The Frowning Nuns of Chiesa di Ognissanti

It was on a sortie to find some bottled water that I first happened upon the Chiesa di Ognissanti  in Florence. (Good start, eh?) It stood inconspicuous on an inconspicuous street and did not promise an awful lot from the front elevation. But the water was in hand, there was a moment or two to spare, and so I ducked inside.

Churches in other countries are often interesting and different. In Spain, the iconography all looks like Spanish people. Here in Florence was no exception, in fact it was extraordinary confirmation of the fact. The inside of Chiesa di Ognissanti was ornate and generous and filled with extraordinary things. Yet it wore its ornament lightly on its sleeve, giving every appearance of being a straightforward working church, with scheduled adorations, confessions, and cake sales all firmly on the notice board.

I didn’t stay long but I resolved to come back with Patricia and investigate the intricacies of the place a little more. I returned to the hotel, bottled water in hand. But not before I had witnessed the frowning nuns.

The church may be a working church but it is also a popular tourist destination. The legion visitors come in, they ‘ooh’ and they ‘ahh’ and they chat to each other and point and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ a little more, which is fine, except there are people in the pews doing their everyday thing, trying to get a prayer or three under their belt. So, in a central seat, where they are hard to miss, sit two young nuns who are probably in their early twenties. Fully kitted out, they sit together and scan the aisles like wimpled hawks. They apparently have only one role, one raison d'etre.

They frown.

They frown at the touristy people who make a little too much noise for the respectful worshippers. They don’t frown enough to suggest that you should bugger off back to your hotel room with your bag of bottled water and leave us the hell alone. It’s a gentle frown, if such a thing can possibly exist. It’s a ‘please give us a break, we’re trying to get into heaven here’ sort of a frown.

I liked the nuns, almost as much as I liked the church. They were an unknown thing, their lives a complete mystery to me. Although, upon reflection, maybe less of a mystery to me than to many others. I was educated by nuns for my earliest school years and spent time in around the convent as a mass-server in my immediate pre-teen years. So maybe I know something. Lord knows what. As I watched the frowning nuns in the Florence church, it didn’t feel like I knew anything.

So I brought Patricia back some days later on the morning that we were due to get a train back to Pisa to fly home. We had both seen a lot of great stuff since I first sidled into the church so I wasn’t sure if it would still retain the wow-factor. Big ‘ol David is kind of a tough act to follow, after all.

I needn’t have worried about that. The church was even more impressive on my second visit because now we had some time to poke around together and unearth some the amazing treasures that sit openly on the walls, in the alcoves and, yes, even on the ceiling. There on the wall, a real-live Botticelli and, damn it all, if that’s not an amazing Giotto cross hanging over the left hand altar. Amazing, really. We were like the new Ripley, finding amazing artwork in dark recesses. We never had to insert a coin to light it up, unfortunately.

But was it a perfect visit? Well, no, it wasn’t and you’ll probably guess why. Yes indeed. The frowning nuns were nowhere to be seen. I had told Patricia all about them and was keen that she experienced them herself. Maybe even suggesting she go as far as to exclaim a little at some particularly striking fresco, just to get a little personalised scowl.

As we were making our way out by the right hand aisle, one the nuns magically appeared. In a highly incongruous move, she was brandishing a very late model cordless vacuum cleaner and she proceeded to hoover around the base of some timeless masterpiece with a studied but totally non-confrontational frown.

One other little thing happened. It doesn’t amount to a story or even, perhaps, to a satisfying conclusion to this little memory but here it is anyway.

Her hoover broke. Suddenly it wouldn’t work anymore.

The frowning nun frowned and frowned some more. She banged the side of the unit and shook it religiously. Then, rather memorably, she spoke. In neat, slightly accented English, she said, “Oh, no. Oh, no.”

And, if one was stretching it, one could perhaps imagine she was actually reacting to the ancient crucifixion scene she had so recently been cleaning up in front of. Frowning perhaps at a grand trio of sadnesseses: The elevated buzz of the tourists, the Passion of the Christ, and a complete and unexpected loss of suction.

No comments: