Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo), Florence, Italy

Florence Cathedral, Florence, Italy


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Mystery Worshipper: Pew Hymnal
Church: Florence Cathedral
Location: Florence, Italy
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 October 2008, 11:00am

The building

The Duomo (cathedral) of Florence was begun in 1296, replacing an older cathedral dating from the 6th century. Inspired by the cathedrals of Pisa and Siena, and intended to be the largest church in the world (a goal that was not realised), it is a massive building with a 37,000 ton dome by the Italian Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi. The basic plan is a Roman cross with a massive nave and two side aisles. The original façade was never finished, and was dismantled in 1587-1588 by order of Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici, not to be worked on again until the 19th century. The stunning façade we see today, containing polychrome marbles from Carrara, Prato and Sienna, was finished in 1887. One enters the Duomo via enormous bronze doors and finds oneself immerged in a huge, cavernous Gothic space. The great altar, standing in the centre, is enclosed by a circle of double Ionic columns of fine marble. Colourful works of art abound, including portraits of Dante, Giotto and Brunelleschi; a mosaic of the Annunciation; reliefs of the Resurrection and Ascension; frescoes of The Last Judgment; and Dante Explaining the Divine Comedy. There is also a bust of Giotto by Benedetto da Maiano, from whom the young Michelangelo is thought by many to have learned his craft; the crucifix behind the bishop's throne is also by Benedetto. The stained glass is beautiful beyond description; there are 44 stained glass windows by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno. Sadly, many decorations have been lost in the course of time or have been transferred to museums.

The church

The Duomo was the site of the Council of Florence in 1439, which almost succeeded in reuniting the Greek and Roman churches. Its walls also witnessed the murder of Giuliano di Piero de' Medici on Easter Sunday, 26 April 1478 (with Lorenzo Il Magnifico barely escaping death). Here the faithful once listened to the fiery sermons of Girolamo Savonarola, the puritanical Dominican who preached that Florence should be a Christian commonwealth, with God the sole sovereign and his gospel the law, and whose followers went from door to door in 1497 collecting mirrors, combs and other items associated with moral laxity, all to be burned in a "bonfire of the vanities". No such drama today, though – there was nothing special that I could notice except the congregation was made up of locals and many visitors. Many different races and nationalities seemed to be represented. Even in October, Florence was packed with tourists.

The neighborhood

The neighbourhood is simply breathtaking. This is old Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance. Across, facing the Duomo, is the magnificent 11th century baptistery of San Giovanni, where Dante and members of the Medici family were baptised, and whose doors Michelangelo called the Gates of Paradise.

The cast

The principal celebrant was one of the cathedral's staff, who concelebrated with a visiting bishop and priests from Canada. Another staff priest assisted with communion and acted as master of ceremonies.

What was the name of the service?

Mass: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year "A"

How full was the building?

All the chairs which were put out and the sanctuary pews were filled to capacity, with many more people standing at the back of the chairs. It was difficult to see the whole group, but my guess was around 1000 people. Of course the church could hold many thousands more than this standing.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A sacristan greeted us at the door and showed us which way to go. Another sacristan with a big smile shook our hands and handed us the mass booklet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard oak pew with a high back. We were seated in the sanctuary area.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Very quiet. The associate priest came out at 10.50 and let the assembly in prayers to Our Lady of Pompeii, followed by the singing in Latin of Salve Regina. I was taken by surprise by the number of people who sang along; most Catholic assemblies would not, in my experience anyway, know any office hymn in Latin by heart.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Nel nome del Padre e del Figlio e dello Spirito Santo.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A mass booklet containing the readings and collects in Italian, English, Spanish, French and German.

What musical instruments were played?

Main cathedral organ played with much skill. There is a wonderful 10 second reverb in the building. The Italians in the congregation sang the mass setting admirably, if not robustly; they appeared to know the setting well.

Did anything distract you?

I guess the only "distraction" was that I kept looking up into the dome with its huge size and painted frescos. My neck actually became sore by the end of mass.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The worship was formal and very prayerful. There was no sloppy, slangy, novus ordo ad libbing. Mass was celebrated facing the people without incense or bells. The celebrant was very calm and looked engagingly at the congregation. The clergy were vested in Gothic style chasubles. The staff priest (master of ceremonies) donned a humeral veil to carry the additional reserved hosts to the main altar from a side altar for the communion. The exchange of peace was quiet and cordial.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – I gave him a 7 because Italian is not my first language and it wouldn't be fair to judge him without understanding the text 100 per cent.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The homily was on Matthew 21:33-44. By speaking this parable, Jesus was foreshadowing his own passion and death (the landowner's son was put to death by the vineyard workers) but also his glorious resurrection (the stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The pipe organ with the 10 second reverberation accompanying the mass setting sung in Italian.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The many different postures adopted by the congregation. Some people knelt, stood, sat, bowed, all at different times. I suspect it was due to the many visitors present. I took my cue from observing the locals, who I was sure were Florentines, seated in the sanctuary near me.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Most people paused to pray for a few moments, then either left the church or walked down the nave to visit this massive building. You could hang around for an hour, and probably no one would talk to you.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee or tea was served. This is not a regular parish church.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – If I lived in Florence, I would certainly attend weekly mass here. In spite of the sheer size of this cathedral, there was an intimacy of worship by having everyone sit close together.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The luscious 10 second reverberation in the building.

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