I have been meaning to post selections from my journals, as per my previous blog, but have not yet found a convenient time to wade through my notebooks making transcriptions. Here are a few excerpts from my travel journals from last November when my family traveled to Florence and Rome.
Doing the Dome Climb in St. Peter’s in Rome:
The day was waning and we decided to do the Dome Climb first, since it closed earlier than the church did. I’m glad I’ve been exercising because it was all I could do to make the ascent. I had to skip off twice into niches or windowsills to let others pass. My heart pounded painfully and my breath came in gasps. Jim was unfazed, having already done the Duomo climb in Florence; he chose to climb from the bottom of the stairs rather than take the elevator up to the balcony level as we were doing. He met us at the top, looking cool and unbothered. The light was fading and the city’s lights were already on. The Vatican Gardens beneath us glowed deep green like moss, and haze lay over the city so we could not see the Victor Emanuele monument in the distance. There’s something amazing about being 400 feet in the air, the height of a 40-story building; it’s an incredible accomplishment of mankind, to have imagined such a great building and then to have built it. We stood on the magnificent invention of Michelangelo and I pondered technology, and human courage, for surely the men who built the dome were uneasy as their workplace rose higher and higher. It might have been my imagination but it seemed as though the dome intermittently quivered beneath my feet. More likely it was my quivering post-climb muscles.
Visiting the Uffizi Gallery and Medici Palace in Florence:
The sight of so much Christian imagery depresses me. What would a visitor from outer space think of the collection? So many images of a man nailed to a cross; a mother inexplicably folding her hands together while a rat-like newborn lies on the bare earth in front of her; people standing stiffly at attention with grave expressions; people with wings sprouting from their backs. I do not particularly like this sort of art, and it’s not for lack of training because I had art history in college and still own my old copy of Gardner’s Art. I read several books on Renaissance art before coming here, and understand to a greater degree than the man on the street the difference between Masaccio and Giotto versus the flat medieval art that came before. I just don’t like the stuff, intrinsically, and the shuffling crowds put me off. I love Botticelli but did not enjoy seeing his work under such circumstances. And the place was so big, at least for one who was footsore and still jet-lagged and weary. Jim bailed out early, and went and sat in a café near the rear exit while we slowly made our way through. When we got out we went and had a look at the water. The sight of the water was uplifting and yet calming, a seemingly contradictory thing. On the other side the hills rose up with Italian houses clinging to the distant slopes; nearer they lined the far bank in a solid mass.
The afternoon passed agreeably. We strolled the roads and narrow alleyways; we returned to the apartment to play Fio’s guitar; we laughed and talked. Jim slipped away on his own again to explore, and I explained to Fio, “he travels parallel to us but not necessarily with us.” Frank and I, and Esther and Fio, went to the Palazzo Medici just at twilight. The dim moistness of the courtyard with its pebbled paths and potted orange trees and climbing vines was superb. I looked up at the 30-foot ceilings and decorated walls and thought with a sort of amazement, “Lorenzo the Magnificent trod these very halls! Women gave birth and died upstairs. Young Michelangelo ate here. Dignitaries came to beg loans. They saw these same walls as I do today.” The decorated chapel with the famous images of young Lorenzo on a horse with his golden hair was wonderful, far better than the Uffizi. The chapel was far smaller than I had thought but even so it was admirable as a work of art. We all lingered, looking. I liked the freshness of the colors, the shapes of the legs in their tights, and torsos in their doublets, the hair, the eyes, the sky and greenery, and most of all the shape and position of all the feet, both human and equine.
A quick visit to Siena
We strolled onward after lunch and discovered the great Cattedrale di Siena, a magnificent structure of striped marble and inlaid floors. I have never been inside such a spiritual space; the whole interior breathed grace and serenity and peace. We wandered through it in amazement, we six, stopping to stare upward through our travel binoculars at details of the ceiling and vaults. One of us pointed out a tall side window; all up and down the sun-filled side of the stained glass, vast dusty shelf-spiderwebs were visible, each one stacked above the next. The floors were outstanding, gigantic works of incision and precision-cutting. There were sybils all along the sides of the church, with larger scenes in the center. One of those scenes represented the Massacre of the Innocents, with many pale dead babies stacked in ghastly piles, and mothers with contorted mouths shrieking silently as their babes were torn from their arms. It actually drew tears of horror and sympathy from my eyes. I stepped hastily away as though I had inadvertently witnessed an atrocity.
Off the side of the cathedral is a library filled with huge old music texts written by hand on huge sheets of vellum and containing decorated scores with square notes, many of the illustrations gilded heavily. But better yet, up below the ceiling was a fabulous series of frescoes illustrating the life of Aeneus Silvio, who went to England and Ireland to evangelize to the barbarian Celts and Anglo-Saxons, and who met the Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor of Castile, then came home and was elected Pope, and who was present at the death of Catherine of Siena. The frescoes were like beautiful comic-strip illustrations, picked out with dollops of gold, filled with lovely landscapes in the background. The English/Hibernian landscapes were rendered Italian in the artist’s imagination, and he depicted himself, standing in tights and long curled hair and in alert stance, gazing directly down at the viewer. It was the most beautiful set of colored church frescoes I’ve seen since Orvieto.
I will post additional selections at intervals as I make the transcriptions from the handwritten notebooks.