Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Cell-ular Life and the Flatulent Dragon

We awoke to our first cloudy day in Tuscany. Our genial host tells me that it will clear up and be sunny within the hour, as usual. Hmmm, I wonder if it's his gentle way to acknowledge our early arrival for breakfast. After a restful night's sleep we are indeed up and ready to go a full hour earlier than what has become our norm. This is a very relaxing and low stress place, and perhaps the main reason we chose the hills to the city this time. City living in Paris two weeks ago was great, and the almost magnetic pull from the other side of the front door exciting. Here we know the city in the valley waits, but now it waits for us.

Wednesday - September 30, 2009 - Florence, Italy

Sure enough, the clouds are gone and we have a dazzling ride down the hill to Firenze. Today we hope to see the Michelangelo crucifix in Santo Spirito church, then spend some time walking around the cells of San Marco looking at frescoes. It was from San Marco that Savonarola was summoned the day he was taken to the X-spot in the Piazza Signoria. I hope it's kind of creepy. Other than that we have no plans, and it feels great.

South of the river Arno, this oldest part of Florence is quiet with very narrow streets, little traffic, and small woodworking shops where artisans/craftsmen were busy at work. We watched as they built ornate window frames and doors from new wood and old designs. If you owned one of these 300 year old homes and had to replace a rotted window sash, this was the place to come. There are many large old buildings that have been converted to apartments if the brass intercom and door bell plates are an indication.

Entering the piazza Santo Spirito we thought for a moment that we were in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The blue sky and sienna colored stucco-like front of the church is quite a change from the green and white marble to which we had become accustomed. It was in the morgue of the hospital associated with Santo Sprito that Michelangelo surreptitiously dissected corpses to learn the mysteries of the human body. He was not a doctor, but I guess you don't have to be in order to reverse engineer something. These experiences allowed him to sculpt the veining and musculature beneath the skin as precisely as he did (At the time dissection was a major crime). To show his thanks he carved a wooden crucifix and gave it to the monastery, and this is the reason for our visit.

Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit apparently takes Wednesdays off from the mortals and the sign in front suggested we return on Thursday. Sorry, can't; but another day perhaps - a good reason to return to Firenze. Not even mildly disappointed, we walked back along the Arno watching the crews ripple their way through this beautiful city.

San Marco (which I had been calling San Marco Polo just so that Kat would correct me each time) was not that high on my list of things to see (what's another monastery), but I was intrigued by the Savonarola connection. Kat had the good sense to put it high on her list, so off we went. We had walked by the front of this museum a number of times and not realized it. The facade is kind of dirty and dumpy, not very inviting at all. Once inside however it is fantastic, and I deserved a good dope-slap for being a little negative.

If you apply a thin layer of very smooth plaster to a wall or ceiling (like in the Sistine Chapel) then paint it while it's still wet, you have yourself a fresco. One of the finest fresco painters ever was Fra Angelico (1400-1455), and this is the friar's monastery. It is peaceful around the open cloister and easy to forget that the city swirls just on the other side of the wall. The ground floor is filled with altarpieces and paintings that look as fresh as the day they were painted 600 years ago. It is remarkable. Fra Bartolomeo (1473 - 1517) carried on the work of "Friar Angel" and created the moving portrait of Christ (Ecce Homo) and the signature portrait of Savonarola. They are remarkable.

Upstairs you find the monk's bedrooms, lined on either side of the hallway that runs around the cloister. In the far corner are the three room suite used by Savonarola and the guest suite used by the Medici family (Cosimo - Lorenzo the Mag's grandpa - built the place). Many of the cells, as the bedrooms are called, are decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico. Returning to your bedroom after a day of meditation and prayer to sleep beneath these masterpieces became easy to imagine. I, (along with everyone else), took a few pictures but they don't come close to conveying the beauty or vitality of the artwork. What a wonderful peacefulness you experience during the visit.(I wondered if the monks ever switched cells for a little variety.)

I was pleased to feel a little chill run up my spine when I entered Savonarola's study and next door bedroom. I was alone and it met my expectation for creepiness. On the walls are portraits and paintings (including the burning in the square), and there are glass cases filled with some of his personal possessions. What really caught my eye was the very uncomfortable looking hair-shirt girdle he wore as a sacrifice (and speaking of sacrifice, I'm glad that went out of style). I have such mixed emotions about the guy. He was admired by many people who at the time thought the church had strayed too far from it's fundamental teachings and beliefs. I like that. But, he took the Osama-like one step too far when he convinced otherwise reasonable people to go all jihad and even chuck some of their artwork and books into a big barbecue pyre in the middle of the square. Perhaps hanging and burning was a tad extreme, but how else do you rid yourself of such a dominating negative personality? I did open and close the inside wooden shutter and wondered if I was mimicking something he had done many times. Like I said, a little creepy.

A nice walk in the dazzling sunshine was the perfect counterpoint to our museum visit, so we grabbed some walk-about sandwiches and headed to the beautiful Piazza SS. Annunziata. It is a very quiet square surrounded by beautifully proportioned three story buildings. The one that interests us the most is the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), which was designed by Brunelleschi, of Duomo fame. Back in the day, mothers who were unable to care for their newborns, brought them to this building and placed the child on a lazy susan sort of device built into one of the walls. This maintained the anonymity of the mother. The wheel is gone, but the barred portal remains. Very touching.

Firenze is a great city to just wander about and that wandering brought us to the church of Santa Maria Novella. Everyone who has arrived in the city by bus or train walks by it (as we had many times) on their way to the major sites. We decided to have a look inside and it was a treat. It is big and cool to the touch. There are a lot of reasons to go in, but I'll elaborate on just a few. On one wall is an amazing fresco called "The Trinity" by a young artist named Masaccio (27 when he died). So much of the art of the period is flat with people lined up as in a family picture. This work is a 3-D wonder, recognized as the first of it's kind. Standing on the floor of the nave you look up into the painted chapel. Really remarkable.

We walked around the altar looking at the fresco Ghirlandaio's studio did with the two little characters credited to Michelangelo - his first work on plaster.

That was good but what tickled my funny bone, more than any other sight in Florence was the fresco by Filippino Lippi called "St. Philip at the Temple of Mars", located behind the altar to the right. With righteous indignation the human St. Philip mocks the god Mars, and brings out his pet dragon who farts in the face of the god's son and kills him. So much for false gods. The spectators are holding their noses. The brown cloud rises. Somebody has a real sense of humor here.

We had seen and experienced enough, and since we were right next to the bus station grabbed the #7 at it's origination and headed back to Fiesole. It was still early so we decided to walk up to the Church of San Francesco for the view. Let me reiterate the word up. No gentle staircase like at the Piazza Michelangelo the other day, this is an old fashion stone street torture walk, straight up. I was not amused when Kat told me that a little 70 year old lady (with a cane) was about to pass us on the right, I only wondered how they would get the ambulance up here. We never made it up to the church, stopping instead at the beautiful little park/overlook where there are benches - enough said. We parked there and watched the late afternoon sun settle over the Duomo and the Florentine valley, then sink into the horizon. It was worth the walk.

Our senses were sated. We had eaten well, slept well, seen everything (just about) that we had wanted to see, heard Gregorian chanting, and felt at peace with Florence.

No comments: