by Cinzia Dugo
An accidental trip to Sant'Appiano
Have you ever heard of a film called "The Accidental Tourist"? If you have happened to see it, when you read this story, you will more easily understand its rather "deja vu" atmosphere, although perhaps it is not so very unusual in real life to find oneself in similar circumstances to those described in the film; I am only saying this because, a few weeks ago, the unknown factors that guide my life led me to experience a chance adventure of my own, an adventure that eventually took me to a place that lies suspended between legend and history: the ancient parish church of S. Appiano in the Elsa Valley. In actual fact I had been wanting to explore this beautiful part of Tuscany for a long time, just like many an unwitting (or accidental) tourist, who, armed with an untiring spirit of adventure, finds himself oddly attracted to some particular places, monuments or works of art, though this is often quite unplanned and perhaps undesired. Chance trips like these not only seem to bring the undoubted beauties of such fascinating places to life again, they can also have a permanent effect on the life of the people that make them. Therefore I won't waste any more time trying to be funny or in personal identification: the clack of an invented clapper board will start my story or, if you prefer, open the scenario behind this particular episode in my life.
About two weeks ago, on a dark, rainy, rather miserable, uneventful and very typical Sunday, when nothing seemed to happen, two dear friends and I decided to relieve our utter boredom by going out and, without any particular destination in view, just wander around the fascinating Chianti countryside, an area that we had explored before and thought we knew quite well.
View of the Church of Sant'Appiano.
A slight problem with the car, us all chatting together and the bad weather were enough to take our minds off our route and lose our way back home; in fact, instead of being on the main road, we found ourselves on a narrow and winding lane that took us up to the magic hill of Monteloro (a vernacular translation of Latin Mons aureus), topped by the ancient Parish Church of S. Appiano, high above the Elsa Valley. At this point, overcome by curiosity and attracted by this fascinating place that seemed to have done its very best to be discovered, we headed towards the entrance of the church, made really remarkable by the extraordinarily beautiful archeological remains that stand in front of it and inevitably quite enchanted us: four columns rising powerfully from the lawn in front of the ancient building, relics of a glorious past that tower majestically towards the sky in what can only be a successful attempt to reach eternity, four columns that show their pride in the history they represent so well and in the secrets they hide so jealously. We were only able to unravel the question of the secret of juxtaposition, the ideal balance between sacred and profane, after crossing the symbolic threshold of Christianity. Deeply moved by the dreamy part-religious and part-mystic atmosphere outside on the lawn, we went inside the church where we were met by a strange feeling of coming home, as though, as soon as we stepped onto the hill, we had completely forgotten to play our part as coldblooded and disillusioned tourists and were transformed into very welcome guests. Our impression was further confirmed after our meeting with Monsignor Fiorini, the parish priest, who, without wasting any time, very kindly gave us a really informative tour of the church of S. Appiano and enthusiastically told us all about its historical-artistic background.
His description was above all based on the mystery and legends that surround the church and make its origins so uncertain. A little pagan temple apparently stood on the hill here in pre-Christian times and contained an idol, perhaps that of Eros, the god of love and passion, who was greatly worshipped locally; in fact a small sculpture of sandstone portraying this god astride an animal (a rat or a dog), was found when the Baptistery was demolished in 1805. The first preachers of the Gospel came here along with the merchants, slaves and soldiers in Imperial times, among them this local saint to whom the church was dedicated, though he is no longer mentioned in the Universal Calendar of the Church. The priest told us the legend of St. Appiano who, disguised as a poor fisherman, fled from his homeland, where he was persecuted for his Christian beliefs, and landed on the coast of Tuscany. Here he settled down and began to spread the word of God, which he carried out with religious zeal. Later these first followers of Christ built a Baptistery (5th and 6th century) for the rapidly growing Christian community on the site of what had formerly been a temple for pagan rites in Roman times. It was formed of four cruciform pilasters, decorated with Christian iconographic symbols, which held up a small conical dome. The remains standing in front of the facade of the church are all that are left today, the same remains that excited me and my friends so much when we accidentally discovered them.
The tiny stone idol of the pagan god Eros.
After visiting the Church, our tour came to an end in the Museum situated beside the entrance into the Canon's House (part of the group of buildings that open off the cloisters, 12th-13th century); it contains an important collection of Etruscan remains (urns, vases, etc.), 15th-18th century sacred vases, the so-called Idol and several paintings of Florentine school (16th-17th century). The Church itself is first found mentioned in written documents of 990. The building was later reconstructed, after the collapse of the bell tower in 1171, though it seems that efforts were made to preserve as much as possible of the little that remained of the original church. As a result we can find two different Romanesque styles in the interior of the Church: early Romanesque, dating from before the year 1000, and late Romanesque (1100-1200). It was apparent from the first words of historical information supplied by our kindly priest that he was no ordinary country cleric, for his academic description clearly showed that he was possessed of an enormous wealth of knowledge, further stimulated by the fascinated interest of his listeners who gradually increased, so as to soon almost completely surround him. More and more questions were asked and, apart from the odd digression, the priest continued to give his growing public precise replies to all their queries, while we, as accidental tourists, could hardly avoid being effected by the perfect simplicity of this church of stone and wood, or by the expressive effect of the painted frescoes of 15th century Florentine school decorating its walls, which seemed almost to come to life before us (though funding is needed in order to be able to properly restore them) with Monsignor Fiorini's expert description of their historical and artistic qualities. The echo of his words created an incredible atmosphere: in fact we rather felt that the three dimensional effect of the figures and objects on the walls increased, perhaps pleased by the interest of all these visitors, whose enthusiastic voices got louder as they admired the other important works of art in the church, like the baptismal font (1701), the Vaults in the Chapel beneath the Belltower, the work of an unknown Florentine painter of the late 16th century, and the tombstone (1331) of Gherarduccio dei Gherardini, Florentine merchant and father of the Parish Priest Alberto Gherardini. From here we moved out into the little cloister that encloses a tiny lawn with a well in the centre and a typical 19th century Tuscan bread oven. With visible pride the priest pointed out several other priceless elements in this part of the Church, like the doorway and the Romanesque three-light window (1200) of the old chapter house under the porticoes, as well as the door into the Catellini room (1505) with its huge grey granite fireplace. When our tour around the church was over the vicar of S. Appiano took us to see the Church treasure, on display in the Antiquarium next door to the entrance to the Canon's house. We were thus to conclude our tour by yet again getting the strong but inevitable impression of the profane, or rather, the ancient fusion between pagan and Christian elements; images and impressions that came to us from works like the bas-reliefs of scenes from Greek mythology and the little Eros idol found in the square in front of the Baptistery, displayed alongside some 15th century religious paintings on wood, like that of the Madonna nursing her Child between two Saints, attributed to the Maestro of Signa.
That strange winter afternoon ended up by our saying a warm and grateful farewell to Monsignor Fiorini who had managed, probably quite involontarily (for it was certainly the last thing he expected), to awaken the kind of spirituality and enthusiasm that was able to stir yet satisfy the inner being of the protagonists of this apparently accidental tour. In conclusion, I would like to say that I have not just told this story just for the readers who have seen The Accidental Tourist, but also for those who, after reading this article, can say they do at least understand its meaning; after all the world is nothing more than a great stage on which we often, without realising it, act the part of eternal travellers who pretend not to know one great truth: does chance ever exist without order, its beloved opposite?
The Museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 3pm to 6pm in the winter and from 4pm to 8pm in the summer.