It's been difficult to get time to actually make a journal entry. I think the last one was just dealing with just our morning walking around Venice, and now I've been in Florence for a day. Some of the highlights... wow. Well, right from the beginning. We arrived after dark, around 10pm on Friday, and walked about 15 minutes to get to our hotel, the Hotel Torre Guelfa, in the 13th century Palazzo Acciaiuoli, originally the home of the Prime Minister of the King of Naples. We stopped at a vendor across from the train station, under the shadow of the church of Santa Maria Novella – the visiting of which was at the highest level of my goals for the trip – and Erik bought a large bunch of green grapes. In fact, we were rather stunned: they were the largest grapes I had ever seen in my life, more round than oblong, and around the size of a half-dollar. Already Tuscany was making a lushly rich impression. Dropping off our bags in our room, we climbed up the 13th-century tower to the roof of our Palazzo and took in the view of the city at night. Absolutely stunning. Gorgeous. Erik and I were both almost giggling in our delight with the view, as we could see major landmarks like the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo all lit up and dominating the night. The open rooftop of the Palazzo is set up as a deck and wine bar for the guests of the hotel with small wrought-iron chairs and tables, and is on two levels. After our initial look-around and exclamations, we climbed the curved outer staircase to the highest level of the tower. There we had a fun, unexpected conversation with a girl our age we found sitting in the darkness there, and whose solitude I was afraid we had interrupted. She turned out to be an American, with the distinct and exotic Sanskrit name of Sarojini, made the more so because she looked to be of European stock, as far as I could see in the dark: but I just love that kind of creativity with names. As we introduced ourselves, I learned that she was about to start a research grant in economics in New Haven, but was for the moment touring Italy by herself. As we began talking about our reasons for coming to Florence, I found that she and I had a lot of similar ideas regarding art, and there was such a strong resonance that Erik began to think that there was more of a connection being made than there was and excused himself for the night. In fact, I think this actually slightly alarmed the poor woman, and there was an awkward lull before things picked up again. It was a shame, though, because I had very much been enjoying talking with her until she became more guarded. After a while I simply excused myself and gave her her privacy again only to return to my room and have Erik berate me as a coward from the shower. I stole his grapes and tried to practice patience.
Moving away from the last of the statues, we headed north again up the Via del Calzaiuoli and soon came to the Duomo, the Cathedral church of Santa Maria del Fiore. We were walking up the street and, just around the corner of the last shops on the block, it suddenly appeared on our right, like this sudden iceberg. I had an image in my head of the watchman on the Titanic gripped with the dismay of knowing that what appeared out of the mist at that last minute was too huge to do anything about. I could not believe the sheer size of the thing. I had the same experience with the sudden appearance of Skellig Michael, back in '99 when I rented that spot on the fishing boat in the Atlantic off of County Kerry in Ireland. The Skellig was hidden behind the cabin for the whole trip out there as I sat on a box toward the stern, until suddenly it came around the right edge of the cabin or wheelhouse like this exotic nightmare, absolutely stunning, appalling in its size and majesty, and there was something of the same hugeness of the Duomo today. I sat down, then, and spent a few minutes just taking in its sheer presence, as Erik confessed a sudden craving for Sicilian-style pizza, which he'd glimpse nearby in an eatery open to the street and vanished to investigate. I was used to churches of considerable size – the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, or the Jesuits' Gesu Church at Marquette University, but even after our experience of something as grand as the Church of San Marco in Venice the day before, I was somehow quite unprepared for something that could swallow all of those other churches without effort. Even seeing the Duomo the night before from the top of the tower had not given me a sense of scale to prepare me for what I was feeling then.
As I was ruminating on this, and studying the façade of the Cathedral, with occasional turns toward the Baptistery, Erik came back and sat next to me munching on his pizza, which he confessed didn't quite measure up to his hopes or memories. While we were sitting there, a beggar-woman moved toward us and began appealing to us, apparently in Italian. I deal with panhandlers quite a bit around Marquette, and have had to learn to harden myself against all my instincts or even what, on the surface of the situation, my faith would have me do. My uncle has given his life to working with many of the poor in this neighbourhood and it was eye-opening to have him instruct me under no circumstances to give money to my locals, all of whom he assured me knew what social services were available and did not need to be begging. Many of these people are clients of his and suddenly have professed no need whatsoever for anything, once they saw him present. Erik muttered something similar about professional beggars working the square, as the woman continued to implore us, gesturing with her plastic cup in hand to her faded gypsy-like clothing and to her pregnant belly. Erik and I both told her "no" for a few minutes as she continued to almost chant her words. Erik gave her the remainder of his meal eventually, which we did see her move off and consume so perhaps there was a genuine need there. It is the fact that there are so many without such genuine need that make begging such a murky situation.
We moved over to the Baptistery's South Doors, and I began to tell Erik the story that some people use as the marker for the beginning of the Renaissance. That is, the story of the contest of 1401, when a call went out to artists to submit samples for the making of a matched set of North Doors for the building. In short, each artist was to make one sample panel on the theme of the Sacrifice of Isaac. There were two standouts: Ghiberti's and Brunelleschi's panels. Ghiberti's won the contest, and it is his work which makes up the north doors, with the theme of the Life of Christ. But it was Brunelleschi's panel that won the future. While Ghiberti's work showed a kind of state-of-the-art mastery of relief, Brunelleschi's panel made a quantum leap forward in its use of the rules of perspective that Brunelleschi had been working out. His figures leaped out of the bronze with a kind of life unseen in any work of his contemporaries. And for some tellings, that is the beginning of the Renaissance.
Others speak of other starting points. Giotto's work is one. Even if he never mastered the rules of mathematics that Brunelleschi did, it is in that early Master that we see the stirrings of what would become the art of the Italian Renaissance. Others write of the poet Petrarch, and the symbolism of his ascent of Mount Ventoux, and the emergence of a new world-transcending spirit evidenced there. Perhaps at the root of all of these are those who mark the start of this cultural shift as beginning with the figure of Francis of Assisi. Poor, powerless, and broken, there was no force greater for the Italian imagination than this figure who opened up all of nature and nature's world to the future. The heritage of not-quite vanished Rome and the impoverished broken body of the Christian saint of Assisi are the two ingredients most needed to understand the particular flavour of the Italian Renaissance.
After working our way the long way around to the North Doors, having to cross the street to round some construction, we studied Ghiberti's Life of Christ, picking out the stories he had chosen to illustrate, and murmuring about them to one another as we figured out various details. But it was as we came around to the East Doors, facing the Cathedral, that we saw that Ghiberti's art had not stopped growing with winning the contest, nor had Brunelleschi's breakthroughs gone without notice by him. Michelangelo himself called Ghiberti's East Doors of the Baptistery the "Gates of Paradise," and their telling of key stories of the Old Testament had profited from everything that the new rules of perspective had allowed artists to achieve. These panels had a different kind of life than the earlier ones, and it doesn't surprise me to read that Ghiberti considered them the principle work of his life. We were in fact looking at replicas, I knew, as the originals had been damaged in the huge flood of 1966, where the Arno River had risen not 19 feet above flood level, but 19 feet above street level. It was interesting reading to discover that the restoration of innumerable pieces of art still goes on 40 years later, but that the modern sciences of art restoration actually owe their existence to this huge disaster at one of our great centers of our heritage. Old piecemeal restoration in the past had long done more damage than good, but the careful systematic study of how to restore the damage of 1966 has now benefited art treasures the world wide. We studied these replicas now, in order to see the art as it was meant to be displayed, but we knew we would shortly be seeing the originals in the Museum of the Cathedral.
Here we were accosted by more beggars, including the woman we had run into before. We declined each of them in turn as we made our way toward the steps of the Cathedral, but I was beyond shocked when the original woman answered my "no" by taking her cup and hitting me in the face with it! I was more stunned than hurt, although my lip and nose smarted for some minutes. I kept repeating to Erik, "I can't believe she hit me!" And it was here that Erik and I both noticed two things. First, it seemed that every one of the beggar-women begging among the tourists around the Cathedral was pregnant. Odd, that. Right? Then, just as I was beginning to get suspicious, Erik pointed to one on the steps for whom the seam running around the edge of her "pregnant" belly was visible through her clothes as she paused in her work. Unbelievable. Here I was stuck in between my admiration of a celebration of human achievement, but also having been worried and ashamed of my unwillingness to trust that those begging of me had a real need that I was neglecting or rejecting. And the truth here was something else.
Go to: Florence: Day One, Part Two