Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My Florentine Travels

Biglietti d'Ingresso (Admissions Tickets) from my trip. As you can see, I was busy.

I decided not to take a camera on this trip. I already have lots of pictures of these things by much better photographers than me.

How has Florence changed since I was there 20 years ago? It was cleaner and a lot less scaffolded since I was there in 1988. The Piazza Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio were completely scaffold-free this time. In 1988, the Loggia dei Lanzi with all it's sculptures was completely covered in scaffold. Half of the Palazzo Vecchio was in scaffold. The Piazza was dug up with an archaeological dig. There was none of that this time. I was able to ogle Cellini's sexy Perseus in the Loggia, and to stand on the very spot where Savonarola was turned into a chandelier (hanged and burned).
The weather was a little better than I expected, temperatures in the 40s and 50s with a few rainy days, but no rat-drowners. Mostly the rain would clear up by afternoon, and there was at least one sunny cloudless (and cold) day.
There were tourists and crowds, but nothing like the summer season. I found it a little unnerving to see the interior of the cathedral so empty of people. It was like Grand Central Station at rush hour when I was there in 1988.
The Duomo wasn't nearly as scaffold-clad as I expected. There was some on the southeast side, but that was all. In 1988, the interior of the dome was entirely covered in scaffold and netting as they were restoring the big Vasari fresco. This year, I had a completely unobstructed view of the dome's interior.
Yes, I climbed to the top of the dome. I wasn't quite as winded as I expected. What was harder this time was my acrophobia (fear of heights). There are 2 passages where visitors pass along a narrow cornice in the dome's interior that are about 200 feet above the floor. I was perfectly safe with a heavy stone balustrade and an additional 8 foot high pane of tempered glass between me and a fall; but, I was so panicked at one point that I almost turned back. Fortunately, there was a small group of people behind me pressing me forward. Once I got back into the space between the dome layers and I could no longer see down, I was fine. I went on up to the marble lantern and enjoyed the magnificent view of the city and surrounding countryside. The peaks of the Appenines were concealed in cloud. When the clouds lifted, I could see that the mountain tops were covered in snow.
My triumphant climb to the top of the dome for the second time was completely outclassed by Q (Dr. Richard Quaintance, Barbara Crafton's husband). He's 80 years old, and still quite healthy. He climbed to the top of the campanile (bell tower) the day before I arrived, and to the top of the dome 2 days later than I did. He's visited Florence many times, but had never climbed to the top of the cathedral dome before. He does not share my acrophobia, and enjoyed the close up look at Vasari's dome frescoes.
I saw a lot of art, visited a lot of big magnificent old churches (which were all very cold inside this time of year, colder than outside), spent a lot of time in museums. For some reason I can't explain, everything seemed bigger than I remember. Twenty years ago, the churches were all free of charge and I thought how the Florentines could make so much money if they charged admission to them. Well, they were way ahead of me. Now, all the major churches except the cathedral charge admission. We are definitely living in the age of terrorism. Most of the major museums had security checks complete with scanners and manned by Carabinieri. Michelangelo must be getting threats. Everyplace that had major works by Michelangelo, including the Medici chapels at San Lorenzo, had security check points. I had to empty my pockets and take off my belt to see Big Dave at the Academia. There are now security cameras in the Duomo, though very discretely placed. I suspect there may have been cameras in other venues.
Donatello's bronze David ("Little Dave" as Q calls him) went back on display after restoration just 2 weeks before I arrived.  They found extensive traces of gilding on it during restoration.  They made an exact size bronze replica, and gilded it in the places indicated by the restoration research.  If that's what Little Dave originally looked like, then it's downright shocking.  Not only was it disturbingly  homoerotic  (as it has always been and is still), but it was campy, like something Liberace would have put on his rococo piano.  A lot of Donatello's bronze work was gilded.
Speaking of camp, I loved Donatello's marble cantoria for the Duomo, now in the cathedral museum.  It's covered with reflective mosaic pieces that sparkle like glitter when you see it in the original.  Like the splendid della Robbia cantoria across from it, it was intended to express the musical joy in the 150th Pslam.
One of the pleasures of visiting Florence is the opportunity to see major works of art in their original context. That is beginning to change. The panels on Ghiberti's Doors of Paradise are now all replicas. Six of the ten original panels are now in the Museo del Opera del Duomo. The remaining 4 are in restoration and destined for the museum. Most of the other sculptures on the Baptistery are now replaced by replicas. I know that there are replicas on the Orsanmichele exterior. I don't know, but I suspect that all the statues on the exterior are now replicas. I have very mixed feelings about this. All of these artworks now must bear strains that their creators could never have anticipated. More people visit Florence every summer than the total number of visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries combined.  These are stresses far beyond the passage of time. In addition to pollution and the constant vibrations of traffic, the touch and breath of thousands upon thousands of visitors every year, there is the constant threat of terrorism. All of these monuments are sitting ducks for a lunatic with a bomb. I'm happy to see these things maintained and protected for future generations. However, the (perhaps necessary) removal of the originals from their intended settings can only be seen as a loss.
Botticelli's Venus seemed to my eye to have noticeably darkened over the last 20 years.  All of the Botticellis in the Uffizi were under deliberately dimmed light.  In 1988, they were under bright lights in a sunny room.  The gilding in the Venus is still there, rather more of it than I remember in her hair.  Still, seeing it darkened, and faded I'm afraid to say, was very disturbing.  Works of art are mortal like their makers.   But we hope that they would be at least a little less mortal than ourselves and outlast us.

My visit with the Craftons, and to St. James Episcopal Church (La Chiesa Americana) in Florence was wonderful and very interesting. More about that in a future post.

Oh, and there was that little inauguration thing. I was in a KLM jetliner high above the North Atlantic between Greenland and Labrador when Obama took the oath. I saw him walking with Michelle down Pennsylvania Avenue on CNN as I was waiting in the customs line at JFK. Thank God for C-Span! I was able to watch a reboadcast of the whole inauguration ceremony without the background chatter of news-models, talking heads, and gasbags. There was a lot of interest in the inauguration in Florence with parties planned for the ceremony by Americans and Italians there. More about that in another future post.

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