Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

Mass Tourism – Florence

Posted by universalis on 19 July 2006

I don’t trust Mass-spotters – those people who collect Masses just for the sake of it, accumulating variations in vestments, ritual, and so on. They have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. They are treating a sacred Act as an object of study.

I am reminded of the hero of Patrice Leconte’s film “Ridicule”, whose entire future in Louis XIV’s court at Versailles hangs on a single engineered “chance” meeting with the King. “They tell me you can make an epigram on any subject” says the King. The courtier looks humbly at the ground. “Let me see you at work,” the King adds. “Make me an epigram on… Make an epigram about Me”. We hold our breath. The courtier gives a diffident glance up at his lord. “But, Sire – a King is not a subject”.

The King of Heaven is not a subject; and his banquets are not there for us to give Michelin stars to them.

But I was young and I didn’t know any better. I was travelling round Italy with a schoolfriend and a friend of his, a seminarian who had written a definitive Good Mass Guide for Cambridge indicating with different colours of ink the language, music, speed, and whether coffee was offered afterwards. My friend was one of those people who dazzle their schoolfellows with their sophistication – in his case, through Frenchness, the Proustian family photographs on the walls of his room, and his knowledge of the Baroque. It takes very little culture to dazzle a 17-year-old schoolboy.

We travelled economically through Italy, staying in high-ceilinged gleaming marble one-star hotels with grand names like “Albergo Atlantic” and eating cheaply and well in tiny one-room restaurants in the red-light district of Naples (the lights are lilac, not red, and serve to illuminate shrines of the Madonna). It was Easter and we were in Rome for Maundy Thursday Mass at St Peter’s and the Stations of the Cross led by the Pope at the Colosseum; then on to Florence in time for Easter Sunday.

I liked Florence Cathedral. I liked it probably for the wrong reasons. I know it’s a masterpiece of… whatever period it’s a masterpiece of. I know that the dome is a miracle of engineering, that it was the largest dome built since the Pantheon and remained the largest until the 20th century. But what I really liked about the cathedral was the striped black and white stone exterior that made it look as if it was wearing pyjamas.

Inside, by contrast with the outside, it was cool and calm and sparse and grey. We had come because someone had told my friends that at the Gloria on Easter Sunday a dove flies out from the sanctuary and ignites a pile of fireworks in the square outside, commemorating some great patriotic Italian event. This seemed to them to be a good enough excuse for going to Mass even though we’d already been to the Easter Vigil, and I was young and biddable and so I went along too.

The cathedral was packed: barriers kept people away from a broad path down the centre of the nave. The Mass began as Masses do. Then the cantor intoned

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Our informants had neglected to tell us one crucial detail. The dove that flew out from the sanctuary to light the fireworks was an eight-engined jet-propelled dove. It shot out along a wire that led down the length of the nave. There was a bang as it hit the cart of fireworks, and it shot back along the wire and hit the pole that had been erected for it in the sanctuary, with a crash and a shower of sparks. (Apparently if it doesn’t make it all the way back then this is a terrible omen for the city).
There was dead silence in the church and the crowd for the space of fifteen seconds; and the fireworks began.

Being half way up the nave of a cathedral does not place one well for giving an accurate description of a firework display, and in any case listening to a description of someone else’s fireworks is about as interesting as listening to a description of someone else’s dreams. Suffice it to say that it was noisy. The noise reverberated through the cathedral, the sparseness of whose interior made it an excellent echo chamber. Every time one thought “no, this cannot get any louder”, it did. The subtleties of the display itself inevitably escaped us, but from the flashes of red, white and green light that hit us from time to time we could tell that it must have been a very patriotic one.

Eventually it finished, and again there was silence, broken only by the crying of frightened children. People started leaving and continued leaving until the church was practically empty. Then the cantor continued:

Et in terra pax…

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One Response to “Mass Tourism – Florence”

  1. Lucie Johnson said

    Good story.
    It seems the frosting got in the way of the cake…

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