Seeking Sacred Space in Italy

by Gillian Drake, September 2012
I WANDERED INTO A BEAUTIFUL CHURCH YESTERDAY, more like a small basilica, really, in Busto Arsizio, the small town on the outskirts of Milan where our friend Petronio lives. Each church I visit in Italy amazes me. They all have their own character—some masculine, and some, like this one, so feminine I imagine it’s like being in a womb. This one is dedicated to San Giuseppe, and it’s hard to believe it was built and designed by men. Outside, the facade is a faded golden marble, but inside, it is astonishingly flesh-toned, the walls lined with blocks of granite which has been finely chiseled to give a felt-like finish in alternating colors of light pink, soft grey, and a darker, almost terracotta color. The massive pillars on each side of the nave reach up to support extravagant baroque arches billowing high above, and every inch of ceiling is painted with scenes of cherubs and angels cavorting against a blue sky. The altar piece, instead of a gruesome crucifix, is like a Dresden centerpiece, four-sided, about 20 feet high, a confection of white marble figures, angels and curlicues piled on top. Every available space was decorated with masses of white lilies and tiny pink carnations, probably for a wedding, or maybe for the funeral that I sat in on, though I think probably not. If the designers of this sacred space had intended to create an impression of heaven, they succeeded, as I had a profound emotional response, the kind that art often provokes, where I feel I’m either going to throw up or burst into tears.
     I first realized the power of sacred space when I visited Assisi in 2001. I was not on a pilgrimage of any sort, just a tourist, getting reacquainted with Italy after a 30-year hiatus. In fact, if it had not been teeming with rain that day, we probably wouldn’t haven’t visited the Basilica of San Francesco at all, viewing it as a tourist trap. But since we were there, why not? So we hailed a cab and joined the throng of Italian pilgrims intent on touching the tomb of St. Francis and viewing his “treasure,” his worldly belongings. But I was completely unprepared for the sense of love and piety that was palpable on descending into the old chiesa. It was more like a cave than a church, which are usually designed to reach for the heavens. This had low, curved arches, every inch decorated with ancient frescos, many by Giotto. The lack of windows created a closeness in the air and there was a sense of profound peace, a true refuge from the frenetic world beyond the walls. I know I’m not alone in having this reaction—others have told me that they, too, wandered through this holy place with tears running down their cheeks. This is indeed a sacred space, filled with beauty, created with love, to offer comfort to all who seek it. This kind of feeling transcends religion, it is a universal gift, and I was awed to realize that the love and inspiration of St. Francis and St. Clare could still be felt 800 years later, that it was their influence, their love, we were being touched by.
     On the same trip, I had visited Siena, a magical medieval city with an imposing duomo (cathedral) built of black and white marble. Inside, there is more black and white marble, with portraits of a succession of popes arranged around the top of the massive pillars. Marble floors, marble walls, marble altars—hard edges everywhere, and many carvings of saints and popes and crucifixes, definitely a masculine place. I felt not a frisson of awe or peace visiting this place; it was obviously built as a display of wealth and power, not so much to glorify God but to outdo Florence and Lucca, Siena’s rivals. I find that the city of Florence has the same effect on me. It feels muscular, grey, masculine, all about money, business, and power. After all, Florence gave us the idea and name for a bank. I feel uncomfortable there, and have yet to feel my soul stir in Florence. Though it houses a fifth of the world’s art treasures, they are mostly hidden away in museums, palaces and churches, and one is left to wander the narrow city streets and dark alleys searching for a glimmer of charm in some secluded courtyard through locked iron gates. Maybe it’s the hoards of tourists and American coeds, but Florence is not an easy city to penetrate, and sacred space seems in short supply. Goethe felt the same way; he said in his Italian diaries, “I did not wish to stay long . . . I hurried out of the city as quickly as I had entered it.”
     Then there’s the church in Codiponte, a little village near ours, which is built in the early Romaneque style on the site of a Roman temple. It is unadorned with walls of plain stone, and has startlingly explicit carvings, fertility symbols, decorating the capitols that church officials seem to have turned a blind eye to. An interesting place, but again lacking in any sense of the mystical.
     It seems to be in the more humble places that one feels one’s soul stir, often in simple churches decorated by artists and artisans, most anonymous, whose only goal is to create a place of comfort and beauty. I am thinking of the church in Sarzana I visited by chance. A fire long ago destroyed the decorative plaster interior so it now resembles a protestant church with bare stone walls. It seems very sparse, naked almost. But halfway down on the left-hand side there is a statue of Jesus of Nazareth, about seven feet high, carved out of rich chestnut wood, with arms outstretched and a look of compassion on His face. It is a true work of art, though the artist is unknown. I can only say that standing there, admiring the quality of the carving, I suddenly felt as if I were about to be taken into His arms and comforted, and that too, was an experience that touched my heart. In this unadorned church, there was the very essence of the teachings of Jesus—love and compassion.
     The little church next to our house in the tiny village of Reusa, in Northern Tuscany, is another such place. Modest and simple, it serves to mark the passing of time with baptisms, weddings, and more often these days, funerals for this small and dwindling mountain community. The women of the village—Lina, Rosetta, Ida, Meralda, and Carla—gather every Friday afternoon per pulire la chiesa, to clean the church. It only gets used for half an hour a week, on Saturday afternoons, when the priest, who has so many villages to take care of he can’t get to all of them on a Sunday, arrives in his little van and rushes into the church to perform a somewhat perfunctory mass. But the women polish and scrub the little church, covering surfaces with white lace, adding arrangements of wild flowers and the odd potted plant, and filling it with love. They have made it into a womb-like space, a sanctuary to escape from the rigors and hardships of everyday life, a place of peace.

Neighbors Meralda and Carla preparing the church of St. Bartolomeo for mass, Reusa, Italy
Neighbors Meralda and Carla preparing the church of St. Bartolomeo for mass, Reusa, Italy
     I love to go to services at this church which is the heart of the village, but do find them lacking in spiritual quality, all that alternating sitting and standing and muttering and chanting. What moves me more is to spend half an hour lying in the grass in the olive grove, nestled among buttercups and clover, listening to the call of the cuckoo and the cow bells gently clanging in the distance. This for me is a truly sacred place, a place where I can be totally present and give thanks for this gift of being able to experience the world as a truly beautiful, peaceful place, for finding Heaven on Earth. I think we all need a place like this.
Bench in olive grove next to church
Bench in olive grove next to church — Reusa, Italy

Gillian Drake is a Health/Life Coach, Medical Intuitive, Soul Analyst and Author of many books including “The Truth About Food: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Dangerous“.  She lives on Cape Cod in the US and spends part of every year at her home in Tuscany.


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