High on a hillside overlooking the entire city of Florence stands the church of San Miniato al Monte. Legend has it that in the third century after Christ, the devout man who would become Saint Minias was living as a hermit on this hillside, near a pagan temple. When he was beheaded by the Romans for his Christian beliefs, he was said to have picked up his own head and carried it back to the hill. Christians built a shrine to him there in the ninth century, and then began building a Church there in 1013.
That's a thousand years ago. Which sounds big when you think about it that way, but smaller when you think of it thus: 1,000 is 25 times my life span. If you add up the life experiences of the kids in my kindergarten class, now that we're all grown up, we've lived a collective thousand years: every one of them since the man walked on the moon.
But still, relative to the age of everything else I know, San Miniato is old. The Church is significantly bigger now, having been added to during the eleventh, twelfth, and sixteenth centuries. Large portions of the interior were built of re-purposed Roman and Byzantine materials, and many of the geometric designs inside the church look Greek or Arabic rather than Italian. Cultures and forces and histories have swept in and out of this church, and still it stands.
We loved San Miniato, and its view of the entire city of Florence, just as much as we loved San Marco. Some monks were singing as we walked in the ocean-green doors, and the sound drew us down towards the crypt at the heart of the church. The monks were standing in a semi-circle around the tomb that is said to hold the remains of Saint Minias himself. (This claim is contested, as most claims regarding relics tend to be.) Their notes ballooned outwards from the crypt, filling the huge space and bouncing back on themselves. Then, when the monks were done singing, they just shut off the electric lights and walked out with that awkward and official way priests sometimes do when they are finished with religious rituals. I guess any ritual, even a sacred one, can eventually feel awfully rote. The music was like silk, but their taking leave of the crypt looked like they were just leaving the office for the day.
After we listened, we read the ground below us. The floor tiles of San Miniato are entirely engraved with names and words, all in Latin. There is nowhere you can walk without stepping on the words of the past. Like San Marco, this church is all geometry and fresco. It was dark and beautiful inside, and made me want to stay there and be silent all day.
But when you travel with kids, there is no such thing as silence, (only loud whispering, if you're lucky) and no such thing as staying anywhere very long. I felt an insistent breath in my ear, felt few impatient tugs on my sleeve, and then walked out into the sunshine. We followed a path off to the side of the Church, which led into a warren of crypts and gravestones. Elaborate half-size houses marked the avenues, each decorated with a family name and a particular style. Between and among the rows of houses, there were huge marble stones on the ground, marked with the names and dates of people long since dead. There were stone and concrete busts everywhere, as though the dead had been frozen by the people who loved them, only to moulder slowly into mossy-soft versions of themselves at a slightly slower rate.
Lots of the gravestones looked recently tended, with fresh flowers, or at least not-so-beat-up fabric ones. But others were cracking into shards, under the weight of weather and time. Some of the little houses had glass windows, but the glass had been cracked open and never fixed. It was a lot like the rest of Italy -- not overly tended, and full of a design mishmash: lots of serene lines and colors, spattered here and there with gaudy excess. For a graveyard, it was an awfully lively place.
The girls found the children first. A stone would have a cameo picture of a baby attached, and be marked with the dates to match: 5-4-35 to 10-6-36. Here was a teenager, grinning wildly and holding an ice cream cone. Or a ten-year-old, or a toddler. One gravestone had a bronzed bust of a six year old girl. The stone spoke of the joy she had brought her parents in life, and the pain they suffered once she was gone. The little girl had died in the 1930's. Her parents are almost certainly gone themselves now, but the little statue and the Italian words I could just barely make out brought my fresh tears.
And then, further into the stones, we saw two life-size marble statues. One was a young man in an officer's jacket. The other, facing him, was a young woman in a long flowing dress. At first I imagined that these were statues placed by somebody's children to commemorate a long and loving marriage. Looking at them standing there, staring at one another with such longing and affection, I fell in love with them myself. While I have never really thought of life-size marble statues of dead people as anything but weird, these two people standing on Saint Minias's hillside were the very picture of an enduring love.
But then I got up close and read the dates. The man had died at 25, in 1944. The woman was born in 1922, and died early in 1945. I realized with a shock that these long-ago lovers had never been parents, had barely been adults.
Bill came up by my side. "They both died in the War."
For some reason, I had thought that about the soldier, but it hadn't occurred to me that his young bride would have been a casualty as well. If his military uniform was Italian, that made it even more complicated. Hard to know whether he was on the side of the right and the good. He might even have had a hard time with this one, himself.
I don't know why we love graveyards so much. Perhaps because they are quiet. Perhaps because we like the stones. Perhaps because we love the stories that emerge. It seems like a creepy place to take our kids, and that only got worse once they started searching the stones for stories of more and more dead children.
But despite all the children, or perhaps because of their photographs, this graveyard was particularly lively, the memories it held were full of clear, obvious joy. There were the marble statues, so in love they were nearly dancing. There were the smiling babies and the happy Nonnas and plenty of flowers -- fake and real. If you've gotta be dead, this would be an awfully sociable place to end up.
But perhaps we also like graveyards because they remind us -- without any shadow of a doubt, that we ourselves are alive now. And that we will not always be, which makes our living all the more remarkable.
We took the bus back down the hill, and walked back towards our house. The streets were crowded with tourists, with businesspeople, with buskers and gypsies and west African guys selling Fendi knockoffs. They were all alive, barely conscious of the miracle of their own existence, thronging the living streets below the city of the dead. How many of us ever remember how shocking and strange and wonderful this all is? Even the awful parts, the disasters, the tears, the wars?
While none of us would walk that day carrying our own heads up a hill, the very fact that we are all living struck me as its own kind of miracle. And then we did what any sane living person does in Florence. We stopped in at Festival di Gelato. We chose the freshest and strongest flavors we could find, and savored them, bite by bite. Peach. Coffee. Hazelnut. Lemon.
All of this reminds me of perhaps the best reason of all for us to take this year away:
Life is short. Eat your gelato first.