Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Been to the Monte top

Today I visited the Church of San Miniato el Monte. Yes, I know: "saint WHO?" In fact, Saint Minias is Florence's first, and apparently only, Christian martyr, in the specific sense of someone who was put to death because he refused to renounce his belief in Jesus Christ. We don't know much about him. He may have been either Armenian or Syrian, a soldier or a cloth merchant. (Historians now tend to believe that the first Christians in the vicinity of the ancient Roman colony that became Florence were from those regions of the Empire.) He was beheaded on an October 25th, in the mid 3rd century, during the reign of the Emperor Decius (249-51). According to legend, he picked up his head, crossed over the Arno, and climbed up the high hill where his church now stands before finally calling it quits. He certainly picked a nice spot to await the Resurrection! It offers the best view of Florence, bar none. I've included a video to try to illustrate that claim (check above), but alas, I chose the only gloomy day of my stay so far to go there! If I go back on a brighter day, I'll replace this.

I say "if I go back" because, lovely as the church is, it is a very serious hike to get there! I stopped counting after the 250th steep step; there may have been 100 more after that. And the steps started after a half hour walk, largely uphill, from the Ponte Vecchio! For a man in my current, um, condition (which my ever-lovin' doctors keep reminding me is, technically speaking, one of "morbid obesity"), going to San Miniato by foot is not a decision to be taken lightly.

But even though I occasionally wondered if would survive the climb, the temptation to return tomorrow is great. It's that beautiful. A church was built on the site shortly after St Minias laid down his weary bones there, but the current structure dates only (only!) from the year 1018. That, anyway, is the year construction was begun; it took about 190 years to complete! The interior took even longer than that to finish.

The Church is remarkable for its perfect Romanesque facade, in green and white marble, with its main entrance crowned by an Italo-Byzantine mosaic of great vibrancy. The interior is splendid in every detail: the intricately designed marble floor; the columns with their capitals (decorative top portions) recycled from buildings of Florence's Roman past; the way the space incorporates three levels - the main nave, the presbytery/sanctuary 3 meters above, and a crypt chapel containing the relics of the saint a few meters below the nave and directly beneath the sanctuary - in a fluid and natural manner; the chapel, under a stone canopy, commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, grandfather of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the early 1400's, boldly but effectively positioned in the center of the Church, at the end of the nave; and the spectacular mosaic of the Enthroned Christ, flanked by the Theotokos and St Minias and surrounded by the Four Evangelists, represented as Angel (Matthew), Lion (Mark), Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). I've put up a video of the interior, which is unfortunately very dark. You can only turn on lights at certain areas, and for 5 minutes at a time, and for 1 euro each time. I didn't have any coins on me. (I'd used them all on bottled water along the way up.)

To the right of the upper-level presbytery is a sacristy, a room where the clergy would vest for worship services. It was decorated with the most amazing frescoes I've seen here so far, depicting the life of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western Christian monasticism. Most of the incidents - and there were quite a few - seem to involve miracles, and I had no idea of the stories being illustrated, but the style was so charming, so energetic, so cartoony even, that I would happily go back just to spend more time with them. The artist, Spinello Aretino, was a student of Giotto, and though he clearly owes a lot to his master he certainly deserves to be better known than he is, if only for this one wonderful room. Unfortunately, I took no pictures or video, but if you google his wikipedia entry and click on the illustration, you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about. Check out, for instance, the horses' heads, the way the robes fall on the monks, the face of St Benedict, and tell me this isn't vital stuff: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinello_Aretino

The small monastic community connected to the Church - I think they're Benedictines - worship in the Saint's crypt every day in the late afternoon, using Gothic chant. I would have had to wait 3 hours if I wanted to experience that, or go and come back, which certainly wasn't going to happen, given the degree of my exhaustion, so there's another reason for me to return. Because I really have to. It's just that beautiful.

VIDEO POSTSCRIPT: In the clip of the exterior, I mention that the two little cemetery areas date from the 1840s. The correct date is actually 1865. Of the famous Italian people buried there, the only one who meant anything to me was the author of "Pinocchio."


Agape said...

Wow, that is some walk with out your head! A few more trips like that and you will be getting in shape in no time. Certainly, sounds worth the effort! Thank you for all the wonderful history lessons; I am enjoying them.

nixatron said...

The softened lines of the St. Benedict icon are almost "Macedonian." Quite remarkable and beautifully done.

Trinitarian said...

Presbytera Eleni and I went to this monastery while on our honeymoon in '94. We went for the gregorian chanting (which did not disappoint) and stumbled across the simple beauty of the place and especially the view. Do include another trip here as part of your new "diet and exercise plan", while you feast on the culture and history.