Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal: Europe Trip 2006: Florence Day Two, Part Two

Sunday 23 July 2006
We made our way out of the Gallery at the Accademia after our encounter with Michelangelo's David, which had certainly taken me by surprise at the depth of emotion the thing had conjured out of me for being such a recognized image. Time was running away from us and our time with the David meant that I now had to sacrifice the next thing on my list, which was the Medici tombs by Michelangelo at San Lorenzo. I had put my last sprint of preparation into getting ready for that visit, reading a dense tome on their Neoplatonic iconographical content by the name of Michelangelo's Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation by one Edith Balas, even trying to process it when I would wake up in the night before I left. So that was a goner. But that was because I had something even more important to me to visit.

That something was Masaccio's The Holy Trinity. I wrote some about this earlier, before the trip, while preparing for what I would have the opportunity to see. Again, this one had grabbed my imagination as an undergrad, studying Renaissance history with Samuel Kinser. So we walked down past the giant block of the Palazzo Medici – another place I'd like to have gone in and explored – past San Lorenzo, and found ourselves in the thick of a street bazaar. I'm afraid that I'm no longer a marathoner, and the day had already left me exhausted, which leads to short-tempered grumpiness, as does having been disemboweled and left with a shortened digestive system. Erik wanted to pause and wander the bazaar, and because I was very eager to get to Santa Maria Novella, we split up at this point, with me annoyed at the prospect that Erik might not catch up to me at the church to see the fresco, which experience I was very eager to share with him.

We had seen Santa Maria Novella first of all the sights of Florence, because it is the first thing that you see as you come out of the train station, and it was in the shadow of the church that we had bought the cluster of huge grapes that had left me amazed at local agriculture when we arrived in the dark of Friday night. I had to divert to the train station to run to the restroon and so I ended up photographing the complex from the north. The actual grand façade and entrance is to the south, but that was covered over with scaffolding for restoration in the same way that Saint Peter's had been in Rome when Erik and I had been there for the Triduum in April 1998.

This actually turned into something of an advantage for me. I had read Timothy Verdon's article on the Trinity in The Cambridge Companion to Masaccio as part of my prep for the trip, (I now have my Introduction to Theology students read it with me as part of a triple-whammy I pull on them for appropriating Trinitarian theology and spirituality, with C.S. Lewis' Beyond Personality and selections from Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love) and I had learned from him that the main entrance of the time had been a portal on the east, directly facing the work, and it was now through a side door at almost this spot that tourists were now being admitted to the church while the restoration work was being conducted. This allowed me to initially experience the work as it was intended I should: with the maximization of its perspectival effect, which was utterly revolutionary at the time – this work is thus fairly considered one of the "starting points" of the Italian Renaissance – and the effect was apparent and effective the moment I walked through the entrance.

I ended up spending the bulk of the hour we had before Santa Maria was closed looking at the fresco from different distances and points. Erik came in behind me and wandered through the church for a time before joining me, where I whispered the story of the fresco and its significance to him. As the church was closing, he in turn took me quickly to see a few other highlights. I had already taken a few minutes to take in the Giotto crucifix I'd read about, and now Erik took me to see the windows celebrating the achievement and life of Thomas Aquinas, a particular point of pride for this Dominican church, the members of Thomas' own order.

All day, I'd been too consumed it seems, to make notes in my recorder. Now I began to try to take up the discipline again, but they were either sparse notes or overwhelming recordings. (In some ways, I'm at a loss to try to think of what it was that managed to fill my thoughts in an hour of studying the Pieta, the David, or now the Trinity. Even keeping a verbal recording probably would be only a fraction of what we would find if we could record our actual thoughts....)


I finally made it to Masaccio’s Trinity. Hard going, but a bit of an adventure. Details I hadn’t noticed before, until now when I’m standing this close, as I’m standing right under it: halos around the Father and the Son, Mary and John …. Not a halo, but like rays of light coming from the mouth or the face of the dove of the Spirit, extending into the halo of Christ. Tongues of fire? Rays of light? Grace? Something going on there. The angles of the donors and the saints leading up to … Christ’s chest, I suppose, drawing attention maybe more to his face. The robustness of the Father, older but still not old: brown hair, like the Son – something you don’t see often at all.

They’ve made the sci-fi space of this as-yet-unrealized-in-real-life barrel vault ceiling into holy space. The technological, the artistic, architectural Renaissance turning into a holy location: a space in which God can be seen. Maybe too strong a celebration of the human mind? Or maybe an affirmation of natural theology and geometry.

“As you are now, I once was; as I am now, you will be.” The skeletal figure in the tomb beneath has a line with that. Obvious meaning, but ... Hm. Uncertain.

Masaccio’s Trinity still. Is God the Father on an altar? Or is the raised platform …? Hints of spaces out to either side in the barrel vault space that the Father, that the Trinity, occupies. Uncertain. Is it just a tool to get the Father in the right position, which keeps him as not a giant, but in the same proportions as everything else? So … a rejection of the Medieval, and a strict application of the perspective that Brunelleschi has taught him, perhaps?


Again I made surreptitious photographs and movies of the fresco, here taking particular care to make sure there was no flash: I was infuriated by the idiots taking flash photography of the Sistine Chapel ceiling back in April 1998 as I sat there with the images. Also, I had no interest in getting thrown out, and I had no less than four workers standing behind me at the door and eyeing me suspiciously. For most frescos or paintings, I wouldn't have even bothered trying because the ones in print are of vastly better quality, having been done by professionals under controlled circumstances. But the Trinity suffers from a distinct lack of such good prints, even less of which have been copied onto the internet. So I decided to try on my own, but with middling success to say the least. I went with a very high speed shutter setting, to offset the automatic tendency to leave the shutter open longer because there was no flash. But even at my high-speed setting, the images tended to be blurry. The detail shot I had hoped for, looking at the halo interaction I spoke up above, between the Christ and the Spirit, came out with little of any such detail.

Afterwards, I glanced through a tourist goods booth outside, picking up a copy of the city guide that Erik had gotten the day before after we left the Uffizi, particularly for the removable map inside, of a type I found incredibly helpful when we were in Rome in '98. (And it's been helpful here in my recalling details as I write all this up.) I also continued in my buying postcards, one of which I was sending each day to my niece Grace with comments for a four-year-old to try to thrill or delight her, with some success (as I found out later when they arrived). Then Erik and I started heading east, with the goal of making the 6:00pm Mass at the Duomo, and now having added to that the decision to go in early for their 5:30pm Vespers service, partially because Vespers is just a freaking cool service, and partially so as to look around inside, since the interior tour of the Duomo was one of those things we had chosen to skip in order to emphasize other attractions.

A small group of people, perhaps a few dozen had gathered for Vespers. The door wardens tried to turn us away as tourists because it was time for services, and looked startled when we said we were there for Vespers. I wondered if that was a "youth" thing, but were weren't the only young people there. The Mass, though held in the opposite arm of the transept, was quite full with a normal-sized congregation.


[5:43pm – 14 minute file of Erik and Mike chanting Vespers before Mass at the Duomo.]

[6:02pm – with violent, if subtle gestures, Erik indicates to Mike that he should also record the gorgeous-sounding Choir of English students who are singing for the Italian-language Mass at the Duomo. A 54 minute file of Mike and Erik trying to do their Mass responses in Italian is thus punctuated with lovely musical interludes.]

[6:56pm – a 3 minute file as Erik and Mike take in the choir’s gentle postlude, before beginning to exit, all the while taking their last, sneaky look-arounds the interior of the Duomo as the ushers try to get everyone out. We make a point of going over and thanking the students for their music.]


As we prepared to exit the Duomo, we went over to where we could look to the far wall at the fresco of Dante and His Work by Domenico di Michelino, which I took this awfully weak (and, again, necessarily flashless) portrait shot of, with Erik standing with it. The photograph was a loss, but the glimpse was just one more tiny pleasure in a day filled with an overwhelming number of them. Then we turned for a last look at the interior of the Duomo, where I took the videos that are collected in the link to the right. (For some reason, however, a number of people are having trouble accessing videos I post to my LiveJournal ScrapBook; they're in one of the indicated formats, yet nevertheless the trouble persists.) We took a look around the interior of the dome and the altar space in the crossing where the transept crosses the nave. The space is almost impossibly lofty: in St. Peter's at the Vatican, the larger space under the dome is filled somewhat by the tall baldachin designed by Bernini, which perhaps interfered with the pure sensation of space that I felt here in the Duomo, the Saint Mary of the Flowers of Florence. After looking at what had been done in the main worship space (again, we had been sitting on the east side of the southern transept for Mass) we then said a few words of appreciation to the kids from the choir from England, and then headed out through the door on the south side of the nave.

Outside, we were a bit lost for our next Thing To Do. While dithering, we persuaded a reluctant man with whom we could not speak to take a portrait of us with the Duomo in the background, for which he went into the most horrible contortions in order to squat low against the ground and thus to get the dome into the picture. I'd love to have it and post it here, but I've yet to see any of Erik's shots from the trip, which I hope will be all fantastic, even it it means having to redesign all these pages. Finally we came to the amazing consensus that it was dinnertime. We walked south and west, through the less-impressive Piazza della Repubblica (less impressive for Florence, of course; it would be an amazing wonder in Milwaukee, which is already a pretty cool town, architecturally) and finally to a restaurant just down the street from the Hotel Torre Guelfa, where the street ends to face the church across the Piazza Santa Trinita. Erik at something a little more bold, as I recall, while I confined myself to the famed Minestrone of the city, which was a solid meal by itself, if a smaller one. It was fabulously thick and robust, far more stock than soup, as it were. Naturally this was augmented by some local red that I've forgotten, but which did its duty. We needed to be at the train station around 10:30pm to catch our night train back to Geneva, and so we determined that we would simply walk around and enjoy the city and its lights and views in the hour or two remaining to us after we finished eating.

This we did. I already don't remember much about what we said, or the exact route we took. Mostly we just meandered around this part of the river, before finally we turned our feet toward our palace home in Florence. The staff at the Hotel had been wonderfully gracious in allowing us to leave our bags at the Hotel, even though we had checked out that morning. That seals the deal for my being more than glad to return to enjoy their hospitality someday. We returned there to change from Church clothes (such as we managed: did I mention it was 100ºF in Florence this weekend?) to traveling clothes, pack our last purchases with the rest of our luggage, and once again haul the lot the 15-minute walk to the train station. I enjoyed being smug in recognizing the route backwards from the way we came to the Hotel on Friday night, while Erik increasingly insisted that we were going the wrong way. Everything was businesslike at the Stazione Centrale, and we were shortly boarded, departed, and before too long, asleep.

Go to: Return to Geneva
Tags: architecture, art, books, class-intro to theology, europe, florence, food, friends-notre dame era, geography, historical, livejournal, masaccio, michelangelo, mysticism/spirituality, personal, philosophical, photography, soup, students, teachers, teaching, theological notebook, travel, travel-2006 geneva/venice/florence, youtube

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