S OS with S Sorrensen

Certaldo, Italy.
Sunday 9.45pm:

Certaldo squats, like so many medieval villages in Tuscany, atop a hill. Makes it easier to repel your enemies.

The village layout has remained unchanged since the 12th century. For this Queensland boy who was amazed to find stone buildings nearly 150 years old when he first travelled to the southern parts of Australia, to walk streets that are paved with rocks smoothed by 800 years of foot traffic or to eat sorbetto al limone in a building elegantly constructed many hundreds of years before Aboriginal peace was forever disturbed by Cook’s arrival, it is mind-blowing.

The streets are narrow and winding. The houses, still lived in, have washing hanging from their narrow windows, pots of flowers at their front door, and grape vines at their back. It’s all brick and tile. (I never thought I would fall in love with brick and tile.)

Certaldo has a church. The Chiesna di Palazzo Pretono is not big. But tonight there are about 60 people packed inside its frescoed walls. The frescoes are chipped and faded and feature the pompous faces of saints and bishops on one side and a cheeky angel telling a young Mary that, hey, you’re going to be the mother of God, on the other.

At the business end of the church is a painting of Jesus being taken down from the cross, his poor heart bleeding.

In front of this ancient depiction is an orchestra. Local adolescents play the seven violins and two cellos. An older man with a large head caresses a harpsichord. Another man with a small baton conducts them. All are in Tuscan traditional dress.

A young woman sings. Her ringletted hair is in the same style as the rather startled Mary on the wall. The ringlets hold a red rose that matches her lips.

She can’t help but move as she sings. Her medieval dress sways. When she reaches for a high note, she dips her knees and then launches that note up to the ancient roof trusses with a flex. Her gloved hands flit and flutter with each melodic phrase. Her soul is a dancer’s, despite the traditional restraint of her role as a classical singer.

The conductor too is dancing. His arms are birds flying from note to note. He leans in to each young player as they play their part, the baton urging the melody from the instruments. The Italians sing, as well as talk, with their hands.

I’m leaning against the back wall of the church, its history seeping into my back like a chill. The young woman’s voice is a pied piper summoning ghosts of past songs that have seeped into the very plaster and stone of this church over hundreds of years.

The old church is alive. Present and past are stitched together with a cultural thread that holds fast against the onslaught of change. The walled village on top of the hill still repels its enemies with a deliberate and celebrated conservatism.

A spirit moves through the audience – it’s almost visible like wind across a Tuscan field of barley – as the singer closes her eyes for a final assault on a peak of emotion.

The small children sit quietly on their parents’ laps. Teenagers dressed with a style that seems to be given them at birth are soaking in the Tuscan soul. Men in casually elegant suits and women in stilettoes that negotiate cobblestone streets with practised ease sit motionlessly as the singer soars with a note so high, so pure, that it sends a centuries-old tingle up the collective spine.

The old people nod with their eyes shut. All is well in the village of Certaldo.

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