If slow food is a thing–a good thing–is there such a thing as slow art?

In Wallace Stegner’s beautiful novel, Crossing to Safetythere are moving descriptions of the city of Florence. The book tells the story of two couples who become friends during the Depression and who, many years later, spend a year–one of them is on sabbatical–living in this beautiful city. IMG_5726

In a year, one could possibly take in what visitors like me try to see in a week.

There’s something about gorging on art that feels like stuffing oneself with food–just because it’s there, just because you can. But gorging isn’t feasting and how do you do the latter when there’s just not enough time?

This is a good problem to have. I’ve been in Florence, Italy for a week. I don’t mean to complain.

But it can sometimes feel like the worst of smorgasboard consumerism, the silliest kind of checklist tourism: “we did the Uffizi today” (or the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery). I don’t think so.

I have seen some of the most breathtaking paintings, frescoes, statues, and other objets d’art in some of the world’s most glorious churches, museums, piazzas, and palaces. But I have also at times felt such sensory overload, such emotional exhaustion, that looking at one more chapel ceiling, one more gallery of paintings is all but impossible. Okay, it is impossible.

Still.

There is such a thing as the antipasto of an amazing Tuscan meal, the foretaste of a magnificent banquet. That I have experienced.

And it has been so very good.

Arrivederci, Firenze.

 

If the places in which fast food is eaten are aseptic and nondescript, let’s rediscover the warmth of a traditional osteria, the fascination of a historic café, the liveliness of places where making food is still a craft . . . 

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food: The Case for Taste

I don’t think it’s an accident that the slow food movement was founded by an Italian.

Ristorante-Paoli-firenzeIn my brief, limited experience, meals in the city of Florence are occasions for conviviality more than caloric intake.

Convivium: from the Latin meaning “to live with,” but also suggesting “joyous feasting,” even “carousing together.”

In this city of beautiful food and the people who serve it, I think of a scene in Life is Beautiful–a film written and directed by and starring Roberto Benigni (another Italian), that is by turns charming and haunting.  In the scene, Guido, the main character, is schooled in the art of waiting tables:

Think of a sunflower, they bow to the sun. But if you see some that are bowed too far down, it means they’re dead. You’re here serving, you’re not a servant. Serving is the supreme art. God is the first of servants. God serves men, but he’s not a servant to men.

I notice this distinction in the men and women who wait and serve in this city. No hovering. No smothering. Just competence and confidence with humility in the work they do.

Another favorite writer says this:

“Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”

In this age of eating fast and eating alone, we hardly know how to cultivate taste–which isn’t the prerogative of the affluent only but the call of every person to desire, to enjoy (and to have access to) good, delicious, nutritionally dense food.

I think that the food-related health issues that our culture currently faces (obesity, the steep rise in type-2 diabetes, for instance), are, at least in part, crises of taste. And at least one solution to the increasing–and increasingly global–problem of overconsumption is not deprivation—not endless scrimping and skimping and counting and calculating, but (re)discovering the myriad pleasures of eating.

To take delight in good food mindfully prepared and beautifully served (even if done so by ourselves) is to acknowledge our dependence on the gifts that sustain our very lives. It is to practice conviviality: to abide with, carouse with, feast with family and friends at the abundant table of creation.

 

And then there was Michelangelo’s David.

And I couldn’t speak. And I really don’t know what to write. Really.david-hand-760x970

In a crowd of Japanese school children and a host of other tourists and visitors, I was completely overwhelmed, completely overcome.

For all the things going through my head in those moments and the hours since, I come back to this one thing: Michelangelo represents the humanism of the high Renaissance, and every first-year Humanities student can list the characteristics of this movement–the celebration of human achievement, for one.

But in trying to take in this astonishing feat of human achievement, I was struck–am struck–by the power of art to make us more human, to make us more fully what we are meant to be, to make us beautiful.

Much more needs to be said about this, for sure, and in contemplating the David all day, I am exhausted and bereft of words. But this at least:

We don’t take in a profound work of art in order to possess its beauty but rather that we might  be possessed by beauty ourselves, that we might learn what it means to open our lives, individually and corporately, to the gift, the call, the joyful art of becoming beautiful.

 

With some free time today, I had hoped to make it to San Marco, a church and monastery-now-museum, where Dominican Girolamo Savonarola (mentioned in day two’s post) lived and delivered his fiery sermons to the citizens of Florence. More famously, the painter, Fra Angelico, was also a monk, and later the prior, at San Marco. Coppo_di_Marcovaldo._Madonna._1250-60_Santa_Maria_Maggiore,_Florence.

Under the patronage of Cosimo the Elder de Medici, Angelico’s art adorned both church and cloister–his crucifix on the high altar and his frescoes (along with those of other artists) installed in individual cells. And they’re still there.

One of the most iconic images of the Renaissance–Angelico’s Annunciation–is placed at the top of a staircase, its figures life-size, the landscape backdrop of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary very similar to the courtyard of the Florentine monastery.

Not that I saw this or any of the other glorious art of San Marco today. There were some unexpected delays and changes in plans. Another day, I hope.

But walking back toward the hotel, I found myself alongside the outer north wall of a church so non-descript that I wouldn’t have known it was a church, save for a small, modest sign indicating that it was Santa Maria Maggiore. I ducked inside.

And I had that experience that I’ve had several times already in this stunning city: Outward appearances can be deceiving. Not always, of course. When you gaze upon the Duomo or the Church of Santa Maria Novella, they are–in very different ways–imposing and impressive. You know, so to speak and to a certain degree, what you’re getting into.

But a church like Santa Maria Maggiore, plastered and de-plastered numerous times through the centuries, does not spill its secrets or flaunt its treasures. From a busy street one enters the quiet, dark interior and finds one of the most antique churches in Florence. Built in the 10th century, Romanesque and Cistercian, Santa Maria Maggiore has three aisles with pointed arches on square piers. There are striking paintings of two episodes from the story of King Herod, and the left chapel features a relief in gilded wood of Madonna and Child.

There is much more, of course, but this was all I could take in during the few minutes I had.

This brief experience today was about more than “never judge a book by it’s cover”–as true and useful as that old saw is. It isn’t despite plainness and simplicity that beauty often shines forth. It’s that the plainness and simplicity are always part of the beauty–of buildings, of people.

But it takes work to see that. We are hard-wired, perhaps, to respond immediately, to be moved viscerally, by the visually striking. And it strikes me, in this city of ancient and medieval churches, that American Christians often want the spectacular, the dazzling, the entertaining in their worship experiences, especially.

What is ordinary, what is plain or simple, what has been steadfastly unspectacular through the centuries–praying the liturgy of the hours, for example–seems manifestly uninteresting to us.

But in such plain beauty are secrets revealed, treasures discovered. If only we have eyes to see.

As you climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo, the stunning cupola that tops the altar area of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, you think about the 467 stone steps to the summit. You think about the narrow passageways. You think about the dozens of people ahead of you and the dozens behind you. You think you should just take deep breaths.il-duomo-evening-615

In 1420, Filippo Brunnelleschi, a goldsmith with no formal architectural training, won a contest to build an enormous airy dome that he claimed would need no visible, fixed supports. There are two domes, actually–two concentric shells, the inner one of herringbone-patterned brick nestled in the larger, taller one, with tension rings and tie beams between them to reduce stress and distribute the weight evenly. The city planners and church authorities didn’t know if it would work–no one did. Except maybe the goldsmith.

You ascend on the stairway between the two domes, feeling the cool of the herringbone brick on your hands, seeing the beams above your head. As the stairs lead you out onto the interior walkway, your eyes are immediately drawn to the dramatically frescoed dome ceiling above. (Brunnelleschi designed and constructed it bare; apparently there have been proposals through the centuries–time is measured in centuries in Florence–to restore the ceiling to its pristine whiteness).

Like other domed ceilings in churches and basilicas, the bottom tier depicts scenes of hell and judgment. The artists who painted the Duomo’s ceiling, Georgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari, offer shocking, gruesome, ghastly scenes of deadly sins and the horrors of hell.

There is something theologically interesting (of course there is) about both the architecture and the art. On the walkway, the hellish frescoes are too close for comfort. The figures are simply enormous. Depictions of the beatitudes, the virtues, saints, angels, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Mary, Christ–all of these seem very far away indeed.

As you leave the inner walkway and climb the remaining steps to the top of the dome, the steps are steeper, the passages even narrower. Light pours in at intervals from openings in the stone, but it is intermittent, fleeting. You feel like you’re groping, not striding, toward the summit.

And then when you step out of the darkness, when you complete the journey of many step and emerge into the light of a late Tuscan afternoon, when all of Florence is bathed in golden sunshine and even the hills and groves beyond the city are visible, you think about your life. About the precariousness of your own journey of many steps. About the light that sometimes seems intermittent, fleeting, but which always, always appears. And you realize it is Lent and that this is fitting, and that soon it will be Easter.

And you are grateful.

 

The planet Venus in last night’s sky. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus today at the Uffizi Gallery.

This work of art was like none other of its time. The first Renaissance painting to portray a nude woman in a non-Christian context–only Eve heretofore–The Birth of Venus was controversial from the start. Commissioned by Birth-Venus-Bott-LLorenzo di Medici, likely as a wedding present for a cousin (it would have hung over the marital bed), the painting barely escaped destruction at the hands of a zealous Dominican monk. During Carnivale of 1497, Girolamo Savonarola organized what came to be known as the bonfire of the vanities.  He ordered a house to house search of costumes, masks, wigs, cosmetics, musical instruments, and other objects deemed ill-suited for the devout. Also caught up in the banning/burning were precious manuscripts and various works of art. The night before the beginning of Lent that year, the great pile of “vanities” was set afire. Botticelli himself, who had been captivated by Savonarola’s apocalyptic preaching, contributed some of his own work to the blaze.

But Venus survived.

To stand in front of this magnificent painting is to be overwhelmed by qualities that one does not encounter in most paintings in the Uffizi, or in Renaissance art generally, where subjects (and subject matter) are weighty and substantial and realistically rendered. (Notice the impossible postures/positions of Venus and the figures representing the Zephyr winds). The Birth of Venus is charming, graceful, lyrical, ethereal, delicate, and deeply sensuous. It celebrates human desire.

And to my untrained eye, it seems to be, ultimately, about beauty. It invites one to contemplate physical beauty, erotic beauty, not as voyeur, but in recognition of the truth that we are creatures who hunger for beauty, who are made from beauty and for beauty, and who must learn that all desire is a desire for beauty.

THE VENUS OF BOTTICELLI

Wendell Berry

I knew her when I saw her
in the vision of Botticelli, riding
shoreward out of the waves,
and afterward she was in my mind
as she had been before, but changed,
so that if I saw her here, near
nightfall, striding off the gleam
of the Kentucky River as it darkened
behind her, the willows touching
her with little touches laid
on breast and arm and thigh, I
would rise as after a thousand
years, as out of the dark grave,
alight, shaken, to remember her.

 

A stunning sunrise over the city of Amsterdam more than made up for the lack of sleep on the flight from Washington, DC.  Unexpectedly, our flight to Florence was diverted to Pisa–too much wind on the ground for a safe landing. Also unexpected: exquisite views of the Italian Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. Such spectacular grandeur, IMG_5407such ancient beauty. And then finally entering Firenze, as it is known in Italy, a city which in some ways looks like any other but in most ways like no other.

A late afternoon walking tour of the center city–brief glimpses of the Cathedral (God in heaven, the glory of every part of it), the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza della Signoria–how will we bear the beauty of it all in the coming days?

As night fell, the sight of Jupiter in the east of the cobalt-blue sky. He stood brilliant, silent vigil over a sea of tourists and Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Neptune Fountain, which I’m not sure what I think about. It’s either much-loved or much-reviled, I hear. At first sight of it, Ammannati’s teacher, Michaelangelo, is said to have quipped, “what a beautiful piece of marble you have ruined.”

As we walk past the Galleria Uffizi (on the schedule for our second day), a classical guitarist plays “Gabriel’s Oboe,” from the film The Mission and written by Italian composer, Ennio Morricone. It is beautiful beyond words.

And then, walking back to the hotel, along the Arno river, Venus shines bright in the western sky, and I know that I am in love.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 136 other followers