Street Shrines

Over the weekend, I was told that relics of Padre Pio were kept in the Chiesa di Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, locally known as the Chiesa Dante. So I wandered through the narrow medieval streets north of the Palazzo Vecchio – to be greeted by a ‘closed’ sign.

August is not the best month for a church crawl in Florence. Although all the big churches remain open, many of the smaller ones close until September, as priests and congregations escape the heat to the beach, or the mountains.

So, no Dante and Padre Pio for me.

In Florence, however, there is never a shortage of interesting religious distraction. Just look up.

No, seriously – especially when you’re in the narrow side streets, and particularly at street corners, look up.

Like the rest of Italy, Florence is full of street shrines of various shapes, sizes, and complexities. Images, particularly of Christ and of Our Lady, peer down at the tourist-filled streets.

These shrines remind visitors of just how ingrained faith was into everyday life until relatively recently. Writing for Hidden Florence, Fabrizio Nevola suggests that these shrines can be compared to CCTV, since they could cause unsalubrious businesses such as brothels or taverns to close.

This comparison is apt, as it draws attention to just how everyday such shrines were.

Descriptions of even recent religious practices often struggle to conceal a comparison to deliberate magical thinking. But this doesn’t account for the fact that street shrines were part of a whole world-view, in which the secular and the sacred, weren’t sharply distinguished.

Saying a quick prayer when passing a shrine was as natural as greeting a friend. Commissioning a shrine on your property both signaled minor wealth and served the community. Street shrines speak eloquently to a world in which the religious and the everyday were indivisible.

These shrines still influence the Florentine street art scene. Although the sight of fading, unloved shrines is a poignant sign of change, there is also continuity.

Graffiti parodying the Madonna, although sacrilegious, draws attention to the continuity between street shrines and contemporary street art. Abandoned niches are also brought back into use in humourous ways. This bust of a woman holding her nose appears in an alleyway off the Borgo S. Jacopo, which is filled with wheelie bins, and smells strongly of urine.

“The scent does not appeal to me…”

The street shrines themselves are wonderful, often overlooked gems in Florentine architecture. Their modern counterparts show their continued resonance in the local subconscious.

The closed church of Santa Margherita shows the the impulse to visit shrines also persists. A tourist placed a single red rose on the plaque outside the church – a tribute to Dante’s unrequited love of Beatrice, and an echo of the tributes left at street shrines in the past.

When you visit Florence, don’t forget to spend some time looking for these tributes to the human attachment to places and their history.

Chris Dingwall-Jones is an ordinand at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He is on placement at St. Mark’s during August.

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St Mark's English Church, Florence, Italy