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Day of the Dead at San Miniato 14/07/2011

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c. 1890

Nov 2 From five o’clock in the morning the bells of the many churches of Florence have been ringing, as numberless masses for the dead are said to-day, it being the Festa di Tutti Morti. The religious duties within the city being performed, the city turns out en masse, to make its yearly pilgrimage to the cemetery at San Miniato. Struck with the peculiarly jovial aspect of the crowd, and the contrast of their festal dresses to the melancholy errand on which they were supposed to be bent tomourn and pray over the tombs of departed relatives we too prepare to do as Florence does, and start forthwith to see how the dead are remembered by the living, in the ‘city of flowers’.

The bridges over the Arnoare crowded by a continuous stream of people all turned towards the cypress-crowned hill on the Oltr’Arno side, where the grand old basilica of San Miniato rises white and majestic on the summit. A motley crowd streams over the bridges and through the quaint streets. There are dark-faced Italian employes, evidently enjoying an unwonted holiday; groups of brighteyed Florentine maidens, in ultra-fashionable dress, and the inevitable duenna behind them; little knots of black-robed priests with shovel hats, who walk with folded hands and severe eyes; blue-coated soldiers, or bersaglieri, with flying cocks’ feathers. Then comes a family party from the country, a brownfaced peasant with his little boy on his shoulder, and wife at his side, gay in red or yellow kerchief, and carrying in her arms a stiff little bundle, the moving head and arms of which, protruding from the top, proclaim it a baby. Behind them a cluster of contadini girls in the brightest of dresses, and with all their festal jewellery displayed some wearing seven or eight rows of pearls round their necks, and earrings of enormous size. These jewels form their dote or marriage portion, and descend from mother to daughter through many generations. Mingling with this motley company are a few black figures, widows and mothers of the dead, carrying wreaths or crosses of immortelles, or long candles to burn on their tombs.

These few dark spots on the mass of motion and colour give the key-note to the day. To them the day of the dead is a sacred feast, hallowed by love and grief, a day passed in memories of the happy time when those whom they go to mourn were walking in life and health by their side. But we cannot grieve for ever, and the new mourners are but few among the many on this bright November day. Some children are dancing merrily along with rings of everlastings in their hands inscribed ‘To my Brother’, or ‘Sister mine’, and they evidently think themselves favoured beyond their little friends who have no wreaths. One child just in front of us says to another, ‘Who is your garland for’. ‘For my aunt’. ‘Ah!’ replies the first, ‘mine is more than that, it is for my own mamma’. And she displays in evident pride a hard yellow garland, with ‘Madre mia’ written on it in black immortelles.

Here and there rolls by the carriage of a Contessa or Marchesa carrying her to the Requiem Mass; and walking slowly are some bare-footed Franciscan friars, and one or two members of different sisterhoods in white wimples, with rosaries in their clasped hands.

On winds the gathering stream through the narrow streets, out under the dark arches of the Porta San Miniato and up the steep hill, called the Via Crucis, which leads to the great cemetery. It is bordered at intervals with shrines of the seven stations, at each of which devout Catholics say a prayer. This morning every shrine is crowded by beggars, who collect from all parts for this day. There are blind beggars, lame, dumb, deaf, and dwarf beggars; beggars without legs who have a peculiarly swift and original mode of locomotion; beggars begging for themselves, and some begging for other beggars.

On the summit of the Via Crucis are two churches. The smaller, the church of the Franciscan Friars, with their convent adjoining, on whose door-step may generally be seen a group of poor people bringing their empty platters to get them filled for a meal by the monks. Higher up stands the great basilica of San Miniato, with its inlaid marble front and glittering mosaic with gold ground, which is improved from an ancient Lombard building erected by the Emperor Henry II. and his wife, Cunegonda, in 1013. To reach this we enter a dark gateway, roofed over and adorned with several large iron extinguishers. This is the ancient lych-gate where the bearers rested the bier and the extinguishers were, and are even now, used to put out the torches of the funeral processions. We pass out into the precincts of the cemetery and enter the great church by the Porta Santa, so called because the body of the martyr S. Miniato was discovered herein, and the dedication of Cunegonda’s church was changed and took his name instead of St. Peter’s.

One’s first impression was of a surging crowd swaying about in dangerous proximity to lighted candles, for the floor is strewn with tombstones, and on all these are wreaths and burning tapers. The crowd takes care of itself, and as nobody dreams of pushing, one’s fears of conflagration wear off in time and we dare to cast our eyes around. The church is magnificent in form and design. Two rows of marble columnssupport the nave and aisles; at the east end two flights of marble steps lead to the upper tribune, and a wide stairway descends to the crypt beneath, which has remains of the ancientLombardarchitecture. On the tribune is a wonderful ‘ambone’ in carved marble, with the exquisite colours of ‘purple antique’, the most rare of ancient marbles. The dome of the tribune is covered with a fine gold-grounded mosaic of Christ with St. John, St. Matthew, and San Miniato, dating from the eleventh century; and beneath this five windows of thin slabs of Oriental alabaster, through which the light of the morning sun passes with a soft opaque radiance.

The choir in the tribune is filled with priests and choristers in their carved oak stalls, and they respond in deep harmonies to the priests in gorgeous robes performing the mass for the dead at the high altar. There is a very busy little acolyte who seems to think himself, the chief performer, and on the step of the very altar kneels a poor woman, who continually crosses herself, and when the priest moves near her she takes the hem of his garment and softly kisses it. We are touched at the sight with the memory of another woman in the days when Christ was on the earth, and wonder has this poor creature come here for healing by faith too.

In the crypt or under church are many relics; the tombs of S. Miniato and other martyrs are there, and a niche in the wall contains the blood of some martyrs. In the left aisle there is a certain chapel which contains a changing crowd the whole day. Here is the tomb of Cardinal Jacopo di Portugallo, and his episcopal chair. The tomb is the work of Rossellino, and very exquisite sculpture it is; the chapel is decorated with lovely blue and white medallions by Luca della Robbia. But the general crowd does not give its attention to these masterpieces it is entirely directed to the chair of inlaid marble, which every one who comes in kneels and kisses; some seat themselves solemnly in it for a moment, with hands in the attitude of prayer. We ask a man why this should be. He rubbed his head and shrugged his shoulders, but did not exactly know, only ‘twas a holy relic. A woman was better informed, and she told us that a prayer or a kiss offered there gave the penitent so many days’ indulgence, i.e., so many days off the time allotted to purgatory after death.

The mass is over, the organ has ceased rolling its waves of sound through the arches, the crowd in the nave gently parts asunder, and the whole mass of priests, acolytes, choristers, &c., bearing lighted candles, passes in procession down the steps, through the nave, and out at the Porta Santa to walk through the cemetery. Their chanting voices ring out on the clear air from the cypress-crowned hill, and mingle with the worldly sounds and the tolling of bells which come up from the city, whose towers and domes are gleaming down below across the glittering Arno.

It is so old-world and artistic, that one might make a poem of it were it not so marred by the littleness of humanity mingling with all. The bare-headed priests chant and pray for peace to the souls of the dead, who lie so silent beneath the sod on all sides of them; and the atoms of living humanity called boys go side by side with the solemn procession, fighting each other over the wax which drops from the candles as they pass by.

One little bully frightens away a girl whose hand is held beneath a guttering taper, and then takes the very piece of falling wax for himself. Chief amongst them is the energetic little acolyte, who with a solemn face possesses himself of wax right and left, hides it all in the breast of his full white ephod, and folds his hands devoutly over. The whole wide cemetery is full of people. On the inscribed slabs which form a pavement on each side of the path are mourners kneeling and praying amid the lighted candles flickering in the wind, and the efforts to keep these alight, alternate spasmodically with the fervency of their prayers. Every grave is decorated according to the taste of the mourners, some with real flowers, exquisite but fleeting; the greater number choose a more lasting, if inartistic, form of expression, and hang up frightful bead frames or hard rings of yellow and black everlastings; some put a ghastly framed photograph; and a favourite adornment is a iron imitation flower, painted, in an iron pot. Tinted wreaths of flowers in tin are also frequent. Great variety exists also in the monuments, among which there is a good deal of sculptural art.

There is a terrace raised up over the colombaria, or graves in wall cells, and from here a marvellous view of the whole cemetery, with its surging crowd of priests and processions; vendors of cakes, sweets, and cigars; girls with mass books and rosaries in one hand, fruit in the other; weeping mourners, and jesting young men; bereaved mothers and wives bewailing for those who are hidden from them by the cruel marble slab; and light-hearted girls with all their thoughts warm for the hopes of the future love. Life and death, and death and life, contrasted side by side in a hundred different guises. And down below the hill of the dead, beautiful Florence, with the bridge-spanned Arno flowing amidst its towers and palaces. And that, too, speaks of death and life a nation has died, and a new nation is growing to strength and power. And farther off are the mountains, veiled in golden mist, which seem to speak of the everlasting.

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