Finding Quiet Amidst the Crowds in Florence

Saturday morning I left Ravenna and took the train to Florence.  Unlike Ravenna, Florence is full of tourists.  In Ravenna, there were so few Americans visiting that an elderly Italian lady in the laundromat did not believe I was American, no matter how many times I and the woman running the place insisted it was true; whereas in Florence, people are never surprised to hear me mangling their beautiful language.  They are used to Americans.

Of course there is a reason so many Americans come to Florence - extraordinary museums, architecture, food, and fashion are an alluring combination.  Fortunately it is worth squeezing through a few noisy, crowded, narrow streets to see everything.

Saturday evening I was ready for my first foray into the museums, and, lucky for me, the Museo Nazionale del Bargello is open from 7:00 -11:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Like anyone else who read E. L. Konigburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler * as a kid, I find the idea of walking around a museum after dark tantalizing, so at 6:59 I approached the door of the museum, sketchbook in hand.

 Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Museo Nazionale del Bargello

The museum building is three stories high and has a central courtyard.  I was one of the first people there, so for a moment I was alone in the space, shivering in the chilly November air.  Small lights illumined the sculptures around the perimeter and cast large shadows onto the walls behind. As with so many museums, there were far more pieces on display than I could possibly take in, so I focused on the galleries with some the most famous pieces: Donatello’s David and St. John the Baptist, and Michelangelo’s Bacchus.  When I sat down to sketch the Bacchus, I noticed just how inebriated he looks, and I marveled at the kind of mind that can carve a block of stone into a careening drunkard.

 Michelangelo,  David,  1496- 1497, Marble

Michelangelo, David, 1496- 1497, Marble

The next day I visited the Church and Museum of Santa Maria Novella, which is adjacent to the main train station in the city.  Unlike the bustling station, the church and its cloisters are a sanctuary of calm. One of my favorite things there was the Spanish Chapel (formerly the chapter house before it was assigned to Eleonora of Toledo and became the Spanish Chapel), which is inside the cloisters. 

When I walked into the chapel, it was hard to know where to look first, since all four walls and the vaulted ceiling are covered with frescoes.  The back wall is the largest and shows the story of Christ’s crucifixion.  Up above, the four parts of the vaulted ceiling show scenes from the resurrection, ascension, Pentecost, and the day Peter walked on water. 

 Andrea di Bonaiuto, Ceiling of the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

Andrea di Bonaiuto, Ceiling of the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

The left and right walls require a bit more explanation, since they do not show stories directly from the Bible.  On the right side St. Dominic hears confessions and directs people to paradise.  There are a couple small figures doing illicit things like dancing and eating forbidden fruit (to show sin), and there are some larger figures making the ascent to heaven.  On the left side, St. Aquinas is seated in the center, with the book of wisdom in his lap.  Above him flutter seven angels symbolizing the seven virtues.  On his two sides are seated a row of Biblical figures (left to right): Job, David, Saint Paul, Mark, Matthew, John, Luke, Moses, Isaiah, and Solomon.  Down below are figures representing the seven sacred sciences, on the left, and the seven liberal arts, on the right.

For some reason, of all the images in the room, the one I found myself focusing on was the depiction of the seven liberal arts personified as women.  Each of the women has a throne-like chair, and they all hold stiff poses that offer some clue as to which art they represent.  In front of each of them is a man, whose identity offers a further clue as to which liberal art they represent.  The woman in yellow, for example, has Pythagoras seated in front of her, because she represents arithmetic.  Of course there is a certain irony in the fact that images of women were used to embody the liberal arts, since women did not have the same access to education that men did, but there is still something lovely about the way each discipline is honored. 

  Andrea di Bonaiuto, Detail from  The Triumph of St. Aquinas and Allegory of Christian Learning  in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

Andrea di Bonaiuto, Detail from The Triumph of St. Aquinas and Allegory of Christian Learning in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, 1365-1367, Fresco

I saw many other things in Florence, but I’ll just write about one more: Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’ Accademia.  I think the challenge in a situation like this is to really see the sculpture, since I have already seen reproductions of it so many times.  And, in a tourist-filled museum where everyone is jockeying to get the best photo of the sculpture, it is hard to slow down enough to get a good a look.  This is one of the reasons I like to draw in museums.

 Drawing in the Galleria dell' Academia

Drawing in the Galleria dell' Academia

Drawing always slows me down enough so that I am forced to really look at something.  Plus, I’ve noticed that when I sit still and draw quietly I tend to fade into the architecture of the building and people are more candid in discussing their thoughts about the artwork in my presence.  At one point an Australian couple in their sixties sat down next to me, and the man asked his wife if she thought Michelangelo had exaggerated the size of David’s hand.  She said she didn’t know.  He insisted that it was exaggerated, and in order to make his point, stood up, held his right hand in imitation of the sculpture, and asked his wife if she didn’t think his hand looked smaller than David’s sculpted hand.  She seemed uncertain of the right answer, but cautiously responded that his hand did indeed look much smaller.  Humorous as it was to overhear them talking, his observation was actually completely on target – Michelangelo did exaggerate the size of the hands! 

 Michelangelo,  David,  1501-1504, Marble

Michelangelo, David, 1501-1504, Marble

When I was nearly finished with my sketch, a young man sat down next to me and asked if I loved the sculpture.  I said that I do, but that I find it frustrating to draw, since I always find the real thing to be so much better than any pencil reproduction of it than I can make.  He responded that the drawing was very good, and anyway, it showed my experience of the sculpture, what I saw in it on that particular day.  And of course he was right.  It’s impossible to take in every single nuance of a work of genius, even when we slow down to really look.  The most we can hope for is to take something valuable and real away from it.

And maybe that’s also the most I can ask for in an over-stimulating city like Florence.  There will always be more to see than I can possibly take in, but in the moments of quiet and calm I found things that spoke to me – a drunken Bacchus at night, a row of princess-like personifications, and a chiseled warrior poised and ready to kill.  

Before I left the city, I climbed up to Piazzale di Michelangelo for one last look.  It was, unsurprisingly, cluttered with tourists, but the city was nevertheless dazzling in the distance.

 The View of Florence from Piazzale di Michelangelo

The View of Florence from Piazzale di Michelangelo

*If you haven’t read this Newbery Medal winning children’s book, it’s worth reading it even as an adult.  The two protagonists, a brother and sister, run away from home, sleep in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and solve art history mysteries.