Everywhere in Florence are the masters, mothers and Madonnas. Who shall I be today?
My traveler’s schedule of waking at 11AM, staying in bed til noon, blogging til 2, and forcing myself out the door at around 3PM works beautifully in Florence, since the world here shuts down between noon and 3:30PM for the Midday.
That’s the thing about being depressed in Florence; you get your sleep.
I am familiar enough with the walk along Via Gino Capponi to venture onto the unfamiliar streets instead of those where I have left mental breadcrumbs.
I pass many beggars in Florence, gypsies in long, purple velvet skirts and gold headshawls. They actually have a costume and a well-rehearsed presentation: they show you photos of their bambini as they implore you for coins. I smile and say Grazie as I walk on.
The real homeless actually do have a home here in Florence; a magnificent building in the square near my appartamento, designed by the great Renaissance architect Brunelleschi. It is L’Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Medieval home for abandoned infants.
This is the Florentine idea of housing for the poor.
Inside the building is also a museo dei bambini. It is just like Florence to have a museum for children share space with actual homeless children. It is brilliant, in fact.
I am going to visit some old friends at their homes. Michelangelo. Leonardo. All the Mannerists from Andrea del Sarto to Pontormo, Bronzino and Rosso Fiorentino. Massacio. Vasari. Boticelli. And one fabulous woman, Lavinia Fontana.
Unlike the spacious Ospedale, the masters all live crowded together at the Uffizi Gallery, the motherload of the Medici collection of statuary and Christian Renaissance art from the late 1300s through the late 1500s.
The Uffizi is in the far corner of the very large, very open Piazza della Signoria. The outdoor sculpture garden has huge statues that are left to brave the elements. A sign reminds visitors that this outdoor garden holds treasures every bit as important as those protected inside the Uffizi and demands that they be treated with respect.
Being left out in the cold does not make them any less treasured.
Upon entering the Uffizi, I forget any plan I have to see it all. The amount of artwork is overwhelming, as are the large concrete staircases that lead up to the galleries. Level 3 – the Rennaissance painters, is where I begin. Room after room. How could there be so many masters? Each artist deserves his own museum, but instead he crowds in side-by-side on the walls, just for a chance to be seen. It’s impossible to think that one family commissioned or purchased all of this art.
How generous of them to finance the future enlightenment of people they would never know.
I am trying not to linger too long with any one master when I happen upon a tour guide, a solid block of an English woman who is actually gossiping about the artists. I get in closer at the Masaccio altarpiece. “Look how fast it moves,” she is talking about the art now, noting the changes in the paintings from 1420 to 1423. “Suddenly there is perspective in the landscape. It makes me want to weep!”
Then the talk gets juicier.
Sandro Arnolfini married his wife at 14 and insisted she have 12 children, one each year, until she died in childbirth at age 26. In his commissioned portrait of her by Botticelli, she is already dead – white and pale though adorned with jewelry, little good it did her.
Fra Fillipo Lippi was a letch. “Here is Fillipo Lippi’s gorgeous Virgin of the Adoration. When he accepted the commission to paint the Virgin he went to the local convent looking for a model. The Mother Superior took him to a roomful of young noficiates and told him to take his pick…and indeed he did, and more than paint her! She is the Madonna of his every altarpiece, his ultimate model of Adoration…his wife and mother of the two brats she gave him, who are his Baby Jesus and Angel models thereafter.”
She clucks about how Botticelli could not paint babies. “What is wrong with him? These are not babies, these are little monsters! Did he not see babies around Florence? He just didn’t get it, poor fellow.”
“Now Leonardo…compare him to his master Verocchio and you will see the pupil surpass the master even as a young teenager….the talented bastard!”
The line between art and life is as faded here in Florence as the frescoes that adorn every building. Art, as it turns out, is a lot like Soylent Green: it’s just people.
Two hours later she is exhausted – I hadn’t noticed she walked with a cane – so she advises us to “go on and visit the Mannerist galleries, after which you will surely be dead. But what a grand death in the presence of all that color and light and expressionist emotion.” After staring up into the faces of those elongated saints, sinners and virgins-no-more, I see her point.
On my zombie walk back home, I stop in the church Orsanmichele which dates back to 892, first as a holy site, transforming into a granary and marketplace until a painting of the Madonna performed miraculous healings here and transmuted the structure back into a holy ground once again. The large Madonna altarpiece still dominates the space, Mary with her gold halo surrounded by golden haired angels, looking solid and Byzantine in her deep blue robe. She looks like she could perform miracles.
At another church on my path, a mass in progress. I am not a Catholic yet the thick smell of the incense gets me. Monks in brown robes, nuns in white and all that Italian singing…. I almost imagine Fra Fillipo looking on lecherously. The nuns, some very young and some older but all with the smoothest complexions, ascend the aisle and one by one, they find me at the back, take both my hands, look into my eyes and wish me Pace de Cristo.
And finally, I start to cry.