Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oh, babe, I hate to go...

[T]he tourist, despite all his claims to want to see the "real Florence," isn't interested in its urban sprawl; he is interested in what [art historian] Bernard Berenson called "conoscing," the object of which is the discovery of unsuspected marvels.... He wants to bring home, if not photographic evidence, then at least the interior knowledge that he has partaken of all the marvels that Florence has to offer - as if it were possible in the course of a single human life.

And what marvels there are! Astonishingly, Florence houses almost a fifth of the world's art treasures. A fifth! A thorough Florentine itinerary takes in architecture, sculpture and painting, major museums (The Bargello and the Uffizi), as well as small ones (the Stibbert and the Horne), public buildings, palaces and innumerable churches, Botticellis and Leonardos and Michelangelos and Giottos and Massaccios and Fra Angelicos and Gozzolis and Pontormos and Donatellos... And even if you see all of these things, even if you stay in Florence a year, or five years, there will be something that you've missed, some remote church known only to the cognoscenti..., about which you will be informed only the eve of your departure.

D. Leavitt, Florence, A Delicate Case (Bloomsbury 2002), pp. 22-23

It's all over but the shouting. I leave for Rome by car tomorrow at 5:00 a.m., and from Rome for New York 5 hours later. Am I ready? I'll be packed in another hour, tops, but I'm not ready. Oh, sure, I miss family and friends, but I will miss so much that i found here. You know, I went for a whole month without getting into a car or bus or train or an elevator or on an escalator on bike or skateboard or scooter or Segway. I walked everywhere. What's more, everywhere I walked was interesting. I'm going to miss that. (Which is not to say Manhattan's not interesting! It is, after all, the Center of the Universe. Still, it's not the same.)

I'm not going to go on and on about what I'll miss here. I could, but I won't. I'll wait until I actually miss it, then I'll let you know about it.

Before I sign off, I owe those of you who expected some kind of closure, a tying off of narrative threads or themes I introduced in earlier entries and left incomplete, with promises to tie them off eventually, an apology. I simply didn't have the time or talent to pull it all off in so short a time. I mean, I only started this blog a little more than seven weeks ago, and I've posted (with this one) 35 entries, several videos, and a number of photos. That's a post, plus extras, every 4 days or so! Not bad for a guy on sabbatical. Still, it's not what I promised, and for those of you who might be disappointed, again, I apologize. Of course, there's nothing to prevent me from trying to fulfill my promise in the few weeks remaining to me before I return to work. In fact, unless there are any strong objections out there, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to say what I have to say about Dante and the Council of Florence and the Medicis and the Church in Italy and Venice and the Patriarchate in Constantinople and what it all has to do with - yes! - Savonarola, for anyone who gives a darn out there. Tell you what: if you want me to continue, to bring this project to completion, give me no sign. If I don't hear from enough of you within, say, the next week, I'll assume your moral support. Alright then: you have one week not to stop me, starting... NOW.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Naked Truth

No one can leave Florence without having encountered Michelangelo's "David," whether it be the original marble statue in the Accademia Gallery, or the exact marble replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, where the original stood from its unveiling in 1504 until it was transferred to the Accademia in 1873, or the bronze replica that has stood at the Piazza Michelangelo, across the Arno and down the hill from San Miniato, for the past century. And should you somehow manage to miss all three of these giants, if you have the gift of sight, you cannot escape his image, in whole or part, in plaster or bronze miniatures of various sizes, on postcards, calendars, posters, magnets, neckties, scarves, boxer shorts, bath towels, chef's aprons. The single most popular work of art in Florence, if not the whole of Italy, "David" is certainly among the most famous nudes in the history of sculpture, with the Venus de Milo, Discus Thrower, the Artemision Bronze of Poseidon (or Zeus), Hermes of Praxiteles, and Rodin's Thinker his only conceivable competition.

Have you ever wondered why Michelangelo carved this Old Testament figure as a nude? I used to think it was simply a matter of returning to ancient GrecoRoman artistic standards and ideals, which was, after all, what the Renaissance was for the most part about. Since coming to Florence, however, I find there may be more to David's nudity than meets the eye. It's just possible that the artist is trying to communicate a truth about God and faith.

It's worth mentioning here that Michelangelo wasn't the first artist of his time to carve David in the all-together. That distinction goes to Donatello, who, my careful readers will recall, was responsible for several of the great sculptures adorning the Church of Orsanmichele: St Mark, St George, St Louis of Toulouse (now in the Basilica of Santa Croce). In fact, Donatello made two sculptures of David. In the earlier version, Donatello depicted the young shepherd, who he carved out of marble, wearing in a kind of leather armor and wrapped around with a cloak of animal skin; he looks not unlike the even-earlier St George, except that David's stance is less confrontational than the soldier saint, more relaxed, graceful. The contest, after all, is behind him; Goliath's severed head lies at his feet. It was Donatello's second David, however, produced 35 years after his first, that made art history, as both the first free-standing bronze sculpture and the first monumental nude in more than a millenium. This second David is not as tall or as mature as his previous marble incarnation, and would be dwarfed sixty years later by Michelangelo's 17-foot version. He's a little more than five feet tall, dark where the other two are light, and, well, very effeminate. His long hair (today as dark as his body, but originally distinguished from it by, as it were, a gold leaf dye job) falls over his shoulders and down his back, and his chest and hips could be those of a girl on the verge of adolescence. His smile and stance are coquettish, and an enormous wing from the dead giant Goliath's helmet climbs up his inner leg - something one couldn't help but notice in the original, as it, too, was highlighted in gold - in a frankly indecent manner. Those goldie locks and that titillating feather are more noticeable now than they have been for centuries. The Bargello Museum, where many of Donatello's greatest works are on display, only last week unveiled a newly renovated David, the result of a year of cleaning and polishing by the most modern techniques, including laser. It was during the restoration that experts confirmed the evidence of gold flakes in the hair and on other parts of the composition, but rather than reapply the gold, the museum decided to make an exact replica of the original, and to present it as it would have looked in 1445, when Donatello delivered it to - who else? - Cosimo de' Medici, the first politically active member of the impossibly wealthy (and therefore powerful) family that was to dominate Florentine and eventually European politics for the next three centuries. The replica stands a few feet behind the original, and on a slightly higher pedestal. The Bargello doesn't allow cameras, and although we know that hasn't stopped me before, because the unveiling took place just a few days ago, security is a little tighter than it was at San Marco's for the Fra Angelico fresco, so I decided not to risk it. There are, however, plenty of images on the net. Just google "Donatello David" and see for yourself. It's not just me, right? It's kind of creepy.

Back to the theological. What is it about a naked David that communicates a theological truth? To understand that, let's look at the Old Testament passage that describes David's preparation to confront the outsized enemy of his people. In I Samuel 17, after King Saul learns that the young shepherd David has accepted the Phillistine champion's challenge to one-on-one combat:
Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.” Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine (1 Samuel 17:37-40, NIV translation).

Scripture tells us that David divested himself of armor; we aren't told that he put on any other clothes, therefore, we are meant to understand (a literalist would argue) that David went to meet the heavily-armored giant with nothing but the items described: his shepherd's bag, staff, sling, and five stones. He needed no other armor: the Lord was his shield and buckler; the Lord was his defense at his right hand. The fact that Donatello's victorious David (Goliath's helmeted head is on the ground at his feet) doesn't boast a he-man's physique serves to underline the fact that his victory is God's. With God on his side, even a naked sissy is a force to be reckoned with.

Michelangelo's David tells a slightly different story. Like Donatello's St George, this David is bracing himself for confrontation. His brow is furrowed as he looks to his left for his foe. (The Lord is his defense at his right hand.) His perfectly fit body is tense. His battle has yet to be fought. This David is even more exposed to danger than Donatello's, who is wearing a hat and what look like metal shin guards. This David has clearly decided to meet his enemy clothed only in his faith in a God who delivers who He loves. But David is bringing his best to the encounter. He knows in his heart that God will fight with him, but he knows as well that that does not absolve him from the responsibility of engaging in the conflict with all his mind and all his strength. His expression communicates to us that he has no illusions about the strength of his opponent; his nudity communicates to us, or ought to, anyway, his confidence in the victory. If God with him, who can be against him?

Alas, when we look on David today, we're not predisposed to see in his nakedness anything other than an absence. Unless, however, we can see him as he sees himself, clothed in God's might, he becomes, for all his beauty, slightly ridiculous: a man caught for eternity with his pants down.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reviewing "A Room with a View"

I'll be spending a good bit of tomorrow writing up my experiences of the last two days here in Constantinople - the ordination of Deacon Nyphon (ne Nikolaos) Tsimalis on Saturday and the Patriarchal Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-called on Sunday - before turning my attention back to Florence as I conclude my two months there. Today, however, is a travel day. I leave in a few minutes for the Istanbul airport, where I'll get an early afternoon flight to Rome, from where I'll catch a train to Florence. I should be back in my apartment on the Via delle Terme in 8 or 9 hours.

A friend who reads this blog was kind enough to send my this link to an article that appeared in yesterday's New York Times. Those of you who know the wonderful Merchant-Ivory film, "A Room with a View," and the even more wonderful E.M. Forster novel from which it was adapted will, I'm sure, enjoy this:

Until tomorrow!

Friday, November 28, 2008

In The City (there's a thousand things I want to say to you)

It's gone by many names over the course of its 2600-year existence: Byzantion, for its mythical founder, Byzas; New Rome, for the role it was to play in the restructured Empire; then Constantinople, after the Emperor who willed that new role and restructuring; and most recently Stamboul, then Istanbul, from the Greek "eis tin Poli," "(in) The City," as that was how the conquering Turks heard its inhabitants refer to it. Even today, for Greeks the world over, it is simply The City.

Wherever I look here, I can't help wondering what I would be seeing if I were standing on the same spot at another moment in The City's history: a hundred years ago, before the fall of the Sultanate and the birth on the secular Turkish state, when more than a third of its one million inhabitants were Greeks and Armenians (today, there are 1500 Greeks, and far fewer Armenians, in a population of 15 million); 560 years ago, before its conquest by the Ottoman Turks; 810 years ago, before its sacking by the armies of the 4th Crusade; 1480 years ago, before the fires of the Nika Riots burned to the ground an earlier version of the Church of Haghia Sophia; 1680 years ago, as Constantine the Great was creating from the raw material of an ancient Greek city a New Rome, even grander than the Old; 2500 years ago, when the hill on which Haghia Sophia now stands was the site of a temple dedicated to a pagan goddess. I wish there was a way of pealing back the layers, like transparencies in an anatomy textbook, lifting away first the skin of the present, then the various systems of the past, and so on until the bones.

In fact, there is a website that makes it possible to envision The City as it may have looked at its most glorious, from an Orthodox Christian or Byzantinist perspective: The purpose of the site is to provide as best as possible, based on physical remains, historic descriptions, and artists' renderings, reconstructions of buildings as they might have appeared in Constantinople on the eve of its sacking by the Crusaders in 1204. Those of you who checked out the wikipedia article on the Milion mentioned in one of my previous entries will have seen that nothing remains of that great monument but a broken and scarred marble pillar. Go to, read the "Important Notice," click on "contents" from the column on the left, and then click on item no. 40, "Milion." See what I mean? The site is especially helpful for the Hippodrome, of which only three monuments remain; the Great Palace, on the site of which the Blue Mosque now stands; and the Blachernae Palace complex, of which there is only a single wall today.

Certainly the greatest monument The City has ever produced is the Great Church of Haghia Sophia. It is referred to as the Great Church rather than as the Cathedral, because that title belongs to the nearby church of Haghia Eirene. (Neither of these churches, by the way, is dedicated to a woman saint. Haghia Sophia is the Holy Wisdom of Christ, and Haghia Eirene is His Holy Peace. Both of these attributes, Wisdom and Peace, are in the Greek language feminine, and are also used as names for women; hence the confusion.) It was, famously, the overwhelming beauty of the building and of the worship that took place within it that won the Russian people for Orthodoxy. The Tsar's emissaries, upon experiencing the Divine Liturgy as celebrated within the Great Church, reported back to him that they didn't know whether they were in heaven or on earth, so powerfully were they moved by the symphony of sights and sounds being conducted in its massive yet miraculously open space. The building itself is the third church of the same name on the same site; the previous two were largely wooden structures which were brought down by fires set by rioters. The present structure was built in the unbelievably short period of 5 years, between 532 and 537, during the reign of Justinian the Great. For over 900 years, it was the most magnificent Christian temple in the world. For nearly 500 years after the capture of The City by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was one of the world's most important mosques. For the past 70 years, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Turkish state, it has been a museum, though still decorated as if it were a mosque. Once again, wikipedia offers an excellent survey of the Church and its long history (, and there is an impressive virtual tour available on line as well, at (If you've never done a virtual tour, the trick is to point your cursor in the direction you want to go, then click.)

If I had arrived in The City on November 24, 1437, exactly 571 years to the day before I actually arrived this past Monday, I would have been just in time to witness a singularly spectacular sight: The Holy Roman Emperor John VIII Paleologus and His All-Holiness Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople boarding separate ships, with an entourage of hundreds of hierarchs, clergymen, lay theologians, noblemen and courtiers from throughout the Orthodox Christian East. They would have been preparing to set sail for Italy, to attend a Council summoned by Pope Eugenius IV for the purpose of healing a schism between the Churches of East and West that had been in effect, technically speaking, since Sunday, July 16, 1054, when three papal legates disrupted the Divine Liturgy in Haghia Sophia by depositing a Bull of Excommunication on the Holy Altar before storming out of the building. And I will be returning to the sad story of what happened in that Council when I myself return to Italy early next week!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Constantinopolitan Connection

The following is from NPR's website. I was frankly quite surprised to learn that Constantinople had a part to play in this most American of holidays!

Why A Turkey Is Called A Turkey
by Robert Krulwich

Morning Edition, November 27, 2008 ·
Here's the puzzle:
The bird we eat on Thanksgiving is an exclusively North American animal. It is found in the wild on no other continent but ours. It evolved here. So why is this American bird named for a Eurasian country?
To find out, I went back to an interview I did almost 30 years ago on NPR's Morning Edition with Mario Pei, a Columbia University professor of Romance languages, who died shortly after our conversation.
I return to his answer because it is still the best one available.
Professor Pei had two theories.
First, in the 1500s when the American bird first arrived in Great Britain, it was shipped in by merchants in the East, mostly from Constantinople (who'd brought the bird over from America).
Since it wholesaled out of Turkey, the British referred to it as a "Turkey coq." In fact, the British weren't particularly precise about products arriving from the East. Persian carpets were called "Turkey rugs." Indian flour was called "Turkey flour." Hungarian carpet bags were called "Turkey bags."
If a product came to London from the far side of the Danube, Londoners labeled it "Turkey" and that's what happened to the American bird. Thus, an American bird got the name Turkey-coq, which was then shortened to "Turkey."
Or…Theory No. 2 (and maybe both theories are correct): Long before Christopher Columbus went to America, Europeans already had a wild fowl they liked to eat. It came from Guinea, in Western Africa. It was a guinea fowl, imported to Europe by, yes, Turkish merchants. It was eaten in London. So it got the nickname Turkey coq, because it came from Constantinople.
When British settlers got off the Mayflower in Massachusetts Bay Colony and saw their first American woodland fowl, even though it is larger than the African Guinea fowl, they decided to call it by the name they already used for the African bird. Wild forest birds like that were called "turkeys" at home.
Why not use the same name in Plymouth? And Boston? And Rhode Island? So a name attached to an African bird got reattached to an American one.
The point is for 500 years now, this proud (if not exactly brilliant) American animal has never had a truly American name.
And just to keep this ball rolling…all over the world, people now can eat American Turkeys, but they don't call them Turkeys.
Across Arabia, they call our bird "diiq Hindi," or the "Indian rooster."
In Russia, it's "Indjushka," bird of India.
In Poland, "Inyczka"— again "bird from India."
And what, we wondered, do the Turks call our turkey?
Well, they call it "Hindi," again, short for India.
So in 1492, because Columbus wanted to be in the "Indies," our North American bird got robbed of its American-ness, which is why tonight, when you look down at your turkey, don't call it "sahib."
Call it "dude."

Feast on this

Among the myriad gifts I'm grateful for, today and every day, is the gift of artistry, our God-given ability to share in creating the world, not out of nothing, but out of those things which He created from the beginning to be good, to be put to good use by us, created to reflect His glory by participating in His creative life. The art of storytelling, in its various forms, including the cinematic, is a way of reordering creation, of giving inarticulate creation a voice, of discovering in creation God's word for us. The art of cooking is another gift, and can be a way of transforming our awareness of and appreciation for the world around us, of turning it into a means of communion with God and His creation and each other, and a cause for giving thanks to God for His creation and each other. These forms of artistic expression, the narrative and the culinary, come together most perfectly in the 1987 Danish film, "Babette's Feast." It is itself cause for celebration and thanksgiving because, through the collaborative story-telling genius of author Karen ("Isak Dinesen") Blitzen and director Gabriel Axel, we see for ourselves, with the eyes of the heart, the sacred at the heart of a meal, prepared with self-emptying love, received in loving gratitude.

If you haven't seen "Babette's Feast," you are hereby directed to correct that failing at your earliest convenience, and certainly no later than Christmas. It's for your own good. It will make your celebration of Christmas a richer one. In fact, I'm so certain you will thank me for it, you're already welcome!

Unconvinced? Go to the link below and watch New York Time's film critic A.O. Scott offer his appreciation of the film. Consider it an appetizer.

A blessed Thanksgiving to you and yours!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Milion to one

No, I spelled it correctly. I'm not referring to the number, but to a historic monument and what remains of it. The Milion was a building in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), at the northern corner of the Great Church of Haghia Sophia, a few meters from the entry to the Basilica Cistern and few more from the site of the ancient Hippodrome, at the very beginning of the Mese Odos (Constantinople's Central Avenue/Broadway). Built by Constantine the Great in imitation of a similar structure in Rome when he recreated Byzantium as New Rome, it was the point from which the distance to all other cities of the Empire was measured. Over the centuries, it developed into quite a complicated monument, described in detail at It was destroyed in the early 16th century by the conquering Ottomans, to accommodate other building projects in the immediate vicinity. All that remains of it today is a single pillar; hence the title of today's entry. Why am I writing about it at all? Because the hotel where I'm staying for the week is about 200 yards away from it. Sure, I could've said 200 yards from Haghia Sophia, but I wanted to respect the ancient practice of measuring distances from that particular, even though no longer extant, monument.

Yes, I'm in Constantinople, a day earlier than I'd planned to be. Alitalia Airlines announced late last week that there'd be a work stoppage on Tuesday, and as I had to be at the Patriarchate on Wednesday morning, I had to reschedule for a Monday departure. I'd planned to be here through Thursday, then go back to Florence on Friday. That won't be happening, for a couple of good reasons. The first: His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew has designated Saturday, November 29 to be the day of the ordination to the Holy Diaconate of Nikolaos Tsimalis, a Greek-American who has been working as an intern at the Ecumenical Patriarchate since graduating from Holy Cross School of Theology last May. Niko is a very gifted young man who communicates with equal ease in Greek and English, chants beautifully, and most importantly loves the Church of Christ with his whole heart. He has been looking forward to this coming Saturday, he says with complete sincerity, for his whole life.

Niko is a native of Merrillville, Indiana and a life-long member of Sts Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral there. When I was growing up, it was not yet a cathedral, nor had the parish yet relocated from Gary, my hometown, to Merrillville, but in all other respects Niko and I are from the same community. My youngest sister Maria was one of his first Sunday School teachers (and remembers him as quite a handful back then), and he and my nephews Matthew and Aaron served as altar boys together. He will be ordained by His Eminence Metropolitan Nikitas of the Dardanelles, formerly of Hong Kong, and long before that, a priest of Sts Constantine and Helen Cathedral in Merrillville. The Metropolitan is here as a member of the Patriarchal Synod, which is in session this week. How could I not stay for such a blessed occasion? (I didn't know about it before coming here, as Niko was only informed about it himself by the Patriarch only a few days ago.) Because he will be ordained as a celibate, the Patriarch has indicated that he will be given a new name, of His All Holiness's choosing, which he is keeping to himself. My money's on "Paphnutios." Call it a hunch.

I mentioned two good reasons for extending my stay. The second is that Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, the Founder of the Church at Byzantium and Patron of the Ecumenical Throne. It was my great honor to serve on the occasion of that feast at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St George at the Phanar eight years ago, when I was still an archimandrite. I was one of two priests, two deacons, and thirteen Patriarchs and Metropolitans serving that day. I remember having only recently come over from the States and being severely jet-lagged that morning. Had it not been for the crush of people in the sanctuary (every hierarch had an assistant nearby at all times) I would probably have keeled over from exhaustion a couple of times. As it was, there was simply no room to fall. I'm pretty sure, though, that I slept through parts of the morning, on my feet. I look forward to experience the whole morning this time with my wits, such as they are, about me.

So that means I'll be here, unless the Lord has other plans for me, until Monday morning, and back in Florence later that day. And back in the States a week after that.

Before calling it a day, let me tell you about a conversation I had just before sitting down to update this blog. I'd stepped out of the hotel to walk around the neighborhood, maybe catch a bite - okay, to catch a bite - when I noticed I was being waved over to a little restaurant across the street by what I assumed was its proprietor. I turned out to be right about that. He was a charming and dignified gentleman named Osman, the name of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. "My American friend!" he called to me. "Come! You look hungry!" I'm not sure what about me said "American" or "hungry," but he such an amiable character I played along. There were only a couple of other people in the place, younger Turkish men, one in his early thirties in the other ten years younger. No sooner had I accepted a seat than Osman began presenting me with the typical range of Turkish mezedhes, and the older of the other two started questioning me politely about my background. Within minutes, Ramazan (that's his name) and I were talking more easily than I would have thought possible about topics which I thought were not discussed in Turkey. Ramazan is, by the way, a Kurd, and despite his end-of-a-long-day-at-the-garage look, is well educated and very articulate in English, which he claims to have taught himself. He wanted to discuss my faith, what I thought about his, whether I thought Turkey would ever be ready for EU membership (he expressed himself pessimistic - "there is no respect here for human rights!"), and the legacy of Attaturk. This last topic in particular surprised me, as I thought the Father of Modern Turkey was beyond criticism. Ramazan brushed that aside: "No man is God. Only God is God! He was a man who made many mistakes." I asked him if he spoke like this all the time, or was just putting on a show for an American. He assured me that the times, they are a-changing. He described himself as a conservative Muslim but not a radical when it came to violence. I waited for him to look the other way before I mopped my brow and sighed with relief. No, I'm just kidding. It wasn't an uncomfortable conversation. He struck me as a sincere person, trying to understand what other people think about him and his people and his country and his faith. Oh, and he offered me rock bottom prices on his cousin's carpets, which are in the shop next door. I told him I wasn't here to shop. He assured me I'd change my mind before leaving. I hope he's wrong. Who can afford a Turkish carpet these days?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The shape of things to come

The clock is running down, friends.

Fr Nikolaos, who can be very persistent, wouldn't let a little thing like the fact that I hadn't brought episcopal vestments with me prove an insurmountable obstacle to his desire that I preside at worship here. He arranged for a bishop in Greece to lend me a set, and had his brother Demetri bring them over from Kastoria earlier this week. Of course, it's not for Fr Niko to decide whether or not I can serve here; that's up to the local hierarch, His Eminence Metropolitan Gennadios. As he, too, is eager that I should do so, I will celebrate the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple tonight at the Church of St Iakovos. We will chant Great Vespers beginning at 6pm, follow with Orthros, and conclude with the Divine Liturgy. In fact, I'm grateful that Fr Niko was so adamant, as I was ordained to the Holy Diaconate on this feast, 16 years ago.

I'll be in Constantinople from Tuesday through Friday of next week. (That means I'll be in Turkey for Thanksgiving, for a change.) When I get back to Florence, I'll have nine days left to collect myself for the return home. *sigh*

Between now and then, I have a lot of loose ends to tie off: Dante, my trip to Venice, the Greeks of Florence and their role in the Renaissance, the Medicis, Patriarch Joseph and the Council of Florence, and, at last, Savonarola. I'm working on a way to bring them all together in a single narrative. Brace yourselves.

Lastly, fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have complained that I've written about Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello, but not Raphael. I'll try to think of something nice to say about him in the days remaining.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Taking it to the Matt

Matthew Mallonee, that is, eldest son of my youngest sister Maria and her husband Steve, who is not only my nephew but my godson. Today, November 16th, is the feastday of his patron Saint, the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, the subject of today's entry. Many years, Matt.

In fact, this is not so much about Saint Matthew as it is about a statue of him by Lorenzo Ghiberti, situated in one of 14 external tabernacles at the Church of Orsanmichele. But in order to appreciate the importance of this particular statue, dear Readers, we have to take a few steps back, to see it in its larger context.

Let's start with the church itself." Orsanmichele" (the "ch" is pronounced "k," not "sh" as in French) means "in the 'orto,' or kitchen-garden, of St (Archangel) Michael." It was originally an open-air loggia, a roofed, open gallery, probably attached to a no -longer-existing Monastery of St Michael, in central Florence. From the late 1280's, grain merchants from around the region gathered to sell their produce there. In 1292, a series of healing miracles began to take place which were attributed to an icon of the Mother of God hanging from one of the loggia's inner columns. Soon the site became a place of pilgrimage, where people from near and far would come to pray for healing or offer thanks for prayers answered, and often to leave money for distribution to the poor. Beginning in 1337, at the direction of the Signoria, or City Hall, the arched spaces between the supporting columns of the loggia were closed over with stone, turning the formerly open space into a proper church, while the grain market/pantry was relocated to an upper level. The Signoria also decreed that the exterior of the building be decorated with statues of the patron saints of 14 of the city's guilds, at the expense of the guilds themselves.

The guilds were at the heart of Florentine commercial and political and, in a sense, religious life. Guilds were associations of master craftsmen and craftsmen. There were 21 such associations, ranging from butchers to lawyers (which, come to think of it, isn't that much of a range). Of these, 7 were considered "major" and the rest were minor. Moreover, only members of the major guilds were eligible for election to civic office. In his excellent "Renaissance Florence: The Invention of a New Art" (1997), A. Richard Turner writes, "Beyond strictly business matters, the guilds were centrally involved in religious activity and charity. Each guild participated in the major religious holidays of the city, and each had responsibility for the celebration of the feast day of its specific patron saint. The guilds also oversaw and had financial responsibility for the city's major churches, and for its hospitals and charitable foundations" (p. 13).

Now back to the Orsanmichele. Each guild rightly understood that its niche would serve not only to glorify its patron saint but also as advertisement for the goods or services the guild provided. Everyone coming into Florence would come to Orsanmichele, which is a short walk south from the Duomo and even closer to the Piazza della Signoria. The statues were to be in niches which began about seven feet from the ground, and would stand above the insignia of the sponsoring guild. It was therefore in a guild's best interest to use the most impressive (read, "expensive") materials and commission the most talented craftsmen for the task. What makes Orsanmichele such an important site in the history of art is that, simply by walking around its walls, we can witness the evolution of modern statuary in the competition between guilds and artisans.

Consider, for instance, the bronze statue of St John the Baptist, a couple of photos of which are on my flickr page ( (The original of that statue is now on the upper level of the Orsanmichele; all the exterior statues are now copies.) It is the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the artist most in demand in early 15th-century Florence, who was working at the time on the first of his two sets of bronze doors for the nearby Baptistry. (I've included a self-portrait of the artist, poking his head out of his last set of doors to observe what he's certain are admiring crowds, on my flickr page.) St John was the patron of the incredibly rich Wool Merchant's Guild, which demonstrated its wealth by commissioning the statue in bronze, a material ten times as expensive as marble. No one had ever cast a bronze statue the size of St John (8'4") since antiquity. To display such a large statue by such a prominent artist in such a costly material spoke volumes about the wealth of the Wool Merchants. the statue itself is in a late Gothic style, with St John staring expressionless into the space ahead, his likewise inexpressive body draped in beautiful but unlikely folds of material. Ghiberti delivered a thing of great beauty, but neither he nor anyone else at the time had counted on what the young Donatello was doing at the same time, in marble, for the Linen Workers' Guild. Again, Turner: "The linen-workers probably expected something along the stylistic lines that Ghiberti produced, but instead received a work that can only be described as an artistic mutation, a figure at once more physically and psychologically compelling than anything produced for centuries. [The guild's patron, the Evangelist] Mark stands with his weight heavily on his right leg, a pose that activates the whoile body.... In stunning contrast to Ghiberti's wholly decorative treatment of drapery, Donatello used drapery to reveal the forms and relations of the body beneath it.... The psychological vitality of the figure (is evident in) St Mark's gaze into the space of the spectator's on the street, forehead furrowed, deep-set eyes intense.... This contrast between Ghiberti and Donatello is the defining moment of the waning Gothic versus the new Renaissance of forms" (p. 56).

Of course, it didn't stop there. Donatello went on to sculpt, again in marble, the stunning St George for (who else?) the Armorers' and Sword Makers' Guild. (The fourth-century saint is depicted wearing the last word in armor, gear no self-respecting knight of the early 15th century could afford to be without.) And Ghiberti responded to the challenge of the young upstart with another bronze, incorporating elements of the new style being pioneered by Donatello. He produced, this time for the Bankers' Guild, another of the city's richest and most powerful guilds, an enormous bronze of its patron saint, the former tax-collector, the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew (we finally got to him!), in a far more psychologically engaged manner than John the Baptist's. Matthew looks down at the street-level observers, directing their attention with his right hand to the book he holds in his left, which is open to the beginning of his Gospel. His weight is clearly on one leg, and the cloth draping him appears to cover an actual body, although Ghiberti is still evidently committed to Gothic conventions of arranging the folds into repetitive crescents. Donatello responded with a massive bronze of his own, his first, of St Louis of Toulouse. And the rest is art history.

I wish I could provide you with my own pictures of these great works of art, but my internet connection here is criminally slow, and it takes forever to upload new material on youtube or flickr. I've often waited for over an hour for a short video clip or a handful of pics to upload, only to be told within minutes of completion that the connection had failed. I will post my best stuff when I get back to the states next month. meanwhile, for those who are interested in seeing for yourself everything I've been describing, go to

One last note: the wonder-working icon of the Mother of God which was responsible for the creation of this particular sacred space was destroyed in a fire. The image presently enshrined at Orsanmichele, "Our Lady of the Graces," is a work of the mid 14th century. It is displayed to the right of the main altar, in an enormous marble tabernacle of incredible delicacy and complexity. No photos or videos are allowed in the church, so I have reproduced a photo from a book on my flickr page, just to give you an idea.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Woodn't you nose it?

In my remarks a few weeks ago about my visit to the glorious Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, I mentioned that the grounds contain a cemetery in which are buried several prominent Italians from the second half of the nineteenth century to the present day, among them Carlo Collodi, author of "Pinocchio." It wasn't until today that I realized that Collodi wasn't just Italian but in fact a lifelong Florentine, making "Pinocchio" fair game. (Reminder: I'm only reading books about or set in Florence or by Florentine authors.) Now if you get the impression, because I read a book about Shakespeare (who, though he set 13 of his 37 plays entirely or in part in Italy, never so much as referred once to Florence!) and seem eager to read a children's book, that my enthusiasm for Dante might be waning - well, you wouldn't be far from the truth. Maybe if you all pray hard enough for me, I'll get out of "Purgatory" quicker!

In my defense, I've never read "Pinocchio" before, so when I saw a brand new translation, just out this month, by Geoffrey Brock, with an introduction by no less than Umberto ("The Name of the Rose," "Foucault's Pendulum") Eco himself, how was I supposed to resist? Yes, it may be just a children's story (if you believe there is such a thing) but the new (alas, unillustrated) translation's 160 pages long, followed by another 25 pages of scholarly evaluation by Rebecca West! So I wasn't exactly taking the afternoon off to read it. And even if I was - hey, I'm on sabbatical!

In his introduction, Eco recalls the "discomfort" he and his fellow Italian friends experienced when watching for the first time Walt Disney's version of the story they had grown up with. ("Pinocchio" was first published serially between 1883 and 1885, making him an exact contemporary of "Huckleberry Finn," which came out in late 1884.) I came to the original having grown up with the adaptation - but my reaction was the same: discomfort. Collodi's creation is a good deal less cuddly than Disney's. He's born kicking: no sooner does Geppetto (Collodi's spelling) finish carving the feet than he gets kicked in the nose by one of them, and his suffering at the hands of his ungrateful creation doesn't stop there. (Comparisons to "Frankenstein" have been made on this point.) There is an unnamed talking cricket, but he's not the narrator. He tells Pinocchio upon first meeting him that he's been living in Geppetto's room for more than a hundred years. Two pages later, the enraged puppet flings a wooden mallet at him, squashing the poor bug to death! (Collodi offers an excuse, "Perhaps he didn't mean to hit him at all," but Pinocchio expresses no remorse.) There's no Blue Fairy but rather a fairy with sky-blue hair, who doesn't enter the story until it's nearly half over. In the early days of her relationship with the puppet, he considers her his sister; later, he calls her "mother." The first pages were so different in incident and tone, so much starker and darker, that I was surprised by the end to see how much Disney had actually managed to retain: he got the Fox and Cat right, and the transformation of the boys (and puppet) into donkeys, and improved on the episode in the whale (in the book, a shark).

I'm not suggesting that one version is better than the other. Both Collodi's original and Disney's rewrite are wonderful in their different ways. (Eco acknowledges this himself, pronouncing the movie "delightful.") But there's something deeper and more mysterious going on in the book than in the movie. It's a story full of pain and punishment (just and otherwise), mutilation and metamorphosis, death and rebirth, repentance and redemption. I'm not at all surprised by Pinocchio's perrenial popularity. I have little doubt that he'd just as famous today even if he'd never met Jiminy Cricket or wished upon a star. Stories such as his, that go to such deep places within us, aren't easily forgotten. They make their home in our hearts.


Since I first posted this yesterday, a couple of friends have already written, calling me knotty for having gone so far out on a limb for my punny title. And here I thought I'd nailed it! I guess that's the planks I get for trying to keep yew from getting board!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

a correction, and an added detail

In yesterday's post, I wrote that April 26, 1478, the date of the assassination attempt on Lorenzo de' Medici (and the assassination of his brother Giuliano) was Easter Sunday. In fact, it was the Fifth Sunday of Easter, the Sunday before the Ascension.

I also mentioned that the assault was made during the celebration of Mass. In fact, the cue was the elevation of the Host and the words, "This is My Body."

For those with time and interest in this famously violent event, I recommend Lauro Martines, "April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medicis" (Oxford 2003). Martines is also the author of an excellent book on Savonarola which i referred to in my first post and have listed in the sidebar.

Where there's Will, there's a way to say it

A couple of years ago, as I was nearing my fiftieth birthday, it hit me hard that my time was running out and I'd left too many important books unread.

For the purposes of calculation, I gave myself another 20 years, and considering that, in a good year, I get through about 40 books, that meant I had another 800 to go before the Final Exam. Among the books I'd never read at the time: Homer's "Iliad" (and I'd been Bishop of Troy for five years already!), Virgil's "Aeniad" (see previous parenthesis), two-thirds of Dante's "Divine Comedy" - the list goes on and on and on. To my particular shame (as my first degree was in English literature), I had only read or seen performed, at most, ten plays by William Shakespeare: "Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "Othello" (my favorite), "Richard III," "As You Like It," "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Now ten may seem like a lot, but the man had written, in whole or collaboratively, a whopping 37! Looking over the list, I forgave myself for not having gotten around yet to "Coriolanus" or "Timon of Athens" or "A Winter's Tale," but "Antony and Cleopatra"? "The Taming of the Shrew"? "Measure for Measure"? "King Lear"??? No, something clearly had to be done about it! So I set myself the goal of reading all 37 plays, in approximate chronological order, from "Two Gentlemen of Verona" to "Two Noble Kinsmen," before I turned 51. And it wasn't to be a matter of getting through a text as quickly as possible, just to say that I'd done it. No, I invested in recorded performances of every play, which I'd listen to while commuting to and from work, and filmed versions, including adaptations, which I'd watch in the evenings, and whenever possible, I took in live performances. And I read books and essays about the man and his times, and about the men and times he wrote about. And a year into it, I'd made it through "Hamlet," the 19th play (according to order I was following). In other words, there were another 18 to go! As much as I'd enjoyed myself getting to the halfway point, it seemed to me a good time to take a break of a few months. Unfortunately, with one thing and another, I haven't returned to my project, but I genuinely look forward to doing so. Next up: "Twelfth Night."

One of the reasons I came to Florence for my sabbatical, as I've mentioned before, was to read Dante here, and it was exactly the right thing to do. I've been reluctant to burden you with my thoughts on him so far, though I do plan to write something on him some time next week, when I get through "Purgatory." You may also recall that I planned while here to read only books about Florence or by Florentines, and up until now I've kept to the program. A couple of nights ago, though, I allowed myself a little break and read Bill Bryson's latest, "Shakespeare: The World as a Stage." Those of you who've read him before will know how much fun he is, and those of you who haven't had better get a move on! Pick up anything by him; he never disappoints. In fact, I can recommend this little Shakespeare book (190 pgs) with the warmest enthusiasm. I felt all the while like I was in the company to a good and wise and funny friend, discussing a mutual, much admired, if ultimately mysterious friend. I can't imagine anyone with even the faintest interest in the greatest writer ever to use the English language not finding something to love in this gem of a book.

I leave you with a couple of passages in which Bryson calls attention to how profoundly Shakespeare enriched our articulate world:

"[Shakespeare] coined - or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of - 2,035 words, [...including:] abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including 'countless').... His real gift was as a phrasemaker: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, remembrance of things past, beggar all description, cold comfort, to thine own self be true, more in sorrow than in anger, the wish is father to the thought, salad days, flesh and blood, foul play, tower of strength, be cruel to be kind, blinking idiot, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance, foregone conclusion."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There's no place like Duomo!

For starters, when I refer to the Duomo, I'm referring not to the justly-celebrated Dome of the Florence's Cathedral, but to the Cathedral itself. In other words, "Duomo" isn't Italian for "dome," but derives from the Latin "domus Dei," meaning "house of God." There are duomos throughout Italy, most of them without domes.

Florence's Duomo is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Holy Mary of the Flowers. No one calls it that, except tour guides, and only once. Although the Holy Virgin is revered throughout the city, she is not its patron saint. That honor belongs to Saint John the Baptist, whose principal place of worship is an octagonal baptistry dating back to at least the eighth century and situated directly opposite the Duomo's entrance. But there's more: the Cathedral of Florence was, from the fourth- to the thirteenth centuries, dedicated to an obscure woman martyr of Syrian origin, Saint Reparata. The remains of that basilica lie under the floor of the present-day Duomo, and in recent decades access has been created to that lower level. The ruins cover about a third the length of the current building. Santa Maria was built around Santa Reparata, which continued to serve as the cathedral until there was enough of a structure around it to permit its demolition - that is, for nearly eighty years after construction began! And St John's Baptistry was not, as it were, created out of nothing; it was built on the site of a Roman temple to, of all "people," Mars, the god of war!

Some have wondered, given their long history of civil strife, whether the Florentines ever did end their association with the war god. A couple of examples, both of which took place within the Duomo itself, will make the point. Those of you who have been reading this blog from the beginning of my stay here four weeks ago will recall Fra Girolamo Savonarola. The Prior of the Dominican brotherhood of San Marco, a few hundred yards north of the cathedral, he rose to fame - and power - as the Duomo's preacher. The Dominican Order was dedicated to and distinguished for preaching, and Savonarola was by all accounts a preacher's preacher. He was renowned throughout the region for his dramatic and soul-stirring sermons, in which he claimed for himself prophetic status and divine inspiration. It is estimated that at the height of his influence he preached to as many as 15,000 at a time! (That the Duomo can hold a crowd of that size is not hard to believe; it is the fourth largest church in the world. That a person could make himself heard by so many people without modern day amplification is a more challenging claim.) Of course, not everyone responded to his calls for repentance (or else!) in the same spirit. On one occasion, he arrived at the Duomo to discover the high wooden pulpit from which he commanded the attention of the city smeared all over with animal excrement and draped with a donkey's carcass, with nails driven into it at strategic areas in the hopes that he would injure himself while pounding to make a point, so to speak.

The other example is even more dramatic. On Easter Sunday, April 26, 1478, during the celebration of High Mass, in the presence of 10,000 fellow Florentines, a group determined to put an end to the de facto rule by the Medici family of what was supposedly the Republic of Florence, attacked two of its most illustrious members, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" and his younger brother Giuliano. Lorenzo escaped into the sacristy, the room where the clergy vest for the services, with serious but non-fatal injuries. Giuliano was less fortunate. He was stabbed 19 times by a gang that included at least one priest who'd participated in the Mass, and bled to death within a few feet of the Holy Altar. The Medicis and their supporters quickly gained control, and within the hour arrested the visiting Archbishop of Pisa, one of the principal ringleaders of the plot. By the end of the day his naked body hung from the walls of the Palazzo Vecchio, the fortress-like center of government not far from the Duomo. What a way to spend Easter!

Of course, Florence's Duomo isn't the only House of God that has witnessed ungodly violence perpetrated within its walls; think of what the Great Church of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople suffered at hands first of the Crusaders and later of the Ottomans. Which brings me, by an admittedly roundabout way, to what I wanted to talk about in the first place: a holy relic of Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, which is neither in Constantinople nor at the Vatican, but right here in Florence, in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo.

Let's connect the dots: St John was, not unlike Savonarola, a preacher's preacher. He is remembered throughout the Christian world, east and west, as The Preacher par excellence. Savonarola no doubt learned from his much-studied sermons, as did Martin Luthor shortly after him, how to direct people's attention from vain pursuits to the pursuit of the genuinely Christian life. Chrysostom, however, didn't resort to the kind of spiritual violence that characterized Savonarola's preaching at its worst. He did not so much breathe out fire and brimstone as he did entice with a language described by his contemporaries and all subsequent generations as golden in both style and content. Like the Florentine, however, he was no respecter of persons, and his denunciation of immorality was directed against the mighty as well as the man on the street. As punishment for his attacks that hit too close to the Imperial Palace for its occupants' comfort, he fell asleep in the Lord in the year 407, at the age of 53, while in exile, dying of exhaustion en route from one village to another in the Armenian mountains far distant from his patriarchal see. (Although he actually reposed on September 14, so that the commemoration of his memory would not be overshadowed by the celebration of the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross which was came to be celebrated four centuries later on that same date, his feastday was transferred to November 13.) Thirty years after his death, in the year 438, his sacred remains were brought back from exile to Constantinople and laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Peace of God (Haghia Eirene). The transfer - or in the language of the Church, "translation" - of the saint's relics from Armenia to Haghia Sophia is commemorated annually on January 27. He was to remain at rest there for nearly eight centuries thereafter.

In 1204, Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders from Western Europe, who established Latin control over the City that was to last for the next half century. During that time, churches and mansions throughout the City were ruthlessly stripped of their treasures, many of which were delivered to Venice and Rome. Holy relics were particularly prized, and the tombs of saints were everywhere plundered. The relics of two of the greatest men to ever associated with the City, Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Gregory the Theologian, were among those taken to Rome. Four years ago this month, on November 30, the Feast of St Andrew the First-Called Apostle, elder brother of the Apostle Peter and Patron Saint of the Church of Constantinople, Pope John Paul II directed the return of a large part of these sacred relics of these two saints to Constantinople. One of the last acts of his Papacy, this was a demonstration of John Paul's longing for and commitment to the reconciliation of the Churches of Rome and the Orthodox East. Some relics were retained at the Vatican, and some had already been distributed to other churches throughout the west. Among the relics of St John which did not return was his holy skull, which had been presented centuries ago as a Papal gift to the Duomo of Florence. (I'm still looking into this, but I wouldn't be the tiniest bit surprised if the gifting Pope turned out to be one of the Medicis.)

Yesterday morning, by arrangement of Fr Nikolaos Papadopoulos, the priest of the local Greek Orthodox Church of St Iakovos the Apostle and Brother of the Lord, I was granted an opportunity to venerate this holy relic. Fr Nikos has lived here for nearly ten years now and is well known and well liked by the clergy of the Cathedral, of which there are about 20. (I'll have more to say about relations between the Roman Catholics and Orthodox here in a future post.) One of his closest friends is Archdeacon Allesandro, one of whose responsibilities appears to be Guardian of the Relics. He was more than happy to spend an hour with me yesterday, taking me to chapels and crypts off limits to tourists. His historical knowledge of the Catholic Church, the Cathedral (and other churches) of Florence, and of the city itself, is profound and impressive. He has traced his family's Florentine association back to the sixteenth century; prior to that, his people were associated with nearby Sienna. By Florentine satndards, that makes him kind of a newbie. (One of the complaints against the Medicis was that they assumed to much authority too soon after appearing on the scene; they'd only been here about a century before they presumed to get involved with local government. The nerve of some people!) The Archdeacon is a mild-mannered, unassuming fifty-year old, who treated me with gthe utmost respect. The skull of St John is kept throughout the year under the altar table in one of several chapels at the eastern end of the Cathedral. The chapel, which is to the left of the High Altar and faces north, is dedicated to the Saint, and a Mass is offered on the altar there every morning. The relics of several saints are visible there at all times, through the latticework that surrounds the altar. The Archdeacon was good enough to bring the reliquary out from under the altar so that I could venerate it. He also allowed me to take a few photographs. I thank God that I'm able to offer these images to you for your own veneration on .

Monday, November 10, 2008


This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Believe me, believe me...

Other worthies, including the King himself, have covered it, and many have covered it well, but why did they bother? No one will ever own "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" but the woman who gave it to us a full 42 years ago, the late, very great Dusty Springfield. Believe it or not, it was her only #1 single in her native Britain! (It only went as high as #4 in the States.) Her only #1? You read me right, and I share your sense of outrage. What about "I Only Want To Be With You"? "Wishin' and Hopin'"? "The Look of Love"? "SON OF A PREACHER MAN"? What was the record-buying public thinking at the time? It boggles the mind.

Before going any further, I must insist you watch her perform the song, in all its over-orchestrated glory, live on the BBC. Yes, she looks like she's made up for Kabuki, and at times semaphoring the lyrics, but that was part of her very considerable charm. Go right away to . Everything else can wait.

Welcome back. Have you collected yourself? Yeah, they don't perform that like that anymore. (Eat you heart out, Duffy!) But what's my point? What does Dusty have to do with Tuscany? Nothing, really. But there is an Italian connection. Dusty recorded an English version of an Italian song, "Io che non vivo (senza te)," by the immortal (here) Pino Donaggio, which she first heard and fell in love with at the Sanremo Festival in 1965. (You can watch that very performance, which was televised live, at - this one's optional.).

That's not so surprising in and of itself. It sounds like I imagine many Italian pop song of the period sounded. What is surprising is that it appears to represent a high water mark for Italian pop. I mean, the schlock I have to endure here at the Internet Train, you wouldn't believe! It's a wonder sometimes that I can put two sentences together, given the distraction of this drivel. It's like Zucherro's "Senz' una donna" is on a loop. Thank God it's interspersed with more palatable stuff. The other day was pretty wonderful: KLF featuring Tammy Wynette, "Justified and Ancient;" Terence Trent D'Arby's "Wishing Well;" and Charles and Eddie's "Would I Lie To You?", in a row! You don't easily forget days like that.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Slow train coming

I've been a little under the weather the past couple of days, Dear Readers, and so have been spending more time at the apartment or the doctor's than here on the Internet Train. It's nothing serious, just a vexing cough I develop pretty much every November, but it's been keeping me up the past couple of nights so I haven't been myself. I expect to have a new entry up tomorrow, along with a video or two. Meanwhile, I've posted a few new pics at Check them out, why don't you? And don't be afraid to click on the "size" option and open them up. They generally look better large.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This is the day that the Lord has made!

Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Or as my late father, Skevos ("Steve") Zembillas, used to say (generally, when the stock market went up), "Wow! Isn't it wonderful to be alive today?"

I know I'm taking a risk of alienating or angering or confusing or scandalizing some of my readers, those who identify the Democratic Party with an ungodly, anti-family agenda, and who imagine the Republicans are the Children of Light, but I really can't contain myself today. No party's agenda is identical with God's plan for humanity. That plan is embodied in the Church, the Body of Christ. The Body Politic is another body altogether. The only way the one can approximate the other is if the goal of government were to fulfill the law of Christ, which is to "bear one another's burdens" (Gal 6:2). "Have you seen your neighbor?" asks one of the Desert Fathers of the Church, and continues, "You have seen your God." Blasphemy? Reread St John's 1st Epistle.

The goal of government ought not to be to protect us from one another, to teach us to treat the other as competition or nuisance or threat, but to help us to help one another. I will always remember my shock when I walked into Boston's Old North Church for the first time several years ago, the church from whose steeple Paul Revere watched for the signal light. I wasn't struck so much by the starkness of the interior, the walls bare of any sort of decoration, as I was by the cubicles. Families or individuals would own their own space, surrounded on all sides by white wooden walls six feet high. The only thing visible from within the blinders of the family cubicle was the pulpit, from which the preacher would deliver God's word not to the People of God, but to godly persons. How different from the message conveyed by the great Orthodox worship spaces, such as the paradigmatic Haghia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God. There, people of all ages and all walks of life gather in a wide, uncluttered space, everyone embraced from above by a dome in which is depicted the Creator God, the Father of all, the Loving Judge, who has told us through His Son that we will be judged on the basis of how we treat others, the least significant, the strangers, and not on how little we managed to disturb them. (How ironic, that the people for whom Darwinism is anathema should in their politics reveal themselves to be Social Darwinists.)

Do I expect miracles from the President-Elect? Am I confusing the man with the Messiah? Of course not. But neither is he the Antichrist, as some of his opponents would have you believe. Americans did a good thing yesterday, an inspired thing. They didn't voice their opinion, they shouted it. A new day has dawned, a day that the Lord has most emphatically made. Are you as delighted as I am? Send up thanks to the Lord our God! Are you for any reason unhappy? Pray to the same God for our President-Elect's enlightenment.

[On a personal note, last night was a surreal experience. Two Italian networks were reporting election results all night long, showing scenes from American television. Whenever an American spoke, I had to strain to listen for the English under the simultaneous translation into Italian. On one of the programs, a group of Italian-American university students were in the studio, offering commentary and opinions. I was surprised at their fluency! (I can't speak for the accuracy of their Italian, but they sure spoke it quickly!)]

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

From a distance

How difficult it is to be here today! The people from whom I'm renting my apartment don't have satellite television, which means there's no CNN or BBC or any English-language programming at all (unless "The Hills" qualifies). No, that's not entirely true. CNN's on from 4am to 6am. Of course, if I set the alarm to get up for the news, the rest of my day is seriously effected by it, so it's not something I can do regularly. That means that, in order to stay on top of what's happening, I either have to buy the International Herald (2 euro!) or New York Times (6 euro!!) or wait for the Sunday Times (14 euro!!!) or hang out at the Internet Train (the name of the franchise). What news I get, in other words, is what news you get, but less regularly. I say this because some have asked me what the election looks like from here, presumably from the perspective of the average Italian. Alas, I can't say that I know. To my shame, although I invested in a Rosetta Stone "Teach Yourself Italian" program in plenty of time to learn the basics before I got here, I even now haven't done anything with it. I have no idea what's going on around me and pretty much limit my communications to sign language, as in pointing to the pizza I want and then indicating how many slices. I know what you know: that if the Europeans had a say, Obama would be President of the Western World. Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that Obama campaigned here. In any case, I'm sure that doesn't come as news to anyone back home, or as a good reason to vote for him. In fact, I'm sure many would find that reason enough not to vote for him. After all, we don't want our allies to think we give a hoot about their opinions!

We're 6 hours ahead of New York here. Do they still wait until Alaska and Hawaii close before announcing how other states voted? If so, that should happen around 6am here - just as CNN goes off the air, and 3 hours before the Internet Train leaves the station! Of course, Italian TV will be covering the election results, and "red" and "blue" looks the same here as there, so I should be able to follow the plot, if not the dialogue. Aaarrrgghhh! Maybe if I get through enough Rosetta Stone lessons between now and then...

We venerate Your Cross, O Christ

I'm 51 years old. I grew up at a time when there were three major television networks, a public television station, and, in the Chicagoland area anyway, some ghostly channels on a dial marked UHF that catered to those like my father who needed the live stock market feed or who, like yours truly, watched Don Cortez Cornelius host the Soul Train after school. It was not a time of round-the-clock news coverage. A news junkie was one who read the morning and evening newspapers, or watched the early evening and late night news. It took a crisis of epic proportions, the death of a figure of world-wide stature, or a NASA launch, to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming, or to make a dent on my consciousness. Really important news stories reached me, cutting through my mental preoccupation with the latest Beatles or Monkees song, or Batman episode, by means of the weekly LIFE magazine. Those of us my age or older make an annual ritual of recounting exactly where we were when we first heard that President Kennedy, or his brother, or Martin Luther King, was assassinated, but there were other stories which, I'm sure, left their marks on our memories: the deaths of Pope John XXIII and of Sir Winston Churchill, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the starvation brought on by the war in Biafra, the Chicago Riots.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of one such event: the flooding of Florence by the River Arno on November 4, 1966. (Appropriately, it's been raining all day.) At its highest point, the waters were 22 feet high. I remembering poring over images of the destruction, in some cases irreparable, caused by the muddy water to works of art which I'd never seen before then, but which, through their reproduction in LIFE and National Geographic magazines, were to haunt me from then on. One image in particular has never left me: that of a severely damaged 13th-century Crucifix by Cimabue, which had been hanging in the refectory of the Franciscans at the Church of Santa Croce (Holy Cross), in the area of the worst flooding. It was a more genuinely Byzantine image of the Crucified than any I was at the time familiar with from my own local parish, Sts Constantine and Helen of Gary, Indiana. I was 9 years old and much more comfortable with a less stylized Jesus - the Byzantine revival had yet to reach the churches of the American Midwest - and so I remember thinking His arms and legs were too long, too thin and His face too strange, too Oriental. But more importantly, I remember being troubled by the fact of its vulnerability. What had happened to it was unfair; God should have intervened to protect his image. I'm sure I didn't appreciate the irony at the time. The image of the Crucified is, of course, the very image of injustice, the very image of the Invulnerable presenting Himself without defense, vulnerable to the worst we could do to Him, to demonstrate the immensity of His love for us. The scars inflicted by nature did not diminish it; in a mysterious way, they enhanced it. As I stood at the foot of that enormous, still-scarred Christ this past Saturday, nearly 42 years after I'd first encountered the image in the pages of LIFE, I realized at last that it retains its power to pierce the heart not in spite of, but because of, its damaged state.

Here's what it would have looked like before November 4, 1966: I've posted a couple of my own photos of it in its present condition on I've also included a couple of the Arno in a calmer mood, taken this past Sunday afternoon, from the Ponte Santa Trinita, the Holy Trinity Bridge, which is just west of the Ponte Vecchio. The whitish building to the south of the river (on the right side of the picture, as I was pointing east) is the apse of St Iakovos Greek Orthodox Church.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Short answer: "Hell, yes!"

Someone asked, "You said in an earlier post you planned to read Dante while on sabbatical. Have you followed through with your intention?"

Long answer: "Hell, yes! I have my doubts about Purgatory, but I sure hope I make it to Paradise!"

I'm referring, of course, to Dante's "Divine Comedy," which I am thoroughly enjoying, even though I haven't laughed out loud even once yet. Either the jokes don't translate or, like in Shakespeare, they don't age well. I confess I've giggled a couple of times at some of the tortures. I mean, the hypocrites really get what they deserve, don't they? Such losers!

But seriously, friends, I ain't got much for you today. My mind's not so much on Renaissance Florence as it is on my homeland in the present day, in this critical hour. I wish I could come back for the next couple of days. I hate the thought of missing out on history in the making. But then, come to think of it, I was out of the country the last two times a Democrat won the White House. Hmmm... Never mind. I'm happy to stay put.

A foodnote to Ciao Time

One of my readers expressed an interest in preparing ribollita, which sounds like a great idea to me. Unfortunately, though it is simple, it takes time to prepare properly. The name means "reboiled," as in "boiled again on the second day," and is said to best eaten no earlier than the third day. Ideally, it should be thick enough to eat with a fork. Here's a link to what sounds to me like a very tasty version:

Another local favorite takes guts to eat. Tripe, as in intestines, are big here, as in popular - in soups, sandwiches and salads. Locals also eat pigeon, which I won't, as I'm among those who think of that bird as a rat with wings, and I don't do rat. There's even a local delicacy that is made of rooster's combs and tongues and private parts. I'm not surprised not to have heard of it before. I haven't seen it on any menu, but am not likely to seek out a restaurant that offers it. Some things are best left to the locals.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ciao time!

I'm not a gourmand. I'm okay with just about anything (as my substantial girth bears witness), though I'd have to be starving to eat cuttlefish, okra, and most internal organs, excepting liver. I prefer fresh fruit and cheese to dessert (unless it's Hagen Daaz) and Diet Coke (with lots of ice) to wine. Back home, I'm happy with Taco Bell. I tell you all this as a way of lowering your expectations.

Florence is glutted with eateries. Most are the Italian equivalent of fast food, offering slices of pizza and/or panini (sandwiches) and/or gelati. Most of it is run-of-the-mill. New York pizza leaves the local variety in the dust. They put dumb stuff on their pizza, like tuna, or french fries, and never enough sauce, and the crust is too much like bread. Most of the sandwiches are ham. The chicken sandwiches are made of reprocessed chicken cutlets, and are to be avoided. And it's all sort of pricey for an American these days - 4 euro ($5.50) a slice, 5 a panini. The only bargains I've discovered are (gulp) the Turkish kebab (=gyro) places, where for 4 euro you can eat well (if you go for the chicken - the other type looks too scary to think about). MacDonald's is also a bargain, but I've managed to find only one of them, and it's kind of far from my apartment, like 10 minutes by foot. You can get a burger there for a euro! Of course, you need 4 of those to satisfy, and satisfaction is followed within minutes by regret. (My first time there, I spent a couple minutes pondering what its cloth banner meant - "ti 'nivol m'i" - until I realized it was meant to be read from the other side.) There are no Starbucks, and people look at you funny if you ask for a venti in the coffee shops. And here I thought I knew some Italian!

But that's not what you want to know about. You want me to go on about the local cuisine, the tastes of Tuscany! Well, I haven't had a lot of experience with that so far, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I didn't come here to feed my face. I came here to nourish my intellect, to feed my soul on art. I'm so taken by my surroundings, I often find that the day is drawing to a close and I've forgotten to eat! Secondly, and more honestly, real food is expensive! I get by most days with fresh fruit and yogurt (to wash down the taste of the inadequate pizza). Sometimes I eat at a cafeteria, which offers a wider variety of choices, including various kinds of pasta, roast chicken and beef. About every third day or so I treat myself to a real meal at a proper trattoria (restaurant), of which there are several on every block. There are 4 on via delle Terme alone! Most are small, no more than 20 small tables. Just about everything I've eaten in them has been good; some has been much better than that. The best stuff I've had so far has been the simplest. I will always remember, for example, a split pea soup I had a few nights ago. It was made with yellow split peas and was soupier than I'm used to; the Greek equivalent, fava, can be almost pasty by comparison. The chef had thrown in a handful of barley, and seasoned it, unexpectedly, with rosemary. Had I known, I wouldn't have ordered a second dish. I wanted to carry the taste of the soup home with me. I've also taken to a vegetable soup called "ribollita," which is made of carrots, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, parmesan, olive oil, all cooked with chunks of bread that go mushy and fall apart in it and give it its peculiar body.

Like I said, I'm no gourmand, but if I eat anything between now and the time I leave that I think you should know about, rest assured, I'll fill you in.

Noble Joseph

A couple of days ago - last Thursday, to be exact - I spent the afternoon in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, a few blocks to the west of the city center. It's among the oldest and most beautiful churches in a city full of old and beautiful churches. The facade is particularly satisfying, and that alone helps to set it somewhat apart from the competition, so to speak. The churches of the Santa Maria del Fiore (that is, the Duomo), Santa Croce, and San Lorenzo are, as it were, let down by their facades. Those of the first two were only put up centuries after the buildings were erected and say more about the architectural fashion of the nineteenth century than they do about what lies behind them, within the buildings themselves; San Lorenzo, famously, remains without a facade, half a millennium after its construction. Santa Maria Novella's is in an uncluttered, Romanesque style, a style to which I am particularly partial, in white marble, with its designs marked out in green and occasionally pink marble, and is fronted by a large piazza that allows the visitor plenty of space from which to appreciate it.

Here are images of the churches I've mentioned, so that you can see for yourselves what I'm going on about:

The basic ground plan of the church is cruciform. The main body of the church makes up the long vertical of the cross, from which two short arms extend near the top, which in this case is at the northern end of the building. Like all of these great churches, the interior is decorated in a variety of artistic styles, reflecting the evolving (or some might say devolving) tastes of the centuries over which it was completed. This is especially true of the chapels that line the walls. It can take hours, if not days, to work your way around a building like this, which is crammed with art (admittedly, of varying quality) from floor to ceiling. I began at the southernmost point of the cross, the entrance, and worked my way around to my left. I came in particular for the enormous frescoes cycles behind the altar, which are among the greatest works by Domenico Ghirlandaio (pronounced Geer-lon-DYE-o), the man from whom Michelangelo learned the art of painting on fresh plaster walls. They did not disappoint. Facing the huge altar (which is itself a marvel of varicolored marble), on the left, are panels depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary; on the right, scenes from the life of St John the Baptist, patron of the city. There isn't time for me to go on about the power and charm of these images. I've included a very small detail, of a beaming nursemaid holding the newborn Virgin Mary in her arms, on my flickr page, just to give you a taste.

Proceeding on from the frescoes, I climbed up a small flight of 14 steps to the Rucellai Chapel, named for the family that had it built and decorated, in what would be the arm of the cross to which Christ's left hand was nailed - in this building, the one pointing east. Descending from the chapel, on the southern wall of that arm of the cross, is a white marble monument, maybe 10 feet tall, in which is displayed an inexpertly painted image of an obviously Byzantine hierarch. His vestments - a blue episcopal sakkos and white and gold omophorion - give him away. He's bare-headed - in fact, bald - without a halo, and has a full white beard coming to a point halfway down his chest. Two Giottoesque angels hover behind him, holding out what looks like a red cloak. His blue sakkos is shortsleeved and his lower arms are covered in darker blue. He is holding what is presumably a Gospel book, closed and decorated with a gold cross, and is smiling. I could see no identifying inscription on the image itself. In the white marble beneath it are carved two more angels, holding along a carved banner on which is inscripted, in black, a long text, almost entirely in Latin. The last line is in Greek, and reads, in translation: + JOSEPH, ARCHBISHOP OF CONSTANTINOPLE, NEW ROME AND ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH, YEAR 1439.

I have gone into some detail to describe the monument because Santa Maria Novella is one of those churches which does not allow the taking of photos or videos, and my courage of a couple of days earlier (see previous post) had abandoned me. As I could find no clearer images on the internet, I've include on my flickr page ( photos of photos which appear in the official guide book, one of the general setting and one of the monument itself. Sorry: the quality wasn't great to begin with.

Now the question is: why is a Patriarch of Constantinople entombed in the wall of a Roman Catholic church in Florence, Italy? For the answer to that, stay tuned.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?

Bishop's been a bad boy. He took a video in the Museum of San Marco, despite having been warned verbally and in writing and pictographs not to do so. But he did it, he feels, for a greater good, for strictly educational purposes. He has no intention of profiting from his action. He's put it on line, on a popular video-sharing site on line, so that his readers, some of whom may never have the opportunity to come to Florence, may experience to some small degree the thrill of encountering a genuinely life-changing work of art. He trusts his readers to keep this little secret to themselves, as otherwise he may find himself woken in the middle of the night, dragged from his apartment and escorted to the city limits, with orders never to return. He also prays that others are not lead others astray by this action, and asks that his readers do as he says, not as he does.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Angelico, indeed

[Before I get started, an apology. My thoughts on the local cuisine, promised for today, will be posted later this week. I'm still conducting research. Also, may I call to your attention a video clip I've posted of my apartment, called "Rooms With No View." Come in and have a look around.]

Images of the Angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that God has chosen her to give birth to the Christ abound in Florentine art. It is a favorite theme of a city which, until the mid eighteenth century, entered the new calendar year on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation. The Annunciation is associated with springtime, a time of flowers, and Florence is a city whose name means "flowering," whose symbol is the lily, the flower which Gabriel is frequently depicted offering to Mary, whose cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore, "Saint Mary of the Flowers." The Annunciation and Florence go together, like Salem and Halloween.

In his often challenging but constantly illuminating book, "Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy," Michael Baxandall points out that, while depictions of the Annunciation might appear to us as varying only according to the setting of the scene, the posture of the principals, the quality of the clothing on display and the skill of the artist, they would have been experienced with far greater sensitivity to theological detail by even the unschooled Florentine of the period, provided s/he attended church regularly. To illustrate his point, Baxandall quotes extensively (pp 51-55) from a didactic sermon by Fra Roberto Caracciolo, a popular preacher of the late fifteenth century, who points to a number of distinct spiritual and mental states - he calls them "laudable conditions" - evident in a close reading of St Luke's Gospel (1:26-38):

1. Conturbatio (Disquiet): St Luke describes Mary as initially "troubled" by Gabriel's greeting.
2. Cogitatio (Reflection): she "considered in her mind" what the angel's words meant.
3. Interrogatio (Inquiry): Mary asked the angel, "How shall this be?"
4. Humiliatio (Submission): she responded, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord."

(In fact, Fra Roberto mentions a fifth "laudable condition" - Meritatio, or Merit - but it's more an imaginative coda derived from devotional meditation on the event than an episode for which there is scriptural "evidence." It focuses on Mary's supposed self-understanding following Gabriel's departure.) "Most fifteenth-century Annunciations," writes Baxandall, "are identifiably Annunciations of Disquiet, or of Submission.... [A] number of marvellous fourteenth-century ways of registering Reflection and Inquiry become blurred... in the fifteenth century."

Once I read this, I began to look at images with which I've been long familiar with a new appreciation. Most Byzantine icons of the Annunciation are also, it seems to me, Annunciations of Disquiet, in which the Theotokos registers her surprise by means of her open right hand turned palm outward toward the Angel -, - or of Inquiry, in which she is shown gesturing with her right hand, palm upward, towards Gabriel, as if addressing her question to him. Less frequently is she seen with a hand on her breast, signifying Reflection, and more rarely, with her arms crossed over her breast and her head inclined, the image of Submission. Whatever the case, they are sober and restrained.

Those are qualities, I'm afraid, often lacking in some Annunciations of even the most renowned Renaissance masters. At times they can appear almost irreverent. Baxandall (p 56) quotes from a letter by Leonardo da Vinci criticizing Annunciations of too great Disquiet: "...some days ago I saw a picture of an angel who, in making the Annunciation, seemed to be trying to chase Mary out of her room, with movements showing the sort of attack one might make on some hated enemy; and Mary, as if desperate, seemed to be trying to throw herself out of the window. Do not fall into errors like these." (He may have been referring to this Annunciation - - by Botticelli, of "The Birth of Venus" fame. (By the way, does that Madonna look familiar to you?)

All this by way of introduction. What I wanted to do today was sing the praises of one particular Annunciation of Submission, one that, in its simplicity, surpasses in spiritual profundity any I've ever experienced before (in Western art, anyway). It is at the Convent of San Marco, where Savonarola served as Prior of the Dominicans whose house it was then, and from where he in effect ruled Florence from 1494 until his death in 1498. It's right at the top of the only stairway leading up to brothers' cells, or single room dwellings. Any of the brothers going to his cell, from the year 1450 on, would have had to pass it. I can't imagine anyone doing so quickly. It is, of course, the Annunciation of Fra Angelico:

In fact, the image is very awkwardly situated. You have to stand on the landing to take it in, but you're too close to it there. You want to take a step back, but then you're on the stairs. So you try to stand there and let it soak in, but there are others coming up behind you, trying to get past, and others wanting to get back down. As I said, an awkward space. But you have to stand there for as long as you can. You have no choice, really. The Virgin simply stops you in your tracks. Her whole being seems concentrated in her expression, in the gaze she fixes on the Angel Gabriel, in the delicacy with which she folds her arms across her breast, in the grace with which she inclines her slender neck, as if offering herself as a willing sacrifice to God. Later, you notice Gabriel's own otherworldly beauty, the vibrancy of his wings, his own posture of reverence; the elegant arched, airy space in which the mysterious encounter unfolds; the simple fence of wood, punctuated at regular intervals with nails, stretching off into the distance beyond Gabriel's plumage, silently foretelling the consequence of Mary's acceptance, a destiny that would take her to the wood of the Cross.

Fra Angelico was not the artist's given name; that was Giovanni. "Angelico" was what his contemporaries called him: the Angelic. In his native Italy, he's known as "Beata Angelico" - Blessed Angelic - as if to underline the fact that his gift was not merely artistic, but spiritual. His art practically compels one to pray.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

May the good Lord shine a light on you!

Today’s worship experience at St Iakovos Church was, for me at least, a more uplifting one than last Sunday’s, for the simple reason that then Fr Nikolaos, understandably flustered by the unanticipated entry into the sanctuary of an bishop unknown to him during the Great Doxology, forgot to turn on the lights, and so the Liturgy was conducted in a thick gloom (as evidenced by the clip I posted of the Great Entrance). I thought at the time that it might have had something to do with the state of the parish’s finances. I’m glad I was wrong. By today, the novelty of my presence had worn off and Fr Niko was much more himself, and I felt relaxed enough to join Xenon the Cypriot physicist at the chanter's stand. There were a few more people here this week as well – again, mostly university students - and not many repeaters from last Sunday. Of the 1500 Greeks studying here, Fr Niko says maybe 150 of them come to church on a semi-regular basis – say, every other week, or once a month.

I didn't make clear when I first wrote about this parish that it is under the spiritual direction of the Greek Orthodox Metropolitanate of Italy, which is based in Venice, and which is a part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Its current Metropolitan, His Eminence Gennadios, has been serving in that capacity since October 27, 1996. Here are a couple of links if you want to read up on the church here:

According to the Wikipedia article, there are 49 Greek Orthodox parishes in Italy. That may be true, but they're not all regularly functioning parishes in the sense that we're familiar with. Most of them have a Liturgy on an occasional basis. I get the impression from talking to Fr Niko that most of them are like chapters of the OCF, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship that serves the spiritual needs of Othodox college and university students in America, and that the priests here function as chaplains rather than regular parish priests.

This morning I met an older couple, Giorgo and Eleni, who Fr Niko introduced to me as his right and left hands in the community. They’re both Greeks from Greece who came here in the early 70’s to study medicine and ended up staying. In response to my questions about the history of the community, they told me that there are Greeks whose presence in the city goes back as far as the years immediately following WWII, but that there aren’t many of them, and they’re not strongly connected to the parish. I also met a Serbian-American woman named Paola who hails from Arizona but has been living here for the past several years, teaching art history at Syracuse University, which has a program in Florence. (I forgot to ask her if that was our Syracuse, New York, or Italy's Syracuse, in Sicily. I will next time.) She was gracious enough to invite me to tag along on Thursday mornings when she takes her students to specific areas of the city for their lesson. I very much look forward to doing that.

I took some pictures:

In the style typical of Catholic churches in this part of the world, besides a main altar at the opposite end from the entrance (churches here don’t have to face east; this one faces north), there are private family altars running along the walls on either side – in this case, some facing east, and an equal number, west. (Point of clarification: these chapels would originally have been designed and built and maintained at the expense of particular families, but they aren't "private" in any meaningful sense these days.) I think there are at least four on either side of this building. On each of the altars, Byzantine icons have been placed, but the dominant image in every case is a large Baroque scene of the life of the particular saint in whose honor the chapel is dedicated. The Orthodox community doesn't have the authority to do anything about that, as the building and everything in it is a protected historic monument.

The dome is not above the center of the church, but rather directly above the sanctuary. When this was a Catholic church, Mass was celebrated at an altar at the far end of the sanctuary. Now that Orthodox Christians worship in it, the Holy Altar table is more in the center of the sanctuary, directly beneath the dome. I've posted a photo which shows the dome illustrated with a very dense crowd of saints and angels riding clouds, all looking up to Christ and His Father, with the Holy Spirit a light-emanating dove hovering between them. It's very hard to see the central figures in real life, as the colors have faded in the 250 years of the painting's existence.

After Church, it seemed to me a bright idea to take a walk in the Biboli Gardens, which are part of the Pitti Palace. The Pitti is yet another of the enormous residences of the Medicis, and is situated on the south side of the Arno, a short walk from St Iakovos. I hadn't been there yet, and the day seemed perfect for a relaxing stroll in the closest thing this city has to a park. What a disappointment! You enter the Gardens by crossing the Palace courtyard - and then ascending 30 steps! And THAT only gets you to a level gravel area from which every path into the surrounding greenery is an ascent! I frankly had had my fill of mountain climbing this week, but I figured I should make at least an effort to appreciate the grounds, as I'd already paid 10 euro for the privilege. I chose the path straight ahead of me, reasoning that it couldn't go uphill forever. Surely at the top of that enormous slope there would be a wide vista of green in which to frolic. No: at the top was a fountain, on all sides of which paths ascended to what looked like other fountains. Even the thought of having wasted money didn't prevent me from turning back at that point. I can't imagine any normal person finding anything like pleasure in this place during Florence's famously hot summer months! Give me the cool of a museum any day!

I've been asked to talk about the cuisine here, and I will, next time.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Here's your "Venus"; there's the fire: what's your desire?

You know Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." It's only, like, the most famous painting in the world, after maybe Leonardo's "Mona Lisa." (Both men were Florentines, by the way, but that's not my point today.) Here it is, if you're not sure: Well, the model for Venus (or Aphrodite, for all you Philhellenes) was Simonetta Vespucci, a cousin (by marriage) to Florentine explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, the man after whom two continents are named!

The painting and another of Botticelli's masterpieces, "Primavera" - - are among the most popular attractions in Florence's amazing Uffizi Galleries. The Uffizi (Italian for "offices") did in fact serve as offices for the ruling Medici family, about whom I will have to devote a future post. (There's no understanding this city, or Renaissance Europe for that matter, without knowing something about that particular family. For brevity's sake, let's get back to Botticelli.) These two paintings, which are both very large and dominate two walls of the same room in the Uffizi, were painted for a Medici, who kept them in his villa outside Florence. They indicate trends characteristic of Renaissance art: the rediscovery of mythological subjects, and the use of allegory to communicate philosophical ideas to the initiated. "Venus" in particular represents a real and dramatic break with previous art. It has nothing to do with God or worship. It is about beauty for beauty's sake. It is also among the first paintings for which we can say with certainty that the artist used a model. Botticelli didn't paint an imaginary woman but a woman standing in front of him.

In my first post I mentioned the monk Savonarola, who virtually ruled Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498. This was exactly the kind of art he targetted in his wildly popular sermons: art without religious purpose, art that stirred the passions rather than the soul, art that glorified the body rather than the Creator of the body. He directed an army of young supporters, many of them barely in their teens, to go from house to house, collecting luxury items that he deemed a threat to salvation, including overly ornate items of clothing, mirrors, playing cards, and paintings of this kind, for the purpose of burning them in the Piazza della Signoria. That event (or events; it's not clear whether there was more than one) came to be known as The Bonfire of the Vanities. I bring this up because Botticelli was one of those who were swept away by the power of Savonarola's preaching. In fact, he seems to have undergone a sort of crisis of faith through his association with him. In any case, his art after Savonarola is nothing like the art of his, you might say, pagan youth. It is art appropriate for worship, by contemporary Roman Catholic standards. (He continued to use Simonetta as his epitome of female beauty, but from then on fully clothed, as his Madonna.) In fact, so much was Botticelli moved by the preacher that he is said to have thrown several of his own paintings in the bonfire. He would almost certainly have thrown in "Venus" and "Primavera," too, were they not in the possession of someone else, and in a villa outside the city walls.

Because they were privately owned and never intended for display, as were commissions, say, for churches, these particular paintings remained little known until nearly 400 years after they were created. It was only in the 19th century that they came to acquire the fame and respect they now enjoy.

Would the world have been a poorer place without them? I leave it for you to decide.

Oh, I've posted some more photos on