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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Every picture tells a story, don't it?

No history lesson today, friends! Instead, let me direct you to a few pictures I've posted on another site:


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

414 steps? You've Giotto be kidding!

414 steps: that's how far it is from street level to the top of the Campanile di Giotto, Giotto's Belltower. Strictly speaking, of course, it's the Duomo's belltower - that is, the Cathedral's - but everyone knows it by the name of the man who designed it, the great Giotto di Bondone. Sure, you know him. He painted those remarkable frescoes illustrating the life of St Francis of Assisi. He's considered by many the first of the great Renaissance painters, the first to attempt to portray the people he depicted with a kind of psychological realism rather than in stylized postures dictated by the (um, Byzantine) tradition, the first to paint clothing as if there were a body underneath it. That's pretty much what I was told about him in Art History 101, anyway. I hadn't realized he was an architect as well. That's something I'm discovering pretty regularly about these great Renaissance artists: hardly any of them did just one thing. Giotto designed the tower for the (at the time unfinished) Duomo in 1334; it took 25 years to build it, by which time he'd been dead for 22 years. (The Wikipedia entry on him is good:

25 years isn't so long a time when you figure it's 276 ft tall (85 meters). That's just 20 feet (6 m) shorter than Brunellschi's famous dome, which began construction in 1420 and was completed in a mere 16 years! But more on that in another post. Today's is about the belltower. For 77 years, until the completion of the dome, it was the tallest building in Italy. Like the nowadays more famous (because leaning) campanile in nearby Pisa, Giotto's is not attached to the cathedral itself. It forms a visual unity with it, however, because both structures are decorated in white, pink and green marble.

414 steps: and speaking now from experience, I can say that the last 400 are definitely the hardest. It dawned on me pretty early on that I may have made a life-threatening mistake, when I noticed that everyone coming down was an average of half my age and weight. Thank God there were places to park it every 30 or 40 steps! (Every 10 would've been more to my liking.) In the end, it took me all of 30 minutes to get to the top, 10 to take in the magnificent view and 15 to come back down to earth. I don't know that I've ever done anything more physically strenuous than that ascent! But the view, the view... I've posted a couple of clips (see above): first, of the building itself, from street level, and then from the top. I've included commentary in both, so will spare you more text.

Yes, I climbed up and down 414 steps today, and lived to tell the tale. The question now is: do I dare attempt the Dome's 463?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Been to the Monte top

Today I visited the Church of San Miniato el Monte. Yes, I know: "saint WHO?" In fact, Saint Minias is Florence's first, and apparently only, Christian martyr, in the specific sense of someone who was put to death because he refused to renounce his belief in Jesus Christ. We don't know much about him. He may have been either Armenian or Syrian, a soldier or a cloth merchant. (Historians now tend to believe that the first Christians in the vicinity of the ancient Roman colony that became Florence were from those regions of the Empire.) He was beheaded on an October 25th, in the mid 3rd century, during the reign of the Emperor Decius (249-51). According to legend, he picked up his head, crossed over the Arno, and climbed up the high hill where his church now stands before finally calling it quits. He certainly picked a nice spot to await the Resurrection! It offers the best view of Florence, bar none. I've included a video to try to illustrate that claim (check above), but alas, I chose the only gloomy day of my stay so far to go there! If I go back on a brighter day, I'll replace this.

I say "if I go back" because, lovely as the church is, it is a very serious hike to get there! I stopped counting after the 250th steep step; there may have been 100 more after that. And the steps started after a half hour walk, largely uphill, from the Ponte Vecchio! For a man in my current, um, condition (which my ever-lovin' doctors keep reminding me is, technically speaking, one of "morbid obesity"), going to San Miniato by foot is not a decision to be taken lightly.

But even though I occasionally wondered if would survive the climb, the temptation to return tomorrow is great. It's that beautiful. A church was built on the site shortly after St Minias laid down his weary bones there, but the current structure dates only (only!) from the year 1018. That, anyway, is the year construction was begun; it took about 190 years to complete! The interior took even longer than that to finish.

The Church is remarkable for its perfect Romanesque facade, in green and white marble, with its main entrance crowned by an Italo-Byzantine mosaic of great vibrancy. The interior is splendid in every detail: the intricately designed marble floor; the columns with their capitals (decorative top portions) recycled from buildings of Florence's Roman past; the way the space incorporates three levels - the main nave, the presbytery/sanctuary 3 meters above, and a crypt chapel containing the relics of the saint a few meters below the nave and directly beneath the sanctuary - in a fluid and natural manner; the chapel, under a stone canopy, commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, grandfather of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the early 1400's, boldly but effectively positioned in the center of the Church, at the end of the nave; and the spectacular mosaic of the Enthroned Christ, flanked by the Theotokos and St Minias and surrounded by the Four Evangelists, represented as Angel (Matthew), Lion (Mark), Ox (Luke) and Eagle (John). I've put up a video of the interior, which is unfortunately very dark. You can only turn on lights at certain areas, and for 5 minutes at a time, and for 1 euro each time. I didn't have any coins on me. (I'd used them all on bottled water along the way up.)

To the right of the upper-level presbytery is a sacristy, a room where the clergy would vest for worship services. It was decorated with the most amazing frescoes I've seen here so far, depicting the life of Saint Benedict, the founder of Western Christian monasticism. Most of the incidents - and there were quite a few - seem to involve miracles, and I had no idea of the stories being illustrated, but the style was so charming, so energetic, so cartoony even, that I would happily go back just to spend more time with them. The artist, Spinello Aretino, was a student of Giotto, and though he clearly owes a lot to his master he certainly deserves to be better known than he is, if only for this one wonderful room. Unfortunately, I took no pictures or video, but if you google his wikipedia entry and click on the illustration, you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about. Check out, for instance, the horses' heads, the way the robes fall on the monks, the face of St Benedict, and tell me this isn't vital stuff:

The small monastic community connected to the Church - I think they're Benedictines - worship in the Saint's crypt every day in the late afternoon, using Gothic chant. I would have had to wait 3 hours if I wanted to experience that, or go and come back, which certainly wasn't going to happen, given the degree of my exhaustion, so there's another reason for me to return. Because I really have to. It's just that beautiful.

VIDEO POSTSCRIPT: In the clip of the exterior, I mention that the two little cemetery areas date from the 1840s. The correct date is actually 1865. Of the famous Italian people buried there, the only one who meant anything to me was the author of "Pinocchio."

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Introducing the present-day Greeks of Florence

I attended the Divine Liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Church of St Iakovos, the Brother of the Lord. The church is a few minutes walk from my apartment: cross the Ponte Vecchio, take the first right (on via San Jacopo, no less!), and walk for 3 minutes. It's on the right. I took a video from a few seconds before I turned on to the Ponte Vecchio until I reached the Church: it's up above somewhere, or go to (I don't own a steadycam so you may want to take a couple of dramamine first. If you're going to watch it, be sure to click on the "view in high quality" option, in blue on the bottom right corner of the video; otherwise it's unwatchable. I pause midway across the bridge to take in the views of the Arno, the only place from you realize you're on a bridge and not just a street; it's lined on both sides with gold and jewelry shops. First I look westward and then towards the east, pausing to show a monument to its architect. I also take a second to look around a bit before turning onto San Jacopo. You might also want to turn the sound way down, as I huff and puff a lot.)

The Greek community has only been worshipping in this particular space since June of '06, but the building itself is centuries old. It is attached to what was a convent dedicated to St Iakovos that was established in the mid 1000s; hence, the name of the street. The present church building isn't as old as all that. It only dates from around 1630, although the facade comes from an older, Romanesque church. The interior, alas, is pure Baroque, among my least favorite architectural styles. (So much decoration, so little substance!) The community has done a nice job of converting the space to meet Orthodox liturgical needs, although that may not be evident from the clip.

The parish priest, Fr Nikolaos Papadopoulos, is a 36-year-old hieromonk who came to Italy several years ago, as a layman, with plans to study veterinary science and return to Greece but who ended up staying on as a priest. He was ordained six years ago and serves three other parishes in nearby Tuscan towns during the week. His Sunday Liturgy is always in Florence. I took a brief video of the Great Entrance from behind the iconostasis: check above or go to (It's much shorter and slightly better quality, but there was hardly any light.)

There were less than 30 people in attendance today, but the great majority of them were under 30 years old. According to Fr Nikolaos, there are about 1500 Greeks studying here, and his normal Sunday attendance is closer to 100. He suspects many of the regulars chose to skip today because they plan to come later in the week, when the parish celebrates its feastday. I'll let you know if he's right! The liturgical language was almost exclusively Greek; a couple of brief litanies were in Italian. According to Fr. Nikolaos, there's no need for Holy Scripture to be read in Italian as well as Greek, as it isn't the native tongue of anyone present. After the Liturgy, which was very nicely chanted by a Greek studying physics, Fr Nikolaos and I went for coffee with about a dozen of them. We discussed, for the most part, American politics. They wondered if Americans are mature enough to elect a person of color to the Presidency. I assured them we most certainly are - at least, those of us who live in on the coasts and have proper educations are!

Fr Nikolaos also told me that there are no native Greek-Italians; I mean, there are, but they're all still children. The community is made up almost exclusively of students and former students who stayed behind because they married Italians. I met a lovely Burmese woman who was raised in England, came here to study, and ended up marrying a Greek student who wanted to stay here! she converted to Orthodoxy and was in Church with her mother-in-law (visiting from Greece) and her perfectly behaved 10-month-old son, Georgios. (His is the most recent of the 15 baptisms Fr Nikolaos has performed over the past 28 months.) I mentioned to her (I think her name is Veronica or Victoria) that, while in Oxford, I lived down the street from Burmese peace activist Aung San Suu Kyi (who was under house arrest in Burma even back then) and had had the pleasure of dining with her husband. Of course, it turned out that she knew him well. (He was an Englishman named Michael who passed away a few years ago, while his wife was still under arrest.) It's such a small Burmese world!

There are other Orthodox communities here. The Russians have been here for a while and are said to have a beautiful church (cathedral? I'm not sure) but I haven't found it yet; I'll let you know when I do. I also hear there are some newly-established Romanian storefront churches, to accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing community of immigrants from that country.

I've noticed that Byzantine icons are voguish here. They're prominently displayed at every religious goods store I've passed so far, along with much sappier neo-Catholic religious art. Ironically, the most popular Byzantine image by far is one that you'd never find in a traditionally Orthodox country: the Holy Family - Saint Joseph, together with the Theotokos, holding the Christ Child in their arms.

I titled this post the way I did because the Greeks of Florence actually have a long and important history, which I'll get to soon.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Power to il Popolo!

This morning, I ran into a real live student demonstration! I have no Italian (yet) so I couldn't understand their chants or read their painted sheets or placards or shirts but eventually I found someone to explain that they were protesting an new government initiative to privatize higher education. As in most European countries, university here is inexpensive by American standards. You pay what the government determines you can afford. Apparently the proposed reforms would make it significantly more expensive for most. But I stand to be corrected, if anyone out there knows the situation better than I do.

I took a couple of videos - one very sort, the other too long - but as I can only manage to post the shorter of the two on youtube, you're in luck! (I actually prefer the 12 minute version: so many characters, such interesting "looks"!)

The street where I live

Time to get specific about my situation here, do the "sights and sounds" bits.  

I'd been complaining for a long, long time to anyone who would listen that I needed some serious time off from the stresses of the Chancellory, and when I got back from my most recent Young Adult Pilgrimage (see yesterday's post) I had a specific location in mind where I would spend.  From then on, whenever asked, "Where would you go?", I had a ready answer: "Florence."  Well, it would have probably stopped there, with my simply having a more specific complaint then in the past, had it not been for a few close friends (who were clearly, and justifiably, losing their patience with me) prodding me to think of practical ways to make my daydream reality. I'm particularly indebted to a friend who searched the web and academic postings to help me find just the right place. Were it not for her, I'd still be in New York, bemoaning my fate.

So where am I, exactly?  In a 1st floor apartment on 19, via delle Terme, that I'm subletting from a professor at New York University and her husband.  The street is about 200 meters long and runs from west to east.  My building's on the south side, with windows that look out to the west and south.  It's a converted 16th century palazzo with (I'm told) original wood beam ceilings.  The apartment's been recently redone and is ideal for my needs.  Well, not exactly ideal: it has no internet access, so I have to schlep a whole two blocks to this cafe whenever i want to communicate with friends and family!  Oh, and it doesn't get much sun; the living room windows look out on a blank wall maybe ten feet to the west.  Aside from those minor shortcomings, though, I'm perfectly content.  It's decorated in yellows and browns with occasional muted green highlights, antique wood furniture and modern leather couches, marble counters and terra cotta tile: very Florentine palette and materials.  By "1st floor," I mean I have to ascend 35 stone steps, turning to my left five different times, before reaching my door.  There's an elevator, one of those cage affairs, but it doesn't stop on my floor.  So far, I've heard others but seen no one.  the one I hear most regularly is a talented oboist.  I was reminded at first of a scene in Woody Allen's "Manhattan," when he can't sleep in an apartment he's sharing with his partner Margot Hemingway ("I can't sleep! There's a guy next door who's playing a trombone... or sawing something... it sounds like he's sawing a trombone!"). Thankfully, my neighbor is a pleasure to listen to, at any time of the day or night.

Via delle Terme is Latin for "the way to the baths."  It's obviously one of the more ancient streets in the city, dating back to Roman times, when it was just a few yards south of the first of city's southernmost walls.  (As Florence grew, walls were built further and further out. As of the last century, however, all the walls have been torn down.) My building is equidistant from either end of the street.  If I turn right when leaving my front door and walk a hundred meters, I pass two nice little restaurants and a quaint grocery store/fruit stand before coming to the road's end at Via Por Santa Maria.  If I turn right from there, in two blocks I'm at the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), about which I'll have more to say in a later post.  If instead I go straight, in two blocks I'm at the Uffizi (Offices), one of the world's greatest art galleries.  If I go a little to the left then right, in a block I'm at the Piazza della Signoria, the Governors' Square, the center of the historic city (where, among other things, Savonarola was hanged and burned).  Another four blocks north and I'm at the Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, with its famous campanile (bell tower) designed by Giotto and amazing dome by Brunelleschi.  I'll have more to say about all these places in future posts.

Back to my street for a minute.  It's paved with flagstones, unevenly, and must collect some pretty good puddles when it rains.  It takes a serious effort to look sober walking down the street.  

My living room windows look out on a narrow street that runs north (that is, from my building) to south, towards the river Arno, which runs through the two uneven sides of the city.  (The larger and more important part is north of the river.) I took a walk down that, I guess you'd call it a lane, this morning, and noticed that someone had gone to the trouble of fixing a handwritten sign to the bottom of its official name.  I say "took the trouble" because the sign is about 12 feet up.  I don't remember the real name chiselled into the stone plaque but the paper sign reads "Via della Merda" (Sh*t Street).  From street level, I could see the point - or rather, smell it.  The odor adds to the medieval atmosphere of the street as a whole.  

One last thing: on the wall opposite my living room window, someone has written, in English, "Santa is REAL."  I hope it wasn't meant for me....

Friday, October 17, 2008

You may ask yourself, "Well, how did he get there?"

One of the great blessings of my past few years as Chancellor has been the opportunity to accompany, for three of the past five autumns, a group of Orthodox Christian young adults on pilgrimage to Constantinople and elsewhere.  On the first such pilgrimage, the Young Adult Department of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese arranged that we visit several sites of spiritual significance throughout Greece before traveling to Constantinople for two days.  Two years later, I led another group, first to Rome for three days, then to Constantinople (New Rome) for another three.  Last year, the group began in Constantinople before traveling to three cities in Italy with special ties to it: Ravenna, the administrative capital of the Byzantine Empire after the fall of Rome to the barbarians in the 5th century, and site of some of the greatest monuments of Byzantine architecture and art anywhere, some of it exactly contemporaneous with the Great Church of Haghia Sophia; Venice, where some of Constantinople's greatest art was brought back as booty following its conquest by Crusaders in 1204; and Florence, site of the last serious attempt at union between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics in 1439.  Our group used Florence as its base during our time in Italy.  We spent one full day here, then travelled by train or coach to the other cities during the remaining days, returning to Florence at night.  I knew from the first morning that I would have to return.  Everywhere I looked demanded my attention and exposed by ignorance.  In the weeks, even  months, following our return to the States from that trip, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, whenever my mind wandered, it wandered back to Florence.  This will be an attempt to explain this place to myself and anyone else who might be interested.

My plan is to immerse myself in this place, past and present.  I'm limiting my reading exclusively to books about the city or written by Florentines.  In particular, I hope to read Dante's "Divine Comedy" in its entirety, some Machiavelli, some Vasari, a little Boccaccio, study the Savonarolan moment (1494-98), and, of course, read up on the Council of 1439.  For light reading, I've brought along a few of Magdalen Nabb's police procedurals, all of them set in the modern day city.  I'm probably overloading my plate, but hey, there won't be a test at the end, so I can drop and add as I please.  Some of my ruminations will inevitably end up here, but I hope for the most part to keep this a lighter record of sights and sounds.  (I can hear my family breathing a collective sigh of relief.)  Beginning with my next entry, I'll be posting pics and vids.  Meanwhile, let me go take some...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What's in a name?

Greetings from Florence! I arrived two days ago, on Monday, October 13th, and hope to stay through early December, as part of my four-month sabbatical from the Chancellory. I can already tell that it will be hard to leave after so short a stay...

This is my first attempt at a blog, so I hope you'll be patient while I figure out how to do this. I expect to post on a fairly regular basis my thoughts on my surroundings, encounters, and reading. Let me begin, however, by explaining why I named this blog what I did.

For a four year period in the late fifteenth century, the city of Florence was under the de facto control of a charismatic Dominican friar from nearby Ferrara, a man fiercely opposed to the tyrannical rule of the Medici family and the spiritual decadence of his fellow clergy, who claimed in his wildly popular sermons to be a prophet of God. Under his leadership, Florentine government became more inclusive and representative, and practices deemed lewd and lascivious were drastically curtailed. Initially supported by the great majority (including the artists Botticelli and Michelangelo!), the friar's refusal to curtail his denounciation in sermons and in print of the excesses of the corrupt Catholic hierarchy, and especially of Pope Alexander VI, the proud father of 8, eventually resulted in his dramatic fall. He and two of his closest confederate clergy reformers were arrested after an eight-hour siege of their convent (on Palm Sunday!), interrogated under torture for weeks, publically defrocked, then hanged in the Piazza della Signoria, the great public square before the palace of the government, on May 23, 1498, and their remains burned and dumped in the nearby Arno River. His name was Girolamo Savonarola.

I had originally thought him to be a fanatic opponent to the emerging Renaissance humanism and aesthetic, and planned to spend my time here, as it were, in conversation with what I understood to be his reactionary theology. I now think, having just completed a book about him called "Fire in the City: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy," by Lauro Martines, that I've until now misjudged the man. (That's not surprising; I do it all the time.) I now appreciate him as a reformer who overreached, a disobedient but not heretical son of a horrifically corrupt hierarchy. (He refused to acknowledge the fact that he'd been excommunicated by Pope Alexander and prohibited from preaching; he proclaimed - from the pulpit of the Cathedral,no less! -  that a corrupt pope had no authority over him.) If the highly sympathetic Martines is correct, it was his progressive politics and moral zeal that brought about his downfall, not his unorthodoxy theology.

I'm typing this from an internet cafe - my apartment, in a converted 16th century palazzo with original wood beam ceilings (!), has no access - and others are waiting, so I'll resume this at a later date. Do yourselves a favor and check out his wikipedia entry: He was, at the very least, a fascinating man living in fascinating times in a fascinating city.