Mar 262015

Unfinished business in Florence

S A N  M I N I A T O  A L  M O N T E


The evening light was so strange...I left the image untouched to give sense of what it looked. © Adam Marelli

The evening light was so strange…I left the image untouched to give sense of what it looked. © Adam Marelli

Perched high above Brunelleschi’s dome, is the abbey of San Miniato al Monte.  It offers one of the most heroic views of Florence and is perfectly situated for evening shoots.  It faces the sunset and provides a bird’s eye view of the city below.

San Miniato al Monte is a complex of buildings that traces its roots to Roman times.  As the story goes, Roman emperor Decius sentenced Minias, an Armenian, to death for being Christian.  Minas was ordered to death by panther...a rather odd form of execution.  But the panther did not eat Minias.  Instead of pardoning him for his miraculous survival, the emperor decided to behead him.  Afterwards, the Armenian is said to have carried his own head across the Arno River and set it down where the abbey lies today.

Anyone who can pick up his own head, along with his pride, after that ordeal and walk across the river deserves a memorial.  Whether it is a tale of religious myth or hyperbolic fact, the small mountain became a pilgrimage spot and accidental photographer’s haven over Florence.

Interior of San Miniato al Monte © Adam Marelli

Interior of San Miniato al Monte © Adam Marelli

Museum or Church

Wealthy families like the Medici, Pitti, or Strozzi’s are all gone.  Once beneficiaries of great patronage, many churches are now forced to charge entry fees in order to maintain their buildings.  It is an understandable struggle, but it changes the feel of a church from a place of sacred worship to an old amusement park.

Many Italian churches feel more like museums than places of active worship, though San Miniato still operates today.  The monks are famous for their production of honey, liqueurs and herbal tea, which come from their private gardens.  Inside and out, the abbey is a unique opportunity to examine the roots of church architecture with the possibility of photography.

A lone chair in San Miniato al Monte © Adam Marelli

A lone chair in San Miniato al Monte © Adam Marelli

Good manners will shape the future

Due to some poorly mannered photographers, restrictions are growing worldwide on whether or not we can take pictures in public and private spaces.  If photographers could collectively behave, be unobtrusive and display a respectful sense of observation, most places would hardly mind a picture here and there.  But the way many people abuse the generosity of locations like San Miniato seems to lean towards an inevitable future…one where photography will be the new smoking.  BANNED IN PUBLIC.

Hopefully this does not happen because San Miniato is a fascinating place to explore and one I look forward to re-visiting in May.  Florence has no shortage of famous churches.  In the middle of the city, Santa Maria del Fiori is the most popular.  It draws crowds like the Rolling Stones were playing there everyday.  In fact, it’s so popular it is hardly bearable.  A few blocks away you will find the Basilica of Santa Croce…where Michelangelo is buried.  The crowds here are steady, but not as chaotic as Santa Maria del Fiori.

The time of day matter...stay out late is my only advice.  Santa Marie del Fiore day and night © Adam Marelli

The time of day matters…stay out late is my only advice. Santa Marie del Fiore day and night © Adam Marelli

Headed in the other direction you will find Santa Maria Novella.  Unlike their brethren on the mountain top, the monks are known for producing herbal remedies, soaps, and perfumes.  So whether you are on a quest to pay homage to Michelangelo or buy some artisanal soap, Florence has a church for everyone.

Miniato Maria is one of the younger members of the order.  © Adam Marelli

Miniato Maria is one of the younger members of the order. © Adam Marelli

My Approach

When I return this year, my aim is to pick up where I left off.  Many photographers are content visiting a spot once…we can call it the “Bucket List Mentality.”  It may allow someone to check off a lot of boxes, but I’ve found it leads to a superficial understanding of a place and even shallower pictures.  My approach is to visit a location and see if it’s worth a second trip.  Only then do the pictures start to flow.  I’ve always found photography to be a fast medium.  Sometimes the pictures outrun my sense of a place.

As a result, I like to take pictures and then let them sink in for a while.  I keep prints up in the studio or images on my desktop so that I can live with them.  As I view them everyday, they begin to change.  Sometimes the things that excited me wear off, while other times there are aspects of the pictures that were invisible at first.  Only after a few months does the picture fully reveal itself.  When and if that happens, I decide to go back.

Adam Marelli Workshops Florence Italy 2015

Adam Marelli Workshops Florence Italy 2015

This year the first stop will be Florence.  We will visit San Miniato with the workshop and say hi again to a young monk I met last year named Miniato Maria.  It will be exciting to see a familiar face and have an insider’s view of the abbey as he shows us around.  If you would like to join us, there is one space left in the workshop (email us here

Florence is just the first spot I will return to in 2015…but I’m curious to hear which locations you would go back to for more shooting.  Let us know what’s on your list so we can compare notes.




  6 Responses to “San Miniato Al Monte: Unfinished business”

  1. Hi Adam:

    Kathryn and I share your view of going back to places we have visited for the opportunity to explore the city or village more deeply a second time or third or in some cases a fourth time. The more we travel, the more we find that the reasons for our travel is to connect with the people of the area where we are staying and that takes time. The point that you are making and with which i agree, is with respect to photography, that it takes time to find the elements that will lead to the images that one wants, that it may take a second look for those elements to come together For Kathryn and I, photography has been one of the reasons for going back to places we have visited, but not the sole reason – it is much more than that.

    We are fortunate to be at the point in our lives where we can rent an apartment and take the time to stay in a place for an extended period of time, to become part of the neighbourhood and to go back to a city or village for a second time or more and renew acquaintances. We have done this in Florence, Venice, Milan, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Radda in Chianti, San Francisco, New York and look forward to going back to these cities as well as other places that we have visited but have not yet returned to like Santa Fe, Cornwall, Isle of Skye. There are new places that we will visit and hopefully return to as well as the old favourites.

    Last years’ workshop in Florence was our fourth visit to the city. I have fond memories of the week and yesterday was actually reworking some of the images from Florence before I noticed your post above. I know that going back this year will lead to even better images for yourself as well as the workshop participants. Enjoy Florence second time around and have a great workshop.


    PS – for great Tuscan Pizza go to La Bussola Restaurant, Via Porta Rossa and say hi to Allessandra for us – we visited La Bussola our first trip to Florence and have returned every time thereafter.

    • Dear Rob,

      I really enjoy the way that you and Kathy travel. So many travelers feel like “one time” visits are enough. Its next to impossible to get a sense of a place in just a few days. Sure it might let someone check a box on a bucket list, but who wants to have goals that can be summed up with a “check.” Bucket lists are for those who lack imagination.

      You guys have racked up a nice list of familiar cities. Im looking forward to checking out the North of Scotland…it seems amazing, not just for the photography, but the architecture, scotch and rough coast line.

      When we get back to florence we will stop by La Bussola and give our regards for you both! Glasses of chianti in your honor.


  2. Definitely Matera! I enjoyed the town immensely and think there is much more to discover, but above all I learned a lot during the workshop. I was there all by myself which gave me the mental space to dive into Matera at a more detailed level and be able to experience and absorb it even more.


    • Dear Jan,
      You make a valuable point…photography, without the distraction of others, is a much more immersive experience. Sometimes time away from life at home, does wonders.
      Looking forward to returning to Matera myself. Even after 4 years, there is a lot more ground to cover.

  3. do you know how I can order soaps made by the monks of san miniato?

    • Dear Sandra,
      I can say I know how you can get them other than visiting their little boutique.
      Maybe you can have someone in Florence pick them up for you and mail them to you.

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