Even the silliest of books have their moments of sagacity, and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of spirituality and sexuality, “Eat, Pray, Love,” that moment comes early on.
During Gilbert’s stay in Italy, a friend theorizes that every city in the country has a word with which the essence of the city can be summed up. Rome’s word, he posited, is “sex” (debatable), Naples’ word is “fight” (not debatable).
And what about Florence? What about the city of Michelangelo, Galileo and Botticelli?
Its word, most arguably, is “beauty.” After all, the ancient Italian city is a veritable shrine to loveliness, with people flocking to pay homage to the beauty in its buildings, gardens, paintings and amazingly affordable leather boots.
They pay homage to beauty in the city’s churches, too. Architecturally, the churches are stunning. The works of art they contain without price. But for all that, many of those churches are not as beautiful as they ought to be. From them, something is missing.
That something (in many cases quite literally) is Christ.
The nature of beauty
Beauty, the Church holds, doesn’t simply exist for its own sake. It exists as a window to God. It’s meant to be transcendent, to point beyond itself to him. That’s why beauty teaches. That’s why it consoles. That’s why it heals. Because it contains within it glimpses of God.
That’s also why for the past 1,700 years, Catholics have poured their treasure into building beautiful churches and commissioning great works of art: to glorify in oil, stone and glass the God who is beauty and to proclaim his love to the faithful and unfaithful alike with echoes of his own loveliness.
Granted, lesser motives — power, competition, vanity — have also been at work. But ego was not the driving force behind two millennia of sacred art and architecture. The driving force was love of God.
You wouldn’t know that, however, from visiting many of Florence’s most famous churches today: Santa Maria Del Fiore, Santa Croce, San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella and more. Or, if you did know it, you wouldn’t necessarily experience it. Not fully. And that’s because the opportunity to encounter those churches’ beauty as it was meant to be encountered, as part of a combined witness of worship, prayer and devotion, is no longer there.
The Florentine dilemma
Ten years ago, the majority of churches in Florence began charging admission fees to tourists. The fees started out small, around 2 euros (about $2.45), but they’ve since risen to 4, 5, even 7 euros (about $8.50).
The reason given by the city (which owns the church buildings) and agreed to by the religious orders that run the churches is reasonable. There is a significant cost to maintaining large, old buildings. There is likewise a cost to preserving the works of art those churches contain. And with the heaviest traffic coming from tourists, not the ever-dwindling numbers of Mass-going Florentines, visitors should bear those costs.
For the Florentine authorities, the decision was simply good business. For the religious orders, it was that, plus an opportunity to secure greater respect for the sacred spaces.
“We had to do something,” Dominican Father Aldo Tarquini, then assistant prior of Santa Maria Novella, told Catholic News Service in 2001. “We’ve seen people come in on metal scooters and go around the church on them.”
Without tickets, he added, “opportunity for prayer wasn’t ensured, because people didn’t respect the place.”
Paying to pray
The intentions were good. The effects have been mixed.
On the one hand, the churches are better maintained. Unfortunately, prayer in the great cathedrals has become something of a rarity as well.
Today, if a visitor to Florence wants to pray without paying in the churches where St. Francis preached and Dante worshipped, he has two choices. He can attend Mass (usually offered in a side chapel with a separate entrance) or he can visit the small chapel reserved for private prayer (usually the same chapel where Mass is offered). In neither case, however, can he visit any other part of the church before or after. Ropes, doors and docents see to that. No tourists are permitted to slip into the Eucharistic chapels. No pilgrims are permitted slip out.
And as for prayer anywhere else inside Florence’s famous churches? Inside Santa Croce’s chapels, adorned with Giotto’s frescoes? Beneath the high altar of Santa Maria Novella? Or under the Rococo ceilings of Santa Maria del Carmine?
No. All those sacred spaces are roped off. They can be admired by paying guests from a distance.
They are, of course, admired. Tourists abound in Florence’s churches. But unlike the tourists in the churches of Rome, Vienna or Paris, where admission is free, the tourists in Florence are rarely seen pausing at one of those frescoes to pray to a God they’ve long neglected. They almost never wonder at what moves a grandmother to murmur the Rosary beneath a Caravaggio or ask themselves why a woman kneeling before a Madonna shakes with tears. Nor are they likely to find themselves joining the searching souls sitting in silence before the tabernacle or lighting a candle for a friend ill at home.
And that’s because in Florence’s most famous cathedrals, there are no grandmothers praying rosaries, no women kneeling before Madonnas. Not where tourists wander. In the main nave of San Lorenzo, no candles burn. In San Marco, no smell of incense lingers. In the Duomo, no holy water waits for those who enter. The fonts there, as elsewhere, stand empty, dry as bone from long disuse.
Saddest of all, however, are the empty tabernacles. In all but a few of Florence’s great churches, Christ in the Eucharist has been safely put away, set up in chapels far removed from where tourists walk or are even permitted to go. His absence is palpable.
It’s why even the believers who walk side by side with the tourists don’t kneel to pray before the holy images that still line the churches’ walls.
Counting the cost
That’s the tragedy of Florence. The churches have been beautifully preserved. The plaster repairs are impeccable. And just as the priest hoped, pilgrims who want to pray there are spared the annoyance of disrespectful tourists. Their opportunity for prayer has been ensured.
But it’s also been diminished. They’ve been shut up in little rooms far from the grand works of beauty made to move the soul in prayer to higher heights. Those are saved for the paying tourists. And the tourists are deprived of the unexpected encounters with grace that can come to even the most secular of souls when Christ is present and adored. Worst of all, the message those tourists walk away with is that the Faith is no longer a living thing. Catholicism comes off as just one more relic of the past.
Those losses are real, and as the practice of the Faith in Europe declines, they’re only likely to spread. The churches in Rome and Paris are free now, but will they continue to be so? How many other cities and parishes struggling to keep their churches intact will resort to charging visitors, then segregate them from acts of worship and devotion? How much more beauty will find the power of its witness diminished when it’s pointedly isolated from the Person it was meant to glorify?
The need to preserve Europe’s historic churches, to keep their doors open, is pressing. But so is the need to preserve the witness of those churches, to preserve them as houses of God, where saints and heathens alike can freely encounter him.
Finding a way to meet both those needs is, in part, the work of the New Evangelization. In the meantime, visitors to Florence are left to reconcile themselves to worshipping in a city where beautiful boots are cheap, but pilgrimages are pricey.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.