The campanile bell chimes, deep but soft. It is 6:30pm. The church looms over the Oltrano and the rest of Florence, but the terrace is nearly empty.
This is the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte, one of the oldest churches in Florence, and one of the highest vista points in the city. Built in the 11th century to honor the final resting place of Saint Minitas, a hermit claimed to have hiked here holding his severed head under his arm after his beheading in central Florence, the church today stands a retreat, tucked far away from the hubbub of the imitation David and the souvenir vendors of the Piazalle below.
Inside, granite tombstones tile the floor. The air feels dusty, crisp – the incense is strong but the stone chills the air and threatens to carry any sound louder than a breath.
The bell tolls again.
The church reverberates, but its highlight remains unannounced. Monks, robed in white, gather one by one inside the circular cove downstairs, preparing for their nightly chant.
From within, a recitation begins, a singular murmur of something undecipherable, and then, a chorus, a haunting hum of indistinguishable speech.
Hushed whispers envelop the surrounding pews, inaudible but deafening there beneath the main floor of the church.
The Gregorian chant is low, somber, soothing. The procession resembles something nearly accessible – an order, a call and answer – but remains otherworldly and captivating.
A ringtone sounds somewhere off in the distance. Concentration is temporarily broken, but the chanting continues – wavering and yet deliberate. In its aura of darkness and secrecy, its energy is that of bated-breath, more sacred than mass: something significant held on to unaltered all these years.
In a trance, the half hour passes quickly.
The bell chimes again, and the chanting slowly tapers off. The candles are extinguished, stands and missals returned, gates closed and locked, the experience erased.
Back outside, the terrace remains largely uncrowded but for the few that happened on the procession, and the few that returned. That most tourists will never bother pushing past the draw of the Piazalle three hundred steps below to take in San Miniato al Monte is unfortunate, but it is a blessing for those that do. And those that do will often return, for the walk, for the view, and for the chance to experience a bit of a haven of their own.