Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Arno River, Firenze, Italia

Friday, November 19, 2010

The gravity of time.

November 13, 2010

I’m rudely becoming more aware of how time is slipping away from me.  Four more weeks and I will once again be surrounded by an English speaking culture, a dash of my previous permanence, the once familiar sights becoming, once again, familiar. 

This past weekend, I embarked on a rather idiotic endeavor to explore Florence as the common tourist, focusing on the museums and cathedrals that I walk past on a daily basis.  How odd it is that we can live in a city and use our stamp of residency as an excuse from seeing “home” in a new light?  I’ve been to numerous cities here in Italy, yet, before this past Saturday, had never set foot in Florence’s Accademia, the home of Michelangelo’s David. 

On the way to Uffizi, our first stop and one of the most impressive and comprehensive art galleries in Italy, I encountered the tone of the day, relinquishing myself to the humbling truth: this was the territory of visitors and I had been transformed.

Walking along the Arno, in the direction of the Uffizi, I found myself lost in my thoughts.  It’s times like these when my surroundings become a blur, and I do not even realize that I am impolitely riding on the feet of a stranger.

A woman, immediately aware of my presence, kindly stepped to the side, and called for husband to do the same.

“Howard.  Howard, dear.  This lady wants to get by.”

“Oh, yes.  Please.  PER FAVORE.”  Howard moved to edge of the sidewalk to let me pass, his hand raised in invitation for me to continue forward.  I paused, caught up in the ridiculous nature of the exchange, and for a minute, walked, suspended, alongside him.

He pronounced every word with severe American intonation, speaking loudly and slowly in my direction.

“COMPRENDE?  Excuse me, COMPRENDE?”  He hesitated, bent slightly at the wait, his ear turned to me, unsure that I had understood.  I, caught off guard by his attempts to communicate, said nothing. 

Howard called back to his wife in confusion, his shoulders raised in a shrug.  “Jean, I don’t think she speaks English,” he announced with certainty.  At this point, I couldn’t help but smile at the direction things were taking and, without a word, picked up my pace to continue my walk in peace.

Undaunted, however, Howard fell in step beside me, intent on striking up a conversation with whom he believed to be pure “Italian” blood.

“We’re going to the art museum.  Where are you going?”

“Si, the Uffizi,” I replied.  Howard’s face contorted with concentration as he tried to digest this new word, and it dawned on me: he doesn’t know that the art museum is the Uffizi.  Unconcerned though, he continues. 

“My wife and I.  We’re from TEXAS.”  He slowly enunciated the words, immediately giving recognition to his Texas drawl and continued confusion over my mother language.

I replied, quite simply, “I’m from Seattle, Washington.”

And then the unveiling.  “Oh my god, so you do speak English!”  Howard is shell-shocked, and all at once, the two are talking to me in full force, divulging in detail their travels throughout Italy.

As we reach the Uffizi, I turned, heading down the covered loggia towards the entrance of the museum.  Howard and Jean stopped suddenly on the sidewalk behind me.

“Is this the way to the museum?” they inquired.  I nodded, and they followed me to the entrance.  Welcome to the Uffizi. 

I could speak forever of the collection of sculptures and canvases that line the three corridors of the Uffizi.  But I will limit myself to one: Botticelli’s “Allegory of Spring.”

Botticelli's "Birth of Venus"

Botticelli's "Allegory of Spring"

Said to be sister to Botticelli’s most well-known painting, “The Birth of Venus,” the “Allegory of Spring” is a wedding present commissioned by Lorenzo the Magnificent of the wealthy Medici family for his new bride (meant to be hung above the matrimonial bed).  The picture does not do it justice (the dimensions are 124 x 81 in.); in real life, it is a magnificent depiction of mythology.  In the center, the bride-to-be is depicted as the goddess Venus standing in front of a laurel bush, a symbol of Lorenzo. 

Read from right to left, the painting is meant to both welcome and educate the new bride for her upcoming role in the family and home.  On the far right, the story begins.  The blue figure Zephyr, the god of wind, falls madly in love with Chloris, the pale-skinned nymph beside him, and, driven by impetuous passion, rapes her.  Immediately filled with guilt at his actions, Zephry forces Chloris to marry him.  From their union, Chloris is transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring, flowers pouring from her mouth to clothe her in blossoms.  This story, the allegory of spring conveys two messages: first, to advise the new bride that even if the marriage was not by choice, a humble acceptance will turn winter into spring, and second, in the same way spring is the birth of new life with the abundance of fruit and flowers, so is the painting a symbol of fertility, that the marriage might bring forth great heirs for the Medici family.

Crossing the scene, three graces dance together, their hands intertwined.  They represent chastity, beauty, and love, a message to the bride, that all three are the foundation of a proper wife.  And to the far left of the scene is the god Mercury, who pushes aside the winter clouds of trouble and hardship so that spring can freely flourish. 

Lastly, above Venus in the center of the canvas is a blindfolded Cupid.  It both represents the romantic ideal that love is blind, that even an arranged marriage can result in happiness, and also that love is dangerous, that we can blindly shoot an arrow in the heart of those we care for with thoughtless actions, drawing us back to Zephyr’s story, the painting a full circle of matrimonial wisdom.

From the Uffizi, we stopped at the Bargello Museum, a collection of sculptures and handcrafted works of art used in daily Florentine life during the Renaissance (jewelry, tapestries, carved combs, etc.).   Within the Bargello Museum is the famous bronze David by the great Donatello.  His second David (the first is also at the Bargello Museum) marks two great advancements in Renaissance art.  It is the first nude sculpture since the Classical era (Renaissance is indeed the “rebirth of antiquity”).  And it is the first “sculpture in the round.”  It was never meant to be attached to a building or a wall, but was completed in its entirety, providing the viewer with a full 360 degree view of the young David, his foot on the slayed head of Goliath. 

Donatello's bronze David

We made an additional stop at Orsanmichele before getting lunch.  A small church, seemingly insignificant to the famous sites of Florence, Orsanmichele is nestled on the streets between the Duomo and Piazza della Signora.  The exterior is decorated with a number of niches, each boasting a carved marble statue pertaining to a specific Florentine Guild.  The cathedral is dark and reverent, candle-lit, nearly empty.  Those who enter are rarely tourists; they purposefully frequent the church to sit on the worn pews and pray.  A spiral staircase leads you to the next level, a free museum with the original statues from the church’s exterior (those in the niches now are only copies).  A rare find in Florence, Orsanmichele’s museum has one more spiral staircase in the corner, which leads the unsuspecting visitor to a breathtaking view of the city.   While not greatly advertised, if you ever make it Florence, stop by Orsanmichele.

The next stop was the Accademia, known by all as the home of the original David by Michelangelo.  Yes, you can see a copy in Piazza della Signora, but it gets lost in the large square amidst a myriad of other famous sculptures (Rape of the Sabine Woman and Perseus Slays Medusa).  The David within the hall of Accademia looks more impressive, the two story room giving the statue a grandiose demeanor.  And in this case, you are able to walk the perimeter of David, noting the sling that runs down his back to rest in his hand.

Michelangelo's David in the Accademia

From there we ventured to San Marco, a monastery and church.  Here you are able to walk through the original cells occupied by Dominican monks, each with a fresco painted by Fra Angelico and a window open to the small cloister courtyard below.  On the second story, in addition to hall of cells, there is the library containing a beautiful collection of original illuminated manuscripts.  The pages are magnificent, the words painstakingly written in calligraphy, the illuminations detailed with gold leaf and blue lapis.

Illuminated manuscripts commissioned by the Medici family and created by the Dominican monks.

Following the hall back to the stairway, I stumbled, literally, upon the famous fresco by Fra Angelico, his interpretation of the “Anunciation.”  Studied incessantly in nearly every art survey class I’ve taken, I was shocked to have it so suddenly appear before me, similar to the angel’s appearance before Mary, as he bestowed to her the startling news: she, a virgin, would bear the son of God.  This instance of Immaculate Conception is simply captured by Fra Angelico’s humble depiction of Mary.  She is not dressed in rich fabrics or brocades, yet her simple robe and accepting gesture, her hands crossed over her abdomen, give a different sense to the piece.  Fra Angelico believed this Mary, unlike most depicted in religious paintings of the Renaissance, was a truer and more accurate portrayal of the mother of Christ.

Fra Angelico's "Anunciation"

Our last stop was at Santa Maria Novella.  The church which bequeaths the train station its familiar name, Santa Maria Novella houses the original Masaccio fresco, “Trinity.”  A revolutionary piece of its time, the Trinity presents the viewer with accurate “created” mathematical space.  The scene gives the illusion of receding into the wall, framing a most dramatic picture of the trinity: Christ on the cross, the Father gently holding his arms, and the Holy Spirit a dove in flight between them.  The three parts of the pyramid in addition to the figures below form the triangular composition, similarly used by Raphael in the "Madonna in the Meadow."  To be removed from the wall would greatly change its impact; this piece was specifically designed for this space, this location.  However, after seeing pictures of this Masaccio fresco, in seemingly perfect condition , I was startled at the lack of care taken in preserving the actual fresco itself.  Nearly every photo representation is an untruthful illustration of its current condition.  The colors in true life are dull, pastelled with time, and the figures are less discernible.  Some of the fresco itself has chipped away since its most recent documentation. 

Masaccio's "Trinity"

As we walked through the San Lorenzo market in the direction of dinner, the late night vendors called out to us: “Hello miss.  Miss.  For twenty-four hours, I would just stare into your eyes.  I love the way your mouth moves when you speak and when you think.”  Carmel and I couldn’t help but laugh.  Always something new.

The day ended with Chinese takeout, a new and inexpensive discovery two bridges down from Ponte Vecchio, and a forty-five minute walk home to our little apartment on Via Fra Giovanne Angelico. 

The group of explorers: Kait, Carmel, Cody, and Megan

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