The winter cold of Florence has eaten through my coat and scarf, and it’s licking now at the soles of my boots. The time is six o’clock, and the narrow, rain-slick streets are dark. It will freeze tonight. Florence will likely be covered with snow in the morning.
I’m rushing toward Via del Proconsolo on Via Ghibellina, head bowed and eyes glued to the street in front of me to avoid rain puddles and the occasional taxi. If you passed by me, or saw me through a restaurant window, you’d think I was headed to a cozy bar where friends are waiting, or to an overstuffed armchair in front of a fire at home. You’d be wrong.
At the Bargello, where Via Ghibellina ends, I hop onto the sidewalk to avoid a tour bus that’s muscling its way toward me. I sometimes challenge taxis and cars for the right of way in this part of town—especially when it’s raining—but I have no quarrel anywhere or at any time with these faceless beasts. I wait on the corner as it lumbers by.
I’ve made good time, and my destination is right across the street. I’ll be just in time to hear the singing of Vespers at La Badia Fiorentina.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a religious person, but this is one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had. And I keep coming back.
It’s a place not many people recognize or even know about. In fact, mysister and I walked past it every day for two weeks on our way to language school without ever noticing it. We’d seen people go in a door at the top of a short flight of steps occasionally, and once or twice a host of nuns would drift out the door in their long skirts and down the steps into the street. But there was no sign to identify anything of importance, no lines of people following a tour-guide holding a bright umbrella in the air, no mark of any kind to indicate this was a special place.
The only remarkable feature, in fact, is a pointed bell tower, the only one in Florence. So you’ve likely noticed it on the skyline, but never knew exactly what it was.
One sunny day last year, after a giant gelato in a sugar cone, I walked up the steps, opened the door, and peered in.
Nothing. An entry way like hundreds of entryways off the streets in Italy, complete with construction equipment and metal scaffolding crawling up the inside walls. But as I shrugged and turned to go, sucking the last of the gelato off my fingers, two nuns walked past me and wished me good morning. They opened a door on my left and smiled at me, holding the door open as if they expected me to enter. “What the hell,” I thought, and I went in.
A “badia” is an abbey, so I knew it was a place of worship, but the outside was so unassuming I had few expectations for the inside. (Yet another lesson for me on Living in Florence: Some of the city’s finest treasures are stored in plain brown packages. Think of the Basilica of San Lorenzo!)
When the heavy door closed behind me, shutting out the bright sunlight and the noise from the busy street outside, my eyes were drawn to a stunning altarpiece suspended from the ceiling. I later learned the piece was painted in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari, author of Lives of the Artists, one of my favorite books on the Renaissance. Vasari created the piece to substitute for another by Giotto that now hangs in the Uffizi.
Other than the altarpiece and the walls of the apse, there is little additional ornamentation. No stained glass here. Instead, gray pietra serena walls and white-marble Corinthian columns create a quiet, solemn mood, unlike the more animated feeling I get in the Batistero and Ognissanti and Santa Croce and San Miniato.
The space is done in a mixture of architectural styles, but it works for me.
I sat in one of the pews along with only four or five others and let the sheer peace and quiet of the space envelop me. I felt alone here, safe. This would be the place to come, I told myself, on days when I missed my home, my family, my friends. The place to reflect, restore my spirit, lick my wounds.
I hadn’t been there long when I saw the nuns who held the door open for me file in with other nuns. All of them had replaced the gray jumpers they wear in the streets with white hooded capes that made them appear to float down the aisle like spirits until they reached the altar and then knelt. As more nuns and some of the order’s monks joined them—men on the right, women on the left—one of the nuns began to sing.
She had a sweet, clear voice that filled the empty church like sparkling water in a glass. The other nuns, and then the monks, joined in, and my spirit—again, I’m not a religious person—lifted. It was a remarkable experience.
The entire service was sung by the religious order that maintains and services the abbey. No readings from the Bible, no passing the basket for money, no audience participation.
And then it was over. The nuns and monks walked away, leaving me and the handful of others—all Italian, based on the bits of quiet conversation I heard—alone with our thoughts and prayers.
It was hard to leave. Going back into the bright sunshine to dodge taxis, buses, and tourists was as unappealing to me as a frozen pizza.
When I did get up, I noticed a striking painting on the wall on my right as I approached the door, a 15th century of the apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard by Filippino Lippi, son of Fra Filippo Lippi. The rich colors and the sharp detail breathed life into the characters against the dark stone wall. The Virgin, in a stunning indigo cape, touches a page that St. Bernard is writing about the Annunciation. According to a French legend, Bernard had had a moment of weakness in his faith, and Mary had come to him to announce his salvation, just as Gabriel came to her.
The theme of the painting is inscribed on the frame: “In matters that raise doubts, call on Mary.”
Back home, I did some research on the Badia.
I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s one of Florence’s oldest churches, commissioned for the Benedictine Order by Willa, the widow of Count Uberto of Tuscany, in the year 978. Her son, Count Ugo, was buried inside the church in 1001, where his tomb still rests.
The Badia’s history is firmly anchored to the story of Florence. Among the more popular roles it plays, it was the parish church of Beatrice Portinari, the famous “Beatrice” of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Also, it was just next to the north entrance to the Abbey, in the chapel of Santo Stefano, that Boccaccio gave the first public Dante’s work.
The building has undergone many and massive reconstructions since its inception, the first in the 13th century, when it ceased being a Benedictine abbey and was consecrated as a Gothic church. In the 15th century, the building was expanded, and the Cloister of the Oranges was added, a beautiful example of early Renaissance architecture adorned by anonymous frescoes arranged in reverse chronological order that tell the life story of Saint Benedict.
In the 17th century, the church was rotated 90 degrees, the entrance was changed, and a new choir was built on the southern side. The present entrance, opened in 1494, is framed by a 19th century copy of the original doorway built by Benedetto de Rovezzano, a sculptor from Pistoia.
Some months after my first visit, I found a tour of the Cloister, which is built around a fountain and a copse of fragrant orange trees. It’s open only on Mondays for an hour or so in the afternoon. Once inside, I saw that the stone has not weathered well. The frescoes, however, are in surprisingly good condition.
Hours for visiting the Cloister are erratic, but be sure to see the church. You can attend high mass on Sundays with singing at 11 AM; Saturday mass 12:30 PM; and vespers from Tuesday through Friday at 6 PM.