Florence, Jan 25, 2011: Last week my friend from Northeastern and I climbed up a hill (I felt like I was back in San Francisco) to San Miniato, a church up on peak that over looks the whole city center of Florence. We were sweating when we got to the top, despite the 35 degree and windy weather, but the hike was well worth this view. There was also a small but very picturesque graveyard in front of the church, which is what the picture of the statue is from. However what we’d really come for were the famous gregorian monk chants!
Once we got into the church we saw a bunch of familiar faces. Turns out one of the art history classes from our school was on a field trip to our same destination. As we approached closer to the group, we saw the teacher was conversing solemnly with—we did a double take—a monk! They were speaking in Italian so we, along with all the other SACI kids, had no idea what was going on. After a few more minutes the teacher turned to us and announced that the monk wanted to show us something. He opened a door and she told us that this room is not open to the public but he wanted to share it with her class—she had never even been in there before and she’s worked at SACI since the beginning of time! He told her that this small underground church was built in the 4th century before Christianity was even legalized and people still had to practice in secrecy! It was pretty dark in there so most of the pictures I took came out very dark or very blurry. The picture that looks sort of like a cave and the ceiling is made of rock is the one of the old secret church.
After marveling at how impossibly old that room was, we made our way back into the main building to hear the chants. It was such a bizarre yet oddly awesome experience. As a musical experience the chants were less than melodic and only one of the monks really had what I would call a “good singing voice”. As a religious ritual it held absolutely no cultural significance to me since everything was in Italian and I’m not at all familiar with Catholic traditions. For example not only could I not understand a word that was being said, I couldn’t even tell if this chanting session was any different from the way a regular Catholic service is run or if it was any different from how it would be done in America. However on an architectural level, I was simply blown away.
The acoustics in this building were beyond belief. The whole time I kept looking for microphones or wires peaking out from beneath the monks’ robes. But after searching and searching and not being able to find anything that remotely resembled modern technology, I had to conclude that what I was hearing was not being amplified or manipulated by any sort of audio equipment. Each note seemed to ring so clear and so loud and sounded so purely melodic. It was like you could feel each note leaving the monk’s mouth and vibrating through the air to finally settle in your ear and resonate off your ear drum. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard and I just kept looking at all the arcs and curves in the ceiling with total and complete awe.