Dopo la Mess
April 3, 1994
After Easter Mass in the Duomo in Florence, my wife and I wandered the nearby streets. We saw a mime entertaining a crowd by the Baptistery. He selected a boy and a girl about seven years old from the crowd, and brought them into the circle. He costumed them clownishly, using a long balloon to make a penis between the boy’s legs, and put hands on them to show them how to stand. The boy started to cry, and he ushered the child back to mama, with a feigned kick.
In our country I thought this might have turned into a frightening experience for the child. American parents might have overreacted and accused the performer of abuse. Here the boy has his nonno, who picks him up and gives him a hug much more powerful than whatever discomfited him. Nobody will teach him that his mental health has been threatened. The crowd will go away happy, and so will he.
The Monday after Easter must be the busiest, most crowded holiday of the year in Italy. Most stores and museums are closed, even newsstands. The Bargello was closed, so we went to the Accademia, where in the same room with David there stand several of Michelangelo’s Captives, and a Pietà which is his by attribution. Everybody ignores them to admire David’s perfection. To this student, all the others are fully as powerful as he. You can almost see flakes of stone fall off the captives as they struggle to free themselves. The Pietà has a shocking, violent affect. The dead Christ’s right foot drags upside down on the ground. His nakedness is almost lewdly exposed.
Next we walked to Chiesa Santa Croce, with what is undoubtedly the greatest collection of trecento frescoes in situ. Surrounded by al the magnificence, the crowd was rude, turning lights on and off disturbingly. Soon the monks responsible for the place had enough and closed two hours early, apparently fed up. Who wants to be part of a crowd that disgusts the hosts, least of all Franciscans? It seems there is no escaping it this week.
After a short lie down we went out for the passeggiata and an aperitivo, before the evening’s concert, J. S. Bach’s second sonata and partita for solo violin, played by one Yvette Grigorian, at what is now called Chiesa di Dante, a disused sanctuary annexed to Chiesa Santa Maria dei Ricci. It is not swept, dusted, or heated. Seats are mismatched pews and folding chairs. This is supposedly where the divine poet saw his beloved Beatrice, a member of the Sforza family, who inspired his work.
Sra. Grigorian appears to be fifty-some years old. She plays without much precision, but with the passion of a Gypsy. She seems to lose count sometimes, but is surprisingly secure on pitch, mostly, and free of romantic vibrato. We enjoyed her for what she is: a woman who used to play better than now, in a poor setting far from home. She is perhaps unable to live in her native Georgia, SSR. Years later we still think of her.
April 5, 1994
Today we went to the Bargello, the museum of San Marco and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo—a lot for one day.
Here is a way to look at statues. Pretend the person is in a play or an opera, or that I am alone with him. What is he about to say, or ask me to do? What character is he playing? Powerful? Humble? Who might be the others in the drama? What is the affect of the line he is about to say, or the aria he is about to sing?
The less interesting ones yield obvious answers. The better ones yield more complex speculations. Some change while we watch them, or look different from different angles, or invite contradictory speculation. The best of all have no words.
One knows that if they spoke, it would be with powerful clarity, something we could not have said ourselves but so self-evidently true that it would seem we had known it all along. In this category are Donatello’s Maddalena and il Zuccone, both in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. I held my face about three inches from the latter. It almost seemed his lips started to move, and I could feel his breath on my skin.
April 6, 1994
After the usual colazione, we went in the direction of Santa Maria Novella, a Dominican preaching and teaching church. Here is a famous pair of fresco cycles by Ghirlandaio on the lives of John the Baptist, and the Virgin. In the Strozzi chapel, on the right, is an Inferno, apparently based on Dante. Who made it? When? [Looking it up at home, we learn it is Inferno by Orcagna’s brother, Nardo di Cione (1350s)].
After a rest at the hotel we went to what looks like the biggest book store in town: Libreria Marzocco. There we bought copies of Il Gattopardo by Lampedusa, I Promessi Sposi by Manzoni, and Dante’s Divina Commedia. I hope to use these to further my education in Italian.
After a rest in our room, we walked out to take a few pictures in the last evening light. Florence is crowded and hectic with the noise of many Vespas. (The name means “wasp.” One native of our acquaintance calls the city un gran vespaio, wasp-nest.) It gets tiresome at times, but its treasures are incomparable.