Even the silliest of books have their moments of sagacity, and in Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of spirituality and sexuality, Eat, Pray, Love, that moment comes early on.
During Gilbert’s stay in Italy, a friend theorizes that every city in the country has a word with which the essence of the city can be summed up. Rome’s word, he posited, is “sex” (debatable), Naples’ word is “fight” (not debatable).
And what about Florence? What about the city of Michelangelo, Galileo and Botticelli?
Its word, most arguably, is “beauty.” After all, the ancient Italian city is a veritable shrine to loveliness, with people flocking to pay homage to the beauty in its buildings, gardens, paintings and amazingly affordable leather boots.
They pay homage to beauty in the city’s churches, too. Architecturally, the churches are stunning. The works of art they contain without price. But for all that, many of those churches are not as beautiful as they ought to be. From them, something is missing.
That something (in many cases quite literally) is Christ.
Beauty, the Church holds, doesn’t simply exist for its own sake. It exists as a window to God. It’s meant to be transcendent, to point beyond itself to him. That’s why beauty teaches. That’s why it consoles. That’s why it heals. Because it contains within it glimpses of God.
That’s also why for the past 1,700 years, Catholics have poured their treasure into building beautiful churches and commissioning great works of art: to glorify in oil, stone and glass the God who is beauty and to proclaim his love to the faithful and unfaithful alike with echoes of his own loveliness.
Granted, lesser motives — power, competition, vanity — have also been at work. But ego was not the driving force behind two millennia of sacred art and architecture. The driving force was love of God.
You wouldn’t know that, however, from visiting many of Florence’s most famous churches today: Santa Maria Del Fiore, Santa Croce, San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella and more. Or, if you did know it, you wouldn’t necessarily experience it. Not fully. And that’s because the opportunity to encounter those churches’ beauty as it was meant to be encountered, as part of a combined witness of worship, prayer and devotion, is no longer there.
Ten years ago, the majority of churches in Florence began charging admission fees to tourists. The fees started out small, around 2 euros (about $2.45), but they’ve since risen to 4, 5, even 7 euros (about $8.50).
The reason given by the city (which owns the church buildings) and agreed to by the religious orders that run the churches is reasonable. There’s a significant cost to maintaining large, old buildings. There’s likewise a cost to preserving the works of art those churches contain. And with the heaviest traffic coming from tourists, not the ever-dwindling numbers of Mass-going Florentines, visitors should bear those costs.
For the Florentine authorities, the decision was simply good business. For the religious orders, it was that, plus an opportunity to secure greater respect for the sacred spaces.
“We had to do something,” Dominican Father Aldo Tarquini, then assistant prior of Santa Maria Novella, told Catholic News Service in 2001. “We’ve seen people come in on metal scooters and go around the church on them.”
Without tickets, he added, “opportunity for prayer wasn’t ensured, because people didn’t respect the place.”
The intentions were good. The effects have been mixed.