Saturday, May 31, 2014

The long(er) way to the top: San Miniato

On Wednesday, May 28 Dave and I took the beautiful, mild and breezy weather for a sign that we needed to get up to San Miniato al Monte (St. Minias on the Mount), a church we did not visit during our last Florentine sojourn. The weather got too hot too quick and the climb seemed Herculean. So this time the Fates were with us except for the fact that, being absent-minded and a bit too excited to get there, I left the map of Florence at home. I know the city well and I thought after all this time I'd just know how to get to San Miniato, but alas we took the long way around. Happily our circuitous path showed us an area of Florence, south of the old city walls that I don't think I've ever seen. Below are some photos with captions from this pleasant detour.

Above: Our approach to the Porta San Giorgio, the oldest standing gate in Florence's defensive medieval city wall. Note the fresco of the Virgin and Child above the opening (and the trash bins beyond--a jarring reminder people do actually live in this idyllic place.)

Below: The other side of the gate bearing the identifying relief of St. George slaying the Dragon. The fleur-di-lies of Florence is below. 

We're heading back down the hill so we can pick up the avenue to Monte alle Croci, where San Miniato sits. During this little jaunt we passed by the house in which Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Below is the plaque identifying the house and its famous nature.

Finally, we begin our leg busting, stair-climbing ascent in earnest on the "ramp." (These people look happy b/c they are coming down!)

Great views though, and my lunch of caprese and prosciutto was melting off as we walked uphill!

Almost there...only 1/8 of the climb left, but all stairs.

Finally. The first payoff is an unparalleled view of Florence.

The second is a look inside Florence's oldest preserved church. San Miniato's crypt dates to the mid-11th C. and contains the bones of Saint Minias a 3rd C. saint who after suffering many tortures emerged unharmed and was finally beheaded under Roman imperial orders in the center of Florentia (Roman Florence). According to his legend he then picked up his head and walked to this hill, where his bones are now ensconced in the crypt's altar and visible. The inside of the church is a fantastic example of the Tuscan Romanesque style of architecture, which is characterized by forms common in ancient Roman architecture, such as arches and the classical Greek Orders. In this case, the Corinthian capitals come from actual ancient Roman buildings and are therefore, spolia, or salvaged architectural elements. Note how they do not match one another as you look down the nave (this center space).

Also, note the gorgeous floor, which looks a bit like a quilt and is filled with symbolism. (I'm about to learn how much with a new book I bought at the church gift shop!)

The church is quite small by Florentine standards, which is perhaps one of the reasons it feels so intimate. The other is no doubt its out of the way positioning on a hill that many people don't find worth climbing (note the empty pews in the photo below). As a result, the structure is quiet and provides a cool, meditative respite from the hordes of tourists that are beginning to fill Florence's central streets by the (cruise) ship-full.

Above is a view back towards the entrance. The distinctive green and white geometric designs decorating the walls are typical of the Tuscan Romanesque and found on several buildings of the period from this region of Italy, including the Florentine baptistery.

Here's an up close view of the church's high altar. The windows are covered with very thin sheets of alabaster, which are designed to soften and filter the light, making it diffuse. The ceiling or apse decoration is mosaic made from small pieces of cut glass set in mortar at slightly varying angles to reflect the maximum amount of that diffuse light.

The layers of history at San Miniato al Monte are also extremely fascinating. For example take these frescoes from the 14th and 15th C. which are layered. The large figure to the right is St. Christopher. Observe the person standing below for a sense of scale!

Although we didn't hear them during this visit, I have been here when the monks in residence sang Vespers, a truly ethereal experience. And, yes--speaking of history--it still contains a monastic community. Some of its members run the gift shop, which sells their own brand of vin santo and gelato, marketed by said monks as the "best in the world." We'll have to confirm that on a later visit...stay tuned.

A Poseur's Guide to Art: Lesson #7

I gave the first six lessons in 2012 on this blog.  Given my standing as a political scientist among artists and art historians, these posts should really be called "An Idiot's Guide to Art," but I'd hate to invite a law suit. Click here to see "A Poseur's Guide to Art: Lesson #5."  Why?  Because it's a 1st Century portrait bust of Larry Freaking Bird, that's why.

In any case, Heather and I went to Santa Croce today, Florence's primary Franciscan church and the place where numerous Italians/Florentines of note are either buried or memorialized.  These include Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli (buried) and Dante, Marconi, and Enrico Fermi (memorialized).  This post is about Dante, whose earthly remains lie in Ravenna, but who is honored by an enormous funerary monument, shown here:


Two things to note: 1) Dante looks pissed.  Understandable given that he's, you know, dead.  2) Dante is ripped.  Is this historically accurate, Tony?  I know he was a soldier at one point, but was he Special Ops? Could Dante incapacitate critics of the Divine Comedy with a teaspoon and some dental floss?

So, Dante is pissed and he's kick ass, which suggests that he was the 13th century's answer to our own Chuck Norris. Is this also true? Did his contemporaries tell Chuck Norris jokes about Dante?  Or more accurately, do Chuck Norris's contemporaries tell Dante jokes about Chuck Norris? A quick check of the archives suggests an answer in the affirmative.  A few of my favorites:

  • Dante had a grizzly bear carpet in his room. The bear wasn't dead it was just afraid to move. 
  • There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Dante allowed to live.
  • Death once had a near-Dante experience.
  • When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks his closet for Dante.

Morning coffee, Florence

I am not a coffee person.  I like coffee well enough, but I can go for long stretches of time without it...easily.  In fact most of the time when I have a cup of coffee I feel pretty let down.  Too weak, kind of watery, maybe too bitter, why am I drinking this stuff and really, where's my complex cup of earl grey?  This is what happens when you first learn to drink coffee in Italy.  So technically I should say I am not a coffee person unless I happen to be in Italy.

I travelled to Italy for the first time as a 19-year old art student who did not drink/like coffee.  (I also never pulled any all-nighters as a college-student-who-didn't-drink-coffee, but that is another story for another blog--the "goody-two-shoes" blog my husband might say....) The summer after my Freshman year in college I lived with an Italian farming family outside the city of Todi.  Sunflower fields surrounded the farmhouse, chickens frequented the courtyard, Nonna cooked our dinner mostly, and with breakfast we drank coffee.  I can still see the sunny, second floor dining room with its wooden table, and I can still see my white bowl of strong, milky, AMAZINGLY delicious coffee.  Is this coffee?  Really?

And now I am back in Italy almost exactly 20 years later.  I've been here 2 full days with my nine year old, red-headed son who has been to Italy TWICE now, who knows how to navigate customs through the Brussels airport!  So far each day has begun with my own bowl of strong, milky, AMAZINGLY delicious coffee, and each time I drink my cup I do not take its particular Italian fullness for granted.  I listen to the sounds of the doves outside the kitchen window, the bells from Santa Croce, the periodic murmur of my neighbors who are waking up on a Saturday morning, the rumble of cars from the street--all mingling perfectly with the pure delight of my morning coffee in Florence.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

I finally lost it...

As much as I love Italy -- and Florence in particular -- it can be ... difficult.  Culturally, there are differences that are hard to understand unless you've actually experienced them. For Americans, and even more so for Germans -- heaven help the Germans -- a singular disconnect is the concept of a line.  In the States you form one and wait your turn.  Sure, it may move slowly due to the incompetence of the server/bureaucrat or the customers ahead of you. And you may well curse a bit under your breath or cop an overtly impatient attitude, but, by god, you wait your turn or you spin on your heels and make a theatrical exit.  

In Italy, there are no lines, only scrums -- rugged, anarchic scrums. And as a foreigner new to the country, you don't even realize you're in one -- at least at first. You queue up; you wait a bit; you wait a bit longer; then it dawns on you: you're farther away from being served then when you got in "line" in the first place.  On the bright side, you have a better view of things because you've somehow been passed by four or five little, old Italian nonnas, who, if stacked one on top of the other, would fall well short of reaching the ceiling. It's only after about three of these experiences that you realize: you've got to fight for it.

But fighting isn’t enough.  When you’re new and submissive, Italians will pass you with a hint of a smile.  A hint that says, “I’m going to pass this idiot and make him like it.”  When you decide to fight back, a hockey game breaks out.  Suddenly, you’re backchecking an octogenarian who would fit comfortably under your armpit. You begin to feel bad, but then you also begin to feel an elbow boring into your rib cage. So, not only do you have to fight, you have to forget everything you've learned about good manners.  Finally after multiple visits here -- I’m embarrassed to say -- I lost it.  I submit the following, captured by a security camera, without further comment. I'm on the left.

Art as it was Meant to be Seen

The last time we were in Florence I had grand plans to write a series of posts about works in situ (in their original locations) and the power of those experiences, particularly for the viewer, and especially the modern viewer, as many of us are used to experiencing art in the sterile, environmentally and culturally removed spaces of museums. Ultimately, I made only one post on this topic in 2012 and that about the experience of seeing all the Caravaggios of Rome in one magical, unforgettable day that June (see post June 2012, "The Power of Painting #1"). Truthfully, I think it was such a moving and intellectually stimulating experience that it zapped my ability and passion to write about anything in situ in Florence afterwards.

SO, it seemed only fitting to start my 2014 posts with a work that is always on my mind when I return to this city, and is usually the first piece I visit, as I did today, namely the Deposition of Jacopo Pontormo. The large altarpiece dates to about 1528 and is located in the unassuming church of Sta. Felicit√°, inside the Capponi Chapel (note the family coat of arms topping the gate below, marking the space). The piece hangs in the spot where it was made to hang and has hung (with the exception of the interlude of WWII when it was hidden in the Italian countryside) for nearly 500 years.

For me this is a personal piece, not because of what it depicts but because of my experience of it.
While it may sound cliche it's no less true that this painting changed the course of my career as a young art historian. Without seeing this I might have studied Tintoretto or (gasp!) Titian for my dissertation and subsequent decade of research. My lasting love affair with this piece all started on a blazing hot, sunny Florentine summer day in June of 1995 when I made a phone call from a nearby pay phone to check in with my graduate advisor/mentor in the US. He noted I was right around the corner from Pontormo's Deposition and that I should take a look. I had never heard of the artist or the work, but determined to see anything and everything of artistic note in Florence I hung up and walked the 2 blocks where I was greeted by this rather plain church facade set well back from a (then) major thoroughfare.

I entered into the small dark, wooden foyer and naturally turned to my right, pushed open the door, and entered the church proper. My eyes were adjusting to the change in light and as they did I felt suddenly and simultaneously giddy, amazed, honored, mesmerized; like a witness to the electric "presence" created by a work. I've often thought back on that day and what made the experience so powerful and lastingly resonant, and a large part was the setting. The church was and is quiet, unassuming and yet, like so many buildings in Italy, holds treasure waiting to be found. The space was cool compared to the June heat outside and I immediately felt refreshed in the space. The sun was raking through the upper windows and beams of light shown down, hitting the marble floor and wooden pews in bright bursts. The cacophony of dozens of Vespas and cars whizzing by just outside were silenced as the doors shut. It was me. It was Pontormo. Both of us inside the space where this work was intended to be seen.

Then I put a few lira in the light machine and the painting vibrated on a whole other frequency. Color combinations I had not seen before sprang to life amidst a swirling composition simultaneously moving forward, backward and upward in space. Light was at once blue (see bottom figure) and white. Figures both floated and sank under heavy bodily weight. The whole diamond composition apparently teetered on the tip toes of a single person in a barren landscape, with a puff of cloud overhead, while Pontormo himself looked on from the painting's far right.

From that day forward this work has been my favorite painting. It's had many rivals, but no usurpers.

Over the intervening years since 1995, Pontormo's painting has only grown more meaningful as I've learned more about the artist (one of my dissertation topics), lived with the work in reproduction, analyzed the image for students and saw the painting with visiting friends, artists, students and family members, who have each in their own way showed me another new way to see Pontormo. I never tire of this painting and like all "great" works the piece continues to grow in resonance with each visit, each viewing, each experience, and in this case that experience is intimately bound to its place. Sure, it would hold up in a museum just fine, but it draws part of its power from the fact that it's one piece of a larger ensemble AND it's in its original location.

Ultimately, as I said about viewing Caravaggio two years ago--this is why we travel--to see and experience works of art on their own terms, in their own space. Florence here we come...

To the right of the Deposition is a fresco of the Annunciation by Pontormo containing perhaps the most beautiful single figure in all of Western art (in my humble opinion). Note how the architectural elements above both Gabriel and Mary's heads are painted to look like the arch higher up, which is real.

As you can see in the very first image, the dome of the chapel is supported on pendentives, which each contain 4 paintings of the Apostles, also by Pontormo with help from his student Bronzino. Below is Luke with his ox.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Grand Re-Entry

As many of you know this blog has laid dormant for nearly two years. Now that we all return to Florence during the month of June for the biennial, 4-week UNCG study abroad program, The Art of Italy, this blog will once again come alive with musings, pictures, notes, glimpses and recollections of a country we all love. We hope you will write as well, after all, half the fun of writing is looking forward to comments and responses from all of you.