The medieval lanes and streets and alleys provide welcome breaks of shade from the heat and the sun, and occasionally from the crocodile lines of tourist groups faithfully following their guides. But you tire easily for you are not so young now, the back hurts a bit, the legs ache, the sun is hot, you need to pause, to sit down, recover a little and you look for a pavement bar or café. But they can be intimidating these Italian bars and cafés, and you pass that one and avoid this one and then you come across a rough looking bar in a little rough looking space, a small scruffy square; there is graffiti on the walls and a few battered tables and chairs clustered outside the very ordinary and un-prepossessing door of the bar “Mingo” There is a van, and a motor cycle lazily parked across the small square but it becomes, for the tired intimidated hot uncomfortable you, a little oasis, and you slump into one of the battered chairs at one of the battered tables.
A beer, a cold Italian Moretti beer. And you relax, stretch, calm down, cool down, revive, become human again. Begin to look about you.
You are in the Piazza San Marino on the narrow non-descript Via dei Magazzini as it opens into the scruffy square and forms a junction with the Via Dante Alighieri. At number 2 Via dei Magazzini there is a municipal office or yard of some kind, almost adjacent to the square and the bar. my Italian is poor, the sign suggests the office of urbanisation? This must make café Mingo a worker’s bar for it has none of the pretensions to being one of the touristy places that abound in Florence. Number 1 Via Maggazini, next to the run down municipal offices of urbanisation, is a tall building of rough stone. It is a tower! A Florentine tower, a 1000-year-old tower, there is a sign upon it, something about it belonging, I think, to the Garibaldi society or the Garibaldi association, is that something to do with united biscuits?
You are intrigued now, relaxed and intrigued. The tower is closed up, its tall forbidding doors, brown and studded, faded by the weather and the sun. Occasionally a crocodile of tourists stops, and the guide tells them something of the tower, two minutes and on they go. I can’t hear what they say for nowadays the crocodile tourists have small receivers around their necks and an earphone, the guide talks softly into her microphone and only the crocodile tourists can hear. It is the 11th century Torre della Castagna, (Tower of the Chestnuts) , once the stronghold of the Baccadiferro family at a time when Florence was ruled by gangs and clans and was far more dangerous and lethal than the wild west ever was.
Directly across, from the tower, on the opposite side of the scruffy square, a small private chapel, an oratory. The crocodiles don’t point their trailing charges at it or even seem to notice it but there are one or two visitors who enter, sometimes a couple, often alone.
Another beer, a cold Italian Moretti, served as they always do in Europe, in a wonderful glass, a goblet, a chalice, it works so well in the warmth of the Italian sun, or the Belgium architecture or the French café. In England, and in Ireland we take our beer in plain pints, in Europe, in a painted goblet.
There is a parked motorcycle, the city is full of them, a Lambretta type, parked across the tables at the top of the square by the Via Dante Alighieri, immediately outside the chapel or oratory. Two local Florentine municipal carabinieri (vigili urban) march purposefully into the square. They wear helmets, like a London policeman’s helmet, but in white, of plastic or perhaps Bakelite, they look odd, a little comical, white Sam brown belts, cool Florentine white leather satchels, pistols in white holsters, they surround the motorcycle in officious determination and write on notebooks taken from the white leather satchels, noting the number, looking for tax discs, take photographs. A man in the bar talks to them, agitated, agitated Italian, he goes off to fetch the owner and another man, leaning, relaxed from an upper window on the via Dante Alighieri begins to shout at the officers, good-humouredly, perhaps telling them to do something useful, as natives do, in all the cities of all the world. They take an enormous amount of time securing their prey, a young lady turns up, it is her machine, she opens the panniers, looking for documents, she is distressed, they chastise her, she cannot find the documents, , they are insistent, a ticket is given, everyone shrugs and off they go these white-helmeted carabinieri, in their comical white hats. Looking for more Lambrettas,
In the chapel, the small oratory opposite the tower. it is dark and cool, it takes a while to adjust from the bright shade of the square. It is quite beautiful. It is the 15th Century Oratory of the Buonomini of San Marino
The Buonomini, in medieval times, gave alms and comfort to those in the city who fell upon hard times, the walls have a series of ten wonderful frescos, bright as the day they were painted, showing the noble fraternity of the Buonomini distributing alms to the poor, visiting the sick, burying the dead, performing the Christian works of Corporal mercy: It is religious, but not spiritual, it is the charitable works of the Lord, it is the salvation army, the good Samaritans.
You have stumbled across, in this scruffy square, with its battered tables and graffiti, a little treasure of Florence. A 1000-year-old tower and now a 15th-century oratory with frescos by Florentine masters, and no ques, and no crocodiles of tourists.
Refreshed, you follow the via Dante Alighieri for a few yards, no more, and there is the house of Dante. He knew these streets, he walked here, you are walking in the footsteps of Dante, in his very neighborhood, he would have known the scruffy square where you had taken the Italian beer.
A gallery, in a charming old building, with great studded doors and wooden shutters, of contemporary art. It is small, and it is free and there are no long crocodiles waiting to get in.
You continue along the via Dante Alighieri and there is a door, no more than 40 yards from the scruffy square, a large tall open door and sign upon the steps, a cardboard sign inviting you in to see the “produce of our monastery” and inside, in a little cubbyhole of a space a nun presides over the jars of honey, the bottles of wine, the rosaries and the small sacred figures of those who lived with Christ. The Chianti of the monastery is €7 for a bottle and you cannot resist, God bless the monks. Music is playing on a small CD player. It is the music of the monastery, the chanting of Vespers by the nuns and the monks. The nun sees you admiring the sound.
“You can come to Vespers,” she says, “and hear us sing”.
It is late now, almost 6pm and Vespers will begin on the hour of six. You are in the Bardia Fiorentina, a church and abbey, once owned by the Benedictines but now the place of worship for the Fraternita’ di Gerusalemme, or the Fraternity of Jerusalem It is quiet, there are no crocodiles, there is a small pleasant courtyard and a great church, dating from 978.
So, you go to Vespers, the sunset service.. In the Bardia Fiorentina. It is dark, lit by candlelight, there is hardly anyone there, a congregation of ten or twelve, in this massive, soaring Italian Romanesque interior, a great Byzantine cross hangs over the altar, it’s gold leaf picking up the reflecting candlelight. And gathered before the altar rails are the nuns.
They are robed in full-length white cloaks, kneeling before their god. There are monks too, across the aisle, again all in white, before the altar rails. And there are priests. There is incense, swung by a monk from a golden thurible on a heavy chain; and an organ is playing.
The singing is so sweet, so wonderful, so soaring, so respectful. In Italian. Dante, in his day, would have heard the Mass and the vespers being sung here. It is his neighborhood and has been sung here in this church since medieval times. It is said that it was here he first saw Beatrice. He would have heard it in Latin and how his heart would soar to hear it now, in the Italian, the language of his poetry, the language he gave to Italy.
The nuns are like ghostly sculptures, singing softly in their long white robes
You are not a man of God, but few would fail to be moved by this. It is the essence of medieval Florence
It is over, and you emerge from the cool darkness of the church.
You have traveled not more than fifty yards since you sat in the battered seats of the bar Mingo in the scruffy Piazza San Marino. You have been to the Duma, to the grave of Michelangelo in the church of Santa Croce, to the Uffizi, following the tourist crocodiles around Giotto and Botticelli and Raphael; to Tuscan vineyards and to the Etruscan heights of Firenze, but that 50 yards of Florence that you stumbled across, by accident, that, non-descript fifty medieval yards, that is what will remain with you, when you leave this gorgeous medieval city and get back to the plain pints of Ireland and the cold climes of Northern Europe.