Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal: Europe Trip: Florence, Day One, Part Two

Florence, Saturday 22 July 2006 Continued
(Actually 12:37am Sunday, recording.)

We made our way around the south side of the Duomo, pausing along the way to study the details of the façade on the church itself and on the tower next to it that had been designed by Giotto. Erik, as I had learned when we were at San Marco in Venice, was particularly enamoured of the open corners of such buildings, where two wings – or in this case the nave and the transept – come together. The multiple planes coming together at these points, with its intersections of lines, surfaces and textures, made such angles architecturally exciting for him, he explained to me. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I could see what he meant about a kind of visual busyness to such areas of a building that the broader surfaces lacked.

So we made it over to the Museum of the Duomo, where we soaked in the originial Ghiberti panels to the Baptistery doors we had just been studying. We moved through the first several rooms somewhat leisurely, looking at medieval detailwork that had been taken down from the façade of the Cathedral for its protection, and working our way to the panels, which are displayed in the old courtyard of the building, which used to be the workshop of the church. Now the courtyard is roofed over in glass, but the space is still preserved. It was in this courtyard that Michelangelo had spent two years carving a giant, oft-rejected block of marble into his masterful David, which was still on our list to see. It is a different treasure of his, though, a Pieta, that is, a work with the subject of Christ’s body after his crucifixion, that is now one of the chief attractions of this museum. But now, along with the panels for Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, the courtyard is given over to a lesser-known work from the Baptistery (like the door panels, now replaced at the Baptistery by replicas), a statue set portraying Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Erik and I were both unexpectedly drawn to this, and spent more time standing there, talking about it, and pointing out details and ideas to one another. The sculptor was Andrea Sansovino, who I don’t know that I’d ever heard of before. I found myself most taken by the humanity of Jesus as he was portrayed in his baptism. In particular, it was the way he held his hands that added such humanity to his facial expression, giving a sense of being profoundly moved by the spiritual experience he is undergoing, and – given what is related in the text of the Father speaking His approval and of the Spirit coming upon Jesus – a sense of a powerful intimacy with God being consumated. After that welcome surprise, we went in search of our intended goal.

We spent a long time with Michelangelo’s Pieta there, the one he had intended for his own tomb, and that I think was a huge influence on Ivan Mestrovic’s Pieta at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame. Erik gave me a lot of time there, for which I was very grateful. This Pieta was up near the top of my Must-See list while we were in Florence, and so I first just sat off to the side of it for a time. I’m not sure if I can explain why I find it so compelling. The biographical edge certainly has some draw: like Mozart’s Requiem, you can’t help but feel intrigued by one of our greatest artist’s work as they labour at the close of life, with a vision of death and that horizon drawing near, with all if its ultimate questions and implications coming more into focus.

I know that, like Mestrovic’s Pieta, I’m utterly captivated by the hooded male figure at the summit of the statue. The written guide here described that figure as Nicodemus, from the Gospel of John, chapter 3, and said that Michelangelo had carved that figure as a self-portrait. Certainly, that seemed arguable, looking at the figure, and fit into a long tradition of Christian artists contemplating their lown lives in the light of the events of the Crucifixion, such as Rembrant’s memorable painting himself into a scene as one of the soldiers crucifying Christ and raising the cross. What didn’t make sense to me was the identification of the figure as Nicodemus. That just sounds like people who have done a sloppy job of researching the scene. Rather, it makes perfect sense to me that this figure would represent Joseph of Arimathea, the Sanhedrin member who – like Nicodemus – was a secret follower of Jesus’ despite being a member of this supreme court and council of the Jewish leadership that had pushed for his execution. It was Joseph of Arimathea who had Jesus buried in the nearby tomb he had recently had made for himself, given that the Sabbath was quickly drawing near and there was relatively little time left for the preparation of the body for burial. In some ways, those details seem to have little to do with the statue itself, but it does seem important that if we’re going to understand a work like this – particularly one where there’s something of a self-portrait involved as well – then it is important to correctly identify the role in which Michelangelo has cast himself.

What would Joseph of Arimathea represent here? A man who serves Christ however he can? Who honours him in face of disapproval? Or is Joseph seen as doing too little, too late? Could it be a self-critical role regarding his faith that Michelangelo admits to in this stone? Or is Joseph seen as offering a tenderness in begging Jesus’ body from Pilate, and burying him as a man of status, treating his body with honour in mourning, and embalming him in around 125 pounds of spices and ointments? The role of Joseph can be read a number of different ways, clearly, and perhaps even reading Michelangelo’s letters where he deals with his own spiritual life will not help us overcome this inherent ambiguity.

What do we see from the work itself? As I began to circle the statue, studying it from different angles, occasionally photographing certain details (without a flash, of course), sometimes with a quiet suggestion from Erik, I considered the evidence of the work itself. First off, the statue is obviously not at Michelangelo’s tomb. A flaw in the rock suddenly sent a limb flying off and the Master had to give up the work. He gave the remaining pieces to a student of his, who repaired the break, and who further finished the figure one of the women – perhaps Mary Magdalene? – who completes the quartet portrayed. The mood strikes me as one of tenderness. There’s great power in the figure I’m now calling Joseph, and great strength to him in lowering the body. Jesus’ muscular figure is literally a dead weight for the other three to bear, and we can see this quite easily: he sags awkwardly, but the three are entirely focused on supporting him. Their concern grants the dead body dignity. Or perhaps they recognize a dignity that is still retained in spite of the ignominy of death. The dichotomy of death – that the dead one is both present and lost – is captured in their obvious concern and attention to Christ’s body, and in this Michelangelo captures one of the most elementally human moments of our existence: in the incomplete, unfulfilled way we all relate to our dead. Death is the ultimate frustration for human relationship, and the death of Christ is the ultimate experience of death for all humanity. Christ’s death acknowledges the utter brokenness of love and relationship in the face of death. It is God’s being victimized by this loss with us. If God can die, we know that the loss we experience in death is true loss indeed. The Resurrection will break this loss, and announce the immanent death of death itself, when God shows us that His true Love is stronger than true death. But this is all in the unknown and uncertain future from the perspective of the Pieta, and the pure freedom of Jesus’ divinity seems here to have been finally bounded and shattered. The Pieta dwells in that moment, forever. It is perhaps one of our greatest artistic testaments to both the power of death and its constant, ongoing tension with the power of human life and love for those living who, for their time, stand over and against death as its witnesses.

When I finally tore myself away from the Pieta, Erik and I made our inevitable concession to the swift flow of our very limited time and did a quick walk-through the remainder of the Museum, “sampling” again, in hope of some future leisurely return, the extensive and interesting displays on the construction of the Duomo. We then stepped back out into the brutal heat and light and walked down the street to the Uffizi, for which we had 2pm entry tickets. Along the way we got into a conversation about Freud and Erik took me to task for speaking too glibly about him, looking at his shortcomings or bad ideology to the exclusion of his real breakthroughs for Psychology as a discipline. Chastened, I listened closely to what he had to say, and acknowledged the sense of it, embarrassed to have been caught speaking in sophomore mode. That topic was quickly forgotten when we arrived at the Uffizi. There we hit especially the Botticelli, the Leonardo, the Michelangelo painting there, and seeing some of the Raphels, especially the portrait of Pope Julius II that I know well. But especially the Botticellis, I think, is where we both really lit up. I liked seeing the Caravaggios on our way out, but I was absolutely exhausted by the end of that, with my feet absolutely killing me, and wanting nothing better than coming back and crashing at the hotel for a little while, which we did. I took a nap then, while Erik went up and sat in the afternoon sun on top of the tower.

Obviously, one of the great museums of the world like the Uffizi was going to be a place where we had to compromise on what we would take the time to see and on what we would either skip or skim. Like a lot of people, then, we focused in on the Big Names, but there were a number of classics by figures like Piero della Francesca that I had studied in the past that made the walk to the great figures of the High Renaissance just as enjoyable. I had to leave Erik for a while in order to walk to near the end of the Museum so that I could take a bathroom break, and only afterwards did I realize that we had been a bit too vague on where we would meet or how we would find one another after I returned. It was while doing this that I got to enjoy a lot of the 14th and 15th century material I referred to just above, finally giving up on trying to find Erik so much as just assuming that I would run into him in the crowd. It was then that I walked into the single room containing all of the great Botticelli’s of the Uffizi’s collection, where Erik happened to be. But at first I didn’t notice him because I was so taken with what I had found. I was long familiar with Sandro Botticelli’s work: he had reigned for quite a while as my favourite artist before losing that status to Michelangelo in more recent years. And so walking into a room that had four Madonnas of his, along with The Birth of Venus and Primavera, wasn’t showing me anything I hadn’t seen before. But the thing was, I hadn’t seen these before, not with my own eyes. And I never knew that the paintings were such large ones, the sheer size of the canvases coming as something of a shock. But while the bulk of the crowds were gathered around The Birth of Venus and Primavera, as perhaps the most well-known and most-reproduced of his works, I instead found myself absolutely smitten with his Madonnas.

I knew that his Annunciation was a favourite of mine: no surprise there. But suddenly, finding myself surrounded by the large canvases, I found myself entranced. A slow, huge grin spread over my face: I could feel it, and I knew that I probably looked a bit silly, but I didn’t care. Something about her, as she was caught in all the elegance that Botticelli could give her, just overwhelmed me. It was almost like falling in love, or perhaps more like a crush, or maybe even more of walking into a room and discovering the one you love when you didn’t know they were going to be there. The dance-like movement of her humility in front of the angel in the Annuciation, or the intricate and light detailwork of the halos that crowned her in Magnificat Madonna or Madonna of the Pomegranate: all of this somehow added up to a reaction of pure joy that I’d never quite experienced from a painting before, and certainly hadn’t expected. And to look up and suddenly spot Erik moving over toward me with what looked to be the very same goofy grin plastered all over his face was all the more fun – and reassuring – in seeing that he got it, too, whatever exactly this was. It was kind of like seeing grace for the first time, without distraction or worry: just seeing it for the sheer abandom of its own gratuity. We couldn’t help but just laugh for the joy being conveyed in it.

Julie Riederer had passed through a few weeks earlier and had prevailed upon me to try to open myself up to her favourite of the lot – Primavera – but I’m afraid that, as before, the painting didn’t really appeal to me in any serious way. I tried, but after the experience we had been having on the other side of the room, I remained indifferent by comparison.

I was immensely satisfied some minutes later to discover a treasure I'd forgotten was in the Uffizi, so caught up had I been in the experience of the Botticelli painting, and so fixated before arriving in Florence on seeing the Pieta: this treasure was another vision of the angel Gabriel's announcing to Mary that she will bear the Christ child – a painting I had come to know in my undergraduate Renaissance studies, but which affected me very differently than my later delight in Botticelli's Annunciation. This was Leonardo’s Annunciation. There is a mathematical perfection in this painting that I sense but cannot articulate or explain, and to me it feels like grace, in some form of God’s own perfection. It was immensely satisfying to stand in front of that old favourite for some time. I was also surprised by how powerful I found his Saint Jerome in person. Michelangelo’s painting of The Holy Family came as a bit of a surprise in that I had had the impression that the work – which was another one of these surprisingly large canvases – was painted on the inside of a bowl or some kind of dish. So that reinforced for me the difference between the kind of mistakes that can creep into “book-education” that actually going off and seeing things with your own eyes does not so easily allow for.

As we moved around the hall from one wing of the building to the next, and we paused to look out the windows down the Arno and over the Ponte Vecchio, we randomly ran into the two girls from Korea who had shared our room on the night train down to Venice. So I spoke a few words to the one who spoke English better and laughed about it being a small world, at least for tourists.

After a bit of a rest, then, we just followed our noses across the rive in search of a place to have dinner. We took it slow across the Ponte Vecchio, looking at this striking and famed architecture of the storefronts that stretch the length of the bridge. The length, that is, except for the center, on which there’s a small piazzo of sorts, and here Erik and I stopped for a bit to listen to a pair of guitarists playing to a decent-sized crowd out for the evening. We listened to the Neil Simon-sounding guy with harmonies being sung by the Elvis Costello-looking guy as they sang Dylan songs and such. But they were pretty good performers and so we just took in the music and the social street life for a few songs’ worth. When we finally began to move on we were no more than a block into the buildings on the other side of the river when we ran into Sarojini again, the young American we had met the previous night up atop our palazzo’s tower. We compared some notes of where we had gone and what we had seen during the day. She was just heading back toward the hotel, having just eaten, if I recall correctly, but when we invited her to join us for the conversation at least, once again she seemed to quickly become very guarded, if polite, and declined. Shrugging that loss off once we moved on, we quickly began to sense that the restaurant pickings were rather slim on the route we were taking, up the Via de’ Guicciardini. After going on a few more blocks, past the imposing Palazzo Pitti, we turned down a lane that opened on our right, the Via Mazzetta, and began to head back closer to the river. As the street became the promisingly-named Via Santo Agostino, it opened onto a large piazza, which turned out to be the Piazza Santo Spirito, in front of the church of that same name.

We found a promising-looking place doing good business that had a lot of outdoor seating about halfway down the piazza toward the church. There were a number of such places, all doing a lively business in the warm night. There were also several dozen people in sight, standing or sitting in the area of the steps before S. Spirito, talking, listening to music, or looking for adventure. It took a while for us to get served once we were seated, which we found a bit odd, but we set to with gusto. I tried one of the classic dishes the article on food in my Insight Guide had mentioned, the Steak Florentine. I can’t say that the steak struck me in any way as being particularly distinct in itself, although I don’t think I’m as sensitive to differences in the quality of meats as my Dad is, or someone like Markus Wriedt. What I did notice was the rock salt that the steak had been cooked with: failing to brush all that off could result in a real surprise if you bit down on one of these pebbles. They dissolved quickly, but they didn’t chew well at all. Erik had a horrifying dish of prawns (prawn?), sort of a large crayfish-kind of critter that, as he finished with the edible parts, he arranged as marching over and attacking my plate. I clearly was horrified enough at their appearance to make that a worthwhile exercise. I had a good half-bottle of Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico – very sweet – and I’m starting to sober up here, as I recite all of this. Fast metabolism: get tipsy quick and sober up quick, but as soon as I’m done cleaning up we’ll go up atop the palazzo again and sit and look at Florence at night and continue our talk. We had some great conversation, though, that I suppose that we couldn’t have had with a guest, laughing at old stories and stuff like that. Strangely, I cannot quite recall any specifics at the moment, but they were worth lot of laughing out loud.

So we walked back, enjoying the lights on the river, watching the nightlife, with occasionally stunning-looking young Italian couples moving from club to club, and pausing to grab some gelato while we talked. We walked past Santo Spirito as we left the restaurant. It’s a startlingly different-looking building compared to the other major churches of Florence. Although old enough that its dome was also done by Brunelleschi, like the Duomo’s, its façade is a bare white, with attractively-sloping edges that give it much more the appearance of a Mexican church to my eye, speaking more of the 19th century desert missions to me, than of the Italian Renaissance. It’s too bad we didn’t get a chance to really explore it: what little I’ve read about it calls its interior architecture one of the best of the Renaissance’s.


It’s about one o’clock in the morning, and I’m up on top of the tower on the palazzo. I wish I could get a picture of this tower. I wonder what it looks like, honestly. I’m on the inside looking out and don’t really have any sense of quite where it is that I am. I’m looking out over Florence at 1am – the highlights lit up: the Palazzo Vechio, and the Duomo; I can see very clearly the Baptistery, where some of the roofs slope down. The Uffizi is a dark ridge to my east, of high walls…. The palazzo up on the hill – I can’t remember the name of it, the Pizzi? Or no, that’s the other thing over there, very big… a substantial art museum; Erik and I walked past it earlier tonight on our way looking for food. And there’s the tower that’s over by – or is – Santo Spirito: there seem to be two churches jammed into one another, one very Mexican-looking, very plain and unadorned, naked white walls with absolutely no decoration or features or ornamental façade whatsoever. And then there’s a tower that’s clearly older and more in the European tradition, and a dome over there.

So Erik and I came stumbling back over the bridge, the Ponte Santa Trinita. Or at least I came stumbling back because I’m such a lightweight: half a bottle of Chianti and I was flying for a while, there. But that’s the benefits of a high metabolism: quick tipsyness and pretty quick recovery. So quiet. I was too wiped to come up here with Erik earlier. I could barely open my eyes. Took a nap for about an hour after we got back from the Uffizi, and talked for a while. But I’m glad we did so. A good talk: a real heart-to-heart. Old friendship and personality issues, things that need to be dealt with in order to keep the friendship solid, I think. And now, oh, I wish I could photograph this city at night from up here! All these shades of dim light, lighting up all the sides of the buildings between me and the Duomo, which I’m looking at now. I turned back from the river to that, and just the geometry of the maze of these streets…!

It was very hard-going today. We did about half of what I hoped to knock off on Saturday, with our Baptistery-Duomo-Museum-Uffizi loop. I had also intended to put San Lorenzo in there, with the Medici Chapel, so I suppose it was more than half, but still: that’s a big sacrifice. I hope we can work it in tomorrow. I want to do that, and I want to do the Santa Maria Novella, because I absolutely have to see the Masaccio Holy Trinity. I’ve studied it for so many years – it’s made such an impression on my imagination over the years – but it looks like most things are open only from 1pm to 5pm on Sunday, is all. We’re here through 11:30pm before our train heads back to Geneva. We didn’t make the Mass today. We were just getting out of the Uffizi at 5pm when there’s a Mass in English at the Duomo on Saturday night. So maybe we’ll take one in in the morning, and then we have tickets at the Galleria dell’Accademia for 12:30pm. So maybe that would allow for Mass, and then the Academy, and then Santa Maria Novella if it comes down to a choice, and then back to San Lorenzo. We’ve also got to try to make arrangements for our bags, since I suppose we’re supposed to be out of here by noon or something like that. I hope the management here will be flexible enough to let us store our bags for a little while. [They were.] If not, we’ll have to trudge them over to the train station, which fortunately is right next to Santa Maria Novella, leave them there, and then go over to the church, I guess. And, as Erik said, if everything is closed at 5pm, and we’re leaving at 11:30, then we can walk around for six hours, and have a good dinner in there somewhere, and so forth.

Wow. I don’t know that I captured this view on the movie that I just took with my camera. I’m certainly not going to capture it here. There’s a quiet to this place at night: a stillness that certainly does not belong to the day, and the immense crowds walking through the streets. I was surprised to see how commercial the streets are down here, on this map with all these medieval buildings and palazzos which are in fact now all opened up with storefronts. If nothing else, it seems that along with the identity of a “museum town” here in the city center, they must do very well as a commercial town. But the article I read about Florence seeking its current identity, of being defined by the past and the confusing or frustration that comes with that, certainly makes sense.

So, I’m going to turn this off and just quit. I’m looking down west, down the line of the Borgo S. Apostoli street we’re on, where there’s a nook where we finally found the Apostoli church that was founded by Charlemagne around 800, although the current building is later than that. But certainly it’s an earlier one: none of the Renaissance flourishes. So. ‘Til tomorrow, I guess. Wow. So beautiful.

2:09 am

Holy cow, what a night! By the clock on the Palazzo Vecchio, it is ten after two. I have been talking – I was doing that entry about Venice – with a fellow by the name of Frank Esposito, of – Artistic Landscaping – from Long Island who just strolled up to the top of the tower while I was recording an entry. He and I sat up here for at least an hour and had a great talk about art and what it means: art in the lives of ordinary people. That is, how art’s not supposed to be this professionalized thing of "the high-and-mighty artist," with the hoi polloi who don’t get anything; the truth is that you can watch all the people going into the museums here and sense or see something of what they are taking from this stuff. I had a blast talking to this guy! Great guy.

So he’s … what? a forty-four year-old guy from Long Island and he’s here – how cool is this? – taking a two-week class over in Tuscany; painting, working on his oil painting on the side, and always trying to think of ways to bring the personal fine art that he’s doing on the side over and into the business of his landscaping art. He had a couple of days off on the weekend, so he’s over here in Florence looking around. This was one of the great conversations. I always think that, when traveling to another country, the thing that really makes it a great experience is being able to talk to the real people there (meaning not the people just dealing with you through the tourism industries). I miss it when I stay in hotels, as opposed to staying with families, like the chances I’ve had in Tunisia and Ireland. But this was one of those great conversations that – hey, the guy may have been from Long Island instead of Florence – but it really helped make this experience of Florence. Fantastic!

Go to: Florence: Day Two, Part One
Tags: architecture, art, cultural, europe, florence, food, friends-notre dame era, geography, historical, michelangelo, moments that justify my life, mysticism/spirituality, personal, photography, travel, travel-2006 geneva/venice/florence

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