Saturday, June 1, 2013

Italy: The Bells of the Duomo

For most of my life, I have encountered Grand and Historical Works of Art in one of two ways: through museums or in books. While seeing a painting in person is far more vivid than studying its replica in a book, both settings can create an artificial context for a work. Perhaps the gallery imposes a certain perimeter of white space around the painting, or the textbook offers an explanatory gloss under the picture of a famous statue. Often, these new contexts help a visitor make sense of a work. Furthermore,  gallery collections and mechanical reproduction allow far more people to experience important works than would otherwise have access to them.

Museums and books also tend to organize works of art into sensible narratives. Perhaps I study the doors of the Baptistery of St. John in a chapter on "The Birth of the Renaissance," or I see Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" not in the Medici country villa where it originally hung, but in a gallery room full of other Botticelli paintings. I can look at the work, place it in the story, and move on. Or I can choose not to study it at all. I can close the book, turn away from the gallery.

The most moving works of art I saw in Florence, however, upset my typical experiences with art, context, and choice. On our first day in Florence, my friends and I had an excellent guide who took us on a walk through the city. Our plan was to see the famous works of the Uffiizi and Accademia galleries the next day. The day was low and cloudy, threatening rain. Towards the end of our walk, we were strolling down a busy Florentine street, savoring cones of gelato and talking about something utterly unrelated to the Renaissance or to art history.

We turned a corner, and suddenly a mountain of pink and green marble soared up in front of us. Or so it seemed. As it happened, we had taken a back street to the Duomo, Florence's mighty basilica, with a dome that shapes the city's skyline, if you look from a distance.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

The breadth and height of the Duomo, approached from such a near angle, crushed any sense of consoling distance. This was no gallery piece, no flattened photograph in a hand-held book. It was a standing, as it had stood for hundreds of years, bearing witness to God's glory, human genius, Florentine wealth, political history, Catholic theology, and more. Our guide was saying something about the marble, local quarries, Brunelleschi, but I heard little, for as we stood at the foot of the bell tower , bells began to ring. These were not like the sweet Methodist bells of my neighborhood, but powerful, unrelenting tones.

The bell tower

Hearing those bells was the only time in Italy I cried. I think it is because they eradicated any lingering distance between me and the object I had come to contemplate. They knocked down the white walls of my mind's gallery, ringing me into a living city, with a vast, beautiful, complicated church at its center.

The marble of the Duomo

The weight, the nearness of the massive church almost offended me. How dare it surprise me like this? How dare it stand there, presuming upon my reverence? Reeling from this offense, I was shocked to realize how much of my appreciation for beauty depends upon my own ability to choose. What picture shall I hang on my wall? Which room in the museum shall I visit? Which picture will I study from the book? The Duomo gave me no such choice. Either I could encounter it on its own terms, or I must leave the city and all it stood for.

And how did I respond? I wept when the bells rang, for it sounded as though they were calling all the world to prayer. And the next day, after a morning in tourist-thronged galleries, we returned to the Duomo and attended mass. Though I am not Catholic, I have attend various masses with friends, and my knowledge of Latin helped me follow along, dimly, with the prayers, scriptures, and songs. Like so many medieval Christians, I worshipped and prayed without understanding, in my own tongue, exactly what was happening. Nevertheless, attending mass in the Duomo helped reconcile me to the astounding beauty of the place. No longer was the Duomo a  Grand and Historical Work of Art I was trying to "appreciate," but a church in which I worshipped. In a humble, stumbling way, I went from being a spectator to a participant.

For the rest of our time in Florence, I always waited for and heard the bells of the Duomo with joy.


  1. I was in Florence and taking a picture of the baptistery next to the Duomo. I turned around and my college choir was gone and replaced with an Italian crowd. I suddenly realized that I was lost in a foreign city and didn't remember my hotel. I went into boyscout mode and triangulated the river. I went to the Ponte Vecchio and followed the river and actually beat the choir back.

    1. Well done! Rivers are such helpful navigation guides. While we were staying in Rome, our hostel was right on the Tiber, and that made finding our way so much easier.