If you are at all like me and you love to wander through the old parts of European cities, you probably reach a point in your Old World urban jaunts when you silently (or maybe not silently) shriek inside your head (or maybe vocally), “Oh, hell. Not another damn church!” Nevertheless, despite being an atheist who thinks that god is a fictional character whose authors should contract the Disney people to totally remake his horribly tattered image, I keep going to old European churches because they can be spectacular. Even for nonbelievers, they can be the high points of a visit to the Renaissance-era or earlier part of a European city. Considering how much I, a heathen, am impressed by them, I assume they must be orgasm-inducing for true-believer Christians. (If that’s you, let me know. Please don’t leave out any details.)
Consequently, I found myself in the Basilica di San Lorenzo. This is not to say that I found myself in the way that young people used to mean in the 1960s when they said, “I’m going to Europe to find myself.” No, I found myself in that sense years ago. I was stuffing my face with junk food in a fast-food court in downtown Toronto. It wasn’t a pretty picture so I quickly snuck out without acknowledging myself and, out of a fear that I might find me again, never went looking for myself again.
No, I mean that, despite being a heathen, I was drawn into yet another church. This one, as I said, was the Basilica di San Lorenzo.
It’s a large church (most churches that get a papal rating of “basilica” are at least somewhat large) with many paintings on the walls. The altars in the Basilica di San Lorenzo were created by Donatello. By that, I don’t mean Frank Donatello, the fat slob down the street who regularly holds loud, boozy parties that last late into the night, without ever inviting you or any of the other the neighbours. No, I mean the famous Renaissance sculptor from Florence. Jeez, come on. What would Frank be doing creating altars for an old church in Florence? He can barely create a decent burger on his barbecue, even when the patties are bought pre-made from the supermarket. What the hell were you thinking?
In addition to the sanctuary, the church contains a long reading room with rows of wide reading tables. If you visit the church and go into the reading room, pay attention to the signs that tell you to walk on the rugs down the center aisle, not on the wood floors. Otherwise, you’ll hear from the attendants. I didn’t, but others did. I’m Canadian. We are trained from an early age to respect authority—and apologize profusely on the rare occasions when we inadvertently don’t.
Off to the side of the reading room is a small, lovely, circular library.
Many of the Medici, who were the oligarchs, political dynasty and patrons of northern Italy during the Renaissance, are buried in Basilica di San Lorenzo. For a fee—a fee that’s included with the Firenze Card—you can go into the crypt where the Medici remains are interred.
The Firenze card also covers the fee for going into the museum of the treasury. Wait. What? A treasury in a church? What happened to the vows of poverty? Never mind. It is what it is.
The museum of the treasury contains reliquaries, crucifixes and other religious pieces, along with some everyday objects. Included among them are some opulent looking pieces made of bronze, copper, silver, gold and gems. That is to say, not all of those materials were present in each piece. However, those metals and gems were well represented in the collection.
Just as an aside, I find reliquaries interesting in a macabre sort of way. The dictionary says that a reliquary is simply “a container for holy relics.” But when you go into a Renaissance Catholic church you’ll often find that the reliquary contains a body part, such as the now skeletal finger, of a long-dead saint. Is that the sort of thinking that comes from religion? It seems kind of bizarre to me.
But enough about dead people’s body parts. The courtyard of the church is a nice, peaceful, square-shaped garden. The garden consists of a tree in the centre of manicured lawns and carefully trimmed hedges lining paths from the four corners of the garden to the tree in the center. I don’t know if this is true all of the time, but when I was there, the public had to stay on the peacefully cloistered perimeter of the garden. We could not walk along the paths to the tree. I don’t know why that was. Maybe God was meditating under the tree at the time and didn’t want to be disturbed. You know what they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.