Novak (novak) wrote,

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

I know, I know ... it's completely absurd that I'm still typing up my travel journal from July. What else can I say except that it's been very busy since I got back? So, picking up from our last entry:

Sunday 23 July 2006
I woke up around six. Couldn’t sleep. Tossed for probably close to an hour and then finally just decided to come up on the tower. I’ve been up here I-don’t-know-how-long, just watching the morning in Florence, getting up toward the tail end of the seven o’clock bells ringing for Mass at the Duomo and now and then an occasional bell across the city, and just watching the light change things. It’s kind of cloudy today, which will be a relief from the sunburn: I looked like a lobster yesterday afternoon. The sound of the air compressors, the occasional child crying, or a bird… the sounds of breakfast being made. Seems very quiet. Slight sounds of traffic on the other side of the Arno.

For the first time, I find myself desperately loving the idea of living here – for a while. I don’t know if the stuff I’ve read about the Florentine struggle for identity beyond that of the past is correct, but I know that there’s a life of the mind, of culture, here that isn’t just study, and isn’t the pretense of taking your spot with the giants of the past. That’s the real downside to our commercialization of art: to make the Greats different than they might have been in other ways. It’s the same thing that I’ve always said about music: just how recorded music makes us stop making music of our own. Families don’t make music so much anymore, and that used to be a commonplace, just a couple of generations ago.

There would be something about living here, in the light: you see so many more balconies and rooftop patios, chairs, sofas, beds…. People who enjoy living life on the rooftops with this view, this pulse or life of the city all open to them. The city itself is beautiful on a scale that I’ve never seen, maybe other than Rome. I suppose Venice had a different beauty, but there’s something that pulls me more to this.

But I would love – as I’m looking across the Arno at the balconies, right across from the tower here – what would it be like to come out to that one? Vines growing all around the door: just a little door, a little balcony, a little space, swathed in the greenery that livens a place up. It’s what I love so much about my Mom’s apartment: the way it’s a circle of green. This would be some kind of life for a while.


Now, back in Milwaukee, months later, that moment still grabs my memory. It may seem nothing more than a daydream, but in that instant I made something of a resolution. Whether it's my first sabbatical as a professor somewhere, or even a summer break, I decided that I would come back to this city, to make up for the catastrophic error in judgment I made during my undergraduate by not doing any study abroad, that I would rent an apartment here for the summer and take in the city at its own pace. At least, at something approximating a native pace for someone who would still be some kind of tourist in disguise. That could be a lonely decision or resolution, but it's something I'd like to make happen.

I came downstairs after a time and rested a bit more and then, when Erik was up, I amused myself by shooting a little video of our room until we got ready for the day and rallied with a late breakfast in the airy dining room in the heart of our hotel, the Hotel Torre Guelfa. There we sat in the morning light coming through the broad windows that overlooked the courtyard of the old palazzo. We exchanged brief words of planning our day as we drank our coffee or juice, and shortly we left, saying a few brief words of farewell to Miss Sarojini, who I found had come in after us and was quietly eating by herself behind me.

Soon we were walking up the Arno, past the Uffizi, working our way toward our first goal of the day, which was to pay our respects by making a quick pilgrimage to the tomb of Michelangelo at the FranciscanBasilica di Santa Croce di Firenze. Walking through the arches of the Medici family's old elevated walkway that stretches from the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Vecchio just begs for photography play, and so I tried catching Erik on the move. I'm sure that I could have done better in trying to pose him, but this wasn't so high on our list of priorities. We looked at the street merchants already hard at work along that stretch, but once we got east of the museum the crowd thinned out considerably and became primarily composed of people who appeared to be locals. We were taken at this point by the sight of a middle-aged-to-elderly man who passed us on the river itself, rowing up the Arno with slow and steady strokes. I think we both were curious just to observe people who lived here – who interacted with this grand city as a matter of normality – and who didn't share our gaping interest as students or tourists. Somewhere along the river stretch we thus also find ourselves peering into the yard of some elegant building through the gated, fenced, and pillared wall fronting the street, trying to get a feel for the building within, which surely must have shared the poise of its exterior. Turning up the Via de Benci, and pausing to enjoy the architecture of the building farther on that coped with the splitting of the street, we came to the busy Piazza Santa Croce, which had been set up with risers for some sort of outdoor concert or spectacle. Before heading into the church itself, we paid homage to the Poet, in the form of a great, even epic, statue in front of the Basilica. Dante, it seems to me, holds a place in Erik's heart and mind similar to that which Michelangelo has come to hold for me. It's a love I've tried to share, but I have repeatedly found The Divine Comedy hard going, and as yet not a natural taste. But I can obviously intellectually appreciate his contributions and achievements, and so could "behave in church" while Erik wanted to stop and consider the image of the writer. Then we turned and entered the Basilica.

Santa Croce is actually something of a reservoir of grand tombs, as following the link above will let you see. Beyond the tomb of Michelangelo, there was a monument to Dante, though his actual tomb is in Ravenna, if I recall correctly, and later we would go over to pay our respects at the tomb of Galileo Galilei as well. But first it was the tomb of Michelangelo that took my attention. As tombs go today, of course, it's pretty grand, with an admirable bust of the artist crowning the whole monument. But in my head I was comparing it to the Pieta we had visited the day before, which is what he himself had intended for his own tomb, before the fault in the stone caused him to surrender that project. Obviously, I think that even the unfinished statue commands the same respect as any finished work, but there he perhaps also profits from the overall status his name has kept through the centuries: what he considered his failures and his trash are today priceless to us.

So that was the surface reaction, or the reaction to the physical tomb itself. Beyond that, I don't know what to say I felt or thought, if I was feeling or thinking anything in particular. Mostly, I guess I was just actively being aware of what this man's life and work had come to mean to me over the years, and even across the centuries that separate his artistic environment from my own, although his is one of the many roots or foundations of mine. When Michael McGlinn and I were just getting to know one another, maybe actually in the process of the initial recording session for Life and Other Impossibilities, we discovered this mutual love for Michelangelo's work and talked about it at some point. In Christianity, the doctrines of Creation – that God is responsible for and the origin of everything in the universe, particularly humanity, and endows it all with His own fundamental Goodness – and of the Incarnation – that God became human in Jesus of Nazareth – both end up granting the most outrageously positive, even exalted, vision of humanity: greater, I think, than any other system of thought in human history. In Michelangelo's work there is an expression of this theology, especially in his earlier years (works like the Last Judgment I'm not so sure of in this regard), that gives the viewer a chance to step somewhat into this God's-eye vision of the glory of humanity. Or perhaps it's to recognize in humanity that vision of God's Glory that we call the imago Dei: the "image of God" in the human race. Michelangelo has thus been a key theologian for my theological anthropology since my undergraduate, well before I realized I had a "theological anthropology."

Beyond the memorial to Michelangelo, we were able to see the one the Florentines erected to their own exiled Dante, but Erik was frustrated in his attempts to get any closer to it by the strict limits to how far tourists were able to enter into the church if not taking part in services. We were kept to a pretty confined area in the rear of the building, and so a respectful examination from a distance was the best we could do: our photographs would allow us to come closer than our eyes actually did, which was disappointing when you were actually there. Prevented by the distance from looking at the memorial in detail, we drifted off to the other side of the church where we looked at Galileo's tomb. Galileo is both a fascination and an irritant for me. Historically, it's an interesting case highlighting the shifts in scientific philosophy, even though in many ways it's just a follow-up to the real work and breakthroughs which had already been done by Father Copernicus. At the same time, it seems that the inquiries under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition are so blown out of any relation to reality in order to support modern myths of an epic confrontation of "Science versus Religion." This isn't borne out, as far as I can tell, when I go back and read the actual documents relating to the case. The Aristotelian "Scientific Establishment" seems to be the major mover behind the controversy, from what I've seen, making it a conflict within the contemporary scientific community: a conflict over competing methodologies of presenting scientific evidence. But that's so less interesting and ideologically useful today than to perpetuate this "science versus religion" duality. And of course the presence of "the Inquisition," which no one can be bothered to learn about and see as other than a conspiratorial bunch of irrational religious fanatics on a quest to oppose all truth and justice, as opposed to a normal investigative and juridical body such as we have in all societies, with just the same potential for being co-opted and abused as all our court systems, as happened in Spain with the infamous "Spanish Inquisition" under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Anyway. People so often have a non-historical Galileo in their heads – one determined so much more by contemporary drama or fiction than history – that I never know quite who it is that I'm dealing with when that name is brought up. This is very irritating to an historian, and will continue to be as I morph into a grumpy old man over the years. I mistook the decorations around the tomb as being part of the tomb schema for awhile before Erik made me look more closely at them and I realized that it seemed to be some older art that had been uncovered from behind Galileo's tomb.

After this we left the Basilica and began walking across the city toward the Accademia. We had only made it to the other side of the piazza before we stopped at a shop and were looking at t-shirts and such. I picked up a tiny Italia team t-shirt for Haley – I have no idea why I didn't think to pick up a larger one as a present for Grace, who actually plays soccer in a league for four-year-olds – and Erik laughed and told me about the crazed excitement he'd seen days earlier when Italy won the World Cup against France. Even to my own eye, Venice and Florence were still bubbling with excitement and pride over the victory. Erik looked at a cheerfully semi-obscene chef's apron featuring the nude torso of the David superimposed over the chef's own and laughed at the thought of wearing that as a gag. Then we were again threading our way through the streets on our way to the Accademia. At one point, we came around a corner to a view of the Duomo behind us which again made us start in a kind of shock at the sheer size of it: I had never gotten that feel from photographs of it. But when you suddenly find it right there, the effect is striking. So that ended up being worth a few shots as we paused to study it as it was framed by the buildings on the street.

So, we continued up the via del Servio toward the statue of a mounted figure framed against the arched columns behind it, where it emptied suddenly out into a piazza in front of the university, I think: a large rectangular space partially littered with staging and dumpsters from some event that looked to have already happened. We veered off to the left and got a bit confused – my fault – about which building was the Accademia, walking all around the piazza in front of San Marco's church before we realized we'd walked right past it as we'd entered the square. We figured out where to enter, finally, and got in on time.

We made our way through the collection pretty quickly. Michelangelo's David was high on Erik's list of Must-See sights of Florence. Myself, I had been more-or-less indifferent to the idea. There were other, less well-known things than the David that I wanted to see, and I had privately felt that if this got squeezed off of our list, it wouldn't be any great loss to me, given how much I had seen it and read about it in books.

Was I ever wrong on that one.

We ended up walking around it, studying it from different angles, talking quietly about it, for at least an hour. Again, like what I wrote above about the effect of suddenly coming upon the Duomo, there was in the David a sense of scale that by itself could surprise and command respect. I hadn't really noticed this with the replica of the statue that stands in its original space in the Piazza Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio when we stood there yesterday, but I wasn't really paying attention to it. Perhaps here, too, in this space designed for it and dominated entirely by it, the effect is calculated to achieve that overwhelming awareness. I knew it was a particularly large piece of marble, having read about it as I said before, but it was much larger than I'd imagined, and the picture here of Erik standing in front of it might convey that sense of scale better than any description I could attempt.

There were details I'd never quite seen before, like the way the sling curves all the way around his body and how the right hand is already armed with a rock in the cup of the weapon. We talked about the hands and the head, the way that they're slightly out of proportion and larger than the rest of the figure, and the understood symbolism of this: that it is these things the head and the hands, the mind and the creativity powers of humanity that are being emphasized in Michelangelo's giddy Renaissance, where for the first time the achievements of the Romans are being excelled and people begin to look toward the future rather than the past for humanity's potential. We checked on the proportions, just to make sure that we understood this correctly, and I had Erik surreptitiously stand briefly in similar pose so that I could compare their right hands.

It was with equal surreptitiousness that I snapped these photographs from the other side of the David. The staff was raining death down on any photographers, and I certainly would never use a flash on such objects because I understand the destructive power of even those lights. So, without a flash, I palmed the camera and took a series of shots. Erik was using film, so I was the go-to guy for just filling up camera memory, especially since I was loaded for bear with two 2GB memory cards. Even taking lots of little 30-second videos as I did, I still didn't get to the second card until my last day of the trip. Erik and I had moved over to this side of the statue so that we could study his face, trying to maneuver ourselves into his line of sight, as it were. The emotion came out more strongly than I would have guessed. Fixed by that titanic glare, Erik finally said, after a silence, "That's the Eye of the Tiger, there."

Precisely. The outrage that David felt at the spiritual and national insult of Goliath – and the resolution to do something about it – was captured in that twist of the head and the glare that almost seemed focused on us, now.
David said to the Philistine, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give all of you into our hands." (1 Samuel 17: 45-47)
So, beyond the historical David himself, whether the work represents the human spirit, or perhaps the Florentine spirit more specifically, there was now a sense of the danger as well as achievement to the human being, too: what we do has consequences; it matters.

Go to: Florence: Day Two, Part Two
Tags: architecture, art, christology, cultural, europe, florence, friends-notre dame era, geography, grace, haley, historical, incarnation, michelangelo, mysticism/spirituality, personal, photography, travel, travel-2006 geneva/venice/florence

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