It's nearly twenty years now since my first experience of living in Italy. In 1994, I spent six months working in Frascati and living in Monteporzio Catone, a small town in the Alban Hills outside of Rome. One evening, I became aware that a lot of noise was coming from the square behind my flat; so I stuck my head out the window to see what was going on. It turned out to be what I can only describe as a fully-fledged Passion Play; complete with a convincingly bloodied Christ dragging his cross through the streets of the town, followed by what looked like a sizeable proportion of the population. With eerie, and suitably apocalyptic, timing, the skies darkened, a colossal storm broke, and within minutes the streets were awash and lights flickered on and off throughout the town.
With every passing year, Easter, in the UK at least, seems to be becoming little more than just another Bank Holiday. It feels different over here. There's the sense that it still genuinely matters to an awful lot of people.
So, with that in mind, we decided to attend Mass at St Mark's on Thursday night. I have to say that I really wasn't convinced this was a good idea. Neither Caroline nor myself are Catholic, so was this not – at best – a little tacky or disrespectful?
I was half-expecting to be turned away at the side-entrance to the Basilica (I have no idea why I thought this, perhaps I thought we'd have to complete some sort of theological questionnaire to be be allowed in) but St Mark's are obviously geared up for this. The most significant parts of Mass are prefaced by translations in four languages, and it is stressed that only Roman Catholics should receive Communion. And, crowded though the Basilica was, it was evident that more people could have fitted in – it wasn't as if we were denying one of the locals a place.
We managed to follow things reasonably well (it's not actually all that different from the Anglican service), considering that we were constantly having to mentally leap between Latin, Italian and English; although the sung version of the Lord's Prayer, in Latin, is going to take a bit of work. The evening Mass on Holy Thursday is more correctly known as the Mass of the Lord's Supper, a significant element of which is the Washing of Feet. In this instance, the Patriarch washed the feet of a number of children who were about to receive their first Communion (I was amused to see that a number of the kids were 'dressing down' for the occasion – jeans and trainers were a common theme). Following Communion, the service concludes with the consecrated Host being taken to a side chapel in readiness for Good Friday Mass.
It's a powerful, solemn experience. The golden glow of the interior of the Basilica, the clouds of incense, the music from the (invisible) choir, the slow procession of the priests, and, everywhere you look, those extraordinary mosaic images from the Bible. It's religion with a capital 'R'.
The following night we returned for the Veneration of Relics. This doesn't seem to have any particular liturgical significance as a service, and didn't attract the same number of people; it was a memorable evening, nevertheless.
The relics are brought out in solemn procession, and placed along the iconostasis: a fragment of the Cross, a scrap of Christ's robe, a piece of the column from the Flagellation, two spines from the Crown of Thorns, one of the nails, and part of the reed from which Christ, on the Cross, was offered vinegar. Finally, a small crystal vial set in an ornate golden reliquary is placed on the altar. It is said to contain blood from the spear wound. Readings are interspersed with music (antiphonal pieces from Palestrina, Monteverdi, Mozart et al; all beautifully sung); following which the relics are carried through the aisles of the Basilica.
Again, as an experience, it's an undeniably powerful one. As a piece of pure theatre it was extraordinary, reminding me of nothing so much as the knights venerating the Grail in Wagner's Parsifal. But, I ask myself, how much of the emotional impact was due to its theatricality and music? Did I stand there genuinely believing that I was only feet away from the actual Blood of Christ? And for me, at least, that was just too much of a leap of faith.
Fifty years ago, my compatriot Jan Morris went to the same service and wrote “Incense swirls around them; the church is full of slow, shining movement; and in the Piazza outside, when you open the door, the holiday Venetians stroll from cafe to cafe in oblivion, like the men who sell Coca-Cola beneath the sneer of the Sphinx.” We emerged into a clear Venetian night, a perfect moon shining above Piazza San Marco, and were assailed within seconds by a street hawker trying to sell us some tat. Some things don't change that much after all.