It seems just a short while ago that the various Episcoblogs of left and right were full of joy or sadness (depending on their various points of view) over the decisions of the Anglican Consultative Council (how can one small group of people gore so many oxen in just one weekend?). Meanwhile, the Canadian parliament decided that sodomy can constitute marriage. The Church of England took another giant step towards the cliff by voting to begin removing the legal obstacles to creating women ‘bishops.’ In Europe, away from home, hearth, and swimming pool, I labored to explain the social system of ancient Rome to US students while contemplating the movies I was missing. (The Fantastic Four! At last!)
Then at one point, when matters seemed to be calming down, bombs went off in London, and so many things that seemed important—indeed, things that areimportant in the greater scheme of things—got pushed into the background by the latest reminder of the fragility of life and civilization. I have nothing to say about the recent events in Nottingham or London or Canada that has not been said elsewhere and better, and circumstances do not permit me to write anything of substance—I’m too busy in Italy pointing out aqueducts and how to spell ‘consul.’ So perhaps the best thing I can hope is that, in sharing my distractions, I can pleasantly distract my readers for a moment from other more distressing matters.
The program in which I teach has now settled into its summer home of Montepulciano, a lovely Renaissance hill town in Tuscany and the location for the shooting of much of Under the Tuscan Sun, a movie which I am told bears almost no resemblance to Frances Mayes’ book of the same title (Mayes’ personal story actually took place in Cortona a few miles away). It was also the location for the recent film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; readers who saw the movie may recognize the well that graces the piazza grande at the top of town.
Montepulciano has its share of tourists, and would probably like more, but it is not overcrowded with visitors. It boasts an Etruscan past, with enotecas that promise you sights of Etruscan remains if you visit their cellars, perhaps to emerge with a bottle or two of the famous local vintage, the Vino Nobile, in hand. In the distance you can see Lake Trasimene where, shortly before his more famous victory at Cannae, Hannibal slaughtered large numbers of Romans in 217 BC (lesson: never fight a battle with your back to a lake). Long a point of contention between Siena and Florence, Montepulciano finally came under the control of the Medici in 1511, and the family symbols (the lion and the family crest with its several balls) can be seen at various points about town.
The patron saint is one St. Agnese, a thirteenth-to-fourteenth century abbess whose relics reside in the church of her name just outside the historic walls of the town. Montepulciano did produce one pope, Marcellus II (1501-1505), who was I am told completely unmemorable and unremarkable. Given his dates (he died just twelve years before Luther set off on a tear), maybe he was lucky. Of somewhat greater interest, to Anglicans at least, is that Montepulciano is the hometown of Cardinal Bellarmine, the 17th century Jesuit apologist and theological opponent of Lancelot Andrewes. In my mellower moments, I imagine their spirits still disputing, but gently, in one of the local trattorias, with Andrewes maintaining that while the Cardinal still had the weaker arguments, he certainly had the better food.
Another son of the church has left his mark on the town with a (literally) striking donation. In the eighteenth century, a cardinal from southern Italy was found guilty of some impropriety (just what is unclear) that resulted in a kind of internal exile to Montepulciano. While here, the good cardinal so missed the culture of his native south that he bequeathed to the town a clock tower whose bell is struck every hour by Pulcinella, one of the more colorful figures of the commedia dell’arte.
I wrote above that Montepulciano is not overcrowded with tourists. However, for a small town, it holds quite a number of churches, though that is hardly out of the ordinary in Italy. It is the seat of a bishop, with an interesting duomo (cathedral) in the piazza grande dedicated to the Assumption and that has a beautiful triptych on the high altar from 1401. However, the real ecclesiastical jewel here is the tempio di San Biagio, a High Renaissance architectural masterpiece. Built in the 16th century with a Greek-cross floor plan and high dome, it graces the valley below the town in an inspired setting.
There is a saying that Germans love Italians but don’t admire them, while Italians admire Germans but don’t love them. One has to wonder what life will be like for Catholics in Italy and elsewhere with a German pope. The attacks in London filled the Italian newspapers, of course. However, deep within the pages of the July 8th edition of la Reppublica is a story that might have made more of a splash under calmer circumstances. A document has been prepared for the next synod of bishops in Rome this coming October—a document that one assumes has been seen by Pope Benedict—that contains some choice items sure to raise a few eyebrows in the American RC church. la Reppublica not surprisingly focuses on the document’s condemnation of Catholic politicians who support abortion. However, among “the other themes,” the document “laments the resemblance of certain songs used in church” to secular, profane music; commends to the faithful the use of Gregorian chant; and criticizes the “tacit consent” to avoid “gestures considered too traditional,” such as genuflection. It’s been awhile since I attended a Roman mass, but although it is proverbial that Catholics can’t sing, I was unaware that genuflection too was considered passé in some circles. Perhaps it will take a Bavarian mystic to nudge the Roman church (and, by the usual ripple effect, the rest of us) away from some of the more banal remnants of liturgical experimentation of recent decades and back towards a greater appreciation of the riches of the past.
In such spare time as I have, I have been trying to improve my meager Italian by, among other things, reading the Gospel of St Mark in Italian (the Jerusalem Bible version). It sometimes takes reading something in another language to spot things that one previously missed. In the story of the calming of the sea (Mark 4:35-41), verse 36 reads as follows: “E lasciata la folla, lo presero con sé, così com’era, nella barca. C’erano anche altre barche con lui.” I had noted before the “C’erano anche altre barche con lui,” “there were other boats with him,” which I take to be the Gospel writer’s indication that there were witnesses other than just those in the boat with Jesus. But a phrase in the previous sentence caught my eye, “così com’era,” “just as he was.” I had never noticed this before. It seemed odd to me, and still does. The English translation (NIV) I have with me (I have no access to the Greek text at present) reads, “Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat.” Why “just as he was”? What other way could he be? Something to puzzle over in the land of the Etruscans.