In Florence’s places of worship, the sacred and the profane often compete

By Jessica Hayhurst

FLORENCE, Italy – Sacred spaces and places throughout Florence are faced with an existential dilemma: How to participate in the city’s biggest revenue generator, which is tourism, while at the same time preserving themselves as sites of religious practice.

Rev. William Lister

“There needs to be complete, unhindered access to sacred spaces,” Rev. William Lister, a priest at St. Mark’s English Church in Florence, said.

Lister’s ultimatum is understandable, but ensuring that access when the site also is a popular tourist destination can be a challenge. Tourists line up outside Florence’s Duomo, for example, long before the cathedral opens its doors, and worshipers have to enter by a side entrance policed by a contracted security detail.

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo, and St. John’s Baptistery are structures that date back to 1296. As the biggest Dome in Florence, it attracts millions of tourists, hosts daily mass, and hosts multiple masses on Sunday.

It’s especially challenging when it those same tourists who pay the bills of upkeep. Entering the Duomo, its baptistery, and climbing Gioto’s campanile cost 18 euros per person. To enter the Santa Croce basilica, tour its museum, and visit its operational leather-working school, visitors must pay eight euros. To enter Florence’s only synagogue, tourists pay 6.50 to a company hired by the synagogue to handle this tourist-facing activity.

Amedeo Spagnoletto

“We force [tourists] to come only during the time of visiting because the [tourism and worship] cannot match each other without a problem for both of them,” said Amedeo Spagnoletto, rabbi of the Jewish Synagogue of Florence.

Competing goals

Spagnoletto explained that visitors come with different expectations than those coming to worship, which is why the synagogue vigorously separates the two functions of tourism and religious practice. To the extent a site is overrun with camera-wielding tourists, its religious life and sacred space is threatened.

“We are focusing much more on the Florentine Jews than the outside tourists,” Spagnoletto said.

To protect themselves as sacred spaces, many religious sites prohibit photography, require silence inside, specify dress codes, restrict access to tourists, and close to the public during services and for prayer.

But sacred spaces must also make practical choices to financially support the use of the building.

St. Mark’s English Church makes no distinction between tourists and anyone else. All are welcome.

St. Mark’s, a relatively small Anglican church on the Oltrarno, or “other side of the Arno River), operates on 468 euros per day, collected mainly from offerings and revenue from various events hosted throughout the year, Lister said. He estimated that the larger basilicas, like the Duomo and Santa Croce, likely cost tens of thousands of euros per day to maintain.

“These are enormous, old buildings,” Lister said. “They have to be maintained.”

Church celebrity

For the larger churches, revenue comes largely from selling tickets to see their artwork, crypts, architecture and, often, holy relics. The Basilica of Santo Spirito, usually called Santo Spirito, also on the Oltrarno, is a prime example, drawing its share of Instagold-hunting tourists by charging admission to see Michelangelo’s wooden crucifix. A smaller basilica with unique charm, Santo Spirito also boasts of having been designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the Duomo, as well.

“People come here because they like the art here,” said Giuseppe Pagano, a priest at Basilica Santo Spirito. “It’s very special.”

Privately owned, Santo Spirito houses 38 side chapels featuring various works of art that range from the 14th century to the 17th century, including Michelangelo’s crucifix.

Pagano said the church strives to avoid becoming a prime tourist attraction specifically because it is a sacred space and place. The main church is open to the public, but tourists are asked to respect the sacredness of the space by following a few restrictions.

“We don’t like people to take pictures,” Pagano said. “We must conserve the church. The church is a place for the prayer, for the silence. It’s not a museum, it’s a church.”

Normal practice

As a percentage of all Catholic churches in Italy, these “celebrity” basilicas and cathedrals are rare. Their revenue-generating practices are, therefore, rare, as well.

Rev. Scott Francis

“Certainly there are a lot of bills to pay, but normally the Catholic church approaches that in a free will kind of way,” said Rev. Scott Francis, a priest at Santi Apostoli, an English-speaking Catholic church in Florence.

He said it is far more customary for churches to simply welcome and accept voluntary donations than to hire third-party companies to run touristic activities and enterprises, like tours and gift shops on the premises.

Some of Florence’s sacred spaces are so popular as tourist sites that they have to remind visitors of that fact. This sign is prominent in the basilica of Santa Croce, one of Florence’s “Big Four” basilicas.

In fact, many sacred spaces, such as the Duomo and Santa Croce, are actually state-owned, Francis said. The touristic operations are regulated, therefore, by the state, not the Catholic church.

“With the Catholic church it would actually be kind of scandalous, almost, to say you must pay to come into the church,” Francis said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

 Often what sells in Florence is history and tradition:

  • Basilica di San Lorenzo was first consecrated in 393.
  • Construction of Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore began in 1296 and completed in 1436.
  • The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella broke ground in 1279 and was consecrated in 1420.

However, it is their very traditions and roles as active churches that are threatened by the tides of tourists crashing on their shores.

‘Perfect’ frescos

Like Santo Spirito, Capella Brancacci has largely shunned the touristic light. Tucked away in a relatively quiet neighborhood on the Oltrarno, Brancacci features frescos that have been described by many art historians as “perfect.” But the church building appears relatively plain from the outside.

Tourist visitation in the privately owned Brancacci is restricted to specific hours and to one chapel of the church. And silence is rigidly enforced, perhaps a holdover from its days as a monastery.

 Like Brancacci, at the Great Synagogue of Florence, the only synagogue in the city, the emphasis is on the faith community it serves, not on being a tourist attraction. Spagnoletto said it is the very vitality of religious practice that tourism endangers that is the chief appeal to Jews visiting Florence and coming to the synagogue.

At St. Marks, because it is an English-speaking church, the majority of those attending are tourists, students and ex-pats, Lister said. Though called to serve this transient population, Lister said he believes each and every person is on a journey. Thus, he aims to facilitate growth along that journey. 

“From a spiritual point of view, the church regards itself as being on a journey,” as well, he said.

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