And now for something completely different, a short piece about a Florentine experience some years ago: The Blessing of the Bikes.
Hoping to clear our heads after a New Year’s Eve of carousing and singing old Partisan songs, we headed out of Florence and up into the hills to the north for a brisk walk. The day was clear, crisp and bright, the perfect weather for a stroll near the monastery of Monte Senario, a thirteenth-century foundation devoted to poverty, penance and prayer, perched on a hill with wonderful views of the Mugello. We were looking for tranquility, but as we drove up the hill from the village of Bivigliamo, the traffic grew heavier. By the time we reached the monastery, zipping the Alpha Romeo into a parking space vacated only seconds earlier, we were in a crowd. As we turned into the long driveway leading to the huddle of religious buildings, we were greeted by the sight of row upon row – hundreds – of motor bikes, neatly arranged at an angle on either side of the road so that other vehicles and pedestrians could drive past. There were sleek, low-slung sport bikes, Suzukis in bright colours with rear exhausts like ship’s pennants, bulky Honda Gold-Wings with CD speakers and padded leather seats, and Moto Guzzis from the 1930s and 40s, all in red trim, bristling like Christmas trees with levers and handles. Lambrettas and Vespas in the pastel shades of the late 50s and 60s with beautifully curved rear ends reminiscent of voluptuous girls from Rome or Naples stood next to massive grey BMWs whose sheathed machinery accentuated their power. Of course there were Harleys, with their long forks and high handle bars but also rarer, less flashy Anglo-Saxon machines like British Triumphs and Nortons. More and more bikes drove up the hill, their drivers revving the engines, hinting at their power and speed while dexterously avoiding families and couples walking arm in arm in the winter sunshine. The light accentuated the brilliant colours. Scarves and little flags of peace dangled from handlebars; bikers strutted in a mix of brilliant red, purple and blue leathers and neoprene suits, their helmets pushed up above their heads, like knights at rest after a hard ride. Most of the crowd were dark-haired youths in their twenties, but there were plenty of biker couples as well as middle-aged men with sleek grey hair and leathers that bulged at the midriff. Every machine was pristine. The wooden handles on the old Moto Guzzis were polished to a rich hue. We were surrounded by gleaming metal, chains and drive trains glistening with oil. Everywhere machines were being stroked, polished and admired, their owners preening themselves in the sunshine. My son was mesmerized; my wife, a biker in her earlier life, was in seventh heaven.
But why were they there? What was happening? We knew there was a race track at Scarperia, a few kilometers away, and that the serpentine roads in the hills round Monte Senario were much favoured by bikers wanting to show off their skills, but why congregate around this isolated house of God? The answer soon lumbered into view. A priest advanced along the line of bikes. He had a small container full of holy water mounted at the end of a stem he held out with one hand. In the other he carried something that looked like a cross between a wallpaper brush and the sort of flywhisk favoured by African dictators that he kept on dipping into the water and shaking over each of the gleaming metal bodies. He was a bulky man with a full beard who one could imagine, despite his priestly habit, mounted on a Harley, a sort of clerical Hells Angel. He joked with the motorcyclists as he walked along, good humouredly scattering a few drops of Holy Water on machines that, as he pointed out, were Japanese. We had stumbled on the annual blessing of the bikes, a collective rite to secure safe journeys (if at high speed) in the year to come.
Apparently it works. The snorting dismissal of lots of British friends – “of course they need a blessing, given how fast they drive and how many accidents there are” – could not be further from the truth. Italy has far more bikes than any other country in Europe – at nearly three and a half million almost three times as many as its nearest rival – and the highest per capita density after Greece. But it also has one of the lowest accident rates. Some say that anyone who drives a motorbike has to be crazy. This is certainly true in Greece and Portugal, but also holds for Britain which, despite one of the best general road accident rates in Europe, has one of the worst for bikes. Either Italians are much better drivers (a view you can be sure everyone at Monte Senario would endorse) or they enjoy some special protection.
Driving back to Florence later that day, I thought about the ironies and contradictions of the scene we had witnessed. It had been a celebration of speed, technology and beautiful modern design, a love-in between high-tech and historic machines and the people who not only drove them but cherished them dearly. The bikes (not to mention their outsourced parts) came from three continents, consumer goods for prosperous westerners assembled by the global economy. Yet here were crowds of Tuscans – they came not just from Florence, but from Prato and Poggiobonsi – religiously, or superstitiously at any rate, seeking divine protection or, at least, a bit of good luck. The crowd can hardly have been particularly pious – Tuscany has the lowest church attendance in all of Italy – but, of course, what was at issue here was far more than religious belief. What we witnessed was one of those collective rites of association that are key vertebrae in the backbone of central Italian social life. Modern, global, traditional, distinctively Italian – ‘whatever’, as they say nowadays – it was the perfect start to the New Year, a celebration that had us all smiling as I gunned the Alpha round the sharp bends that descended back into the city.