If the Pearly Gates need fixing, call Ferdinando
On Tuesday, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door at St Peter's Basilica and the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy began. Miriam O'Callaghan met the man whose family foundry made the Holy Door
Trucks thundering along the highway from Florence to Siena are oblivious to the charnel house on a hill just outside Poggibonsi. On a weekend morning in the Month of the Dead, I pick my way through truncated torsos, rows of toes, derelict thighs, discarded hands, cross-sections of gluteus maximus, medius, minimus, the severed heads of wavy-haired youths. On high shelves, mutilated putti, choirs of angels in a rictus of smiles, are all vision, no sound. They sneer at three men pouring scalding wax into an upended head.
In the next room, Ferdinando Marinelli awaits. Smiling, white-haired, ponytailed, he is polished brilliantly, yet discreetly, in the way peculiar to Florentine men. A dismembered virgin surrounds him in three parts, inside mini-mausoleums made of crumbled red clay. She is the Madonna of Bruges, in marble, stolen first for Napoleon, then for Hitler, and rescued from the Nazis by FDR's and Hollywood's Monuments Men. Now, in her bronze incarnation, she is to be committed to the flames at 1,150 degrees Celsius. Her twin is already ensconced in the Vatican Museum, and the Monuments Men of God are delighted. Thrilled. They have an important, collaborative relationship with Marinelli.
The work of the Marinelli bronze foundry, one of the few surviving, deserves much praise. Its bronzes grace not only the Vatican and the Casa Buonarroti, but the Kremlin, the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Washington DC, the civic spaces of several Italian cities, Montevideo and, more recently, Skopje.
"It is my life, our life," says Marinelli. Working in the tradition that dates back at least to the Etruscans, the foundry uses 90pc copper and 10pc tin. "No insults. No rubbish," says Marinelli. "When you have the responsibility of recreating the works of Cellini, Donatello, Michelangelo, the Romans, the Etruscans themselves, it would be a blasphemy to be any less than true, pure. It's about our reputation and standards, yes. But in the matter of the soul, the energy, I cannot take this risk. Nor would my people."
His people are 10 in number, each academically qualified in the arts or restoration, from or recommended by, the Accademia in Florence. They are expert in every stage of the process, from mould-making to applying the patina, the ingredients of which include ammonia, previously made from urine, reportedly - according to the master Cellini - better that of a young boy.
These are masters. They are unassuming. They don or doff layers of clothes according to the temperature demands of the wax and make their own chisels that wear down to what look like nails worthy of the Inquisition or a crucifixion.
Marinelli doesn't believe in miracles. He depends on them. And on Tuesday, it is the bronze Holy Door, designed by Vico Consorti and made by foundry Marinelli, that released God's love, forgiveness and mercy on a world perhaps never more in need of it. "Transformation is always possible," says Marinelli, "if we're open to it."
It is difficult to reconcile such innate spirituality with the first Holy Year, instigated in 1300, by the controversial Boniface VIII who decided he would rule mankind, body as well as soul. His Papal Bull Unam Sanctam (1302) declared that "it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff". The monarchies of Europe, though, were having none of it, particularly Philip IV of France, since Rome's claimed power involved his claimed money.
One hopes that the accounts of Boniface in full regalia, Peter's temporal sword in hand and bellowing "I am Caesar, I am the Emperor!" are apocryphal. But there is no doubt that Boniface's political and territorial ambitions did for the poet and politician, Dante Alighieri, seeing him charged with crimes he did not commit and exiled from Florence.
Today, the Vatican's account of the first Holy Year cites Dante as a "pilgrim" who wrote about the event in the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy. Sweet. If you believe The Sopranos is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the BBC's Carols from Kings. The reality is that as a Florentine White Guelph, Dante was bitterly opposed to Boniface and his ambitions. He sets his Divine Comedy in 1300. The academic John Ciardi observes how pilgrims were thronging over the Ponte Castel Sant'Angelo at the very time Dante was having his vision of hell. Moreover, far from paradise, Dante manages to place the supreme pontiff with the Simoniacs, head down, legs up, in the Eighth Circle of Hell. In Canto XIX, Pope Nicholas III asks: "Are you there already, Boniface? Are you there already? Already sated with the treasure for which you dared to turn on the Sweet Lady and trick and pluck and bleed her at your pleasure?"
It would be difficult to reconcile their successor, Pope Francis, with such thoughts, words or deeds. Even in terms of recent incumbents, far from being "a jet-setting, runway kissing" Man from del Monte saying Yes to the rich 'soul-markets' of the developing world, Pope Francis appears to have time too for the old, antsy Catholics in the old, antsy Christendom; those exiled by circumstance or by 'testing and tasting' too much white-cuffed, starched, canonical guff and not enough carpenter Christianity.
I don't know what he makes of the buffed, perfumed young fellas in the black soutanes and the sombreros, sleek as starlings, in the streets of Rome, even Dublin, the pendulous rosary beads appearing more Christian Lacroix than a source of spiritual meditation. A couple of years ago, I spied two of them, strutting across a deserted piazza, bedecked with bags from a luxury store. It was Ash Wednesday, and as I considered my father and his Black Fast, I heard his voice: "Who are you to judge? They could be on their way to a death bed, a soup kitchen, the bags packed with food, old jumpers, a drop of wine for a parishioner?"
The older I get, the more certain I am of my uncertainty, of the rightness of live and let live and, above all, of the transforming and transformative power of Mercy - capital M. So I'm looking forward to this Holy Year, though I've long left the Catholic fold. Despite 14 years with the nuns, I was unaware - or had handily forgotten - that even if our sins are forgiven, we must still do our time in Purgatory. Enter the plenary indulgence. And in the Jubilee Year of Mercy there'll be one for everyone who makes the pilgrimage through the Holy Door - in a true spirit of penance and contrition - this time, not only in Rome, but in designated churches across the world.
Plenary indulgences had a woegeous reputation. There is something literally soul-destroying about generations, continents, entire histories of good people believing themselves damned, saved or hoping for rescue or remission, based on what they could or were willing to pay. Loathers of Catholicism laugh about indulgences and their sale as if they were available, discounted, up to Black Friday. But since Pope Pius V severed the connection between money and remission in 1567, in this extraordinary Year of Mercy there will be nobody calling "Anyone now for the last of the plenary indulgences?" in a church near you.
Once a Catholic, I consider these weeks not handy shopping time but the season of Advent. For two years, they've been the time of Bethlehem skies - Caesar Augustus blue - in which I lost my father. At the foundry, I see him in the men working the bronze. The muscle memory, the confidence, the dignity of the abraded hands. The vernacular of the master craftsman.
Marinelli says: "For the Greeks and Romans, bronze was for ever. A few centuries submerged in the Mediterranean? Nothing." From antiquity, bronzes were melted down to make new works. I imagine the lives within the life of the pieces we see today. Explaining why the foundry tried and abandoned ceramic casts, he gives a delicious insight into the secrets of bronze and art. The resulting pieces "non cantano". They did not sing.
On Tuesday, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door and the bronze bells of St Peter's and churches across Christendom began pealing this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Only as they ring and sing, urbi et orbi, true to the life and lives of the ancient bronze, just what, or who, is being sung?