Robin Blount: ecumenical notes, cruise ship chaplaincy and lots more

Florence

19 April 2022

We recently spent a week in Florence with Diane and Bruno. Diane was in the same class as Lesley in secondary school, Bruno is Italian; they live near Hereford and they have an apartment in Florence.

We were tourists, so we explored the popular places. Tourists write travelogues, so here's ours! We went to Siena, a fascinating city. The streets are narrow, twisty and endlessly up-and-down. Hilly?? From the railway station there are successively six escalators and two travelators just to take folk up to town level. From there, nothing seems level. The town is built on three hills, which explains why streets are continuously narrow, curved and lumpy. The amazing Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped town square is the focal point of the town, but the cathedral has the highest spot. Chances are that it, like other churches, would charge for tourists so we didn't climb the hill to see it.

We also went to Pisa to see the torre pendente, the bell tower of the cathedral next to it. Again, we thought we might go into the cathedral but the welcome (?) from the official at the entrance rather put us off. It was a beautiful sunny day and folk were taking advantage of the "green lawn grass" as a notice had it. The notice went on to describe lavishly the three buildings as a "SINGLE DESIGN CONCEPT, a symbol of Christian allegory, of a dialogue between heaven and earth, and they outline A STYLE developed in maritime Pisa resulting from the encounter of different peoples, cultures and languages" - whatever that means! The tower itself is beautiful and quite astonishing. Apparently it began to lean during construction in the 11th century, worsened in the 14th century and was stabilised at the end of the 1900s and the lean reduced from 5·5° to 3·97°. It still looks unstable!

You cannot visit Florence - or probably any other Italian city - without being struck by the number of church buildings. They are often quite enormous, with towers easy to spot from the many hilltops around the city. Bells ring from church towers, some at rather odd times. bing bong, bing bong...

So we visited the cathedral in Florence, an enormous building and very gloomy inside. It really was quite dark and echoey-quiet. And unlike many other churches and cathedrals we've visited, we found nothing to explain its history or its purpose. It was just a large empty space. To be fair, the ceiling was beautiful and the stained glass wonderful. But it left me saddened, that people who visited the building without much idea of what a cathedral is for would leave as ignorant as they were when they went in.

We might have expected guides, information, even a shop selling religious tat. Our cathedrals have all those. But apart from officials making sure we were masked, we saw no-one to answer questions and nothing to suggest that questions might be asked.

In true catholic style, there was a large crucifix over the altar. I was struck by the thought that this seemed like a temple to a dead god - there was nothing that suggested to me that the Christian faith was about living life in all its fullness - nothing to suggest a living hope in the midst of so much hopelessness. It was as if Jesus was still on that cross, nailed to a story that has become a tradition, and a tradition that must not be challenged and cannot be refreshed. Coming up to Easter, I wondered if the celebration of resurrection, which undoubtedly would appear then, would fade away on Easter Monday. It all seems so far away from the simplicity of Jesus and his message.

I wonder what he would say...

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