Unfinished business in Florence
S A N M I N I A T O A L M O N T E
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.