Anne and I step aside from the slow-motion procession of tourists walking among the market stalls of Florence in the roasting sunshine and enter the Baptistery, a compact octagonal church with oblong-patterned, black-and-white façades like an enormous liquorice allsort. Our heads tilt upwards and we stare at the swarming life of the eight mosaic panels in the cupola, a hundred feet above us. Through my binoculars I can make out a colossal devil sitting in a cleft rock. He is horned and muscular and rather human. His forehead is corrugated as though in distress at his own evildoing. From each of his ears a snake oozes with a naked person writhing in its jaws. Between the sleek worm of his moustache and the black ringlets of his beard the broad mouth is gulping somebody whole. In each hand he clutches another naked human – a ‘sinner’, no doubt – their skin scored by his nails. Nearby, frogs are raping women and lizards are biting at people’s thighs. As Dante was being baptised here seven hundred and forty years ago, his baby eyes might have tried to focus on this scene.
Ghastly nightmares, diseased fantasies ... Never mind, reassurance is at hand. A yard or two away sits Christ the Judge. The monsters have shrunk to midgets, cowering round the lower edge of the panel – a blunt-nosed serpent, a blue, bat-winged devil which Dante used in the Inferno. The robed and haloed Godhead sits calmly on a bright blue rainbow. The nail-holes in his hands are the merest dots. His Byzantine mask-face stares down without expression. Unfortunately, I’ve no habit of credence or reverence to bring to this figure. His pose is too stiff, too unfeeling, to counterbalance all that wickedness and suffering, let alone console me for it. The power of this ceiling is all in the agony of the humans and their tormentors and none in the calm of His Omnipotence.
My wife and I are on a strange sort of anti-pilgrimage that began ten days ago on the Tuscan hill of Montesenario, an hour’s stiff bicycling above our hotel in Bivigliano.
We change down hurriedly into our lowest gear as the road climbs past locked metal gates leading to villas shuttered against the heat – then dismount equally hurriedly and push our bikes uphill past slopes luxuriant with beech and sweet chestnut. The hill is crowned with the usual Christian apparatus: barrack-like convent, church with campanile. At the back of the church behind the altar Jesus hangs on the Cross, eyes shut tight in near death, a pale cloth scarved round his crotch. He appears through swirls of white plaster clouds, an explosion of celestial meringue. Golden, overweight boys with little wings glitter and grin from among the sickly billows. Metallic spikes representing rays of sun like Thirties cinema decor shoot sideways from the tortured man.
It all looks like the last decadence of a cult, conspicuous evidence that this church could afford to commission a fairly expensive job from some hack down there in the city who was equally ready to do the honours for a saint or a duke, a martyr or a town councillor. Where were the believers in all this lavish display? On their knees at the rear, I suppose, mesmerised by the glamour of the show, lighting the candles they had paid for, whispering in time to the chanting of the nuns.
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[*] by Lorenzo Lorenzi, translated by Mark Roberts (Centro di, 200 pp., £17.95, 10 March 1996, 88 7038 298 2).