Saturday, July 27, 2013

Italy: Santa Margherita de' Cerchi

By the time we found this tiny church, we had already seen many of Florence's grandest sights: Michaelangel's David;  the masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery; the soaring Duomo; and beautiful Santa Croce, housing the graves of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Dante. Like so many things in Italy, these glorious works towered over us physically and historically, demanding our attention, even reverence.

Santa Margherita, on the other hand, nearly eluded us. We were threading through a narrow alley, looking for a museum about Dante, when a tablet with some English writing caught my eye.


Without the sign, the doors to the church would have looked like any number of doors leading into courtyards, little shops, or up to flats and galleries.  Once I realized what I was seeing, however, I understood that this was a place I would have been very sorry to miss.

Tradition says that in this church, Dante Alighieri saw Beatrice Portinari for the first time. Some historians apparently contest this claim, but the church, which goes back at least to the year 1032, was undisputedly the parish church of Beatrice's family, and she is buried here.

If you haven't read Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Beatrice inspires Dante's journey toward heavenly revelation, my little blog entry isn't going to do much toward convincing you why stumbling into this church was such a humbling serendipity.

But maybe, maybe I can put it like this: so much of what I saw in Italy was magnificent, built by men of genius for the glory of God. Those buildings moved me to worship, and I hope that the stones of Santa Croce, St. Peter's, and the Duomo stand for centuries to come. And yet, in the Divine Comedy, Dante takes his readers higher than the tallest dome, and his visionary words about justice, mercy, and beatitude have rung longer and farther than the loudest church-bells in Florence. And Beatrice, who captured Dante's heart when she was barely nine years old, and who died when she was only twenty-four, is buried in a little parish church, tucked away on one of Florence's narrowest streets.

The memory of this church has served me well since I returned to the states to my little life: my house with its daily chores and company; my work, meaningful but hardly grand; my beloved little streets and neighborhood. Finding Santa Margherita reminded me that sometimes, the best stories take root in such small and hidden places.

How many places like this have I missed in my tours and travels? How many do I miss as I go about my daily work?

If I keep my eyes open, how many other doors in shadowed walls will lead to a benediction?



Gustave DorĂ©'s illustration to Dante's Inferno. Plate VII: Canto II: "Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go" (Longfellow's translation). This image is in the public domain.