Sunday, July 17, 2016

From Princeton to Florence, Reflection on a Love Affair

Being in Florence is about a love affair between a city and its art. “In Florence, a great church was considered a ‘project for the city’: a civil as well as religious symbol, translating into architectural terms the moral process by which men overcome prejudiced and transcend individual interests to join others in ‘a single will,’” writes Timothy Verdon, my old art history professor from Florence. I arrived a quarter century ago, not quite sure what my life would be like after growing up in Texas, living in California, and New York, zig zagging in between. I had no idea where I was going. So I threw myself into the art and history of this space and it opened a world for me, a feeling that still resonates. Over the next seven months, I learned the history of art, traveled around Europe, lived in Sienna the following fall, and learned to look at a city as work of art. There is no better place to do so than Florence. I had not been back in a quarter century. Yet, summer 2016, Florence would be the first stop on a tour romp to Venice, Assisi, walking to Rome, and then Naples and Sicily. Ciao Italia!

The week before, I spent time with Mom in Princeton and snuck off to Coney Island for a day with Caroline.
Over the next few nights, Mom and I went out to dinner. We talked about life and history, police brutality, the Austin shooter who shot the innocent at UT fifty years ago this summer, the late 1960's, when she saw MLK and the Kennedy's go down, what feels like a repetition, and Jimmy Carter and Reagan, and Dad voting for Carter in 1976 and Reagan in 1980. Eventually, the subject moved to Florence and her favorite churches there. Hers Santa Croce. Mine Santa Maria Novella. It was mom's first dinner in a restaurant in two weeks. So we drank Super Tuscan while Rome felt like it was burning.

Mom brought us to Florence for the first time in 1972 when she was pregnant with my brother. My grandparents were living here at the time. I always think of them when I’m here. I see them in the streets and the restaurants they loved.
Over the days, I was with mom, we hung out in her beautiful garden with her favorite cheese and crackers talking about Columbus Georgia the stained glass at the illness Chappell, her flirtations with studying art in Iran, the Amalfi coast and police brutality. Later we watched Kenneth Clarks 1969 documentary Civilization. We talked about the reformation, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and her trips to see the documentary when it came out in 1969, going to the museum to see it.
My brother was home with his lovely family from Stockholm. They had been touring around the US South, where the Shepard’s hail. But we had more fun hanging out, BBQing, watching the Portugal vs France Euros final.
And we talked about the disease of violence in the US.

As my friend Arrow Chrome points out:
America is a mess and the answer is obvious and simple: Be friendly and kind to everyone. Including black people, white people and cops. Be friendly and kind to Muslims and Christians. To trunp supporters, Hillary supporters and yes, even sanders supporters. Be friendly and kind to everyone and make an effort to try to understand where others are coming from.
My heart goes out to everyone in Dallas, everyone who had gone through the hell of losing someone too early. But i will say this. There are too many damned guns out there. Too many. This is an accident waiting to happen. And congress fails to regulate guns. Texas has been through this. Austin has been through this. God knows Dallas has been through this. Too many have too many guns.

Monday, we left at lunch for the airport. The connecting flight from Paris Florence gave us something like 15 minutes. After sprinting through the airport, we made it there in time. But my bags did not.
Still, Florence was hot and lovely when we arrived. Its warm like a dream from another time. That’s always what it feels like looking at the Arno where I used to eat lunchs alone along the river. We strolled through the old city, visiting the Ponte Vecchio, the statues outside the Uffizi of Giotto, Pisanno, Donatello, and Michelangelo, whose life bridged so much. The place is teeming with art. It drips from the buildings, its history. It was like visiting friends I had not seen in a long long time. As Donattello once said, the statues seem to sing from the buildings.
So we wandered and toured about. Caroline found the location for a pool.

“Forget Madrid, I want to live here,” Caroline gushed.

We all want to live here. My grandparents lived here in the 1960s. I lived here in the 1990’s. And who knows what my kids will do as they learn this history? Hopefully they’ll come to love it to.
I told the tour guide about studying with Timothy Verdon here a quarter century ago.
Bravo, she replied, recalling the Opera Duomo museum he helped curate.
Like everyone, she asked about Trump and Hillary.

“Che e victorious?”
“Spariamo Hillary.”

Its hard being away from the riots of history in the US. But Italy gives me perspective. We’ve seen this treachery before. We’ve seen schisms and conflicts. And we’ve dreamed about something larger, our reflections on the body in relationship to the spirit, to the city of god, to idea of David as an embodiment of a republic, to aspirations for a civic virtue which could create something better here.

After wandering home, I slept and dreamt about my friends in the US, about acting up and the street actions and convulsions grasping streets throughout the US. Hopefully, our democracy and endure and improve through the process of becoming, integrating more perspectives as opposed to spitting them out, embracing, not incarcerating ideas and people. Being here, I am reminded that Dante was exiled from his beloved Florence. Politics can be nasty. But we can create something better in the here and now. We really can, in this community of friends. But sometimes, we have to travel from an Inferno, through Purgatorio, to Paradise. Virgil could guide Dante early only. Only god could take him to paradise.
Throughout the day, we stared at the city, wandering, mesmerized by the streets and the sprawling network of churches and art works. Our first stop was Santa Maria Novella. This is my favorite church, with the Masaccio trinity Trinity fresco, Brunelleschi, and Vasari works, the Giotto Cross, images of heaven and hell, and its Spanish Chappell. The Decameron starts here as he people wander off to tell stories to get away from the plague.

As usual during such days, we were all at different paces. The girls left from a different entrance than me, much earlier. I thought they were going to the train station. They thought I was at a different entrance. Eating coconut and drinking a hot slushie, I finally stumbled into them. We rushed over to the Uffizi Gallery for the 115 tour only to find that was for Thursday. Our Wednesday tickets were for the Academia, where we’d go see Michelangello’s David and the Hall of Prisoners. They remind us the struggle for human freedom is universal. It doesn’t matter how many times I have seen this piece, its like an apparition, towerring outside of us. The black marble he used to create it were from the quarries in Carrara in Tuscany. Two other artists rejected it. Yet, Michelangelo made it, finding both an idea and a person in there. This is an image of a struggle against something much larger. He uses his brain to beat back the larger foe. For Florentines, his bold naked body was a symbol of their republic. For us, he’s an image of an earthly presence, reminding us bodies can be noble.
There are other works at the Academia Gallery in Florence. So we take most of the afternoon there, before getting a quiet lunch outside, exhorbing what we have seen, drinking rose wine.

And we meander. I stop by the home of Dante, the poet of the Italian language, reading through the cantos.
And wander another the Arno, where I used to eat along the shores when I lived here back in 1991. Seeing this city, its like a meeting with a long lost friend. I wander by Harry’s Bar where I met my friends.
And we eat late into the night, laughing. I have pappardelle with wild boar. Caroline finds that there really are wild boar in Italy. So our walk from Assisi to Rome really might include a few new friends. Few have heard a word about the way from Assisi to Rome we’ll be walking in a few weeks.

Its gonna be a wild run. It already has been.
Thursday, we wander from San Lorenzo to the Uffizi Gallery, walking for something like eight miles, taking in as much art as we can. Number one takes notes about the artists of the Italian Renaissance, trying to make sense of the players, how they worked together, collaborated, and helped build this city.

Carlia leads our tour through the Uffizi Gallery. She tells us about the space. Casimo Medici had the space designed as offices. His son Francesco thought it would work better as his private gallery for his collection of art. It was the first private art gallery in the world, highlighting the rebirth of art, the highlights of the Italian Renaissance.
She speaks about Giotto, whose work we will see inside. Without Giotto, there would be no renaissance, she explains, no Michelangelo, no Botticelli, no Raphael, no Leonardo, whose Adoration of the Magi is still under construction, after 17 years. I saw it here in 1991.

I ask her about the artists and their friendships. Of course, Vasari and Michelangelo were friends. But he wasn’t friends with anyone else, she explains. He had a gift for self-promotion. He won the favor of Lorenzo De Medici when he was twelve and later the pope. They were his patrons. That was all he needed. Giotto had a school. But Michelangelo saw no point. Leonardo and Michael probably talked with each other a little. Brunelleschi and Donatello competed with each other, but they were friends, engaged in a rivalry of ideas. Vasari wrote about them all, starting with Giotto and finishing with Michelangelo. And they all copy both the Romans and each other.

The Uffizi was a place for the ever curious Medicis to highlight their friends, family and ever expanding network of relationships from here to the new world and back.
We visit Giotto’s Mary, a work which transcended the Byzantine era, offering an image of a Mary with emotions, a body, a real person, a virgin with a body, with lapis lazuli.

Next we stroll to see Michelangelo’s holy family the Doni Tondo, his majestic painting of both a holy family with emotions and all of humanity, full of muscles, demonstrating life is struggle, full of colors and challenges.
The Botticelli’s are grand. We sit listening in rapture, looking at the Birth of Venus, as our guide walks us through the imagery of this work which suggests venus had both flaws and beauty, like all of us. We all have mythic roots. Her mythic story is from the Greeks, in a union with the wind and the spring. She is both the ideal beauty and flawed. She is not perfect. Beauty is all together, no one is perfect, not even Venus.
The Primavera is equally majestic with the blue wind blowing flowers from Florence.
We enjoy those whole collection, taking a break and exploring the Caravaggio's, the Leonardo da Vincis, the Judith images, the portraits, it’s a mesmerizing afternoon of art.

Sometimes the girls love it. Sometimes they are exhausted. The ice cream helps. SO do long afternoon wanderings and cards and dolce and dinner and a sunset on the Arno in a day for the ages.

Grazi Italia.

Here are some pictures of the summer from Princeton to Coney Island to Italy. Not enough room for the Uffizi Gallery visit. That will come later.

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