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Artful absence

02 November 2006


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 any others.

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 answer.

The Revd John Wall is the Vicar of St George the Martyr, Newbury. He moves soon to Brighton.

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