For Thursday, August 19, 1999 Drummer Column, Gibbs, 716 words
Part IV of European Vacation Series; visit Part I or Part II or Part III
Visit the European Web Site for pictures
Florence, Italy (GW Newsline Report) -- The Gibbs/West European Adventure continued its cyclical tour of Italy with a two-day stop in Florence, just long enough to look up, humbly, at the impressive contours of Michelangelo's David and to poke my head into the side-street home of Italy's greatest writer, Dante Alighieri.
Our stay at Hotel Bretagna along the Arno River, a block from the famous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), was pleasant except for the coffee, which was instant espresso and bitter enough to completely reverse Joan Rivers' face lifts.
Michelle, our beautiful, young advice guide, gave us an orientation walk to the heart of town. She directed us to the Accademia Museum, where David stands supreme, and bought us tickets to the magnificent Ufizzi Museum, home of Botticelli's Birth of Venus (on the halfshell).
After half a day admiring the art of the ages, our 26 tour-group members diverged for the duration of our stay in Florence. We scattered down the maze of narrow cobblestone streets to seek our own adventures.
Divergence is, of course, a central theme of the Rick Steves Tour. He provides the transportation and hotels. We are expected to do our own thing.
We walked many miles, and for meals Susan, Ron, Jane and I ate pasta. Then we ate pasta. Then we had some more pasta. We had steak once that wasn't too good, then we ate more pasta.
It cost more to eat sitting down in Italy. People save money if they're willing to eat or drink standing up. However, the cultural benefit of sitting down is significant. Once a person pays for his chair, it's his for the rest of the day. He can order a cup of cappuccino at dawn, then sit and read a novel until dusk. The waiters will not deliver a bill until the customer calls for it. "Il conto."
I enjoyed my tour of the Vatican, but I was a little disappointed with their prudish maiming of the thousands of pre-Christian statues in their posession. These figures were carved before Original Sin and usually in the nude. The church saw it fit and decent to snap the penises off. Again and again and again. I found that offensive artistically. Viewing all these castrations eventually gave me vicarious angst. Even in the Sistine Chapel, after Michelangelo died, the church hired a "tailor" to paint swathes of clothing over the nude souls. The priest who pushed for this indecent cover-up was known to Michelangelo, who painted the old father's likeness into a scene as a sinner bound with serpents. The "tailor," who felt ashamed and didn't enjoy the task of covering up the Master's Masterpiece, got in one last stroke of revenge. He failed to cover the genitalia of the prudish priest. I guess the old boy never noticed the resemblence and died.
Most Italian paintings are religious in nature. The Catholic Church has historically been the number one employer of great artists. Other than a few portraits for wealthy businessmen and royalty, most artists preferred the full-time employment provided by the coffers of local cathedrals.
As most people couldn't read, the art was intended to tell stories. Some paintings depicted a single significant scene, most often the birth or crucifiction of Christ. Others, however, were of a chronological, narrative nature. An artist would depict the movement of time by putting prior events smaller in the background. Each subsequent event would be displayed a bit closer. The main event -- an epiphany or a sacrifice -- took front and center. What looked to be multiple characters in a painting turned out to actually be the same person over and over through the various stages of his story.
I liked the Vatican art, but after viewing several thousand variations on the life of Jesus and Mary, it grew a bit redundant. I longed for a painting of some hunting dogs or a waterfall.
The highlight of my stay in Florence was visiting the home a literary hero of mine, the author of the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri. Actually, the word Divine was added by an editor centuries later. Dante's title for his story was this: "Here Begins the Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Florentine by birth, not by character."
Dante held no great love for his fellow Florentines. After Florence ostracized him for life for resisting the Pope's attempts to control the city, he peopled much of his Inferno with Florentines. He wrote his Comedy on the road over the next 14 years, grew extremely popular, and died elsewhere.
Subsequently, Florence could never lay claim to Dante's affection or his remains. The museum had little to show beyond photocopies of his earlier manuscripts -- one on the eloquence of the vulgarity of the Italian language and one claiming that priests should rule the spirit and leave politicians to rule the world. Pope Boniface, by the way, didn't like those essays.
I stood in Dante's livingroom. I imagined him sliding around in his slippers, quill in hand, rehearsing a new poem to Beatrice. I peeked in his bathroom. It had new plumbing and a commode, more than most Italian bathrooms. On my way out, I bought one of everything from the gift shop.
Our next stop -- Rome.
Actually, old Rome is small and walkable. Carry several maps and forget about right angles. To cross the street, make eye contact with the oncoming car, step in front of him and keep going (This only works in Rome. Don't try it in the rest of Italy).
We ending up walking the city three times -- once with our guide, once just Susan and I, and once showing Ron and Jane what Susan and I saw.
Sue and I toured the Colosseum alone. It had a profound impact on us. It's so old. Standing inside looking down at the cages under the stage, the senators' seats, the emperor's throne, thinking about the kilotons of history created and the thousands of lives lost, we felt heavy. This was no small-time encounter. We were face to face with the origins of Western Civilization -- an arena. At that moment, we gained a deep, lasting impression of human complexity.
On our third loop, we took Ron and Jane to the Colosseum so they could be heavy, too.
Next week: Ron's rescue from the Mediterranean Sea.