In Firenze (Florence), I lived in the best possible Italian room—straight out of a 19th century novel. It was the last room but one at the end of a dark hallway, filled with quixotic paintings, sketches and odd statuary. When I opened the glass door, the orange curtain at the balcony would balloon into the room and turn everything orange. It was a small room. Most of it was taken up by a narrow bed. A bad copy of a familiar painting was on the wall. It was so bad it didn’t matter which one. On the other side of the balcony doors was a courtyard of gardens where more balconies hung into the space, some with drying laundry, all of them with pots of flowers.
Early in the morning, bells chimed from a half dozen churches. At night the courtyard filled with Italian voices and clinking dishes from a neighboring restaurant. The sound was like music – there’s rhythm and melody to Italian. But one particular night, sometime after 3 a.m., an ear-splitting rumble of thunder fell from the sky and into my room. Lightning danced around the walls and the world outside my window lit up like fire. I don’t know how old my room was, or how many times over the centuries, or decades, thunder had dropped into it from somewhere up there. But oh, what did believers who frequented the churches where the bells rang and the angels herded whole populations off to heaven or hell – what did they feel when Firenze was targeted by a storm of Biblical proportions?
Up was never more important than in medieval and renaissance Italy where Jesus Christ, his mother, his disciples and his angels filled the high walls and ceilings of cathedrals. The old towns are built on high hills where they’re topped off with towers, cupolas and steeples, and lush gardens are sandwiched between heaven and earth. Even the trees here participate in the heavenly paean. Spikey cypress, pointing up into the firmament, line the hills, tracing vineyards, country drives and the tops of hills.
“Our Father, who art in heaven…” God has been up for so many of us for so many years, we still look there when someone says the word God, or its equivalent. But I can’t believe there’s been any place where up has been of greater consequence than in Italy.