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Monuments to Faith, or, Monumental Faith?
Copyright © 2004, 2005 - All rights retained by author
Written by: C. W. Booth

Learning About America by Traveling Abroad

As I sit in the passenger waiting area for the boarding call to embark on my first leg of my return flight out of Florence, Italy back to the United States, an observation forms itself in my mind. Before I share that thought and its implications, a bit of background would be helpful.

During my short stay here I have seen numerous churches and cathedrals. The most impressive was the Santa Maria del Fiore, known widely as the Duomo, whose construction was begun in 1296 and completed in 1436. The extraordinarily expansive dome has an exterior observation deck at its peak which commands a view of the entire Florentine valley. Painted on the inside of the staggeringly high dome is a scene eerily similar to that which Michelangelo painted on Rome’s Cistine Chapel. These massive church structures dot Europe, and in fact might be thought of as a staple feature of the Old World.

If a European were to visit America he might be surprised to find such structures few and far between, and certainly not on the magnificent architectural scale one almost comes to expect in European edifices. This does not imply that America, or Americans, have had no spiritual motivation over the centuries. America was largely founded on and with a Christian heritage in the pursuit of worship. While spiritual interest is waning in recent decades, Americans certainly do not lack for a foundation of Christian interest.

Why did the successive generations of the children of the builders of the Duomo not pursue similar ventures of architectural grandeur when they settled in the Americas? Surely they brought with them their fathers’ convictions, and when reading the documents of the founding fathers of the U.S. it is abundantly clear many held to a worship of God similar to that of the most passionate followers of Christ.

As I pondered this point of history, a thought, or perhaps more properly stated, a theory presented itself. As Christianity began to become a matter of religious political standing in old Europe with genuine faith in the true God ebbing, the followers left behind massive permanent monuments to what they once fervently believed. In America, external symbols such as these were as yet unneeded to represent the inward spirit of faith which worked itself, and presented itself, outwardly through acts of charity and serious worship in community assemblies. Such communal associations often necessitated the formation of churches housed in modest utilitarian structures as opposed to architectural show cases.

Now, as America begins more and more to resemble the model of Christianity of old Europe, where spirituality became over time a matter of political identification and rule, will we too begin to see the construction of larger, grander, and permanent monuments to what we once used to believe and practice? Will we begin building cathedrals to the faith of our fathers as a visual means of replacing with stone what we should be living daily in our minds, in our hearts, and through our hands? In a sense, will we say to the world, "If my monument to faith is big enough, no one will notice that my personal faith has all but evaporated"?

I will be watching, all the while hoping such a thing never comes about in America.

The Tourist In Me

On my latest whirlwind trip through the major cities of Europe conducting secular business (I am by trade an international project manager) I had the happy opportunity to visit two major cathedrals for the first time. One was the Strasbourg Cathedral in France. The other, as stated earlier, was the Santa Maria del Fiore, or, the Duomo, in Florence.

Personal Observations on the Strasbourg Cathedral Notre-Dame

The island of Petite France is encircled by canals. A water lock even raises and lowers tour boats to match the level of the rivers feeding the system as they use the canal and river network to provide a floating historical view of this charming locale.

Cathedral in Strasbourg as seen from the street

In the center of Petite France is the cathedral. When approached from the front via a typical centuries-old French street populated by merchant houses standing wall-to-wall with not even a gap between them a dazzling vista of the church greets the visitor, framed by the very street leading to it. Typical of such cathedrals, it sits in a cobblestone plaza, sculptures of saints lining the doorways along with friezes of religious historical scenes, beckoning the passerby to enter and worship (or more sadly perhaps, to purchase a candle or other momento). This cathedral does also have gargoyles, though fewer than its name-sake sister structure in Paris.

When visiting Strasbourg I have found the Regent Hotel in Petite France to be convenient, comfortable, and the staff to be professional and helpful. If you find yourself in Petite France, be sure to also stop at one of the many tiny sandwich shops on the side streets and order a donner poulet (pressed shaved chicken served in a toasted cut round bread), very good, very inexpensive, and beats American fast food in most every way. Take whatever is left of the round bread to the river or canals and feed the ducks.

Personal Observations on the Duomo

If you find yourself in Florence with but 3 hours to spend, as did I, consider investing a few Euros to ascend the 463 steps to the top the Duomo. As you enter the ancient stone staircase you will be given a glimpse of the cathedral from ground level. Pause at the cashier’s window and take a moment to gaze upward.

After a reasonably energetic climb you are given a "close up" view of an artist’s conception of the final judgment. "Close up" means that you are within inches of the painting’s edge that sweeps across the enormous dome, which itself towers over your head at its apex even though you are already so far above the ground that people on the church floor look like miniature figurines in a snow globe. Again, as you walk around fully one half the perimeter of the underside of the dome, take time to look up, and down, to appreciate the scale of the painting and the architecture. You are only about half way up to the observation deck.

Another calorie burning climb takes you over the top of the painted interior dome and through the concrete and red brick superstructure of the dome itself. Ultimately you are on the observation deck which stands taller than anything else in the valley floor with the exception of the bell tower next to the cathedral. Linger and drink in the view as you regain your strength. Remember, you have to go down again, and there is no elevator, lift, or escalator. Take note that the entrata is also the escuita.

While your legs recuperate, take a short walk over to the Galleria dell’Accadamia and view Michelangelo’s David. While I have struggled in the past, and still do, with the morality regarding viewing nude sculpture (why do sculptures have to be so often nude to be considered "great" anyway?) admittedly the craftsmanship and artistry of the David is quite compelling. While at the Accademia, take a minute and wander into the musical instrument hall where a Stratovarius violin is on display.

When touring any ancient European city, be mindful that walking is required to truly see the city, and comfortable shoes are essential. In Florence (Firenze) you might find your stay more comfortable, and secure, in one of the larger Italian hotels in the city center. There is a Sheraton just outside the main city surrounded by highways, but it is inconveniently located, encircled as it is by pedestrian unfriendly motorways, and requires a relatively long bus or taxi drive to get into the historic city. By comparison, other hotels are in the center of the old city, and, for example, the staff at the Bernini hotel was gracious, helpful, security conscious, and solicitous of my needs (even though I was not a registered guest and was merely visiting with colleagues who were). The Bernini is located just down the street from the Duomo facilitating even late afternoon strolls long after the museums have closed.

My country is America. Yes, I do feel it is proper to cultivate old-fashioned patriotism in the youth and the elderly alike. That America stands for freedom and often steps in to rescue enslaved or endangered peoples around the world is, to me, an admirable thing.

The People of Italy and One Taxi Drive

However, I have acquired a certain admiration and fondness for Italy. Not just its ancient cities, warm weather, or excellent food, but also its peoples. A taxi drive who drove me to the airport on my way out of town exemplifies the spirit of this people. He has lived in Florence his entire life (albeit a short life thus far as he is a young man) along with generations of his family. He said he drives to live but never lives to work. As we pulled into typically congested streets, cars and tourists clogging the center of the road, he did not lean on his horn as a New York cabbie might be want to do, he pulled out what I thought at first was a marine air horn. He held it out the window, smiled, and squeezed the device. It issued forth a distinct "squeak, squeak"—it was a rubber duckie. Tourists turned in amazement, laughed, darted out of his way, and applauded as he drove by.

He said, "I could use my horn, but then everyone will be mad at me and we will all be angry, but now, I get what I want and everyone is laughing. I love this city. We taxi drivers have a saying, ‘You can walk across Florence in 30 minutes, but to experience it takes a lifetime.’"

We continued to talk about the differences between New York, Boston, Indianapolis, and Florence. He commented he will have to drive a taxi in Boston for a week to ensure he remains appreciative of Florence. As we approached the tiny Florence airport, he reached over to the meter which showed 18 Euros, adjusted it to 17 Euros and said, "Such a short trip should not cost so much, eh?" I left him with the original 18 Euros and a tip and thanked him for the cultural education, though he never once pointed out a site or mentioned an artist’s name. Whenever I think of Florence, I will think of a taxi and a rubber duckie going "squeak, squeak."

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