Every view of Florence and her crowning Duomo has been called “the perfect view”. But there is one belvedere where, for some reason, throngs don’t venture, which is just that little more perfect than the others, and that is the view from the Cimitero Monumentale delle Porte Sante, the Monumental Cemetery of the Sainted Doors. The cemetery sits in the shadows of the more than 1,000-year-old Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, the highest point in the city.
The story of San Miniato is that Miniato (Minas) was an Armenian prince who served in the Roman army under the Emperor Decius in the 2nd century. Minas, however, was a secret Christian who was denounced to the emperor; he retaliated by having the prince thrown into an amphitheater with a panther. The panther refused to eat him. The Romans were so frustrated with the non-theatrical outcome that they had Minas beheaded by a human in front of the emperor. As the story goes, once the deed was done, Minas’ torso then picked up his head and the two made their way across the river Arno, head in hand, to one of the highest points in the city. What happened to headless Minas we don’t know, but a shrine to him was erected on that lofty spot above the city and by the 8th century a chapel was memorialized up on the hill. In 1013, construction began on a significant church and an adjoining Benedictine monastery soon joined the fold. The friary changed hands several times and today the Olivetans run the place. In the 1830s, a plan was created for a massive cemetery and within a decade the burial ground took its current form.
The San Miniato al Monte edifice is a breathtaking example of Romanesque architecture. It is considered the finest example of its kind in all of Tuscany and perhaps one of the most elegantly refined basilicas in the whole of Italy. The structure is simple and airy, and the strangely welcoming vaulted crypt is said to hold the relics of headless Saint Miniato. There’s the Chapel of the Crucifix, which was designed by Michelozzo, whose grand mosaic above the nave is undergoing restoration; the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal, who died in Florence in 1459 when he was ambassador; the floating frescoes; and the carved marble pavement. The basilica has not changed much since its original construction with only beautiful additions throughout the centuries. To look out of the grand front entrance is to see all of Florence at San Miniato’s feet.
To the left of the marbled edifice is the entrance to the cemetery established in the early 19th century. Quite a few notables are buried there: Carlo Collodi, the creator of Pinocchio; Lazar Berman, the Russian pianist who settled in Florence; the Florentine cinema and theatre director, Franco Zeffirelli; and so many more, but most touching of all is the landscape of a cross-section of almost two centuries of humanity.
As the cemetery came into fashion in the mid-19th century, so did photography. Many a grave is adorned with actual photos of the local resident. Some have carved likenesses, not in the form of cameos, but full busts, and in some cases, full statues, as in the young couple who appear to have died in the Second World War, she a young bride, he a young army officer. There are rows of intricate mini-mansions acting as chapels for the departed. Between the busts on pedestals, images of residents, grand chapels and the simple headstones, there is a sense of community unlike any other cemetery. In most cemeteries the marble and stonework seem to put a distance between our world and the next. Not in this Cimitero Monumentale. Wandering among the remembrances, we feel the presence of those who reside there, real Florentines who lived Florentine lives, and who, even in the broad warmth of the summer Tuscan sun, seem to gather to welcome the visitor to this eternal city they call home.
Between the busts on pedestals, images of residents, grand chapels and the simple headstones, there is a sense of community unlike any other cemetery.
And just as one is ready to descend back into the center of the city, to the right stands a shop where the Olivetan monks sell their beloved wares: liqueurs, honey and herbal teas. A community experience indeed.
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