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By Cinzia Dugo

A pilgrimage in the Oltrarno

The great celebrations for the Jubilee were about to start and, as I love travelling and could hardly wait to heal the spiritual emptiness of my soul, I decided, though without fully realising what I was doing, to seal this momentous and historic occasion by going on a pilgrimage. To be quite honest, it was just going to be a holiday to start with, just another journey in search of something, anything, from old buildings, monuments, churches, works of art and landscapes to people or simply things. Something I would find in my path that would make all five of my senses tingle or that would become a unique and unforgettable memory and, although I am an incredibly voracious imbiber of new, unexplored data and elements, I still find them far more attractive if I stumble accross them on my travels. This explains why Florence was at the top of the list of the many cities I wanted to visit. This is where I learnt the art of making a patient and unhurried tour of the city and thus formed a new conception of what a pilgrimage should involve, making it a deserving opener to the new millennium. In fact it taught me that the spiritual purpose behind this event does not necessarily have to be limited exclusively to some religious or mystic gesture, but can even digress to things of a more 'profane' nature. We can, in other words, rediscover the essentials of life in everyday things especially if we search, observe and are sensitive towards all aspects of life, not just those that are more closely or directly connected to traditional places of worship. A quote from one of the most beautiful literary metaphors that I have ever read describes this idea better than I ever can: my journey to Tuscany's famous capital was just like looking through a window pane at thousands tiny grains of dust, normally invisible to the eye, in a ray of sunlight, for it gave me the chance to discover a quarter of the city that is full of life and history (in my opinion, just like one of Giotto's Madonnas), and rarely included in the usual tourist tours of Florence. I am talking about the Oltrarno, the area that stretches along the south bank of the Arno, which obviously can only be reached by crossing an architectural element - a bridge or rather the four bridges called Ponte alla Carraia, Ponte Santa Trinita, Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alle Grazie - that we could almost consider a symbol of the moment, the passage from one millennium to another and an initiation to the spiritual condition that I was searching for but unable to find in the Florentine places of religion.
Church of S. Spirito Thus, after having blindly and stoically followed all the classical itineraries, whether religious or not, that practically every visitor to the city of the Lily makes, I was certainly enthusiastic but not completely satisfied. I then decided to dedicate the last three days of my unusual trip to the famous quarter of S. Spirito. In a way this route was almost obligatory for someone like me, still looking for a way to express my rather vague religious sentiments, which hovered midway between veneration, humility and the hope of enriching my soul. Certainly this void was soon eased by what I found in the splendid churches that enrich the area around S. Spirito, like the Church of S. Frediano in Cestello, with its characteristic facade of stone and brick, built by Antonio Ferri in 1600; it contains many stucco decorations and ornaments in the interior and works by artists like Pier Dandini, Camillo Sagrestani, Alessandro Gherardini etc. Then there is the world-famous Church of the Carmine, a jewel of Italian art thanks to the beautiful cycle of frescoes of 1424-25 in the Brancacci Chapel, attributed to Masaccio and Masolino and consecration of their professional partnership. The Church of S. Spirito, which gives its name to the area, is equally beautiful and dates back to the mid 13th century; it was completely reconstructed after the death of its designer-architect, the great Filippo Brunelleschi between 1445 and 1460, probably under the direction of Manetti, who did not keep faithfully to the original design. It contains several 15th and 16th century altarpieces and sculptures and a Baroque work by Giovanni Caccini below the cupola. The barrel-vaulted Vestibule and the Sacristy designed by Giuliano da Sangallo are also worthy of note, like the fragment of the Last Supper by Orcagna in the Refectory. The Church of Santa Felicita instead stands on the site of an early Christian basilica (late 4th century). The church was altered several times over the years as it was originally used by the Medici family and, later on, by the Lorraine, and then Ferdinando Ruggieri eventually gave it its present aspect in 1736. The interior contains the "Deposition" by Pontormo, carried out between 1526 and 1528, one of the most important works of the Mannerist school.Church of S. Maria del Carmine However none of these temples of religion really managed to give me the complete inner harmony I was looking for, a harmony that one rarely finds but, when we do, it immediately instils a strange strength, a feeling of invulnerability, that helps to foil off all forms of aggression, from pain to the little problems in life. It may seem strange but this feeling of completion and inner enrichment, this persistent need for religion that we often feel, but which rarely finds a proper outlet, was revealed in a most unusual way. It happened in a place where artistry is combined with fine craftsmanship, and where, in spite of the uncontrollable advance of modern technology, time seems to have stood still. An awakening in the midst of the jumble of narrow streets criss-crossing the south bank of the Arno, where the best of the Florentine craftsmanship is so wonderfully represented by characteristic workshops of junk shops, carpenters, bronze workers, smiths, restorers, cobblers, antique dealers, goldsmiths, engravers etc. While I was walking along Borgo S. Frediano, getting lost in the alleys around Via dei Cardatori or Via dei Tessitori, or stopping to gaze in the windows of the workshops in Borgo Tegolaio or Via Maggio, I realised that the marvellous thing about this treasure, so jealously preserved as one of the city's riches, was really only admired by a chosen few and, from that moment on, I joined them, because I looked at them with a completely different, more careful, patient, scrupulous and receptive point of view. I felt that I was fortunate, a pilgrim converted finally into a genuine pilgrim, thanks to having made contact with a world that apparently had little or nothing to do with the spirit, a world bursting with love, sensitivity, respect, perseverance and loyalty, in other words, the same feelings that we usually associate with a man of faith. While I watched the hands of the craftsmen hard at work making objects out of paper, leather and ceramics, I realised how many resources are available to us in life, often loved only by those who understand its meaning and not by those who care for convention alone. This taught me an important lesson about life and religion, an unexpected injection of spirituality that helped me learn from worldly things, whether 'sacred' or 'profane', and changed my attitude, making me more understanding, inquiring and ready to open a continual dialectic relationship with my fellowmen. In the end my stay in Florence lasted longer than I expected for I repeated my tour of all the churches, but this time as a real pilgrim.

Translated by Susan Glasspool

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