Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and The Catholic Dress Code

One of the stops on the summer trip to Europe with my family during my teens was to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The historic, world famous, cockeyed structure appears in life as it does in pictures, careening off at an angle from the earth. This was prior to it's stabilization.

Galileo, according to legend, dropped two balls of different mass off of the tower to prove his theory that objects of different weights achieved the same level of acceleration. No evidence exists that he ever actually did this, or whether he was going to drop the balls off of the high side or the low side of the tower. One presumes the low side because if he used the high side the balls would have collided with the tower, thereby proving nothing. Excepting, of course , that he had not thought the experiment all the way through. In the neighboring cathedral his observation of a chandeliers swing after being lit and pulled back to the ceiling led to the development of the clock pendulum.

I was determined, at my young age, to walk the circumference of the tower on each level during my ascent. I was successful, although on the downward leaning side the feat is somewhat disconcerting. On one level I encountered my sister coming from the opposite direction. Gallantly, suppressing a scream, I stepped aside and clung to one of the towers pillars, allowing her to pass. After reaching the top I did not feel compelled to recreate my actions on the way down. I opted for the spiral staircase on the inside of the tower. Had I not gotten caught in the middle of a group on a bus tour of the site coming down a the same time as I this would have been a good plan. Instead, I had to fight off claustrophobia in the narrow passage at the top of the staircase as elderly tourists slowly picked their way down.

As we were about to enter the cathedral a young "hippie" looking girl, this was 1973, perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in me with my patched jeans and long hair reaching the middle of my back, declared "The pigs won't let me in!" She had wrapped a long sleeve shirt around her waist to cover her cut off shorts in an attempt to comply with the strict Catholic cathedral dress code. But, as this left her shoulders exposed, she was still refused entry. My mother, also wearing a sleeveless shirt, as befits the heat of an Italian summer, resorted to tying two of my fathers handkerchiefs around her shoulders before being deemed properly attired to enter the church. God forbid our clothes should piss off God.

To this day some of the policies regarding the proper form of dress in Catholic institutions continue to exist. As you enter the Vatican Museum in Rome there is a sign depicting a man wearing shorts and tank top in the center of a circle with a slash across it. These rules, apparently are not applied to some of the figures in frescoes I have viewed inside these sacred spaces. In several, bared men's arms, legs and torsos are on full display. There is one figure in particular that comes to mind in Florence's Church of St Croce. An adorable, well muscled young man is pictured assisting in  taking Jesus down from the cross. I found myself staring at the fresco for some time. Perhaps some thought I was transfixed by the religious pathos of the work, never suspecting that my interest was of a more prurient nature.

Eventually, these rules and regulations become innate in the veteran traveler. In Merida a gentleman who befriended us at a restaurant took us on a tour of the historic downtown section, at one point taking us into one of the venerable churches there. Due to the intense heat of the Yucatan I was wearing a sleeveless tee shirt. While in the church I felt decidedly uncomfortable. It was almost as if the saints lining the walls were looking down at me, rolling their painted eyes and shaking their heads in judgement of my inappropriate attire.

While in Mexico, it is suggested that men, if they intent to visit the interior of churches, or tour many urban areas, forgo shorts and sleeveless shirts. Since that uncomfortable visit to the church I have attempted to heed these suggestions. I did, indeed, hike barechested, wearing shorts while in the Mexican jungle seeking out Mayan ruins, however, we were the only ones in the area during those treks.

 Since Mexican men, as a rule, do not wear shorts, despite the heat in some portions of the country, outside of those areas that cater to the American tourist, I tend to wear long pants while traveling there. I stick out enough in that country as it is. No need to exacerbate the matter.


  1. I think it is a good rule to abide with what the locals are asking people to do to be polite, yes.

  2. It seems odd, however, that the dress code for tourists visiting a church is so much more rigid than for the congregation attending Mass and receiving sacraments. The priest at St. Joan's continually exhorts the faithful... or at least the 'present'... to show respect by dressing appropriately. It never seems to alter anyone's fashion choices.