Listening to the Frescoes

Nobody ever says, “I think I’ll go to Italy and listen to some amateur music performances.” Which is too bad, really. Some of the nicest moments I’ve had thus far have been from listening when I was supposed to be looking or standing in line.

My first night of flying solo, I went to a tiny chapel on the other side of the river in Florence to hear some arias, an event that was certainly touted to tourists because all the other audience members were families with kids and women with sunglasses and backpacks late in the evening. The room was tiny and instead of an altar there was a baby grand piano. (Mmmm). The soloist did no speaking, of course, relying on the accompanist’s Italian equivalent of Spanglish to relay the program to us. The singer was good. Not great, but so animated as to make up the difference. She played the diva when the music suggested it, and other times she interacted with the listeners–chastising kids or flirting with men. It was four hundred degrees in that chapel, but the performance was one of camaraderie that the art alone could not have conveyed. On the way back to my hotel, I ate granita and hummed a little Puccini to myself, looking over the Arno and feeling like I had accomplished something.

Early this morning I awoke to a chorus of three church bells in S. Pietro of Assisi (followed by quite a few others in the hills) and went directly after breakfast to explore the interior. There I contemplated how I’ve never fully appreciated Romanesque architecture until this week. Yes, I know I taught it last year. Yes, I know medievalists are supposed to inherently like that sort of thing. And I do have an intense appreciation for the soft, sturdy proportions as well as the majesty and humanity conveyed in the masonry of early medieval structures. But a German tour group singing underneath the dome this morning made that ethereal echo all the more apparent. Medieval acoustics are one of the great achievements of mankind.

Later this afternoon in the lower basilica of S. Francis of Assisi, I was minding my own business and still got kicked out of a chapel by a priest. Baffled, I slunk away feeling deflated until I saw several nicely dressed men carrying in a casket. Oh. And as I went to other chapels and even  into the renovation area, the services proceeded, open to the buzzing activity of the shrine but isolated in spirit. At the end of the service the tiny group paying its respects sang a hymn and it carried throughout the entire structure. The funeral was as weirdly populated as anything I have ever seen–quite a few nuns, several priests behind the altar, nicely dressed elderly town residents, camera-toting tourists, and a guy with a backpack wearing a Foo Fighters t-shirt. As the a cappella melody of this diverse bunch built up in confidence and conviction, it soared. It soared underneath the Giottos and Simoni Martinis and vaults and down into the crypt. It carried to the doorways where pilgrims paused to listen as they strained to acclimate after the bright sunlight outdoors. It was the music, elevated by the frescoes and the medieval acoustics, that enabled that strange collection of people to give the departed stranger the nicest send-off possible.

In terms of my research and job I am here to look at art. But today I am happy to meditate on the fact that medieval visual art is (metaphorically) a little flat without the potency of incense or the concrete brutality of a hardwood kneeling bench or the hypnotizing drone of a chant.

After I wheeled my suitcase from the bus stop up the steep hill to my hotel, the conceirge informed me that my room had "the water coming down" and I would have to stay in an alternate location. Before I could work up an acceptably dramatic protest, I caught the phrase "quattro stella" and was upgraded to a room in Hotel Giotto with cozy slippers and this view.

A statue commemorating Saint Francis in Assisi. He is remembered for tolerance and kindness to animals. No wonder the tiny town in the Umbrian hillside has such a peaceful energy.

The church dedicated to the memory of Saint Francis in Assisi.



3 thoughts on “Listening to the Frescoes

  1. I really love these posts! I remember being at the Louvre last summer and watching as throngs of tourists crowded around the Mona Lisa, all pushing and shoving to take photos with their cell phones. It was hard to find the magic after witnessing that, but you’re right — it is important to realize that it’s still magic! Of course, it’s the unexpected moments, like your beautiful account of this person’s funeral, that you will remember forever.

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