church, will dominate the space.
Best known as the burial site of famous Florentines including Michelangelo and Galileo, it’s not obvious whether Santa Croce is a living church. (I looked it up. It is.) Anyway, tickets are needed to get in. The high altar and reredos is covered with scaffolding and plastic sheeting; our guide says it’s been that way for years. The walls are sporadically adorned by fragmentary frescoes, partially restored after being plastered over in obedience to some historical fashion mistake.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the church, apart from some Marian frescoes by Giotto tucked away in a chapel in the right transept, is the interior of the roof, with open truss beams decoratively painted rather than ceiled over. Well, the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo are interesting too. Both are adorned by symbolic female figures; Michelangelo is mourned by three figures, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, while Galileo has two, one representing Astronomy and one which I forget. In the rear of the church is a female statue representing the “liberty of art,” an ancestor of the American Statue of Liberty, similarly crowned and with one hand upraised and one foot forward, though in a rather more voluptuous style.
After lunch, the rest of the afternoon in Florence is free. Sarah and I have mixed luck: Of the two notable churches we try to visit, San Lorenzo is closed to the public for an excellent reason—a wedding—while Santa Maria Novella is hosting an opera. We stop in at a few other churches. I don’t know their names. We say a prayer in every church we visit.
In one church we are pleased to find Eucharistic exposition in progress. There are two or three worshipers silently adoring. One, a nun, appears to be sitting or kneeling on the floor in the middle of the nave. Her stillness and the oddity of her position is a little intimidating, as is the absolute silence. We kneel and worship silently awhile, but we don’t walk around the church much. A ray of light stabbing down from a high window across the sanctuary, a richly carved, cruciform ceiling and large organ pipes are my main impressions of that church.
Thunder rumbles ominously in a lightly clouded sky that doesn’t look like we’re meant to take the warning seriously. Still, we’re far from the bus, and for three euro I buy a collapsible umbrella from a street vendor. Near the church street artists with chalk pastels create impressive replicas of famous paintings. One is doing Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Nearby, a couple of old men play a fiddle and accordion. I like this form of artful, entertaining panhandling better than the beggars who merely play on pity and guilt. I drop some change.
The umbrella turns out to be a useful if not indispensable purchase: It’s very lightly drizzling by the time we circumnavigate the mini-soccer stadium and gather at Santa Croce with our fellow pilgrims. While we wait under the statue of Dante, a woman relates how she once refuted a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses, first recounting a couple of points of elementary apologetics and then responding to a query about blood transfusions by declaring that without blood transfusions she wouldn’t be alive. I tell her she answered well.
Sunday after breakfast we board the bus for Siena, bound for San Domenico Basilica, a Dominican church associated with St. Catherine. As we approach our destination, we mark the spot where buses are meant to stop to discharge passengers, and begin passing long lines of pilgrims on foot. Laura explains that our driver is kindly taking the risk of an illegal stop right in front of our destination; hopefully there won’t be any policemen. There is applause for the driver.
We disembark as quickly as possible. I note that there is indeed an imposingly helmeted policeman talking to a tall blond woman who turns out to be our local guide for Siena. I wonder whether the guide was explaining to the officer that our tour group includes an archbishop whose physical condition isn’t entirely up to all the walking challenges of the tour—and how far such appeals go with Italian policemen these days. He doesn’t harass us.
A stone placard on San Domenico announces Piazza de Madre Teresa de Calcutta—a somewhat unusual piazza title not corresponding to the name of the adjoining church. Inside, along with frescoes of Catherine and other subjects, we see stone steps Catherine climbed to pray (now grilled off from public use). We also see bits of Catherine herself: a mummified head behind glass, and a mummified finger in a candlestick-like reliquary. What was buried of Catherine, we learn, is interred in Rome.
This particular approach to using and displaying relics doesn’t help me. I understand the importance of mortal remains and the wish to venerate, display and distribute them. I’ve knelt near St. Peter’s mortal remains in the crypt under St. Peter’s, and it means a lot to me that they’re there. I can deal with distributing a few fingers here and there. I think I would prefer to see the head and body remain together. I also don’t like to see the mummified finger upraised like a candlestick in a holder; lying in a coffer or something seems less morbid somehow.
After this church we begin a foot journey through Siena that will take us around the cathedral. Unlike Florence, most of Siena looks alike: narrow, winding medieval streets climbing up and down hills and wrapping around brown and red brick buildings with arches and side alleys everywhere. The color sienna comes by its name honestly: Much of the city is that reddish-brown color. There’s less to look at than in Florence, but at the same time I feel it would be harder to get to know one’s way around and easier to get lost.
Siena’s cathedral, though, is as magnificent as that of Florence, at least externally. Ironically, since it’s Sunday morning there are Masses being said and we can’t tour inside (we’ll be celebrating Mass in Assisi). Here too there is an immense stand-alone baptistery far bigger than many large churches, though instead of being positioned in the piazza facing the cathedral entrance it’s on the opposite side, down the hill off the sanctuary.
We’ve arrived in Siena on the eve of what is effectively the local World Cup or Super Bowl: the Palio di Siena, a horse race held in the Piazza del Campo. Tons of sand have been trucked in to make the race track; immediately after the race it will all be trucked away. The race divides the town into districts which all root against each other. We see a parade of marchers in brightly colored medieval costumes drumming and flying the colors of their district. The Palio is a big deal.
After lunch we return to the bus for Assisi, or rather for the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi, which houses the Porziuncula, a tiny church with historical ties to St. Francis. Unlike other shrines and basilicas built on the site of historic older churches, Santa Maria has not buried the Porziuncula; it’s still accessible, right in the middle of the nave. It’s simply been swallowed whole by the enormous basilica. This Santa Maria is less elaborately festooned on the outside than the massive churches of Florence and Siena, but it’s far richer inside than anything we’ve seen so far.
Inside the tiny Porziuncula a group of Franciscans are worshiping in song. We listen for a few minutes before being called to Mass. Sarah is pleased to note that we will be attending Sunday Mass at exactly the same time as the rest of our family in New Jersey; our 4pm Mass begins more or less at the same time as the 10am EDT Mass at St. John’s in Orange, New Jersey.
Instead of a side chapel off the nave, we are led down a narrow, low stone passageway to a very small, very simple room with rough, unfinished rock walls and a low roof of rough-hewn beams and slats. The benches are similarly plain, and the altar is rough stone. A painted wooden panel depicting St. Francis adorns the wall behind the altar. It’s perfect: St. Francis would approve. The space is tiny—almost too tiny for our group. Before long someone concludes that it is too tiny, and we’re moved to a space that is also small and humble, but a bit wider, with painted brick arches rather than stone and wood.
After Mass, we arrive at our hotel in Assisi. Opening the tall, wide double windows and wooden shutters, I’m surprised to discover a broad rooftop veranda outside our room. I step out amid bells pealing in all directions. It’s six o’clock. Overhead, thick clouds of swallows dart every which way under an immense Umbrian sky. Below (Assisi is perched on a hillside) lies the whole countryside. The bells are still ringing as Sarah breaks open the laptop on the veranda to begin journaling some of the day’s events. Over her shoulder the sun slowly sinks. It’s a magical, perfect moment.
After supper, Sarah and I take a short walking tour of Assisi as the sunlight fades. One of our fellow pilgrims, returning from a walk, likens the city to Minas Tirith, and we see why. The city isn’t exactly built in tiers, but there is level upon level, with most streets cutting diagonally up or down the slope. Francis and the saints are everywhere we look: frescoes in alcoves or under arches, mosaics, monasteries and convents.
As darkness falls we hear singing coming from one religious house. I try the glass door. It’s locked, but a woman comes and opens it expectantly. Seeing that we’re just stopping by, she shakes her head politely and carefully says: “No visitors.” As simply as possible, I indicate that we were intrigued by the singing. She hesitates, then says: “Un minuto.” She points to a door. We enter as unobtrusively as possible and find a group of nuns kneeling in worship while one plays an organ. We kneel at the back of the church. Almost exactly a minute later, the lights abruptly go out. Grateful, we take that as our cue to leave.
And so I come to Monday morning on the veranda. Later today: The rest of our Assisi trip and arrival in Rome. I feel sure the best is yet to come.
(Note: I’ll add photos as appropriate on my return.)
* I think. And that goes for anything in in this post series any way technical or specialized in the way of architecture, history, or, you know, Italian stuff. I’m not an expert and I may get things wrong. If so, please correct me! Thanks.