How a Tuscan village came to put its faith in friends rather than saints and martyrs

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The parish church in a small Tuscan village has seen saints, martyrs and angels supplanted by startlingly lifelike portraits of recently deceased parishioners.

The Church of the Sacred Heart in the village of Ponte a Egola just off the Pisa to Florence highway is a solid, rustic neo-classical pile dating from 1879 with a bell-cum-clocktower on the side. The pediment on the façade is decorated with three angels blowing trumpets. But nothing on the exterior prepares one for the shock of inside. Flanking the crucifix are large black and white paintings of 31 members of the village who died within the past 20 years.

Villagers in the 5,000 strong community who attend find themselves eyeball to eyeball with the people they used to drink with in the local bar, accompany on fishing or shooting trips and trade gossip with or about.

One man holds an enormous fish, another saws away on a violin, a third poses with his large labrador dog on its hind legs.

Instead of paragons of virtue, the Holy Mother and the company of saints, exhorting worshippers how to be virtuous, Ponte a Egola's church confronts the local sinners with mirrors of themselves, with all their weaknesses and foibles.

The installation, which is to be formally inaugurated on 2 November, five years after the first portrait was hung, is the project of a local artist, Piero Vezzi. He says he got the idea when he became homesick for the people and the life of the village after moving to the nearby town of San Miniato.

"I felt an urge to record my many dead friends," he said. "An urge so strong that I couldn't suppress it. "Look," he said of the painstakingly realistic portraits, drawn in pencil from the photos he collected going from house to house. "They don't have shadows, they are really like ghosts. Most of them never went to church when they were alive, and now that they are dead they are in it. My grandparents are among them, but I also wanted to put all my friends there, the people I remembered from when I was a boy."

Initially, says Vezzi, many of the parishioners disliked the idea of seeing in the church every week this collection of old sinners, with whom their own relations were good, bad or indifferent. But during recent refurbishment work on a side chapel dedicated to Joseph and the Madonna, two niches were revealed of exactly the right size to receive Vezzi's pictures.

"It's as if they were made to contain them," he said.

Now they have their place and talk of removing the pictures has subsided.

"It's not easy," wrote Gianluca Nicoletti in La Stampa this week, "to look at the Most Holy One with one eye and one's former drinking mates in the pub with the other." But they have found their place: Carlo Rossi, the local doctor; Enzo, the village idiot; Rubino, the barber, who in the evening exchanged his scissors for a fiddle and turned his barber shop into a concert parlour, and all the rest.

"These, too," says the village priest Don Taddei, "are part of the people of the Lord." Ponte a Egola, once a cluster of huts around a tanning works, lost thousands of villagers in the 1920s to emigration as farmers moved to southern France in search of work. In the 1960s the leather trade enjoyed a prolonged boom, but today the village has lost much of its old character. Thanks to Piero Vezzi, it retains its old characters.