November 4, 2012 – Florence the City of While You Were Sleeping
I don’t know much about Florence except that Lucy in While You Were Sleeping wanted to go there. She never says specifically why so I don’t have a clear sense of what she wanted to see. Later in the movie, when Jack gives Lucy a snow globe as a wedding present and she overturns it to start the snow flurries and says with a depressed heartbrokenness, “Florence” the camera doesn’t zoom in enough to highlight the city’s wonders. I have no idea what to expect. I’m going because Michelangelo’s The David stands in bodily marble perfection (according to my art history classes) inside the Accademia. It’s another of the things I don’t want to leave Italy without seeing.
Because the guide books had warned me that not planning ahead could lead to severe disappointment (my own paraphrasing), I’ve purchased my tickets to both the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia in advance in an attempt to avoid long lines (which I despise) and/or the chance that I’d not get in at all (which would be severely disappointing).
The David is one of those trendy popular things to see. A notch on the culture belt. A counting of coup for the worldly-wise, the well-travelled. The kind of place tourists love to throw into conversation, “And then we stopped by Florence and saw The David, as you do.” It lends a certain air of artistic connoisseurship to even the most unartistic. After all, it’s easy to identify The David.
As I make my way to the Uffizi Gallery, I’m afraid I’m notching my own belt. I’m finding myself too often removing myself from the distinctive and derogatory label of tourist and claiming that what I’m doing is somehow better, more noble, less snobby. “Before you try to remove the splinter from someone else’s eye you should be aware of the beam in your own,” I chastise myself.
My words don’t help; I’m not feeling the hordes today. The rampant tourists. I want everything to myself.
I’ve got a 10:00 AM appointment at the Uffizi Gallery and a 1:45 entry time for the Accademia. I’m short on sleep, already having lunch thoughts, and probably a bit dehydrated. I can sense a growing irritableness towards crowds boiling just under my skin. When I get to the Uffizi and see the lines to purchase tickets that stretch across the plaza I mouth a silent prayer of thanks to the guidebook gods for their aide.
Even with my pre-purchased ticket I still have to wait about half an hour to get inside the museum.
Then finally, I’m in.
There might be a million rooms inside. There might also be a million people. I tuck my elbows in and squeeze around the other humans in order to catch a glimpse of the paintings I’ve read about or been taught about. Somewhere in the midst of the color and paint and statuary I lose my need for a giant personal bubble. I’m pulled into the art, into the divine. Taken from the temporal for a brief moment. Here there is Bellini, Albrecht Dürer, Fra’ Bartolomeo, Michelangelo, Joos Van Cleve, Tintoretto, Parmigianino, Tiepolo, El Greco, Ligozzi, Boscoli, Pittore Fiammingo Del Primo Seicento.
“I didn’t expect to see you here!” I tell a couple of the paintings. It’s exciting. It’s thrilling. It’s overwhelming.
The hours go by. I push myself on step by step. There’s just too much art. There are so many paintings and statues to see I almost can’t “waste” the time to appreciate any one more than another. I move at a frantic pace, I don’t want to miss out on something.
Every room is jam packed with framed picture after framed picture. So much of the subject matter is the same. Adam and Eve in the garden. Adam and Eve before God. Adam and Eve being expulsed from the garden. The agony and glory of St. Sebastian shot full of arrows (this didn’t kill him, however. Irene of Rome came along just in the nick of time and rescued him and healed him up. (Avoiding death is one of the keys to being a saint.) But Sebastian didn’t avoid it forever. He got clubbed to death later on and this time Irene was nowhere to be found). St. Gerome being visited by angels. St. Gerome looking contemplative. St. Gerome reading in the countryside. Salome with the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. The sacrifice of Isaac. Portraits of apostles. Portraits of popes. Portraits of men. Portraits of women. Portraits of Martin Luther. And always, everywhere, in every style, renditions of the holy family. The adoration of the Magi, the annunciation, the Madonna and Christ child with relatives, with saints, with adorers, with angels.
Room after room after room. At some point, the walls close in on me and it starts to feel crowded again. I don’t have space to move around. My anxiety returns and I tense.
Calm down, I think.
If I see another Madonna and Child I’m going to scream, I reply.
Okay, I see your point, I say as the colors begin to blur, the figures fade, and it becomes just a rush – me with the clustered people – to see a name on a plaque.
I’m ODing on art.
I’ve got to get out of here or my eyes might burst out.
Somehow (with no help from the exit sign arrows and through the labyrinth of never ending rooms) I find the exit.
Outside, the fresh air helps to clear my paint clotted head. Some.
God help me.
Fortified with food, drink and some sit down rest, I pay my tab and head back the way I came.
At the museum, I maneuver the lines (this is more complicated than it should be) and somehow get inside. In the first room I stumble upon, Picasso’s Harlequin with Mirror hangs alongside Alberto Savinio’s Nettuno Pescatore – a delightful painting of a strange man-figure with a fish face who stands like a Godzilla image in an old street with the tops of the buildings at his elbows – and Alberto Burri’s Rosso, a sticky, paint- thick blotch of tactile red. Three paintings per room is much more manageable. I step in close, peer at the paint lines, keep my hands behind my back to avoid feeling the textures, and then step back to see the full scene. This is viewing art.
But I know that somewhere in this building is the statue I came to see.
I leave the modern behind and go in search of it. Through rooms, around people, past busts, past other paintings, around a corner.
I make the turn and look.
There are some works of art that are incredible
and yet, despite it all
they live up to the
Michelangelo’s The Davis is one such piece of art. It’s glorious. Colossal. Seventeen feet high, set into his own alcove, The David commands all attention. How could he not? He’s the ideal man. Flawless and beautiful.
(Did Michelangelo fall in love with this man he’d made?)
Step down into this crowd that’s ogling him, and be a living, godlike thing.
He’s better as a statue. He wouldn’t have any use for any of us.
I sit down in one of the benches facing him. The David is as great as I’d been told.
I’m in awe.
In awe of the marble made man. In awe of an artist who did everything. Michelangelo was truly a master. He painted, he sculpted, he constructed buildings, he engineered things. He even wrote poetry!
Would it be enough if I could make one thing in my life that was as perfect as this?
Would I be content?
Probably not. Would I ever be able to see a book, a short story, a poem of mine as perfect?
Or would I only see the flaws?
Did Michelangelo see any flaws in The David?
I get up and go stand where I can see the side view. I don’t see any. Then I go sit on the bench that’s around the back of the statue.
Maybe perfection is the wrong thing to go for. Maybe excellence is a better and less agonizing virtue.
I sit for a long time, viewing this David from every angle, feeling lucky to be here, inspired by immensity.
Afterwards, after I get up, I can’t take in anything else.
So I leave and walk back through the streets of Florence. Pausing to say, “Wow” every so often at the beauty of a city I’d known nothing about.