A monument in need

The Russian Orthodox Church in Florence

Kelley Robinson
April 7, 2011

In the city known as the 'cradle of the Renaissance,' surrounded by buildings roofed in predictable terracotta and dressed in Carrara marble, a cluster of five striped onion domes, each topped with a tall cross, is certainly not what you would expect to see in the Florence skyline. It is the Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ, at the intersection of viale Giovanni Milton and via Leone X. While the debate continues over the need for a 'suitable' place of prayer for Florence's growing Muslim community, we asked Kelley Robinson to find out more about the history of Florence's small community of Russian Orthodox worshipers and their place of prayer here, a building which seems both disconnected from its surroundings, yet at the same time somewhat complementary to the city's distinct architectural style. Or does it? Email inbox@theflorentine.net with your thoughts.

 

Less than a mile from Florence's famous Duomo, these brightly colored domes of a different kind mark the surviving history of Russian immigration to Italy and Florence. They also represent a culture that Florentines have accepted in their midst, despite the contrasting architectural style of the church in an otherwise homogenous area of buildings.

 

From as early as 1818, wealthy Russian immigrants had built private chapels in Florence, among them was Anatole Nikolayevich Demidov (1813-1870). A well-known world traveler and patron of the arts, Demidov garnered favor among Florentines because of his particular passion for the arts. He spent the majority of his time in Florence expanding his father's art collection in San Donato, and in 1837, he became the first Prince of San Donato and subsequently wed Princess Mathilde, the daughter of Jerôme Bonaparte. Their residence here, Villa Demidov, remains a Florentine landmark.

 

In 1880, with the enthusiasm of then-rector Father Vladimir Levitskij, approval from St. Petersburg was granted for a church to be built.

 

Early donations from wealthy Russians in Florence, including major contributions by the Demidov princes of San Donato, pushed the project forward. Even so, there remained many funding difficulties to overcome before the church, which is designed in the northern Russian style, could be consecrated upon completion on October 26, 1903.

 

The church in Florence houses many historic relics of the Russian Orthodox Church, including works by both Russian and Italian artists. Beautiful icons of the apostles, patron saints of the church and the passion of Christ cover the interior walls. These are hidden treasures for those lucky enough to enter the church when mass services are not being held. The two-level interior, which houses numerous historic artifacts, is a glimpse into the rich history of Russians who called Florence their home.

 

This church and monument to the history of the Russian community in Florence is among the city's least well-known tourist attractions but is known to locals as a good neighbor. ‘Yes, the Florentines like the church.

 

Our only problem is money,' says the church's rector, Georgij Blatinskij. ‘It is a big church that needs lots of restoration. It is very difficult.'

 

Blatinskij says the church has between 150 and 200 people in its congregation each Sunday. His job as the rector is to uphold orthodoxy in worship and aid parishioners. He also travels around Italy, speaking about the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church.

 

Blatinskij, who became rector in 1997, says the church needs at least 200,000 euro for restorative efforts. So far, he says, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ has only received a generous donation of 20,000 euro from one contributor, and he anticipates accumulating more.

However, twenty thousand euro is far short of the mark. While Florence may accept and appreciate the beauty of the Russian church in their midst, the city and its people need to help ensure its survival for future generations of residents and travelers.

 

Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ

viale Giovanni Milton and via Leone X

For mass schedule and visits by appointment, call 055/490148.

 

 

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