IT WAS, I remember, about a year ago that, looking earnest and trying to
keep a straight face, I said to the Archdeacon: "Since I’m thinking of doing a
degree in art history, and my sabbatical is coming up, I was wondering about
doing a foundation course in Tuscany on the Italian Renaissance". He looked at
me shrewdly and said, "Yes, John, I’d like to spend three months in Florence,
too." But kindly he let me do it, and so here I am, sitting in a palazzo garden
surrounded by fountains, box hedges, and huge terracotta pots, writing this.
Even after six weeks, I can still hardly believe I’m here.
High and flourishing
I WAS soon welcomed into the Anglican community of St Mark’s Church — an
unexpected Pre-Raphaelite oasis in the Via Maggiore, with a well-ordered
liturgy in which I felt right at home. We are busy practising the Fauré
Requiem for Remembrance Sunday.
Ably led by Fr Lawrence, this flourishing little community (for two out of
five Sundays I’ve been there, it was standing room only, and in Sienna, St
Peter’s has just been reopened) is about to set out on a refurbishment of the
church buildings, which should see it through the next few generations.
They’ve always been a feisty lot. It began in the 1870s when a high- church
group cast the dust of the low-church chaplaincy of Holy Trinity off their
communal sensible shoes and, led by Fr Charles Tooth (expat brother of the more
famous Fr Arthur Tooth, sent to prison for Tractarian practices), moved into
the present palazzo once owned, it is said, by Machiavelli.
The little historical notice outside the church (as outside all Florentine
historical buildings) has the story in both Italian and English, with "high"
and "low" in parenthesis, clearly showing that for Florentines these terms are
as impenetrable as the "Guelphs" and the "Ghibellines" are to us.
A theological villa?
THE British Community was once so big (some 10,000) that it was said that
Florence was a city that spoke its Italian with an English accent: but no
longer. Now it speaks with a decidedly American voice, and that largely New
York and East Coast.
Some 110 American universities have permanent homes and programmes here —
and how many British universities? It seems none. Bristol University and
Magdalen College, Oxford, do have connections with the excellent British
Institute, where I’m doing some 60 art-history sessions, but I have not found
I can’t help feeling we’re missing a trick here, even in these cash-strapped
insular days: maybe, as I once suggested innocently to a former principal of St
Stephen’s House, the Anglican theological colleges could club together and
acquire (for study and ecumenical dialogue) a villa in the Tuscan hills in the
manner of the RC English College in Rome, whose country villa nestles above
Castel Gandolfo. I’m sure vocations would rocket, even if just for the summer
months. . .
Souls in a flea market
ONE of the great joys of Florentine life for me is the plethora of flea
markets, in which you can find more niches, tabernacles, statues, and
pseudo-Botticellian Madonnas than you can shake a gilded cherub at.
One sunny afternoon, while meandering through my local one in the Piazza dei
Ciompi, I came across a nice set of six cut-glass tumblers. Since the ones that
came with my flat were probably given away free with petrol, I thought I’d buy
them: for ten euros they were a bargain.
Having got them home, I saw two of them had traces of writing on them. A
hotel, perhaps, or a restaurant? I made out the word "Carmagnini", and looked
it up in my dictionary. Nothing. I then noticed another word underneath
"Rafaello" and, on the back under a little bird, the date "1913". I looked at
the other, and made out another name "Tecla". Then the penny dropped. Rafaello
and Tecla Carmagnini married in 1913, and in 2005, more than 90 years later, I
had bought their cherished wedding present at a junk stall for just over £1 a
glass. I almost cried.
I considered not using them, but then I had an idea. They must have been
dead for decades (Rafaello maybe even longer — in the First World War: perhaps
it might explain why the glasses had been hardly used), and so I added their
names to my personal list of the dead to pray for at the All Souls requiem at
Santa Croce, my local church.
Probably no one has thought of Rafaello and Tecla for years, but I did, and
always will on 2 November at All Souls. It is, I feel, the least I can do.
Sabbatical 2 is overdue
IN the Church of England, clergy are entitled to a sabbatical ten years
after ordination, and after three years in post. This, my first sabbatical, is
in my 17th year of ordination, and I have been in post seven — so I am seven
years overdue. If I asked the Archdeacon nicely, I wondered, would he let me
come back here in three years for another three months? I think I know the
The Revd John Wall is the Vicar of St George the Martyr, Newbury. He
moves soon to Brighton.