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Visitors get their spiritual game on in Venice

July 24, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Commentary

As a rule, my church attendance comes with the predictability - and the frequency - of Halley's Comet. So it might surprise the good folks of Benevola Methodist that in Venice, I spent a lot of time in churches.

But in Venice, what else is there? You're either in a church or in the drink. The gondolas, frankly, did not have a lot of appeal.

The interiors have a lot of red velvet with leather hearts stitched onto the seats and frizzy orange fringes outlining the lot. You would never be really sure if you were in a boat or a brothel.

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The other way to get around town is in a ferry boat or water taxi, which is easy enough if you can make sense of the routes and schedules, which, of course, you can't.

So they built a lot of churches through the centuries, probably for the purpose of praying that global warming would not kick in for another 600 years, saving the city from an immediate swamping.

You can't help but suddenly bump into one of these antiquities about once every 100 paces.

Venice tends to be like one of those corn mazes with multiple dead ends and no real predictability of where one might end up. But even a complete stranger to the city can impress a companion by saying, "In another couple of blocks, we ought to be coming up to a church." They will think you are the Randaldo McNally of Venice.

One of the more interesting ones is the Basilica of Saints John and Paul, a striking brick assembly that was fashioned in the 1400s. Just outside is the magnificent statue of the same time period, a mounted monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni.

It is incredible to think that when John Smith paddled up to the bank of what was to become Jamestown, ole Bart had been staring down from his horse onto the streets of Venice for the better part of two centuries.

He doesn't look the worse for wear, and neither does this glorious Basilica. I was happy to pay $3 for a tour. (Not only visiting a church, but paying for the privilege; if anyone was struck by a thunderbolt on July 12, my apologies.)

The grander of the soaring, backlit altar is first to grab the attention. The ceiling is all but lost in the clouds. Arches and marble columns the size of sequoias march forever down the sanctuary, and smaller, marvelously decorated chapels split off perpendicular from the nave.

A strong sense of sanctity and holiness, of reverence and awe, permeates the institution - or it would, if not for the American tourists. Nothing interferes with six centuries' worth of sacred veneration quite like a Hawaiian shirt.

Needless to say, great art adorns most every wall, revered paintings of awe-inspiring events, such as "St. Hyacinthus Miraculously Crosses a River," and "St. Hibiscus Miraculously Ties His Shoes."

The detail and the beauty is simply overpowering, and I thought I might get an "insider's view" of the significance of the artifacts, because there was an art professor lecturing his class just inside the main door. But all I heard was about 10 minutes on why a basilica is not a cathedral, although a cathedral can be a basilica. And they wonder why public education is failing.

So I was pretty much on my own. I wandered through these humbling halls of spirituality, through the nave, vestry and sacristy. I strolled through the Salomoni Chapel, St. Dominic Chapel, the Chapel of the Cross and the Magdalene Chapel.

I crossed the inspirational presbytery to the Trinity Chapel, the Chapel of St. Pius V and the Rosary Chapel, and walked out into the small basilica courtyard where I discovered - a basketball hoop.

I don't know why that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the contrast, I guess.

Maybe every good basilica needs one. You know, you can only hear so many confessions before you need to blow off steam by stepping out of the sacistry and hitting a few jump shots.

And perhaps one day it will even inspire some magnificent work of art on its own.

Tourists 600 years hence will marvel at the great work, "St. Dianthus Miraculously Hits Two Free Throws With .02 Seconds Left On The Clock."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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