Late afternoon. Sunlight from the western sun strikes the facade of the Basilica of San Miniato high above Florence. The clock moves steadily toward 5:30PM. Light reflected from 13th Century windows shimmers against intricately patterned floors in the nave of the church. A soft wind breathes from the western entrance of the church and brushes past Taddeo Gaddi’s 14th Century frescoes. The breeze finds its way to a window in the sacristy where it leaves the interior and fans out over the Monumental Cemetery.
This is the Basilica of San Mineato al Monte. Legend has it that Saint Mineas was the first christian martyr of Florence. He was beheaded for this faith and in keeping with the miraculous story, picked up his head, placed it back on this neck and climbed back to his hermitage, a cave, above the city. The Mount of the Cross, as it is now called, became the chosen site for a basilica to house the bones of the sainted Mineas.
Benedictine monks were intimately involved in the construction of the basilica after the first stonees were laid in 1018 A.D. In 1373, long after the basilica was complete, the responsibility for the care and upkeep of the Basilica came into the hands of the Olivetan order.
The crypt (1063) contains seven narrow aisles and more than thirty-five columns. When Taddeo Gaddi was commissioned, in the 14th Century, to decorate the interior of the crypt, he covered those columns in gold leaf. None of that work remains today. It is still a beautiful space, reverent in both its structure and atmosphere.
At 5:30PM during the summer, Cistercian monks who support and maintain the basilica slowly enter the crypt for Vespers. A few curious visitors along with a few faithful who wish to participate in the mass, enter and take seats on wooden pews or on the deep marble steps in the rear of the crypt.
To the intonations of a monk, they begin to sing Gregorian chant.
I have had many clients, during my small group tours in Tuscany, complain ” . . . not ABC-another bloody church!” Even those so skeptical cannot help but be moved by the beauty and the sense of history as the textured voices of monks fill the crypt, rise to the nave and echo against the mosaic of Christ above the main altar.
Time slows. Candlelight shimmers in a far corner of the crypt. I enjoy walking around the basilica when Vespers are being chanted. The reflection of light from the nearly 1000 year old floor shimmers with a sheen of blue. Markers of those buried under the floor of the nave as well as those memorialized are stark reminders that, indeed, time is fleeting.
No one ever fails to be deeply moved by such a place and such a service. I cannot recommend any early evening activity in Florence more than this.
IF YOU GO:
San Miniato al Monte
Via delle Porte Sante, 34 50125 Firenze, Italy
You are advised to call ahead, particularly in the winter months (November – March) to confirm times for the Vespers service at the basilica.
The climb to San Mineato al Monte from the river level of the city is strenuous. Unless you are in very good health, I recommend using either a city bus or a private taxi. The walk back down to the city, after the service, is easy and enjoyable with spectacular views over the ancient city center.