Assisi’s Quiet Police

The 13th century Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy is one of the world’s most spectacular places of worship. From the moment you walk into this magical place, your eyes are drawn to the glorious frescoes, the stunning stained glass windows and the Franciscan Friars in their brown robes. But on a recent visit with my two little boys, ages 2 and 4, I was also captivated by a much less heralded institution: the Silencio Police.

Both the upper and lower basilicas have uniformed men, dressed like snazzy police officers complete with flat, wide brimmed hats who patrol the churches, scolding unruly visitors through wireless microphones. The first Silencio Cop we encountered had a voice that was so deep and gravely that it sounded like a Hollywood voice over for God, delivering an angry message to a non-believer.

When I first saw the Silencio Cop in his uniform, holding the microphone, I immediately conjured an image of the cop from the Village People. Only this guy didn’t sing YMCA, he had just three commands he imparted: “SILENCIO!” “SHHHHH!” Or “No Photo!” And they didn’t smile or dance, they just looked stern and grimaced at people.But most of the time, he just barked, “Silencio!” If the offender didn’t quiet down after that, he’d shush them to drive home his point. We visited the basilica on a busy Saturday afternoon and the place was packed, so there were plenty of people who got silencio’d, including my kids.

One could argue that the Silencio Cops were the loudest people in the place, but I was taken with them and the concept of policing quiet. I spent much of the rest of the day bellowing “SILENCIO!” at my children, who enjoyed returning the command. On the way out, I asked about the Silencio Cops and was told that they were paid security guards.

A place like the Basilica of St. Francis commands quiet but I think the concept should be expanded beyond places of worship. In an era of cellphones and a million other mobile devices, silence is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

I would love to spend a day riding the Metro in Washington, D.C., the “L” in Chicago, or the subway in New York in an official looking uniform with a battery operated wireless microphone on silencio patrol. I would look for people talking too loudly on their cellphones, and then I’d silencio them, and if they ignored me, I’d follow up with a good old-fashioned shushing. It might not work, but it’d be a hell of a lot of fun.