St. Mark’s English Church is just on the ‘other side’ of the Arno, a few steps away from the river, nestled between mom ’n’ pop shops on the busy via Maggio. But the striking statue that stands tall in an alcove on the wall hints to passersby that something special lies within.
Established on May 1, 1881, the church is part of an old Medici palace that was once owned by Machiavelli and later renovated in the neo-Renaissance style, still evident today. St. Mark’s not only holds mass, but also plays an essential cultural role in the community. The resident opera company is entering its 10th successful season, and the church has begun offering concert choir performances. It supports several charities, including a children’s home in South India and a community in Malawi, and the church gives to the British Institute as well as serving the homeless in Florence (more than 75,000 hot meals to those in need at last count). The church has expanded over the years, with an established congregation in Siena and a growing congregation in Bologna. The Florence location seats 400, averaging about 150 regularly at services. Currently in the process of setting up a fund-raising campaign to restore the building, St. Mark’s also hopes to purchase a new organ.
Father William Lister stands at the altar in St. Mark’s.
‘The more we can develop and diversify things here, the better. It has become a varied sort of place,’ says Father William Lister, who began a 10-year assignment to St. Mark’s in September 2012. Previously, he was a chaplain in the British army, a position he held for 16 years.
Saint Mark adorning the front of the building, created by resident sculptor Jason Arkles.
For example, the church commissioned Jason Arkles, resident sculptor, an American citizen living in Florence, to design and create the statue of St. Mark adorning the church, which was installed in 2007 (read an interview with Arkles in TF 78).
There is more art inside. Entering the spacious church, visitors make their way around grandiose pillars supporting the Pre-Raphaelite stenciled ceiling to reach the white marble altar in the center. Hanging from the towering archways are several intricate Venetian lamps and brass memorial plaques. A sparkling grand piano awaits its master, as do the churchgoers and visitors who settle down comfortably in the plush red velvet seats nearby.
And still more art: 10 years ago a group of Austrians were seeking to establish an opera company and fell in love with Florence for its appreciation of the arts. However, without a venue, their dream could not be made a reality. As active worshipping members of the congregation, they had an idea: stage the performances in the church. Today, every performance continues to be nearly sold out.
Although housed there, the Opera at St. Mark’s is a separate entity from the church. The location gives tourists and regulars a unique opera experience. The layout of the church allows audience members to sit very close to the singers and feel intimately part of the show, unlike the typically distant seats in large, tiered theatres. No binoculars are needed to make out a costume or face. The superb acoustics support the voices that fill up the entire venue. It is no surprise that audience members leave feeling that the entire performance was staged just for them.
Director of music Giovanna Riboli at her second instrument: the Beckstein in St. Mark’s.
Another new addition to the church is the director of music, Giovanna Riboli. A musician and teacher, this Florence native has undertaken the task of forming a concert choir at the church. Riboli earned a diploma in organ and piano in Florence and obtained a bachelor and master’s degree in performance and historical instruments in Amsterdam. Afterwards, she traveled to Buenos Aires for a six-month internship at an Anglican church and returned to Florence as music director of St. Mark’s in November 2012.
Riboli envisions a 20- or 30-person concert choir, in addition to the opera and visiting choirs during masses. Currently, the church choir sings hymns and religious songs, but the concert choir will perform early Italian music, English and even Latin song.
‘The performances wouldn’t be during services so people who just want to come and enjoy music and not necessarily attend mass will have that opportunity,’ Riboli says. She also aims to collaborate with the opera so that her new choir can sing during those performances.
‘We are fortunate to have such a talented person as Giovanna,’ Father Lister says. ‘It is a good place for her to develop this idea because the church is already well established in the city.’
With its community outreach, mission, and cultural programs (see page 7 for an event on famous expat Violet Trefusis), St. Mark’s brings much more than religion to the city.
For more information about the church, see www.stmarksitaly.com and for details about the Opera, consult http://concertoclassico.blogspot.it. Those wishing to join the choir can contact Giovanna Riboli at email@example.com.