A Grouch Abroad II

  Jerome Shea       August 4, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Friday afternoon, I think it was, we spent six months in the Uffizi Gallery. It sure felt like that, traipsing from room to room to room to room…

Please understand. I get off on Renaissance religious art with the same fervor as the next guy. But please! ENOUGH! I got really maxed out on the Big A’s (Assumption, Ascension, Annunciation), not to mention the nativity scenes and all the pietas. And can we please relegate St. Sebastian to the geek tent? (“Come right in, folks! See the Human Pincushion!”) It was a forced march through Culture, and I was one weary foot soldier. The imp or the Irish in me longed to turn a corner and find an Elvis on velvet, or dogs playing poker.

But the Uffizi is just Florence writ small, a literal embarrassment of riches. I am thumbing through a guidebook, noting all the things we didn’t see, didn’t do. Yes, I climbed to the top of Brunelleschi’s remarkable dome (463 steps, if you ever wondered); no, we didn’t make it to the Boboli Gardens. We hiked up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, but not farther up, to the church of San Miniato and Monte alle Croci. Never saw the Brownings’ digs or the church where Dante first laid eyes on Beatrice. Saw the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti only from the outside. Visited Santa Croce but not Santo Spirito.

I know it is churlish to complain about such abundance. “Sensory overload,” thy name is Florence. Give me a real six months of small doses in the Uffizi and I know that I would have the beginnings of a true education of the soul.

A kaleidoscope of marvels, each, as they say, more marvelous than the next. Surely the Duomo (along with the Baptistry and the Campanile), so massive that the cathedral in Pisa could fit inside it. (Imagine how smug the Florentines were and are about that!) Polychrome on the outside, stark within, and the dome itself an engineering marvel of its time or any other time, so much so that Brunelleschi has the singular honor of being buried in the Duomo. Santa Croce, the “Westminster Abbey” of Florence, holds the tombs of Michaelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo Bruni, Gioacchino Rossini, and many lesser lights—and a cenotaph honoring Dante, in exile still. The Ponte Vecchio, mercifully spared during WWII, with its bust of Benvenuto Cellini (ever so fitting). The Piazza della Signoria, where Savonarola presided over the Bonfire of the Vanities and met a similar fate himself in 1498.

Again, I’m getting footsore just recounting it all.

Florence’s most famous son was surely Michaelangelo (or Michelagnolo) Buonarroti, he of David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The original David is in Florence (in the Galleria dell‘Accademia) and the Florentines are not shy about the fact. There are scads of cheap reproductions in all sizes, not to mention pure schlock (so I won’t). But the real thing, the thing that you have seen pictured all your life, is truly—in a word that has been sadly devalued—awesome. David stands fourteen feet tall, in soft white marble. The pose and that beautiful face invite you to read his thoughts as he sizes up the Philistine giant, Goliath. To me he is thinking, in quiet wonder, “I can do this.”* Which is also a very Florentine thought.

You haven’t been to Tuscany until you’ve been to a hill town, and there is one, Fiesole, only about five kilometers from the center of the city. For Diana and me, this was the highlight of the week.

But first a word about the Etruscans, the mysterious people who founded Fiesole around 700 BC and whose origins were in dispute for centuries. Recent DNA research suggests that the Greek historian Herodotus was probably right when he claimed that they emigrated from Lydia, in Asia Minor, perhaps escaping from a famine. They practiced a very primitive religion (Frazer mentions them in The Golden Bough), elements of which were taken over by the Romans, who, by the fourth century BC, had conquered and absorbed them. The Etruscans, from which the name Tuscany is derived, slowly disappeared, becoming Romans and, later, Italians.

Their outstanding talent was in mining and metalwork. Because of this, and because of the striking tomb paintings that have been discovered, the Florentines have claimed spiritual if not biological descent from these people. In no small measure, they say, the Florentine Renaissance was a long-delayed flowering of Etruscan genius.

Fiesole (you take the #7 bus) is, I would guess, about 500 feet higher than Florence. From the Via San Francesco you have a breathtaking view of the whole of Florence, a toy city for a god’s children to play with. The centerpiece of Fiesole, literally and figuratively, is the excavated Roman and Etruscan ruins (with some Lombard graves thrown in for good measure). The Roman amphitheater and baths—hot, tepid, and cold—date from the first century AD. A few yards to the east are the ruins of an Etruscan temple, probably dedicated to Minerva (fourth century?) over which the Romans built their own temple some 400 years later. Looking north (Florence is to the south), the low hills of Tuscany roll on and on, shimmering in the summer’s haze.

My favorite of Browning’s “dramatic monologues,” I think, is the one put in the mouth of Andrea del Sarto, who was called “the faultless painter.” Del Sarto was a contemporary of the big three, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Raphael, and no slouch himself. But the poem asks, in effect, how it is that one can be “faultless,” that one can see and improve upon the subtle flaws of craftsmanship in a Raphael painting, say, and yet never, ever, hope to BE a Raphael. The most famous lines in the poem are

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

That, too, is a very Florentine thought. Ciao.

*To suggest that he is thinking “Piece a cake!” is probably pushing it a bit far.

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