A few years ago, eager to do research for a novel, I floated the idea of a return trip to Florence over dinner. My husband, Christopher, paused the upward momentum of his forked rigatoni and gave me a thoughtful look. “Great idea. Maybe we should celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary while we're there, renew our vows in the cathedral.”
My mouth fell open, not in a flattering way, stunned by his suggestion. But I’m no fool. I rearranged my face and nodded. Before his final swipe of bread into dribbled Bolognese sauce, he'd committed to a departure date near the end of September. He offered to contact the church and make arrangements.
The months flew by as I worked on my research itinerary. Every few weeks, I inquired if he’d heard from anyone at Santa Maria del Fiori to discuss our upcoming nuptial renewal. His response was always the same. “I’ve sent emails in English and Italian. Nothing yet. Don’t worry.”
We told friends about our trip to Florence. Two groomsmen from our wedding planned vacations so they, and their families, could join us for our big day. The pressure was on. “Any word from the church,” I asked Christopher.
“Don’t worry,” he repeated.
I searched for the perfect outfit. When I brought it home, I immediately stowed it in a dark garment bag. “You’ll see it at the cathedral,” I told my husband. On line, I tracked down a florist within walking distance of the hotel we'd booked and agreed to a price for a small bouquet that equaled the flower budget for our wedding. Everything, I rationalized, costs more than it did thirty years ago.
On the eve of our departure, I looked Christopher in the eye. “Do we have the church?”
“We’ll find out when we get there.”
We arrived in Florence on a Friday afternoon, checked into our hotel, and hotfooted it to the cathedral with hopes of scheduling our vow renewal for the following day. Call us crazy. We joined the people waiting to enter. It wasn’t this crowded the last time we’d been to the city. When we finally crossed the threshold, we discovered a bee-line for visitors that herded us up a side aisle, skirted the altar below the dome, and sent us back down the opposite side aisle.
It was impossible to venture beyond the transept. The information desk in the narthex sat abandoned. This didn’t bode well.
“We may be having a DIY vow renewal,” I said.
“Let’s get out of here,” my husband replied.
We exited through one of the massive doors and walked down the steps. Christopher grabbed my hand. “Let’s try a side door.”
A stern, uniformed guard stood at the southern portal. Christopher approached and spoke to him in Italian to explain our predicament. At least, I believe he did. I caught a few words, but had no idea what he actually said. The Italian gave a rapid-fire response, opened the door, ushered us into the church beyond the tourist queue, and pointed to the front.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“There’s an English speaking priest hearing confessions,” my husband whispered. “I’ll go talk to him.”
Christopher headed to the confessional. I slid into a pew, thrilled to be alone in the history and art-filled space. I whipped out my camera and took photos. Lots of photos. I took notes. Lots of notes. I sat in awe, imagining all the drama that took place in this very spot. The murder of a Medici prince. Spats between Renaissance artists. Finally, I looked toward the confessional. The little red light glowed. Christopher was still in there. I took a few more photos just to be sure I’d captured everything. I reviewed my notes. I sat quietly and indulged in a day dream of my Renaissance hero, Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the dome overhead. I studied the patterned floor.
Finally, my husband popped out of the confessional, beaming.
He took my arm and steered me back to the side door. “We’re all set. Tomorrow at 4:00 p.m.
I let out a sigh of relief.
“I told you not to worry.”
“What happened? You were in there a long time.”
“The arrangements only took a couple of minutes," he admitted. "But it’s been a long time since I’ve been to confession.”
The next afternoon, I shooed Christopher out of our hotel to find our friends who said they’d wait for us near the cathedral doors. “I’ll be along soon,” I assured him.
I dressed, unwrapped the bouquet, and made my way to the church down via dei Servi to a steady chorus of “Auguri!” The journey through old Florence, with the cathedral's red-tiled dome in sight, had a surreal, cinematic quality.
My husband met me on the cathedral’s marble steps, his mouth agape in the most charming manner.
Don Mario Alexis Portella, an English speaking Italian priest, officiated our vow renewal in a side chapel near the front of the church. He said the longevity of our commitment gave him great hope. I remember thinking it a beautiful thing to give another person hope. My hands and voice trembled as I recited words I’d prepared for my husband. I said if I possessed the power to turn back time, I’d marry him again in a heartbeat, that I’d say yes, a thousand times over.
Bells pealed from Giotto’s tower as we left the cathedral to more calls of “Auguri!”
We strolled through the historic district to il David, a restaurant with outside seating on the Piazza della Signoria, where we raised glasses of Brunello while locals and visitors to the city showered us with good wishes.
Later, we dined at La Grotta Guelfa, another restaurant nearby, and toasted our friends, our marriage, the future.
After we left the restaurant, we encountered a procession of musicians and people dressed in Renaissance costumes. Oxen pulled a wagon stacked high with Chianti bottles. Florentines have a penchant for pageantry, and in this instance, they turned out to celebrate the arrival of the year’s new wine. Christopher turned to me and announced with the flourish of his hand, “Look, I’ve made you a parade.”
I couldn't help but laugh.
Some dismiss the idea of a vow renewal. “No need,” I’ve heard couples say. “Our original vows still work.” It's a logical response, even laudable, but for us it had nothing to do with our wedding vows working. It had everything to do with finding another reason to celebrate, for carving out time to honor our marriage and each other.
I’d do it again, a thousand times over.