Sunday, October 19, 2008

Introducing the present-day Greeks of Florence

I attended the Divine Liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Church of St Iakovos, the Brother of the Lord. The church is a few minutes walk from my apartment: cross the Ponte Vecchio, take the first right (on via San Jacopo, no less!), and walk for 3 minutes. It's on the right. I took a video from a few seconds before I turned on to the Ponte Vecchio until I reached the Church: it's up above somewhere, or go to (I don't own a steadycam so you may want to take a couple of dramamine first. If you're going to watch it, be sure to click on the "view in high quality" option, in blue on the bottom right corner of the video; otherwise it's unwatchable. I pause midway across the bridge to take in the views of the Arno, the only place from you realize you're on a bridge and not just a street; it's lined on both sides with gold and jewelry shops. First I look westward and then towards the east, pausing to show a monument to its architect. I also take a second to look around a bit before turning onto San Jacopo. You might also want to turn the sound way down, as I huff and puff a lot.)

The Greek community has only been worshipping in this particular space since June of '06, but the building itself is centuries old. It is attached to what was a convent dedicated to St Iakovos that was established in the mid 1000s; hence, the name of the street. The present church building isn't as old as all that. It only dates from around 1630, although the facade comes from an older, Romanesque church. The interior, alas, is pure Baroque, among my least favorite architectural styles. (So much decoration, so little substance!) The community has done a nice job of converting the space to meet Orthodox liturgical needs, although that may not be evident from the clip.

The parish priest, Fr Nikolaos Papadopoulos, is a 36-year-old hieromonk who came to Italy several years ago, as a layman, with plans to study veterinary science and return to Greece but who ended up staying on as a priest. He was ordained six years ago and serves three other parishes in nearby Tuscan towns during the week. His Sunday Liturgy is always in Florence. I took a brief video of the Great Entrance from behind the iconostasis: check above or go to (It's much shorter and slightly better quality, but there was hardly any light.)

There were less than 30 people in attendance today, but the great majority of them were under 30 years old. According to Fr Nikolaos, there are about 1500 Greeks studying here, and his normal Sunday attendance is closer to 100. He suspects many of the regulars chose to skip today because they plan to come later in the week, when the parish celebrates its feastday. I'll let you know if he's right! The liturgical language was almost exclusively Greek; a couple of brief litanies were in Italian. According to Fr. Nikolaos, there's no need for Holy Scripture to be read in Italian as well as Greek, as it isn't the native tongue of anyone present. After the Liturgy, which was very nicely chanted by a Greek studying physics, Fr Nikolaos and I went for coffee with about a dozen of them. We discussed, for the most part, American politics. They wondered if Americans are mature enough to elect a person of color to the Presidency. I assured them we most certainly are - at least, those of us who live in on the coasts and have proper educations are!

Fr Nikolaos also told me that there are no native Greek-Italians; I mean, there are, but they're all still children. The community is made up almost exclusively of students and former students who stayed behind because they married Italians. I met a lovely Burmese woman who was raised in England, came here to study, and ended up marrying a Greek student who wanted to stay here! she converted to Orthodoxy and was in Church with her mother-in-law (visiting from Greece) and her perfectly behaved 10-month-old son, Georgios. (His is the most recent of the 15 baptisms Fr Nikolaos has performed over the past 28 months.) I mentioned to her (I think her name is Veronica or Victoria) that, while in Oxford, I lived down the street from Burmese peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi (who was under house arrest in Burma even back then) and had had the pleasure of dining with her husband. Of course, it turned out that she knew him well. (He was an Englishman named Michael who passed away a few years ago, while his wife was still under arrest.) It's such a small Burmese world!

There are other Orthodox communities here. The Russians have been here for a while and are said to have a beautiful church (cathedral? I'm not sure) but I haven't found it yet; I'll let you know when I do. I also hear there are some newly-established Romanian storefront churches, to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing community of immigrants from that country.

I've noticed that Byzantine icons are voguish here. They're prominently displayed at every religious goods store I've passed so far, along with much sappier neo-Catholic religious art. Ironically, the most popular Byzantine image by far is one that you'd never find in a traditionally Orthodox country: the Holy Family - Saint Joseph, together with the Theotokos, holding the Christ Child in their arms.

I titled this post the way I did because the Greeks of Florence actually have a long and important history, which I'll get to soon.


Agape said...

That's really all very interesting. I miss going to the various diaspora churches in Europe....we used to do this with every city we hit. Today, I was just thinking about icon styles, too, that is funny that you would mention that. Also, I wanted to suggest- since you don't have internet service in the flat you could prepare your blogs on word and then copy and paste them at the cafe, to save on time.

Charles said...

Thanks for describing your experiences with the Greek Orthodox community in Florence Bishop Sava. Would never have known it exists if not for your first hand account.