The Bell Tower: From Florence to Chianti
A . M A R E L L I W o r k s h o p J o u r n a l
Day Two in Florence started as every day should, with coffee and pastry on a terrace. The wrap around terrace at Palazzo Guadagni makes me feel like I want to cut a hole in my apartment in New York and tack on a dozen columns and a roof to view the neighborhood. It is one of the details that settles you into a city. From this view, the towers of Cheisa di Santo Spirito and the top of Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella catch the first light of the sunrise. For all the complaints that can be made about Italy, Florence still has the hierarchy of buildings in the right order. Their resistance to put up glass and steel boxes is like urban therapy for the soul. A few days on that terrace will iron out feelings you never even knew you had. I look forward to it every year and am already looking forward to our return.
After breakfast and a shower, I start to feel human again. The full day of travel which got us here always leaves a residue that requires a shower and a good night’s sleep. Today we were off to meet a friend, Miniato Maria. He is a young monk that I met last year. This afternoon we were invited to the Gregorian chant in the crypt of the church. No photography is allowed and honestly, the sound is so incredible, why bother with pictures? Some things are better felt than photographed.
The walk up to San Miniato is long. I joke that there are 10,000 steps from the bottom of the Arno River to the top of the mountain. In reality it might be shorter, but the steep grade and ancient stairs are not for the faint of heart. Even with my regular work out routine, we decide to take a taxi and opt for the walk “down” instead. When we arrive, the dark doorway welcomes us to blackness inside. It takes a few moments for our eyes to adjust.
Located in the back of the church, down a flight of stairs, is the crypt. Its multiple columns and candle lit atmosphere feel like a cross between an M.C. Escher drawing and a Stanley Kubrick film. When the monks file in through a side door, you are not quite sure what to expect. It is a strange sensation because it’s really just twelve guys coming in to sing a few songs, but the combination of the crypt, the robes, the somber feeling and the candles gives it that much more power. If they did this in a sunlit pavilion, it would be much less intense, but I am glad there is a bit of drama behind it all.
If you have never seen monks chanting, I’d highly recommend it. I’ve had the opportunity to experience (and participate) in chanting with Christian monks, Brahmin priests, and Zen monks. They are all outstanding experiences that immerse you into another world. Not everyone will have the time or luxury to be able to live in a monastery but, if you have a few spare hours, a chanting session will give you a little taste.
Without any warning, the chanting begins. Not two minutes in and someone has forgotten to turn off their iPhone. Gotta love this woman, as she makes almost as much noise as the chanting, searching all twenty six pockets of her backpack as her phone rings. Note to self, silence the phone prior to entering the church. After this little reminder that technology is always with us, the chanting continues for forty minutes.
Once the monks finish, the candles are extinguished and they file out one by one. The last monk closes the heavy metal door and locks it with a thud that sounds medieval. It’s a dramatic close to the afternoon. A few minutes later, Miniato Maria comes out to greet Stacy and I. Five minutes ago he was sober as could be, but now he is all smiles. It’s great to see friendly faces abroad. He wanted to show us around to a few of the spots which are closed to the public. Kindly, he reminds me that I am allowed to take whatever pictures I would like, or I can come back later to shoot.
Together we pass the velvet ropes which divide the public and private spaces, walk through a door under the organ, and make our way to a tiny, pitch black staircase. He suggests we use our phones for light. There are small windows cut through the thick walls. They illuminate a few steps in the spiral and then it goes black again. It’s impossible to tell how many turns we made, but eventually we are at the top of the bell tower. Just above our heads is a bell that is at least 2 meters in diameter. My first thought is, “If this bell rings, we are going to be deaf for a few hours.”
Miniato Maria said that it’s not scheduled to ring for another ten minutes so we are ok to check it out. This bell is large enough that it has been automated. Across the valley, on the other side of Florence, is one of their sister monasteries. Those bells need to be rung by a rope. And as the pecking order of the brothers would dictate, the young guys have to do the dirty work. Miniato Maria and one of the other monks scamper across broken roof tiles, only to tie themselves to the tower, before ringing the bells. The fear is that they will slip as they tug on the rope, and the roof has no guardrails. He laughs it all off as a challenge for the “new kids.”
One level up from the bell is the tower roof. It is the single highest point in Florence. On one side is Florence and the roof top of every architectural achievement from the Renaissance to today and on the other side is Chianti. Famous for their wines, the region boasts an absurd skyline of another kind. In the distance, Chianti looks like a labyrinth of castles and gardens. The only thing missing is a cave where a few dragons might emerge.
We hang out on the tower and finally get a chance to catch up. Miniato Maria is on FB and Instagram, so we keep an eye on each other, but it’s always better to hear how things are face to face. Eventually, there is a moment where I sit back, look at the sunset and realize how incredible and rare this moment really is. Stacy is chatting away with Miniato Maria…and here I am thinking, “I’m on the top of a tower, over looking a city, all virtually unchanged in five hundred years, in no hurry to move, and casually chatting like I was at a cafe in NYC.” This is why I love traveling.
Sure there are luxuries that anyone can settle into…and don’t get me wrong, I love first class just as much as the next person. But the things that really set one trip apart from the next are the unique, human experiences that solidify a feeling and suspend the sense of “what we know” in light of what we are doing at that moment. It could all be an exercise of living in the present, which is easier said than done. Though how often do our heads wander somewhere else? On this day, on that tower, with Miniato Maria and my girlfriend, it all came together. What I did not know was that this evening set the tone for what was going to be an amazing two weeks and two workshops in Florence and Matera.
On Monday, we will be back with the start of the workshop and how a lucky email turned into an amazing shoot.
SPECIAL THANK YOU
During both workshops I was using a Leica M240, compliments of Photo Village here in NYC.
- Berlin, Germany with Leica Store Miami: Few spaces left, sign up here
- London, England: Few spaces left, sign up here, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Venice, Italy: SOLD OUT