Writing my series of posts on Rome, back in 2016, was an educational experience for me. It was the first time that I tried to break up a single city into multiple installments, and the first time that I tried to be as brief and as useful as possible (a practice I have since abandoned). Nevertheless the posts’ photographs and formatting were a little rough compared to my later posts. To rectify this, I have given these original posts a makeover. You can see the results below:
On Spain’s northern coast, sandwiched between Asturias and the Basque Country, is a little slice of land that makes up the province of Cantabria. Like the rest of Spain’s northern coast, influenced by the Oceanic climate blowing down from the Bay of Biscay, it is a lush and verdant region that gets plenty of rain. Though somewhat less popular as a tourist destination than its neighboring provinces, the region’s capital, Santander, is widely recognized for the eponymous international bank, Banco Santander—Spain’s biggest bank and second-largest company.
And it seems that the capital is bound to receive new visitors, thanks in part to the recently opened Botín Center. This building takes its name from the family that owns the bank (and who financed the project), and is designed to rival the Guggenheim in Bilbao, just a couple hours east by car. Like that Basque museum, designed by Frank Gehry, the Botín Center is a museum of modern art housed in a striking modern edifice, in this case designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. I happened to visit Santander in April of 2017, when the building was complete but had yet to open its doors to the public. From the outside the museum looks like an alien spacecraft which has been neatly bifurcated. It is in a beautiful area, right on the water, a fact which has irritated some local critics, but which undoubtedly adds to its charm. Though I haven’t been inside, I read online that there is a room dedicated to drawings by Goya (on loan from the Prado) and another room dedicated to installations by contemporary artists. I hope to visit someday.
This center—looking incongruously futuristic against the serene waters of the bay, surrounded by fishermen—was, by chance, one of my first glimpses of the city. My Blablacar driver had dropped me off nearby. I was, as usual, disoriented and ragged, from having gotten up so early; and I still had several hours to kill before I could drop off my bag at my Airbnb. So I had little choice but to trek heavily around the city for several hours.
Santander is a maritime city, perched on a peninsula wrapped around a beautiful bay. The walk along the water is wonderfully picturesque, with stately building on one side and green mountains across the blue water—and it was especially nice since, when I visited, the sidewalk was the site of a street fair. Proceeding upwards this way, I walked by the memorable Palacio de Festivales, a municipal event space, and then the Maritime Museum, which has an aquarium and some impressive fishy fossils on display. I also saw the monument to the raqueros, or beachcombers, a whimsical group of faceless statues about to dive into the water. Continuing onwards, I got to the end of the peninsula, which consists of a lovely park area. There were several families having a picnic, and I am sure I looked fairly ridiculous as I strode by with my disheveled grey hoodie and my bulging green suitcase.
Walking on in this tiresome manner, I got to the Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander’s royal residence. This was actually built by popular subscription (the royal family was more popular in those days) and gifted to the king, in 1911. The royals did not have very many years to enjoy it, however, since the Second Spanish Republic (1931) and then the Civil War (1936) put an end to their annual peregrinations. The palace is built in a gaudy eclectic style, heavily indebted to the English; but it has an undeniably nice view of the sea. Nowadays it is used for conferences and suchlike things. Looking out from the tip of the peninsula, I saw the azure bay filled with little sailboats. My Santanderino friend, who himself has a sailing permit, informs me that this maritime pastime is very popular in the city. Certainly it is a good place for it.
As I walked on westward, more and more of the Cantabrian coast opened up into view, a rugged rocky coast bathed by serene waves (though I am sure it gets rather stormy sometimes). I walked by an open-air museum, grandly named the Museum of Man and the Sea, but which consists of three reconstructions of old galleons. I believe they were meant to represent the three ships which sailed with Columbus to the New World, the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María, though to my eyes they looked too small. A little further I encountered an open-air zoo, with walkways overlooking a pool in which seals were restlessly swimming.
Finally I reached Santander’s major beach: the Sardinero. This is about as nice a beach as anyone can ask for: with golden sand and ample space. Hotels and restaurants hemm in the coast, of course, while sailboats float out in the distance. In the summer I imagine the place is crawling with people; but when I arrived, a few months before proper swimming weather, the beach was charmingly empty, even peaceful. Looking back from the beach toward the palace, I was struck by how jagged and natural the coast appeared, despite being in the center of a city.
Now it was time to drop off my things. As usual, I had booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find, which was far outside the city center, deep in the industrial part of the city. Also as usual, I did not want to pay for a cab. So I walked an hour and a half, through the city, under the sun, sweating and stumbling, across highways and past strip malls, until finally reaching my destination. By saving money, I also stay thin.
Returning to the city was far less painful, not only because I wasn’t dragging around my bag, but also because my Airbnb host told me which bus to take. Thus in less than half an hour I was back in the center, ready to see more.
Though Santander’s history stretches back to medieval times—its position on the bay is a natural spot for settlements—the visitor will not notice any of the chaotic, jumbled, narrow streets characteristic of old cities. This is largely due to the great fire of 1941, which destroyed most of the old center and left thousands homeless. The conflagration occurred during the lean years following the Spanish Civil War, when the resultant poverty occasioned many accidents around the country. As a result of this catastrophe, the center is crisscrossed with wide, perpendicular streets and full of modern buildings. There is a monument to the blaze—several human figures, looking hopeless and lost—in the park near the Botín Center.
One of the buildings damaged in the blaze was Santander’s medieval Cathedral. What stands today is largely a reconstruction. The cathedral struck me as rather odd, with its stark, white exterior almost wholly devoid of ornament. To go inside one must climb a flight of stairs, for the cathedral is not level with the street. I remember going through one door, only to find it full of a congregation midway through mass. This was the crypt, which is used as an independent church, La Iglesia del Cristo. The cathedral stands on top of this crypt-church; this is why the space is so claustrophobic and full of thick supports. Though finely vaulted, the cathedral’s interior was not any more richly adorned than its exterior. I admit that I left the building feeling rather baffled, since at the time I did not know that the original church had mostly burned down, or that there were two separate churches in the same building.
Quite nearby is the original building of Banco Santander, a stately edifice that projects conservative dignity, very appropriate for a bank. You can pass through the central arch of this building to the other side, and then make your way to the Pedro Velarde Square. The plaza was named after a Spanish soldier who was involved in the much-mythologized uprising of May 2nd against Napoleon’s invading troops (a scene immortalized by Goya). A statue of this fierce patriot stands guard over the entrance to the square. The plaza is surrounded by a uniform row of attractive apartment buildings, much like the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca, making it an excellent spot for photos. I should also note that there are many fine restaurants nearby.
One of the city’s most intriguing sites is right next to this plaza, the air raid shelter, or refugio antiaéreo. As one might expect, this is not very conspicuous from the street, merely consisting of a stairwell. I was fortunate in being able to visit, since you normally need to reserve a spot in advance, and I had not done so. What is more, all visits to the tunnels are guided, which meant I would have to hitch a spot with another group. But by chance, as I approached the entrance to the shelter, another visiting couple (from Madrid) was inquiring about tours, too, so I was able to join theirs. Being a third wheel has seldom proven so educational.
The shelter was built during the Spanish Civil War. Though Santander was not of paramount strategic importance and was not the scene of major fighting, the city was nevertheless the target of bombing raids by the fascist forces. In Madrid, metro stations were refitted to be used as bomb shelters; but lacking a metro system, the people of Santander had to build shelters from scratch—and quickly. This shelter is not very big (maybe 100 people could have squeezed into it, briefly) and consisted of several interconnected concrete passageways. Our tour guide gave us some of the context of the war and the history of the tunnel’s construction. There were a few video clips, examples of uniforms worn by the fascist (many of them Germans) and Republican pilots, and sound clips designed to reproduce the feeling of being underground during a bombing. Although the shelter did not get much use, since Santander was taken by Franco’s forces fairly early on during the war, it remains a moving artifact of the new horrors of aerial warfare, dropping death indiscriminately on enemy cities—something the world had never seen before.
After this, I decided to visit the Prehistory and Archaeology Museum of Cantabria, which is just down the road from the shelter. This was good to save for last, since it is open quite late—until 8 pm during the summer. Here I found myself descending underground once again, for the museum’s collection is below street level. Intentionally or not, the sun-less, cave-like interior of the museum adds to the evocative power of its exhibitions about early humans. I was in the right mindset to learn about stone tools and extinct bears. Even so, I did not expect to encounter such a fine museum. Somehow, I imagined that it would be mainly geared towards children; yet within minutes I was spellbound by the quality of the displays. It is superbly made.
Admittedly I was predisposed to be interested, since I studied archaeology in college and even tried my hand at making stone tools once. Even so, I think anyone can appreciate the scope of information and the skill in presentation to be found there. On display are hundreds of stone tools—choppers, knives, arrowheads—arranged chronologically, showing the increasing sophistication of human ancestors over time. There are also recreations of tools made from wood and antler (which normally do not survive the ages), accompanied by videos of people making and even using these tools. This was not all. There was a recreation of a shellfish midden, a refuse pile left by generations of ancient shellfish-eaters; there were fossils of extinct animals, many of them massive; there were stone megaliths covered with decorative carvings; and there were even some Roman artifacts. When I visited I was the only person there, and stayed until it closed. It was an enchanting experience.
Though this did not happen on the same day, for the sake of continuity I will mention my visit to the Hermitage of La Virgen del Mar. This is quite far from the city; I was only able to visit thanks to my aforementioned Santanderino, who kindly drove me there. The building of the hermitage itself is quite bare and basic. But its location, like that of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, is exquisite, standing atop an island (very close to shore) next to a rocky, windswept beach. It is a gorgeous, romantic place that preserves its peaceful, natural beauty, despite the constant trickle of tourists.
This fairly does it for my time in Santander. I was dividing my limited time—a single weekend—between this city and Altamira (which I will describe next), so I did not get to know Santander as well as I should have liked. Even so, I was left with fond memories. Both the city itself and its location on the shore make it one of the great cities of northern Spain, reminding me most nearly of La Coruña in Galicia—one of my favorite places in the country. The rugged coast, oceanic weather, attractive center, and cultural monuments make the city one more delightful stopping-place in the Spanish panorama. And as you will shortly see, Cantabria has much more to offer.
The cave paintings of Altamira are perhaps only behind those of Lascaux in renown. Luckily, the site of their discovery is quite close to Santander, making it an easy daytrip. In a car the trip is around half an hour. And there are fairly frequent buses (every two hours) that run from the city center to town nearest the caves, Santillana del Mar.
I arrived in this town on a Saturday morning, shivering with excitement. Ever since I saw Werner Herzog’s transfixing documentary on the caves of Lascaux—Cave of Forgotten Dreams—I have been fascinated by the artistic power of our early ancestors. As a child I wondered at the enormous antiquity of the artifacts from Egypt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet the span of time between us and the people who painted these caves is far vaster. That an image created from a human hand could survive so many years—that it could speak to us from an age when strange extinct animals roamed the earth, when the stars in the sky were shifted, when the climate was altered and cold winds blew down from nearby glaciers—and not only speak to us, but entrance us with its beauty—it seemed too miraculous to believe. And thus it seemed even more stupendous that I could, with my own eyes, witness this temporal miracle.
I should stop my melodrama to note at this point that I was not going to see the actual paintings. These are much too precious and delicate to be casually seen by the general public. The organization has a lottery that they hold on Fridays in the museum, to select five lucky people to visit the caves. Since I was visiting on a Saturday, this left me with scant hope. But after closing the caves to public visits in 2002, the authorities have constructed a replica (called the “neocueva,” or “neo-cave”) that can be visited freely. This is what I was going to see.
The bus dropped me off in the center of town. I had bought my ticket ahead, which had a timed entrance to see the neo-cave. (Because of restricted space, smallish groups are allowed in at staggered times.) My entrance was in less than an hour, so I had little time to spare. Without pausing to catch a glimpse of the town, I strode out into the countryside towards the hill of Altamira. Even through my anxiety and morbid determination, however, I could not help noticing that the countryside was absolutely lovely. Gentle rolling hills, green with grass, dotted with trees, crisscrossed with plots of farmland, spread out ahead of me. White mist clung to the distance, as black-and-white cows grazed before a lonely church; and to my right were the tiled roofs of Santillana del Mar. Spain has seemingly boundless reserves of beauty.
I arrived at the museum with 20 minutes to spare (of course). This was hardly a problem, since the neo-cave comprises only a part of the display. There are dioramas of ancient peoples, skulls of ancestral species, piles of stone tools, and smaller replicas of cave art. Not bad for three euros—a modest price which includes the neo-cave, too. I particularly liked the examples of shapes made on the cave wall by blowing pigment against a hand, thus creating a reverse hand-print. There is something elemental about this gesture, allowing us to shake hands with someone from a different epoch. Perhaps all culture is rooted in the attempt to cheat death—sometimes literally, as with weapons and medicine, and sometimes figuratively, as with art. These cave-dwellers lived short and difficult lives compared to us; but will we leave any art that survives half so long?
Finally it was time for me to visit the neo-cave. I joined a small group of waiting tourists, while a placid employee scanned our tickets. Finally, like the heavy gates to an ancient city, the doors of the neo-cave slid open. I could scarcely have been more excited if the caves had been real.
A single footpath leads down through the neo-cave, into the main chamber, and out again. Some introductory panels of information are posted along the way; and a glass screen projects a cave-dwelling family into the artificial cave—the Jetsons meet the Flintstones. All of this is got through in five minutes. The rest of the time is spent gazing up at the ceiling of the main chamber. Photos are not allowed, which is likely a good thing, since the combination of lighting, angle, and surface texture would make it difficult to capture the chamber. In any case, the paintings are reproductions anyway, so why reproduce them once over?
The main chamber consists of a roughly square space with a low, uneven ceiling, which has been covered with paintings. Most of these consist of hooved animals, most prominently bison. These are executed using charcoal and red ochre. The round bodies of the bison crowd around each other, sometimes overlapping, and conform to the bumpy, bulging surface of the cave. As a rough estimate, the average size of these figures is three feet across; and there must be several dozen individual figures. As is inevitable with prehistoric art, many mysteries remain as to the origin and function of these paintings. We know that they were completed during the last ice age, before the cave was sealed by a rockslide 13,000 years ago; but beyond that there is a wide range of possible dates. We may safely surmise that the bison were prey animals, and tentatively guess that these paintings were involved in some kind of ritual to ensure plentiful food. But we do not know if they were painted all at once—perhaps by a few brilliant painters—or over the course of generations, perhaps even used successively by distinct cultural groups. However we may guess, we do not know what these paintings meant to their creators. We cannot even rule out the possibility that they were made by neanderthals, not humans.
The neo-cave is lit up by discrete LED lights in the built into the floors, walls, and ceilings. It is tastefully done; but no electric light can replicate how these caves must have looked when seen by firelight. In the weak, quivering glow of the flames, these bison may have been terrifying apparitions, seeming to run and dance in the unsteady light. Given the location of these paintings and the light-sources available to people at the times, it seems unlikely that the creators saw them the way that we are inclined to: as works of visual art, to be contemplated for their great aesthetic beauty. But that does not mean that we are not free to view them this way. The bison are somehow both stylized and realistic. They represent the lumbering form of the animal—powerful, meaty, muscular—with relatively few, bold strokes, reducing the animals to their most essential features. Yet this does not render them to caricature, but turns them into elemental monsters, like fire or rain. Clearly these artists had carefully observed real bison, and fully understood the animals’ essential role in their survival.
After I emerged from the neo-cave, blinking and exhausted, I was left with that sense of empty purposelessness that accompanies the doing of any long-awaited thing. Now what? I strolled around the museum some more, but I had already had my fill of prehistory museums in Santander. Then the idea struck me to see if I could find the entrance of the cave.
This is very easy to do, for the cave stands within five minutes of the museum compound. You cannot get very close, since it is closed off with an ample fence (I bet vandals and thrill-seekers occasionally try to break in); and in any case, there is not much to see, just a little doorway covered with a barred gate. It was hard to believe that beyond that small portal lay one of the most remarkable finds in the history of art.
After being sealed by a rockslide around 13,000 years ago, the cave became a natural time capsule. Apparently the cave’s entrance had become revealed by the 19th century, since by then it was visited by locals. One of these locals was Marcellino Sanz de Sautuola, a well-to-do Spaniard who both happened to own the land and have an interest in archaeology—a fortunate coincidence. After being led into the cave by his young daughter and realizing the importance of the paintings, Sautuolo cooperated on the original publication announcing their existence. Sadly, academics dismissed his claim of the paintings’ great antiquity, and he died before the truth was realized—an unfortunate coincidence.
Now I was absolutely famished, so I descended the Altamira hill back to Santillana del Mar, once more passing through the delicious countryside. Contrary to what you might expect, Santillana del Mar is not actually on the sea, only somewhat near it (15 minutes by car). I had assumed that there was another Santillana somewhere in Spain, but I cannot find any, which leaves me wondering why they thought it necessary to add “del Mar” to their name. In any case, this pueblo is routinely included in lists of beautiful Spanish villages, and for good reason. Long before the Altamira caves were discovered, it was a stopping point on the Camino de Santiago, which meant that a fair amount of monied pilgrims travelled through these streets. The result is an extremely handsome village, well worth visiting even if you do not, for some insane reason, visit the Altamira site.
For lunch, I went to a restaurant whose name I unfortunately did not write down. It was one of the best meals I have had in Spain. I sat on a balcony overlooking some of the surrounding countryside, drinking an ice-cold red wine, with a brash, fruity flavor. Because I was alone, and had ordered the daily menu, they gave me a full bottle of wine all to myself (which I mercifully decided not to finish). For the main course I was served cocido montañés, the typical stew of Cantabria. Now, many regions of Spain have their own type of stew; and they are all broadly similar, consisting of beans and cured meat. This particular variety is made with white beans and collard greens, making it somewhat lighter than other cocidos. With wine, cocido, a salad, and a slice of cake in my belly, I waddled back to the bus stop to return to Santander.
I left Cantabria thinking of the mysterious power of shelter. The cramped church underneath the cathedral, the air raid shelter underneath the street, and the caves of Altamira—all of them created a similar emotional atmosphere, at once safe and unsafe. These spaces protect us from what is outside; and yet the claustrophobic darkness within is unnerving, and even frightening. A Jungian might say the visitor delves into a deeper layer of the unconscious, while a Freudian might be content by pointing out that caves remind us of a mother’s womb. Leaving psychoanalyzing to one side, I will only point out that, thousands of years ago, our ancestors were driven into caves to hide from the elements and to make contact with spirits; and now, thousands of years later, we are making caves for the same reasons—to hide and to pray.
[See real cave entrance, story of their discovery, eating in town
Marie-Henri Bayle, who is better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal, visited Florence in the year 1817. He reports being so strongly affected by the art and the tombs that he became dizzy and nearly fainted. The term ‘Stendhal syndrome’ has since entered popular parlance, referring to lightheadedness induced by powerful art. If any city in the world is beautiful enough to endanger one’s health, it is most certainly Florence.
I imagine Stendhal riding through the Italian countryside on horseback, or being pulled in a leisurely carriage, giving the author time to observe the city’s surroundings and to savor its distant profile as he came near. The modern traveler seldom has such an experience. My first sight of the city was of the Firenze train station, whose cavernous interior, supported by metal girders and filled with tourists and ticket machines, was just as bland and anonymous as any other train station. We pay a price for the convenience of rapid transport.
Exactly 200 years after Stendhal fainted in Florence, I arrived early in the morning, having come from Pisa, where I was staying. Though it is admittedly inconvenient to take a train into Florence, I recommend this procedure to anyone traveling on a budget. Flights to and from Pisa are very cheap; and Pisa itself is far more economical than Florence. The trains run frequently between the two cities, and the ride takes around an hour. For my part I appreciated the chance to glimpse the Tuscan countryside through the train’s window: a bucolic tapestry of rolling green and brown hills, patched with farms and dotted with towns.
One day is all I had in Florence—absurd, I know—so I had to use my time effectively. My first stop was the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, the museum famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s David. It does not look like very much from the street, so I almost missed the entrance. I was afraid that, due to the statue’s fame, I would have to wait in a dreadful line to get in; but perhaps because it was still early in the day, I was inside in minutes.
Once inside, a long hall opens up to reveal, standing at the far end under a brightly lit dome, the iconic form of the Biblical hero. My first reaction was surprise at its size. I had imagined the statue to be slightly larger than life-sized; but it is fully 17 feet tall—roughly three times larger than life—and stands on a pedestal which adds to its grandeur. I tried to examine some of the other paintings and statues on display, thinking it would be wise to leave David to the end. But I was so entranced by the statue that I soon gave up and went straight over to admire it.
I was reminded of a trip I had taken when I was a teenager to see the Statue of Liberty. Since I had seen the iconic statue thousands of times in photographs, I assumed that it would be underwhelming to see it up close. Yet I found that, once confronted with the behemoth, I could not turn away; I was drawn to it as with a magnetic force. Michelangelo’s David had the exact same effect on me. My eyes were fixed to the statue. Gazing at it, I felt my body tingle with a strange, excited energy. All the sleepiness of the morning was swept away; all my travel anxieties were quieted. The statue filled up my consciousness with a thrilling sensation of heroic beauty. Its effect is so powerful that it seems beguilingly new when seen in person, despite the overexposure it suffers in popular media.
Even more than other iconic works of art, Michelangelo’s David brings to mind the epithet “perfect.” The face, stance, and body are so convincingly conceived that we cannot imagine Michelangelo making any other choice. A well-known story, related by Giorgio Vasari (the famous art historian), tells how the politician Soderini criticized the statue’s nose for being too fat:
Michelangelo, noticing that the Gonfalonier was standing beneath the giant and that from where he was he could not see the figure properly, to satisfy him climbed on the scaffolding by the shoulders, seized hold of a chisel in his left hand, together with some of the marble dust lying on the planks, and as he tapped lightly with the chisel let the dust fall little by little, without altering anything. Then he looked down at the Gonfalonier, who had stopped to watch, and said: ‘Now look at it.’
To which Soderini replied: “Ah, that’s much better.”
This story is delightful in part because it captures how final, inalterable, and complete is the statue’s form—so perfect that any perceived flaw must be a mistaken apprehension. However, close inspection does reveal some deviations. The statue’s hands are noticeably too big, most obviously the right hand—which reminds me of a puppy who has yet to grow into his paws. The figure’s head is also, you will notice, too big for its slender body. Indeed if we saw a flesh-and-blood man who matched this statue’s form, I think we would be more shocked than impressed.
It is also worth noting that the statue is not exactly a convincing representation of the Biblical David. For one, the sling is so de-emphasized—just a barely visible line going over his shoulder and behind his back—that it is easy to overlook completely. And why would David be going into battle completely nude? Besides, it seems downright incongruous to make David, the famous giant-slayer, into a giant himself—a towering muscular warrior. Earlier representations of David, such as Donatello’s, had portrayed him as an impish boy; Michelangelo deviates from this tradition so far in his statue that the story is almost entirely forgotten as we gaze upon the work.
Yet, like any work of great art, what would normally be defects become, in Michelangelo’s statue, perfections. Nobody sees that glorious right hand, massively curling around the minuscule sling, and wishes it were otherwise. Nobody sees the towering muscular figure and wishes it were reduced to the stature of a boy. Nobody, in short, wishes the statue were anything other than what it is.
And yet, what is it? And why does this statue make such a deep, lasting impression? It is tempting to consider the David as something like the Venus de Milo, an ideal representation of human form. Yet, as I have pointed out, the statue is not anatomically correct—and quite intentionally so, since Michelangelo was not the man to make such an elementary mistake. And in any case the David’s muscular body, though impressive, does not differentiate it from one hundred other idealized nudes.
The viewer’s eyes can seldom pause on the statue’s torso, however fine, but inevitably stray up to the statue’s face. There we encounter something wholly unlike the serene, placid, empty expression of ancient statues. Rather, we find a face full of character—confident, defiant, supreme. The anonymous perfection of the ancient world—statues which unite the qualities of many into one ideal being—has become the individual perfection of the High Renaissance, the completeness of the single man.
As we are told in countless books, the Renaissance was a time when the mind of Europe shook off its sense of being powerless in the hands of divine forces, and developed a self-confidence in the power of humanity—and more than humanity in general, confidence in a few, select, great men. The ultimate expression of this occurred during the High Renaissance, when eminent artists were not merely regarded as brilliant craftsmen or genius creators, but in the words of Giorgio Vasari “mortal gods,” who strode about the earth like colossi, reshaping unformed chaos into perfect form like God Himself.
Everything about the David bespeaks this sense of power. His stance is the perfect combination of stability and mobility. He is rooted to the spot, and yet his gentle lean shows how easily he may shift himself. (This stance, which looks so natural in the statue, is actually quite difficult to reproduce—I’ve tried.) Even more than his muscles or his stance, however, the statue’s oversized head and hands are what give it the sense of force. For it is exactly these organs—giving us our ability to conceive the world differently, and to manipulate it into our prefered forms—that makes humans special, which makes us into “mortal gods.” The David is thus a symbol of humanity’s ability to subjugate matter to mind, to dominate the world with our will.
It is humbling to learn that Michelangelo completed this statue while he was still in his twenties. The original commission was for a statue to adorn the top of Florence’s cathedral; but since the work is obviously much too big to be hoisted up so high (it took three days to move it just a few blocks), a committee had to decide on a new location. Eventually it was agreed to put it in the plaza outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it stayed until 1873, when it was finally moved into this museum in order to protect it from the elements. A copy now resides in the square—which, though apparently identical, fails completely to make the same impression as the original. Why this should be so is not something I can easily explain. The slight deviations in form and color are apparently enough to totally rid the statue of its mesmerizing majesty. A master’s touch is not so easily replicated.
Though there is nothing to compare to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Galleria dell’Accademia has a fine collection that is worth visiting on its own merits. Of particular note are the series of Prisoners originally sculpted by Michelangelo for Pope Julius II’s unrealized tomb. The most famous of these unfinished sculptures, the Dying Slave, is one of the prizes of the Louvre.
The pieces in Florence are, by comparison, rough and unformed—mere suggestions in stone. And yet I think they possess an eloquence all their own, providing snapshots of Michelangelo midway in the process of creation. The human forms emerge from the stone—the twisted bodies at once languid and dolorous, as if suffering from a nightmare. And like a dream they are themselves confused and only half-real. When the visitor compares these rough limbs, trapped in marble, to the smooth skin and living frame of the David, she can sense the tremendous act of imagination required to create these works—seeing the finished whole buried within unformed chaos, choosing the true alternative from infinite possibilities.
To me, this is the great theme in all of Michelangelo’s works: the act of creation which can make us into “mortal gods.” It was he, after all, who gave us the most poignant image of divine creation in Western art, on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.
The rest of the museum has some excellent paintings from the late gothic and the early Renaissance, but what most sticks out in my memory is the room full of sculptures by Lorenzo Bartolini. These are all plaster works, and range from busts, to funerary monuments, to friezes, to full-size sculptures. Though their technical execution is impressive, what impresses more is simply the proliferation of works on display—every wall and surface is covered, and there is hardly space for the visitor to walk through. I must admit, however, that the final effect of all this is of a frigid academic correctness.
Now it was time to see something of the city. Florence has a well-preserved historic center and maintains the look and feel of a medieval city. The narrow streets are not, however, so chaotic and claustrophobic as other old European cities I have visited, such as Toledo, making it a very pleasant city to stroll about in. But I only had a day—less, in fact—so I was in that rushed, anxious state of mind of having far too much to do in too little time. Aimless strolls and meditative people-watching were beyond me.
Soon I arrived in the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the city. This iconic square is presided over by the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s city hall. This building has been the capital building of the city for hundreds of years, and has been called various names over its history, mostly corresponding to which political power was ascendant—Popolo, Priori, Signoria, Ducale. Nowadays it is simply called “old”—perhaps to acknowledging the power of time, which rules us all. It is an extremely attractive structure. The brown, square body of the building flowers into a decorative battlement, whose crenellated walls hang out over the edge. Stretching high up above is the clock tower, which mimics the main structure in its blooming parapet. Its slender form reminds me of a swan’s neck, and gives the whole building a lovely gentleness.
This building has been at the center of Florence’s history—and all its many factional disputes and power squabbles—for hundreds of years. It was also the scene of one of the most famous art contests in history. Leonardo da Vinci and the much younger Michelangelo Buonarroti (who disliked one another) were both commissioned to paint vast panoramas of battles from Florentine history. Both of them prepared full-sized preliminary cartoons that were hung in the Palazzo Vecchio for all to see and admire. Giorgio Vasari and Benvenuto Cellini both singled out these works for their surpassing excellence, the latter even saying: “So long as they remained intact, they were the school of the world.” Unfortunately, neither of these works survived: Leonardo’s shoddy paint deteriorated, and Michelangelo never even got around to painting it. The only survivors are some partial copies made while they were extant. Nowadays the spot they would have occupied is covered by paintings by Vasari, which few people care for.
The inside of the building is, of course, richly decorated; and it is one of my many regrets of my visit that I did not have time to go inside. But I was on the clock, and had to prioritize.
At one end of this square is one of the many treasures of Florence: the Loggia del Lanzi. This is a covered area, open to the public, filled with sculptures—a miniature, open-air museum. Two of my favorite sculptures on display were created by Jean Boulogne, a Flemish mannerist sculptor better known by his Italianized name Giambologna. One of these depicts Hercules fighting the centaur Nessus. The hero has the beast by the hair, and is bending its back painfully over his knee. The writhing, almost insect-like form of the centaur—prostrate and helpless—contrasts wonderfully with Hercules, who bends his body like a Roman athlete in preparation to strike the fatal blow.
Even more impressive is Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. The name hardly explains the action of the work (who is the man crouching underneath?), which is to be expected, since Giambologna originally crafted this as a demonstration of his prowess and only came up with the name afterwards. It is a sculptural tour de force, with no true front or back, no beginning or end. The writhing bodies twist upwards, revealing themselves in different aspects as the viewer walks around the work. The final effect is brilliant—pressing upwards with a desperate energy, seeming to stretch towards the sky. The work has proven very popular and is much reproduced; just recently I spotted a copy in the gardens of Versailles.
Yet the undoubted star of this group of sculptures is Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus. Now, I admit I am prone to being partial to Cellini, since I read and loved his autobiography (see link above). In that book he describes the strain of constructing the statue:
The labour was more than I could stand; yet I forced myself to strain every nerve and muscle. To increase my anxieties, the workshop took fire, and we were afraid lest the roof should fall upon our heads; while, from the garden, such a storm of wind and rain kept blowing in, that it perceptibly cooled the furnace. … Battling thus with these untoward circumstances for several hours, and exerting myself beyond even the measure of my powerful constitution, and a sudden fever, of the utmost possible intensity, attacked me.
This was not the end of Cellini’s troubles, however. He was using a lost-wax technique to cast the statue out of one solid piece of bronze—something that was extremely novel and risky in Cellini’s age. After retiring to bed to recover from his sudden fever, and tossing and turning there for two hours, he was called back by an assistant who told him that the bronze was “caking,” which meant that the fire wasn’t hot enough to melt it. Cellini solved this by adding oak logs to the fire. But then the fire got so hot that the furnace exploded, forcing Cellini to pour the molten metal into the cast before it boiled out. But he found that the high temperature had burnt away the alloyed metals, thus preventing the bronze from pouring properly. He solved this crisis by throwing in his pewter dishes and cutlery, whose addition gave the metal the correct consistency. From this chaos his Perseus was born.
Cellini was a goldsmith, not a sculptor, by training; and his background helps to explain the peculiar excellence of his sculpture. The statue does not awe with its monumental grandeur, but rather delights in its fine detail. The base of the sculpture (which he designed as well) is as delicate as Cellini’s salt cellar in Vienna, and forms an integral part of the work. The statue itself is no less detailed: the viewer can almost smell the entrails dripping from Medusa’s severed head. This grisly detail is matched by the limp, crumpled, and beheaded body of Medusa laying underfoot; and all this combines to make Cellini’s Perseus a much more strikingly violent statue than we are accustomed to seeing. The realism makes the striding Greek hero, with his winged sandals and helmet, look both glorious and menacing; he has done a great deed but has also bathed himself in blood.
The sculptures in the Loggia del Lanzi are not the only ones to be seen in the Piazza. I have already mentioned the copy of Michelangelo’s David, which stands in the original position. Nearby is Baccio Bandinelli’s statue of Hercules and Cacus. The victorious hero holds the fire-breathing monster by the hair, his other hand clutching a club. What most sticks out for comment is Hercules’ gigantic frame; every inch of his skin is rippling with bulging muscles. The statue was famously mocked by Cellini (who was a rival for patronage and so not exactly a fair judge), who said “his sprawling shoulders are like the two pommels of an ass’ pack-saddle; his breasts and his the muscles of the body are not portrayed from a man, but from a big sack full of melons set upright against the wall.” And indeed, his skin does look unnaturally bumpy—especially his back. But the final impression is effective: conveying invincible physical strength.
Another prominent feature of the Piazza is the Fountain of Neptune, designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati. Unfortunately, however, I was unable to see the fountain, since it is undergoing restoration. It has been the repeated target of vandalism, and so nowadays it is covered by a thick scaffolding. Even Florence cannot be perfect.
Now it was time to go to Florence’s other famous square: the Piazza del Duomo, where the visitor can find Florence’s iconic cathedral. (Though the word “cattedrale” exists in Italian, the word “duomo” is commonly used to designate cathedrals. I had assumed it meant “dome” but I was wrong; it derives from the Latin word for house, “domus,” as in “house of God.”)
If any building in Florence is capable of inducing Stendhal syndrome, it is this. The cathedral is magnificent. The exterior of the building is a sublime work of abstract decoration, constructed using differently colored marble from various parts of Italy. It took centuries to complete, and must have cost a fortune. When combined with its decorative paintings, statues, and friezes, along with its monumental size and noble form, its harmonious geometrical arrangement, the impression is similar to that created by the interior of St. Peter’s in the Vatican—and, indeed, many Italian churches—an overwhelming sense of aesthetic pleasure, delightful on every scale. There is a wonderful brilliance to Italian architecture that, even if it does not reach the profundity of the gothic, compensates with its pure visual joy.
I waited on line to take a walk inside, which did not take half so long as I expected. Compared with its glorious façade, the inside is something of a let down, being surprisingly unadorned. There is, however, a famous painting of Dante by Domenico di Michelino, in which the Florentine poet stands before the city of Florence and gestures towards Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven in the background. This is but one of the many tributes that Florence paid to Dante posthumously, after its infamous banishment of the poet during his lifetime. There is also a 24-hour clock decorated by Paolo Uccello, whom Vasari criticizes in his Lives for dedicating his time to useless technical problems of perspective. Uccello was also responsible for the funerary monument to Sir John Hawkwood, an English mercenary. Yet the most memorable work is the decoration on the inside of the massive dome, completed by none other than Giorgio Vasari (who had help), depicting the Last Judgment. From the ground the viewer cannot see the details very well, but the various figures combine to make a harmonious image.
This dome is, of course, the most famous element of the cathedral. At the time it was built, it was an engineering feat without parallel. Its architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, studied several surviving Roman domes, such as the Pantheon, in order to conceive it; but he was at an engineering disadvantage to the Romans, since the formula for concrete had long been lost. Thus Brunelleschi was forced to use brick as a substitute lightweight material. His designs were so radical at the time that he had a difficult time getting the authorities to believe him. For one thing, since he realized that scaffolding would require an exorbitant amount of wood, he created a design that could be constructed without it. To his contemporaries, this sounded like madness. When he was asked to reveal his plans (for he had many rivals, and had to compete to gain creative control) Brunelleschi was unwilling to do so, and instead responded with a challenge:
… he suggested to the other masters, both the foreigners and the Florentines, that whoever could make an egg stand on end on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since this would show how intelligent each man was. So an egg was procured and the artists in turn tried to make it stand on end; but they were all unsuccessful. Then Filippo was asked to do so, and taking the egg graciously he cracked its bottom on the marble and made it stay upright. The others complained that they could have done as much, and laughing at them Filippo retorted that they would also have known how to vault the cupola if they had seen his model or plans.
This was not the end of his troubles, however. The commission, responding to a rival faction, soon appointed the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti to be Brunelleschi’s partner. Yet Ghiberti had little idea of the architect’s plans and no relevant experience. This greatly irked Brunelleschi, since he would have to share the glory with somebody who contributed nothing. Thus to reveal his partner’s incompetence, Brunelleschi pretended to be sick and unable to work; and since Ghiberti could not direct the work himself, the project came to a standstill. This made it sufficiently obvious that Brunelleschi was the driving force behind the construction.
The final result is glorious. Octagonal rather than circular, the dome has two shells, inner and outer, and is crowned with a lantern that is accessible via a stairwell in the dome itself. I admit that I am baffled by how Brunelleschi accomplished this feat. Without a wooden support, how did he keep the bricks in place as the mortar dried? It seems impossible. And how did he transport the bricks up so high without scaffolding? In addition to his architectural innovations, Brunelleschi also created influential contraptions to hoist and move the building materials; and it is possible that the young Leonardo da Vinci saw some of these, which would have obviously appealed to the young omnivore.
Nowadays a statue of Brunelleschi, by Luigi Pampaloni, stands in the plaza, a compass one hand and his plans in the other, the architect gazing anxiously up towards his creation. He was, without doubt, one of the great geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, and his dome remains one of history’s great examples of the combination of science and art.
Standing next door to the cathedral is its bell-tower, called Giotto’s Campanile since it owes its gothic design to that iconic Italian painter. Its colorful marble exterior, covered in decorations and sculptures, matches that of the cathedral; yet its vertical design is more obviously gothic in origin. Facing the cathedral is Florence’s baptistery, the Baptistery of St. John, where none other than Dante was dunked into the faith. Having just seen the sparse baptistery in Pisa, I did not feel inclined to go inside; but now I regret it, seeing that the building’s roof is decorated with a beautiful Romanesque mosaic.
The most famous element of the baptistery is, however, on the outside: the Gates of Paradise. These are monumental doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti, aforementioned as Brunelleschi’s unwelcome partner. He may have not been much of an architect, but he was a brilliant sculptor. He received the commision to make the doors after winning a famous competition, in which all the best Florentine artists participated. Here is the story from Vasari’s Life:
Altogether there were thirty-four judges, each one an expert in his particular art, and although opinions varied considerably, some of them liking the style of one man and some that of another, they all agreed none the less that Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo di Bartoluccio had composed and finished their scenes better, and with a richer variety of figures, than had Donatello, even though his also showed great qualities of design. The figures in Jacopo della Querci’a scene were good, but they lacked delicacy despite all the care and design that had gone into them. Francesco di Valdambrino had made some good heads and his scene was well finished, but the composition was confused. …. Only the scene which Lorenzo offered as a specimen … was absolutely perfect in every detail: the whole work had design, and was very well composed; the finely posed figures showed the individuality of his style and were made with elegance and grace; and the scene was finished so carefully that it seemed to have been breathed into shape rather than cast with iron tools.
(Donatello did not actually participate in this competition, as he was too young at the time.)
The original doors have been moved into the Duomo Museum for restoration. What stands in the baptistery now is a modern copy. Nevertheless it is a stunning work, shimmering with gold and covered with detail. Upon seeing the exuberance of microscopic detail and delicate craftsmanship, one is not surprised to learn that the door took over twenty years to make. It was, however, somewhat difficult to appreciate, since it is removed with a fence and is usually surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Ideally one would be able to get close and examine the door panel by panel. Its name was given it by Michelangelo several decades later, who, when asked his opinion of the doors, said they were fit to serve as the entrance to paradise; and Vasari seconded the opinion by calling the doors “perfect in every particular, the finest masterpiece in the world.”
Now it was time for another museum. I was saving the Uffizi for last, since it is open relatively late (until 18:50). Instead I went to the Bargello. This is an excellent art museum (if it were in any other city it would be more well-known) housed in the oldest civic building still standing in Florence. It is a somewhat severe structure, with high crenellated walls that make it look like a fortress, which was once occupied by the chief of police (“bargello” in Italian) and used for executions. Nowadays its medieval courtyard and expansive rooms are used for far more pacific purposes.
I had little expectations from this museum, so I was delighted to find several masterpieces that I had heard of before. One of these was yet another work by Michelangelo, his Bacchus. The statue was apparently made to emulate classical works; and for my part Michelangelo accomplished his task all too well. Though expertly made, with a convincingly off-center pose suggestive of drunkenness, the statue’s final effect is somewhat unpleasant. This is due, I think, to the antique face, which is stiff and inexpressive—hardly even human. Nevertheless I think it is astounding the degree to which the young artist recaptured the spirit of Greco-Roman art, especially considering how far beyond it Michelangelo could go.
Also on display are the panels used to judge of the competition for the baptistery doors. The two finalists, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, both created a panel depicting the sacrifice of Isaac. It is fascinating to see how these two masters interpreted this traditional scene differently. For my part I can see why Ghiberti’s work was preferred. His figures are more supple and dramatic than Brunelleschi’s, whose seem stiff and unnatural by comparison. Another gem is Giambologna’s Mercury, one more of his much-copied figures. The extraordinary lightness, balance, and grace of the statue does justice to the fleet-footed messenger god.
Cellini is also represented here, for the museum has a small bronze model for his statue of Perseus, as well as the original base of the statue (I believe the one outside is a copy). I was even more delighted to find Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s bust of Costanza Bonarelli, the wife of one of his rich patrons, a woman with whom the artist fell madly in love. The intensity of his passion is easily visible in the work, which portrays his beloved with electrifying realness, his muse wearing an expression somewhere between ferocity and tenderness—the strange space is where all love affairs reside.
Yet my favorite pieces were found in the large hall on the first floor (second floor for Americans). Here can be found some of Donatello’s greatest works. Two statues of David are on display, an early one in marble and a later one in bronze. Of these the second is by far the greater. This was the first free-standing bronze statue made in Europe since antiquity. Here the Hebrew king is depicted nude, in a pose that can only described as sassy. Indeed, as many have remarked, the young warrior is astonishingly feminine, which have prompted some commentators to see it as intentionally homoerotic. Certainly, the solemnities of religion or the glories of battle do not come to mind when viewing the statue. One is instead drawn in by the beauty of the androgynous figure—his smooth skin, relaxed pose, and oversized hat and sword. The severed head of Goliath lying at his feet seems like an afterthought. Less beguilingly ambiguous, yet just as masterful, is the artist’s St. George, whose heroic pose and gaze prefigure the power displayed in Michelangelo’s David.
In this same room is yet another famous statue of David in Florence, this one by Andrea del Verrocchio. Here David is portrayed as even younger than in Donatello’s version, a boy in his early teens. The sensuality of Donatello is entirely absent from this version; yet Verrocchio maintains the impish defiance of the lithe figure. The boy is very handsome, which has caused some to speculate that Verrocchio modeled the work after his young pupil Leonardo da Vinci, known for his physical beauty. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, the statue is valuable for revealing the development of the Italian Renaissance. In Donatello’s we see the triumph of humanism and realism, in Verrocchio’s (made a generation later) the dominance of refinement, elegance, and delicacy, and in Michelangelo’s (made another generation later) the monumental grandeur of the High Renaissance.
Indeed, I would say that the Bargello’s collection, aside from its intrinsic worth, is valuable for its ability to reveal the development of Florence’s artists, both historically and biographically. It is one of the many jewels of the city.
But now I could not put it off any longer. I had to go see the greatest art museum on the Italian peninsula: the Uffizi.
The building of the Uffizi Gallery was designed by none other than Giorgio Vasari, who has already featured so prominently in this post. While Vasari may not have excelled in any field, he was certainly adept in many. The original idea was to make new government offices (hence the name “Uffizi”), but from the start (during the 16th century) the Medici rulers used at least a part of the building to display some of their massive art collection. As such, the Uffizi is one of the oldest museums in Europe, though it did not officially become a public museum until the 18th century, when the Medici family donated their art collection to the people of Florence. Nowadays it is the most-visited museum in Italy, and for good reason.
Vasari built a loggia, or an open courtyard, into his design; and this is now where visitors line up to buy a ticket, surrounded by street vendors selling their watercolors, posters, and other art paraphernalia, and heavily-armed military men look around with menaces and machine guns. In the 19th century sculptors added statues of famous Florentines into the walls of this courtyard; and the effect is a powerful reminder of how crucial this small city—with a population of just 70,000 during the High Renaissance—has been to Europe’s cultural history. Aside from great artists such as Benvenuto Cellini, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, Florence has given us great writers such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and great thinkers like Machiavelli and Galileo. Imagine how different European history would be without these men! If brilliance were just the product of genetic chance, then it would boggle the mind that so many geniuses were born at around the same place and time; it seems that Florentine culture contained a vital spark that set these minds afire. If only we could figure out how to reproduce this cultural vitality.
After examining the eminent Florentines, I took my place on the line. I was sandwiched between American families. In general I dislike overhearing conversations. For every interesting tidbit there are nine stupidities. It is not that people are so foolish—at least, not so many of them—but that, when speaking freely among friends, almost everyone utters banalities, absurdities, or frankly foolish things at an alarming rate. The mind, when unchecked, generates a near-constant stream of nonsense. That is just the way we are built. This is why I so appreciate traveling alone in a foreign country. Without other people around to provoke me, and when all the ambient conversation is unintelligible, my mind calms down into a blank silence. Then, I can at least pretend that I am not an average dullard.
But, as I said, I was sandwiched between two American families; so that despite my earphones in and an audiobook playing (it was Bleak House) I could not help overhearing some of what was said. The majority was the usual sort of bickering and complaining that goes on during any family vacation—impatient whining, microscopic arguments, and so on. But at some point the families noticed each other, and started up a conversation, I suppose to pass the time as the line slowly inched forward. I learned that one group was from Tennessee, the other from Texas, and both had the accent to prove it. I remember hearing one of them say, “Ah, ya’ll are southerners, too. Ya’ll get it. Those Northerners look down on us.” And I must admit that it is true, at least as far as New Yorkers are concerned: we are very sure of our cultural superiority. Living in Europe has not helped to erase this tendency in myself.
Finally, after much waiting and more complaining from the Americans—the anxious impatience that people display is what really makes waiting in lines terrible—I entered the iconic gallery.
One of the Uffizi’s best qualities is its layout. A single, unbroken path can take the visitor from the start of the gallery to its end, in a satisfying chronological sequence. This, by the way, is one of the primary disadvantages of enormous collections such as the Louvre or the Metropolitan: the visitor must wander around, double back, scan a map; and even after all that, there is a very good chance of missing something. Not so in the Uffizi. An ornate hallway leads along the interior of the building—overlooking the aforementioned courtyard—filled with busts and sculptures. Leading outwards from the hallways are a series of rooms filled with paintings, giving the visitor a panoramic view of the Renaissance.
As always with museums, I am at serious risk of losing myself in descriptions of artworks, swelling this post beyond its already bloated proportions. To begin, I will only mention a few exemplary works. There is work by that celebrated founder of the Renaissance, Giotto: The Madonna Enthroned. At a glance it is clear that Giotto was still very much working within the gothic tradition; yet the symmetrical composition, realistic drapery of the clothing, and voluminous bodies show that Giotto had pushed art towards realism. This is especially apparent if we compare Giotto’s work with that of his (reputed) master, Cimabue, who also has a painting of the enthroned Virgin on display. Although Cimabue’s is excellent in its own way, it certainly seems stiff and stylized next to Giotto.
The Uffizi also has Gentile de Fabrio’s famous Adoration of the Magi, one of the high points of gothic art. It is a busy composition, with a multitude of figures arranged without respect for perspective. A further departure from naturalism are the costumes, which are plainly of the Renaissance and not of the ancient near east. Nevertheless it is a beautiful work—harmoniously arranged and full of tantalizing detail.
Skipping ahead a few centuries, the Uffizi also has the most iconic work of the mannerist period: Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck. The title more or less says it all. The painting seems to break, and very deliberately, all of the strictures of Renaissance art. The titular Virgin is flagrantly misproportioned: as in a gothic work, she is notably taller than everyone who surrounds her, and of course her neck is swan-like in its extension. Likewise, the infant Jesus appears massive; and in his sprawled pose on the Virgin’s lap, I cannot help thinking that the poor babe has had too much to drink. The work is glaringly unsymmetrical, with all the attendant angels crammed to one side; on the other, a prophet holding a scroll appears so ludicrously tiny that we fear the Madonna may squash him underfoot. For my part I think it is a beautiful painting, although it completely fails to evoke anything resembling religious sentiments.
Caravaggio also has some notable works on display. One is his imagined portrait of Bacchus, who reclines in a white robe, appropriately surrounded by grapes and wine. The final effect is not of classical grace, however, as Caravaggio’s realism transforms the god into a smug and self-satisfied boy. There is also a painting of Medusa’s severed head by the painter, which quite rivals Cellini for ghastliness. His most powerful work, however, must be his Sacrifice of Isaac. As is often remarked, Caravaggio had a genius for turning Biblical scenes—represented in highly stylized images for centuries—into strikingly realistic works. The detail that most distinguished this painting is Isaac’s face, distorted with fear and desolation—exactly how one would imagine a son to feel who was about to be killed by his own father.
The Uffizi also has an impressive collection of works from artists across the seas and beyond the alps. There are paintings by the Spanish triumvirate, El Greco, Goya, and Velazquez (an excellent self-portrait). Dürer, van Dyck, van der Weyden, and Rembrandt are also in attendance. I should also not neglect to mention some of the wonderful statues on display. In one room the sons and daughters of Niobe are displayed, all distressed and in agony due to Artemis and Apollo’s arrows. (Niobe boasted that she was superior to the goddess Leto, because she had more sons and daughters, and accordingly suffered divine punishment.) There are busts of famous Romans, such as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. One niche contains a finely sculpted wild boar, of ancient date. Another pair of statues depict a mythological figure (Prometheus?) bound and hanging by his hands, no doubt suffering divine justice, which was very harsh back in those days.
I go on and on, and have not yet gotten to the stars of the Renaissance. Though not a Florentine, Raphael de Urbino is welcomed into the collection with his Madonna of the Goldfinch. As in many Raphael works, a very pretty Madonna sits in a lush field, while the infant Jesus and John the Baptist play at her knees (this time, cradling a goldfinch). The cool colors and symmetrical composition create the typical Raphael effect: a soothing, delightful harmony. There is also a version of Raphael’s iconic portrait of Julius II; long believe to be the original, nowadays that title is given to a version in the National Gallery, London.
Never one to be shown up, Michelangelo also contributes a version of the holy family, the Doni Tondo. This is actually the only finished and mature panel painting by that master which survives. (Two lesser works are kept at the aforementioned National Gallery.) The colors are extremely vibrant and bright, which is partially due to Michelangelo’s voluminous style, using stark contrasts in color to create a statuesque effect. As is often remarked, the great artist was first and foremost a sculptor, and his mature paintings look like an attempt to create sculptures in pigment. While I love the monumental grandeur of the painting, I must admit that I miss the bucolic sweetness of Raphael; and the nude figures in the background (which scholars have struggled to explain) only make matters worse. Michelangelo was not an artist for small scales.
I have cheated somewhat by viewing the gallery out of order, so as to discuss its two most paintings last: Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera. They are both in the same room, surrounded by other works by the Florentine master.
The Birth of Venus is just as stunning in person as I expected it to be. Few images in the history of Western art are comparably famous. We have seen it so many times that the painting has become an integral part of our visual culture. And yet, when you examine the painting, you will see that it is odd in several respects. First, like Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Venus is conspicuously misproportioned: her long neck and sloping shoulders are even reminiscent of Parmigianino’s swan-like Madonna. Besides this, her stance, so apparently relaxed, would be impossible for a real person to hold. Noting these deviations reminds us that it is partly the effect of familiarity that we accept these images as “realistic” depictions of ideal beauty. We are so used to the image of David and Venus that our brains do not even scrutinize them.
Another oddity is that Botticelli obscures the narrative of the painting through the arrangement of his figures. Venus is supposed to be blown from the sea to the shore, where the hora (a minor goddess) is waiting to robe her. Yet all the figures are on the same, two-dimensional plane; and Venus’s gaze (as well as her conch shell) is unnaturally oriented perpendicularly towards the viewer rather than towards her destination. Indeed, the longer the painting is gazed at, the further from reality it appears. The female companion of the wind god, Zephyr, is knotted around his body in an impossible posture; the hora’s feet are levitating off the ground; and a consistent light source is difficult to identify. This is not the stereotypical realism of the Renaissance.
The paintings irrealism may partly be explained by noting Botticelli’s classical sources. He based the pose of Venus on an ancient Roman copy of a classical Greek statue, of Venus modestly covering herself—an idealized depiction of the female form. Botticelli may also have seen Greek vase paintings, which would explain the two-dimensional orientation of this work, as well as its unnatural orientation. Yet to these ancient influences Botticelli combines the emotional frankness of gothic paintings with the technical sophistication of the Renaissance. The result is a work so original that it can hardly be grasped on its own terms.
The final result is supremely convincing: the cool blues contrasting with the warm greens, the symmetrical composition of the zephyr and the mona, and the supreme beauty of the newly-born Venus. For my part, no image of the divine feminine is more convincing than Botticelli’s Venus—her graceful face, lithely bending body, flowing hair, playful modesty, and knowing smile. All the statues of Venus that have survived from antiquity seem like petrified dolls in comparison. The more I look at the painting, the more enchanting I find it. Botticelli achieves something quite unlike what we expect from the Renaissance—a deeply otherworldly work, symbolizing the harmonies of the natural world, the fertility of nature, and the profound mystery of creation.
The Birth of Venus, though daringly innovative, does not present a great challenge to the would-be art historian. But Botticelli’s other masterpiece certainly does: Primavera. This is another visually arresting work, although it does lack something of the triumphant harmony of The Birth. Yet it makes up for this with its mystery; for nobody seems quite sure what Botticelli was trying to represent.
Eight figures stand in an orange grove. Clearly identifiable are the Three Graces dancing in a circle. Beside them, Mercury (wearing his winged sandals) is poking at a cloud, looking rather intrigued. In the center is a woman normally identified as Venus (though I don’t know why); and above her Cupid, blindfolded, aims his little bow, apparently at the Three Graces (which does not make good mythological sense). To the right of Venus is the personification of Spring, dressed in a floral dress, busy gathering flowers. Here we instantly recognize the enchanting face of Venus from The Birth. To her right, a woman is being abducted by a flying man: This latter is the god of wind, zephyr (also in The Birth, although here he is blue); and the pursued woman is Clovis, a nymph whom he carries off and marries, which magically transforms her into the goddess of Spring. This suggests that the painting should be seen as a narrative from right to left, with the abduction immediately leading to Spring, at Clovis’ left. But the story falls apart from there.
As in The Birth, here all the figures more or less occupy the same two-dimensional plane. Admittedly, Venus is higher up on the panel, which would normally indicate depth; but this is disrupted by Venus’ size—she is, if anything, bigger than the other figures. Botticelli had a genius for creating beautiful faces—classical in their symmetry, and yet possessing a sweet simplicity I normally associate with medieval painting—with which he endows each of his figures (except Cupid). The background, too, is remarkably lush: full of different species of plant and flower, a botanical cornucopia.
As far as interpretation goes, it is easy to see that Botticelli wanted to suggest the fertility and beauty of Spring. The viewer can also discern a general sequence, with springtime beginning at the right with wind and ending with Mercury banishing the clouds. But beyond this, many questions remain—the exact identities of the Graces, why Cupid is aiming his arrow at one of them, their symbolic relationship with Mercury and Spring, and so on—which makes this painting, among other things, a great gift to art historians around the world. Scholars would be out of work if every painting were easy to interpret.
You may be interested to learn that these paintings have only fairly recently come into artistic vogue. Vasari hardly pauses to mention The Birth and Primavera in his short (barely 10 page) biography of Botticelli, half of which is taken up with disapproving anecdotes about how the painter squandered his talents in later life. For centuries Botticelli was neglected and ignored. His personal style—idealized, stylized, figurative—was difficult to accommodate with popular views of the Renaissance, and so he received scant attention. It was partly due to the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters, poets, and critics devoted to the Early Renaissance, that his renown increased. Nowadays, The Birth of Venus is scarcely less famous than the Sistine Chapel, which shows how fickle a thing is fame.
The majority of Botticelli’s works were not of mythological subjects, of course, but of Christian ones; and many of these are on display too. What is striking is that Botticelli used the same face—unmistakably pretty and graceful—for his Virgins as for his Venus. Did he use the same female model throughout his working life, or was the iconic face his own invention? Partly as a result of this, his works can be identified at a glance. Though the two above-mentioned works are undoubtedly his masterpieces, I enjoyed all of his paintings; they are suffused with a refreshing sweetness that never fails to charm me.
I left the Uffizi as it was about to close and daylight was on the wane. With little time to spare, I made my way to my next destination: the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge. This is by far the most famous bridge to span the river Arno, which it does at its narrowest point. Like the Ponte Rialto in Venice, the Roman Bridge in Córdoba, and the Charles Bridge in Prague, the Ponte Vecchio is bound to be flooded with tourists on any given day. There is not much of a view from the bridge in any case, since it is boxed in by little stalls for jewelers, goldsmiths, and souvenir shops, making it a kind of miniature mall. One notable feature is the Vasari corridor—designed by Vasari, of cours—a covered walkway that extends from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio, and on to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. It was designed so that the Grand Duke could walk from his residence to the seat of government with ease and safety.
The corridor was damaged in 1993 when a car-bomb exploded near the Uffizi gallery, killing five people and destroying some works of art. The Sicilian Mafia detonated several of these car bombs around Italy, in an attempt to retaliate against the Italian government for its measures against the organization. There are few things more evil than blowing up a museum.
After crossing the bridge I trekked up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The walk up was very pleasant, taking me alongside rose gardens under a tree-shaded path. I was somewhat disappointed with the square itself, however: it little more than a vast, open parking lot, filled with tourists and stands selling paraphernalia. The only exception to this is the bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David, which similarly fails to recapture any of the magic of the original, not least because of its sickly green color. But the Michelangelo Square is nevertheless one of the great spots in Florence, because of the incomparable view of the city it offers.
Standing there, the entire old center is laid out before you. The river, crossed by the Ponte Vecchio, frames the bottom of the picture; and the rolling brown hills and mountains of Tuscany extend into the distance. The town lays flat in the valley, and the brightly-painted buildings are covered in rust-colored tiled roofs. Two buildings break the monotony: the Palazzo Vecchio and the Cathedral, which stand proudly over their surroundings. The sheer scale of Brunelleschi’s dome—by far the largest structure in the city—can be grasped from this distance. The view is one of the most picturesque views of a city I have ever seen, showing that the city of art is itself a work of brilliance.
Now I was running out of time. So I descended the hill, crossed back over the Ponte Vecchio, and went to wander around the city one last time before I took the train back to Pisa. I had had an incredibly full day, and could had seen what I most wanted to see. Yet even the fullest day in Florence cannot but leave the visitor full of regrets. What I most regret are the basilicas I missed. There is San Miniato al Monte, a beautiful Romanesque structure atop a hill, near the Michelangelo Square. Then there is the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a massive earth-colored building (it served as a cathedral before the Duomo) that became the burial-place for the Medici family, whose patronage played such an important role in the artistic life of Florence. Nextdoor is the Laurentian Library, one of Michelangelo’s most celebrated works of architecture. But my keenest regret is not visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce, a lovely church that is known as the Temple of Italian Glories. It was here that Stendhal had his famous fit of aesthetic pleasure, as he was overwhelmed by being near the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo.
I only got to see this basilica from the outside, unfortunately, for it was closed for the day. Nextdoor is a statue of Dante, Florence’s most famous banished son, who is buried far away in Ravenna. Now that I had seen Florence, I could understand why Dante was so bitter about his banishment. It is one of the great cities of the world.
A couple months ago I took a quick trip down to Córdoba. I had gone before, but this time around I had a new camera. Luckily for me, very little skill is needed to take nice photos in Córdoba. It is a thoroughly pretty city; and the Andalusian sun lights up every shape and makes every color glow. Here are some of the pictures I took.
(If you would like to more about the city of Córdoba, you can see my post—now with updated pictures.)
My first goal was to photograph the statues of all three Cordoban philosophers: Maimonides, Averroes, and Seneca:
Next I wanted to get photos of Córdoba’s Mezquita, the Great Mosque of the Spanish Moors:
After the Christians conquered Córdoba, they fortunately did not destroy this wonderful piece of architecture. But they did modify it. Most controversially, a Renaissance-style cathedral—with a chorus, nave, and altar—was built into the middle of the old mosque. For my part, though I regret the destruction of a part of the historic building, I think the effect is wonderful:
I also saw something new on this trip. As you may know, one of Córdoba’s most famous attractions are its patios, which are decorated with flowers every May as part of a city-wide competition. Visitors can enter these patios for free and can vote for their favorites. This charming custom has been added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2012, and is now more popular than ever.
Unfortunately for me, I visited after the competition had wrapped up. But the museum of the Palacio de Viana—an old aristocratic residence—has a year-long display of Cordobese patios. I highly recommend a visit.
One need not pay to enter a monument to be surrounded by beauty in Córdoba, however, as the well-preserved city center is itself a monument:
And here is the Roman bridge, with the Mezquita in the distance:
Though I missed the patios, I did make it in time for Córdoba’s annual festival. The cities were filled with horses pulling carts filled with men and women in elaborate costumes. The men wore suits with broad-brimmed hats, and the women wore frilly, brightly colored dresses. Outside of the center an amusement park had been set up—creating an odd juxtaposition between the traditional Cordobese costumes and the Coney Island atmosphere.
As I hope you can see, Córdoba is one of the loveliest cities in a country full of conspicuously lovely cities. I highly recommend a visit
I arrived in Pisa a little before noon. I was already hungry, so I sat down on a bench outside the airport, took out my exquisitely prepared salami sandwich, and dug in. This time I had remembered the mustard, which was a considerable improvement. It was a sunny February day and my feet had just touched Tuscan soil for the first time.
I had excellent luck with my Airbnb: I could check in early, I had a big room with a big comfortable bed, coffee was included, and best of all the place was a ten minute walk from the airport. This meant no fuss with airport shuttles or trams, no worrying about transfers or ticket machines, just a peaceful walk through the suburbs of Pisa. As I was quickly learning, Tuscany is a land of comfort.
My bags deposited, the mustard wiped from my chin, I was ready to explore Pisa.
Pisa is a fair sized city of around 90,000 souls, gathered around the river Arno, the same river that passes through Florence. The city is home to far more than an angled tower. In the Middle Ages Pisa was, like Venice, a wealthy maritime republic; and examples of her former riches and glory abound. Even a brief walk along the riverside or a view from the bridge—with churches, historic apartments, old castle walls—is enough to convince the visitor that Pisa has a great deal to offer.
My first stop was Knights’ Square (Piazza dei Cavalieri), one of the old city’s most important and most attractive squares. Its name derives from the Knights of Saint Stephen, a religious military order who had their headquarters in this piazza. Nowadays it is home to a branch of the University of Pisa, a historic university that was founded back in 1343, and which is still within the top 10 universities in Italy. I walked into one of the university buildings (it was open), to see if I could find anything worthy of admiration. And I did. On the ground, walking in a little line, was a group of tiny ants. I found this rather exciting since it was February and the insects normally do not appear until May in Madrid.
There is also the attractive church Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, with a pretty facade designed by Giorgio Vasari, the famous art historian, who also contributed a painting for the interior. It was Vasari, too, who designed the attractive Palazzo della Carovana, which originally housed the Knights of Saint Stephen, but which now is the central building of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (a part of the university). In the center of the piazza, standing before the Palazzo della Caravona, is a statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519 –1574), the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.
I did not stay very long to admire this fine square, however, since I was eager to see the iconic tower. A few minutes of walking, a few twists and turns, and the inclined cylinder came into view. It is always strange seeing something in reality that we have seen a thousand times in pictures. It produces the oddest mixture of excitement and boredom—the first because it is so iconic, the second because it does not look like anything new. It was, however, novel to see the tower from the city, at the end of a row of apartment buildings, as I did. The drooping building is almost always photographed from the grassy cathedral square. Seen like this, the tower looked charmingly out of place.
Soon I entered the cathedral square, formally called the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), and formerly the Piazza del Duomo (Square of the Dome). This is where all of the major monuments of Pisa are concentrated, including the infamously misaligned edifice. To enter any of these monuments one must buy a ticket at the ticket office. There are various ticket options, each of which includes different places that can be visited. As usual, I bought the most basic one. It did not seem worth it to pay an extra 20 euros (if memory serves) to ascend steep spiral staircase of the notorious shaft.
But I did take a moment to admire the Leaning Tower from the outside. The myths are true: the tower does leave the ground at an angle other than 90 degrees. To be precise, the tower is now 3.9 degrees off—which may not sound like a lot but which, as you will gather, is quite noticeable. And this is an improvement from the tower’s maximum inclination, which was 5.5 degrees. An international team of scientists worked between 1990 to 2001 to reduce the tilt—which had been gradually growing over the centuries—in order to prevent instability. (By the by, Pisa’s tower is not the most uneven edifice in Europe. The prize goes to the crooked church tower of Suurhusen, in Germany.)
The crooked protuberance of Pisa was not, of course, originally designed to be a tourist attraction. It is the campanile—an unattached belltower—of the cathedral. Even were it perfectly straight, the tower would be worth admiring for its elegant rows of columns and arches. Indeed, I think we are apt to overlook how pretty is its Romanesque form. I have seen few belltowers comparable in loveliness. As we are told, the tower’s gradient is the result of uneven firmness of ground, causing one side of the structure to sink. Fixing this was clearly beyond the technologies of the time; to the architects had little recourse but to cross their fingers and keep going.
As expected, the square was full of people taking pictures of themselves with the tower. A visit to Pisa is certainly not complete without the generic photo of oneself holding the tower up. As venerable as this pastime is, I confess that I found the dozens of people holding out their hands likes mimes, with exaggerated expressions on their faces, to be a ridiculous sight.
I cannot finish my description of Pisa’s most famous building without making mention of Pisa’s most famous son. Everybody knows the tale of Galileo dropping differently sized cannonballs from the tower, in order to prove that objects of different mass fall at the same velocity. (This went against the Aristotelian physics of the times.) This story is, unfortunately, poorly corroborated and thus—like Newton and his apple—likely a myth made up after his death. Rarely does reality live up to our romantic notions.
The 12th century tower is only the third-oldest building in the square. The oldest is Pisa Cathedral. Like the campanile, this is a truly splendid building in the Pisa Romanesque style. Just as in the Leaning Tower, the facade of the cathedral is covered in false columns, which give it a dignified air. The white marble of the building is also agreeably reminiscent of a Greek temple, adding to the cathedral’s impressive demeanor; and darker shades of marble have been used to add faint patterns on the walls. Closer inspection reveals that the exterior is covered in decorative friezes and mosaics. I particularly admired the monumental bronze doors, covered in scenes from the New Testament.
The inside of the cathedral appeared in less than its full splendor. Due to conservation work being done, two large sections were obscured by colossals tarps. Nevertheless, I was still able to admire the beautiful wooden coffered ceiling, covered in gold leaf, as well as the mosaic of Christ surrounded by Mary and Saint John, the only unambiguously attributable work of Cimabue. One can see that this artist (who Vasari believed taught Giotto) was still working very much in the Greek tradition of stylized figures against a gold background. The walls reveal that taste for lush decoration, so characteristic of Italian churches.
Unfortunately much of the cathedral’s finest works were lost in a fire in 1595. As the period of Pisa’s greatest splendor occured long before this, it follows that what we see now in the cathedral is but a faint afterglow left by the embers. Luckily one masterpiece did survive the flames: the pulpit by Giovanni Pisano. It is an incredible work. Every inch of the piece bursts with figures; and each has a symbolic significance. We have personifications of the cardinal virtues, and of the subjects of the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy); we also find angels, prophets, and sybils. Figures support the pulpit as caryatids; they adorn the bases, corbels, and the capitals. On the curving walls of the pulpit are extraordinary scenes from the life of Christ. And all of this is carefully arranged to create an intelligible whole, a summary in stone of the medieval worldview. All in all, this pulpit very well may be, as the sign says, “the most organised illustration of the Christian doctrine of salvation and redemption ever provided by sculpture.”
Standing face to face with the cathedral is Pisa’s baptistry. This is the largest baptistry in all of Italy, a colossal dome that shows a transitional style between the Romanesque and the Gothic. (The lower half has rounded arches, the upper half pointed ones.) The inside is cavernous and mostly empty. One wonders why so much space was needed to dunk newborns into water. The most famous babe who was ever initiated into the Christian faith in this building was Galileo Galilei, who made his way into the world in 1564 and was dipped soon thereafter. It is amusing to think of our intellectual heroes as little squirming babes. Little did the priest known that the child he was anointing with water, while he spoke the holy words, would one day help to undermine the faith of half of Europe. Even the biggest baptistry in Italy was not enough to contain Galileo.
My last stop in the square was the Campo Santo (“holy field”). According to legend, it was built around soil brought back from Golgotha (where Christ was crucified) during the Third Crusade, thus making it undeniably sacred ground. On this holy soil the Pisanos built a monumental cemetery for their notables. From the outside it does not look like much—just a grey wall with blind arches carved into it, though there is a nice gothic shrine above the doorway. From the inside, however, it is lovely: an exquisite cloister, with finely sculpted window traceries, and a dome crowning one end. Populating this rectangular arena are sculpted tombs and sarcophagi, some of them dating back to the Romans and Etruscans.
More attractive than any of the statues or sarcophagi are the frescoes. Many of these were, unfortunately, damaged or destroyed during the Second World War when an allied bomb ignited the roof. What survives is tantalizing, and makes one regret that bombs were ever invented. I was particularly entranced by a glorious rendering of the Last Judgment, whose image of Satan and Hell is wonderfully gruesome.
Now I had seen all the sites on my ticket. I thought of going back to my Airbnb, but the excellent weather tempted me beyond resistance. It was a cloudless day, remarkably warm for winter; so I sat down on the grass to breathe and take in the scene. It was nearing evening but the temperature was still mild enough so that I could take off my jacket in the shade and be perfectly comfortable. I shudder to think what the city is like in the summer.
This half hour of lounging on the grass was the capstone of my day. Pisa had already impressed me beyond all my hopes. Whereas I had expected little more than the off-center campanile, I had found a city full of beautiful monuments and a lovely historic center. Now I had a moment to stop—something I too seldom do when I travel alone—and to reflect. I was in a city that I had heard of since I was a kid; up until the year before, I had assumed that I would never see Pisa; and here I was, and it was better than I expected. The air was delicious, the breeze gentle, the sun mild, the sky everywhere.
Finally I decided to go. I walked back slowly, still savoring the evening, taking a detour to stroll along the riverside and admire the many historic buildings—forts, churches, apartments—arrayed there. The water was still and clear as glass. I crossed a bridge, and in the distance I could see the brown hills of Tuscany. No wonder the Renaissance started here. The atmosphere is so clear, the sun so bright, that every color is magnified and every form defined. The painters merely had to copy what they saw.
Though I am normally too shy to do this when I travel alone, this day I decided to sit down at a nice restaurant by myself. I chose the Ristorante alle Bandierine, and did not regret it. The pasta was magnificent and the wine went down very easily. I left stuffed and happy—my belly, my mind, my soul all satisfied. Italy is a charmed place, and Tuscany perhaps most of all.
After seeing everything I wanted to see in Prague, I still had a day to spare before moving on to Nuremberg. Luckily there are some excellent day trips from the Czech capital. There is Karlovy Vary, an attractive town near Prague with famous hot springs, which several people had recommended to me. There is also the Sedlec Ostuary—a world heritage site—a chapel decorated with thousands of human bones in a church in the town of Kutná Hora. But after looking over these and more options, the beer lover in me won out: I had to go to Plzeň.
With a population of about 170,000, Plzeň is the fourth-largest city in the Czech Republic. For much of its history Plzeň was significant as a trade post near the German border. But in the 19th century the city’s importance considerably grew. First, in 1842 the city’s iconic export was invented: Pilsner beer. Shortly later, the city underwent rapid industrialization, turning Plzeň from a rural outpost into a city of factories and breweries.
Getting to Plzeň from Prague is straightforward. I boarded a commuter train from the central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, which took me to Plzeň in around an hour. I did not give myself enough time to buy my ticket, however (there are no machines, so you need to wait in line to buy from a person), so I had to rush to catch the train. The only way up from the station to the platforms was on a slow-moving automatic walkway, which was so full of infuriatingly relaxed and immobile people that I had to wait, biting my lip, as the walkway took me forward at around 2 mph, while the train was on the verge of leaving. When I finally reached the end I bolted up the stairs to the platform, running and jumping onto the train just as the doors were closing. Indeed, I had gotten on so fast that I was not even sure it was the right train. But I was in luck.
Unfortunately for me, however, by the time I pulled my stunt all the seats in the train were taken. I had no choice but to stand. So I made my way to the dining car, ordered a coffee, and got out my Kindle to read. I was trying to get through Rousseau’s Emile, but the Romantic philosopher was quickly getting on my nerves and I had trouble paying attention. Time passed this way until, feeling peckish and needing a distraction, I decided I would try the train’s goulash. This is a type of strew, originally from Hungary but now popular throughout Central Europe, made with meat, veggies, and flavored with paprika. It was my first goulash experience; and—contrary to what you might expect from a dining car—it was actually quite good.
Once arrived, I wasted no time in going to Plzeň’s biggest attraction: the Urquell brewery. The word “Urquell” can be roughly translated as “the source,” and it is appropriate: for it is this company that invented the iconic pale lager, or pilsner beer, which has proven immensely influential. It is said that two-thirds of the beer produced in the world is an adaptation of this Czech invention. And, indeed, every country seems to have its own version of a pale lager: China’s Tsingtao, Japan’s Sapporo, Kenya’s Tusker, Mexico’s Pacífico, America’s Budweiser, Spain’s Mahou. The world cannot seem to get enough of this sour beverage.
To enter the brewery one must pass through the festive main gate, designed to look like a triumphal arch. In the ticket office there is a large display of antique brewing methods, complete with life-sized sets and dummies. I queued up and bought a ticket for the next English tour—for which, luckily, there was still a spot remaining. Soon I was in a tour group, ready to explore the birthplace of pale lager.
Our tour commenced with some elaborate ceremonial glasses, made on the occasions of visits by European monarchs to the brewery. Then, after explaining something of the history of the place, our guide took us to see some antique carts, train cars, and trucks used to transport Urquell beer back in yonder days. A bus then picked us up and drove us to the bottling plant.
I am always impressed by industrial processes like this. I think of Adam Smith and his pin factory, and marvel how such marvelously complex solutions can arise for such simple challenges. In this case the challenge is to put beer into a bottle or a can. The solution is a massive facility—noisy with mechanical racket, steamy with sweat and spillage, buzzing with electricity and life. We watched the action from an elevated platform. People in waterproof suits marches around the factory floor, while giant conveyor belts swept hundreds of bottles into metal apparatuses—rinsers, inspectors, vacuums, palletizer, depalletizers, feeders, inspectors, packets, dispatchers—each of which performs one specialized function at lightning-fast speed. To put this into numbers, the bottling line can church out 120,000 bottles per hour, and the canning line 37,000 cans per hour. We have come a long way.
From here we were transported back on the bus, herded into a large elevator—the largest in the Czech Republic, they said—and then shown a film about Pilsner Urquell’s origins, which was projected on a semicircular screen while we sat on a rotating platform. In this film we were informed that the inventor of pilsner beer, Josef Gross (a German), created the beer in response to growing dissatisfaction among the populace with the top-fermented beer. (The yeast rises to the top during fermentation, which occurs at a relatively high temperature.) In response to this, Gross developed a bottom-fermenting beer, which uses a different sort of yeast that requires a lower temperature. And so, pilsner beer was born.
Then we were shown an exhibit about the four ingredients of beer: malt, water, hops, and yeast—with examples of each. I did not know that malt is not a specific type of grain, but is instead any cereal grain (usually barley) which has been made to germinate by soaking in water, and then dried. I tried chewing on a piece of malt; it’s rather hard. But I particularly enjoyed the chance to sniff and taste the hops. As you may know, beer hops are made from crushing up the flowers of the hop plant. The final product looks an awful lot like marijuana, but smells delightful—the floral, bitter, and richly complex flavor that is most notable in strong indian pale ales, though less apparent in pale lagers.
Then we were led into the old factory, no longer in use. The brewing process, however, remains the same; and so the guide (with the help of a video) took us through the steps to make pilsner beer. First, after being mashed, the malt is put into these big copper kettles filled with water; the resultant mixture is called a ‘wort.’ The wort is gradually heated, which converts the malt’s starch into sugar. Then, to kill off unwanted bacteria, the wort is boiled through a process of siphoning off thirds, heating the portion, and then reintroducing it into the main kettle for it to be repeated.
Then this wort is siphoned off into stainless-steel drums—to filter out the solid bits of barley, I believe—and then on to the hopping kettles. Hops are put in and removed three times in 90 minutes, while the liquid is boiling. After that the liquid goes on to a fermentation tank, which is stored outside, where the yeast is finally added. (This is that “bottom-fermenting” yeast I mentioned earlier.) To achieve the right flavor, the temperature of this container must be kept within fairly strict boundaries. And controlling the temperature during fermentation is tricky, since fermentation itself generates heat. The fermentation process takes some few days, if memory serves, and the final product contains both alcohol and carbonation.
This isn’t the end of the process, however, since then yeast must be filtered out, the beer left to age in barrels, and then the final product is pasteurized to ensure longevity. All this was explained to us as we explored the old and then the current factories, both of which are impressive places. I especially liked the futuristic look of the new factory, with shiny copper kettles in a tiled room. But this wasn’t the end of the tour.
Finally we were led down into the cellars. Underneath the complex, you see, is a massive network of tunnels carved into the ground—miles and miles of them. These were used to keep the beer at a controlled temperature as it aged in barrels. Apparently a rather cool temperature is needed, so ice would be dumped into a massive room at the end of the hall, whose proximity would cool the rest of the network. It must have been chilly indeed, since even without the ice the tunnels were many degrees cooler than outside. (Nowadays the beer is aged in another way, and the tunnels are unused.)
This is where our tour ended. But not without a tasting, of course. Two bearded gentlemen poured each of us (there were around 30 on the tour) a glass of pilsner beer. It was unfiltered, meaning that the yeast was still in the beer, which gives it a cloudy look. Now, here I have to admit that I am not particularly fond of lagers, and I especially dislike pilsner beer. To me its defining flavor is sourness—lacking the sweetness of wheat beer, the bitterness of ales, and the smoothness of dark beers. But I will drink a pilsner and enjoy it, of course, since any beer is better than none.
The tour was over, having taken about 2 hours. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a slight interest in beer and brewing.
I had some time before my return train to Prague. First I ate lunch at a place called the PUB Plzeň, which has great hamburgers. Then I went to see Plzeň’s cathedral, St. Bartholomew. The church has only had cathedral status since 1993, and underwent major renovations and expansions at around that time. As it stands now, the cathedral is an attractive building, both inside and out. But the best part of the visit was ascending the hundreds of steps up to its bell-tower. One must pay a special price to do this, of course, and undergo some claustrophobia, vertigo, and exhaustion on the twisting and narrow stairs. But the view of the surrounding city and countryside is worth it. I particularly admired Plzeň’s main square, which is extremely pretty, full of brightly painted old apartment buildings and futuristic fountains.
Now it was time for me to go. Unfortunately I did not have time to see Plzeň’s Great Synagogue, the second-largest in Europe (though nowadays only about 70 Jews live in Plzeň). But at least this time I got a seat on the train, from which I could appreciate the rolling grassy countryside of the Czech Republic. It is a beautiful country.
When I arrived in Prague I wasn’t feeling too good. Flights from Madrid to Prague are normally expensive; but I had gotten lucky and had found one for quite cheap. The only problem was that it left Madrid at an inhumane hour in the morning; and since I have trouble sleeping either before or during flights, I was not exactly at my best. Sleep-deprivation, besides making me delirious, also makes me more prone to stress. I feel as though I cannot calm down; every little obstacle provokes a feeling of panic. Keep in mind that, when you buy cheap plane tickets, you pay for the flight in other ways.
Admittedly I did have two additional things to worry about this trip. The first was money. The Czech Republic does not use the euro, but the koruna (or “crown”). This alone produced in my exhausted mind a feeling of disorientation, since now I had to perform a conversion to understand how expensive something was, and my mind was in no condition for arithmetic. More stressing was my new camera. Just days before I had impulsively ordered a Canon 1300D (Rebel T6 in America) and I had hardly any idea how to use it, care for it, or store it. Fresh from the financial sting of purchasing the device, I was terrified of losing, breaking, or having it stolen. This was my state as I entered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
There are many options for getting from the airport to the center of Prague. I took a local bus and transferred to the metro, which took me to Prague’s central train station, Praha hnlavní nádraží, where I deposited my things in a luggage locker. Prague’s metro system is conspicuously attractive and efficient. There are only three metro lines (A, B, and C); but they have been planned so well and go so quickly that I felt that I could zip around the city. Many stations also feature appealing, even futuristic designs. It made a good first impression. Though the city of Prague has only around 1.3 million inhabitants, the metro carries 1.6 million riders a day, which gives you an idea of the level of tourism in the city.
As I emerged into the daylight from the train station—confused, panicked, disoriented—I was at a loss for where to go first. After some aimless wandering I emerged on the Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), which is more of a long open avenue than a plaza. Its name comes from St. Wenceslas, patron saint of Bohemia; and a monumental equestrian statue of the saint stands at the top of the square. Behind the statue, bookending the space, is the palatial building of the National Museum—which houses a large collection of both natural and cultural history, but which nevertheless is not a popular attraction (I didn’t go).
From there I made my way to the Old Town. (The aforementioned Wenceslas Square is in the New Town, an expansion of the city planned under Charles IV in the 14th century—very new indeed.) This led me through one of the old city gates, the Powder Tower, an attractive gothic edifice built of smoky grey stone and covered with decorative work.
Soon I found myself in the center of the city: Old Town Square. It is a very pretty place, lined with square apartment buildings painted in bright colors. Beyond them is the Church of Our Lady before Týn, whose tall, jagged gothic spires provide one of Prague’s most distinguishing sights. Tycho Brahe, the astronomer who taught Johannes Kepler, is buried here. In the center of the square is a statue of Jan Hus, an important religious reformer and predecessor of the Protestant Reformation, who believed that mass should be given in the vulgar tongue and the Bible translated into Czech—for which he was very reasonably burned as a heretic. This kicked off the Hussite Wars, in which an armed and mobilized Czech population repelled crusade after crusade sent by the Pope to squelch the heresy, an important event in Czech nationalism.
On the other side of the square is St. Nicholas Church, decorated in a pretty Baroque. Yet the most famous landmark is the extraordinary astronomical clock, or Prague orloj, affixed to the Old Town Hall. Unfortunately for me, however, the clock was under restoration when I visited, and was hidden underneath a tarp.
Standing in that expansive square, I was already beginning to see why Norman Davies, who wrote a history of Europe, named Prague the continent’s most beautiful city. But why is one of Europe’s most attractive places and most popular tourist destinations located in the Czech Republic, a country about which most Americans (myself included) know close to nothing?
It goes back to Prague’s previous title as the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia—at first an independent kingdom, and then a central part of the Holy Roman Empire. The kings of Bohemia ruled over a vast land that extended far beyond the borders of the current Czech Republic; and some were even elected to become the Holy Roman Emperor (that is, until the Habsburgs had their way). Indeed, during the high points of the Austrian power Prague played a role nearly as important as Vienna in central Europe. So the city’s great beauty is no coincidence. And luckily the city was not bombed nearly as heavily as other Nazi-controlled cities during the Second World War, so its beauty has survived intact.
My next stop was the city’s Jewish Quarter, located in a corner of the Old Town. My original plan was just to visit one synagogue; but to visit any of the landmarks of this neighborhood one must buy a combination ticket, which is certainly worth it. My first stop was the famous Spanish Synagogue. This is the newest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter; it was completed in 1868, built over what was the oldest synagogue in Prague, which had become too small for the congregation. The synagogue is called “Spanish” because of its Neo-Mudéjar interior decoration, built in imitation of the Moorish-influenced style developed by the Sephardic Jews of Spain. It is beautiful to behold. Every inch of the space is covered in geometric designs painted in a shimmering gold.
Outside the synagogue is a monument to one of Prague’s most famous sons: Franz Kafka. Born to a Jewish family (though not exactly religious himself), Kafka spent most of his unhappy life in Prague. The statue, by Jaroslav Róna, shows the sharp-featured, diminutive writer pointing his finger (at what?) while riding on the back of a faceless and armless man—a fittingly absurd image for the great poet of the absurd. Apparently it is considered good luck to rub Kafka’s feet; but I kept my distance, since luck and Kafka do not go together. There is a Kafka Museum elsewhere in the city, which I have heard is not very impressive. But in front there is a fountain worth seeing, featuring two men urinating into a little pool of water as sections of their bodies spin around. I don’t know if the image is particularly Kafkaesque, but it is memorable.
The next synagogue on my combined ticket was the Pinkas Synagogue. This synagogue is not nearly as visually striking as the Spanish Synagogue; its interest lies, rather, in the memorials within. On the lower level of the synagogue, the name, birthdate, and date of death of every Jewish victim of the Holocaust in the Czech Republic are inscribed on the walls. On the upper floor is an even more moving tribute: drawings made by the children sent to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. These survived because the children’s drawing teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, hid them in Theresienstadt before her deportation to Auschwitz, where she was killed. Most of the children suffered the same fate. The drawings are an extraordinary testimony of the humanity, individuality, and creativity of the children caught up in the catastrophe.
Right next to the Pinkas Synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery. Since Jewish custom forbids removing graves or markers once they are laid down, and since new land was difficult to acquire, the community was forced to put several graves on top of each other. As a result the cemetery is a forest of tombstones, many of them pushed to odd angles or otherwise falling down; and the ground level is higher than the surrounding streets. The graves span from the 14th to the 18th centuries, at which time Josef II (of Austria) decreed that no more burials were to take place within city walls, in order to reduce disease. Most of the markers are tombstones, though some of the more important personages have tumbas, or sarcophagi (though the body is not inside these). In some of these tumbas I observed little pieces of paper, folded up and tucked inside the nooks of the stone; and in front of one tumba—perhaps of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel—I observed some people praying.
There were still more sites included on my ticket. One was the Ceremonial Hall of the Jewish Burial Society. A burial society (chevra kadisha in Hebrew) is a voluntary organization that helps to prepare the body of a deceased member of the community and prevent desecration. Nowadays the building is an exhibition space, with panels of information about the role of burial societies (of which I was entirely ignorant) as well as some ritual items on display. Nextdoor is the Old-New Synagogue, a gothic building that is the oldest active synagogue in Europe (it became the oldest when the older synagogue was knocked down to make the Spanish Synagogue). A legend tells that a golem—created by none other than the above-mentioned Judah Loew ben Bezalel, to protect the Jews of Prague from antisemites—inhabits the attic of this building. Nowadays the synagogue is filled with symbolic objects on display and explanations of Jewish customs. The last stop on this ticket was the Maisel Synagogue, an attractive neo-gothic building that houses an exposition on the history of the Jews in Prague. All of these spaces are administered by the Jewish Museum.
As all of these monuments demonstrate, Prague has long had a sizable Jewish community, which would seem to indicate that the city was relatively tolerant compared to other major European capitals. This may be true. However, even here the Jews faced serious persecution. In 1389, for example, following an accusation that Jews had desecrated the host—a common anti-semitic accusation during the Middle Ages—the city’s population was incited to fury and massacred almost every Jew in the city. In the previous century, aside from the infamous Nazi persecutions, the Jewish religion was repressed under the communists. It is, therefore, very heartening to see that a sizable community still exists in the city.
Now it was time to visit one of Prague’s most iconic monuments: the Charles Bridge. This medieval bridge is named for Charles IV (1316 – 1376), perhaps the most influential ruler in Czech history. Originally king of Bohemia, he was elected to become Holy Roman Emperor; and during his reign he oversaw several important expansions of the city, such as the aforementioned Wenceslas Square. Charles IV was also responsible for the so-called Golden Bull of 1356, which he proclaimed from the castle in Nuremberg, and which established clear procedures for electing the Holy Roman Emperor. This was important, since it helped to prevent controversies of legitimacy and succession, which threatened the continuance of the empire.
The bridge spans the river Vltava (sometimes called by its German name, the Moldau), the iconic waterway of the Czech Republic. From its opening in 1402 until 1841, the Charles Bridge was the river’s only crossing, connecting the Old City with Prague Castle. In design the bridge is not very different from Roman bridges I have seen: a relatively flat span (2,000 ft. in length) lying close to the water, suspended on a series of stone arches resting on stone foundations. Towers guard both sides of the bridge—an important defensive feature back in those days—which are not only intimidating but pleasing to the eye. The bridge is covered with statues, 30 of them, in a Baroque style depicting religious subjects.
Yet it is difficult to appreciate the statues, the bridge, the water, or the views with the huge crush of people inevitably walking across. Prague is hardly behind Venice as a European tourist destination; and so major attractions, like the bridge, attract suffocating crowds. And where tourists go, so does the rubbish—street performers, sketch artists, souvenir vendors, and all the rest. It is the bane of traveling.
Having squeezed across the bridge, it was time to ascend to Prague Castle. This is a whole building complex rather than a specific edifice. The castle sits atop a hill far above the level of the river, so getting there can be slightly exhausting if you are, like myself, not athletically inclined. The exertion is compensated, however, by lovely views of the river and the city beyond. To get inside the complex one must wait in a line and pass through security. Then one must buy a ticket at the office. There are multiple types of tickets, with different numbers of sites which can be visited, depending on the price. (True to form, I bought the cheapest one.)
Prague castle has been a seat of governance since the 9th century, making it far older than most other European capital buildings. And due to its very long tenure as a seat of power, the castle has an abundance of architectural styles on display. Having served Bohemian Kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the place retains its function as a seat of power, being the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Even the crown jewels are still kept here (though, unlike in Vienna, they cannot be visited). It is, in short, an important spot.
Yet the most famous building inside the castle complex is neither a palace nor a castle, but Prague’s cathedral: St. Vitus. This is one of the finest gothic cathedrals in the world, a blend of typical French gothic and special innovations particular to this church. The original head architect of the cathedral was Matthias of Arras, a Frenchman who designed a building in the prevalent French gothic. But after his death he was succeeded by Peter Parler, one of the great craftsmen of the Middle Ages. A sculptor rather than an architect, a German rather than a Frenchman, Parler introduced several idiosyncratic elements into the design of the cathedral, such as his characteristic net-vaulting, which both improve strength and create an attractive criss-crossing design on the ceiling.
I admit that, when I visited, I was mostly unable to appreciate any of these technical subtleties. Nevertheless I found the building hypnotic. From both without and within, the cathedral is pleasing to the eye—harmonious in its proportions, tasteful in its ornament, and unmistakable for any other cathedral. (It is worth noting, by the way, that Peter Parler was appointed by the unavoidable Charles VI; and it was this same architect who designed the Charles Bridge. In the history of Prague these two are unavoidable.)
The cathedral presents a striking view from every angle—inside or outside, back or front, from up close or far away, and so on. Its beauty consists in the design of the building itself rather (as in Toledo) in the artwork contained within. However, there is one chapel that stands out for special mention: the one dedicated to St. Wenceslas (which you may remember as the patron saint of the Czechs). The visitor cannot enter the room, but must be content with peering in through the doorway. The lower walls are dedicated with semi-precious stones and gothic painting depicting the passion, while the upper portion shows Renaissance-era frescos showing the life of the titular saint.
After I was finished admiring this glorious piece of religious architecture, I visited the Old Royal Palace, which was built in the 12th century. It is most notable for its Vladislav Hall, a massive ceremonial hall with an intricately vaulted ceiling that undulates like an ocean wave. It was also in this palace that the infamous Second Defenestration of Prague took place in 1618, when Czech protestants threw the catholic representatives of the Holy Roman Empire out a window, an event which helped to trigger the horrific Thirty Years’ War. (Somehow the catholics survived the 70-foot drop, which they naturally attributed to angels, and which the protestants attributed to a dunghill underneath them.) Since this event was the only thing I remembered about Prague from my AP European History class, I was elated to find this legendary window.
My next stop in the cathedral complex was the Basilica of St. George, a church with a cheerful Baroque façade that conceals a somber Romanesque interior. It was founded all the way back in 920 and preserves that ancient atmosphere even now. Then I made my way to the Golden Lane, a row of colorfully painted houses, pretty and quaint, that were originally built to house guards, and which later served as a home for goldsmiths (hence its name). Nowadays it is a row of overpriced souvenir shops. And it must be said that this progression, from guards to gold to gimmicks, encapsulates European history quite well.
Right next to Prague Castle is the Petřín Hill, an elevation covered with parks, which rises above the Vltava River. This is one of the loveliest green spaces in Prague and is a welcome respite from the crowded streets. Walking up the hill is not terribly strenuous; for the enemies of inclination, however, there is a funicular available. On top of the hill is the Petřín Lookout Tower, which was made in imitation of the Eiffel Tower. Indeed, it looks as though the top bit of the Parisian edifice had been lopped off and transported here. With the height of the hill (130 meters) added to the height of the tower (64 meters), it still falls short of the Eiffel Tower’s height (300 meters). Even so, it is the highest point for miles around. (I did not go up, since I was not in the mood for climbing stairs.) Also to be seen is the Hunger Wall, a defensive structure built during the reign of (guess who) Charles IV. Its name comes from the myth that the wall’s primary purpose was simply to provide work and food for the poor.
Nearby is the Strahov Monastery. Founded in the 12th century, it is an abbey of the Premonstratensians (the Order of the Prémontré), which means that it is inhabited, not by monks, but by Canons Regular who fulfil priestly duties. The building complex is impressive and lovely, especially the basilica (which, unfortunately, was closed to visitors when I arrived). Most famous are the monastery’s libraries. Visitors cannot enter inside, but must be content with peering in through the doorways. In the hall outside is an old cabinet of curiosities, featuring shimmering seashells, a stuffed alligator, and ancient Persian (?) armor—the sort of exotic mishmash one would expect from a curious European mind of centuries past. The two library rooms are magnificent. The Philosophical Hall is a grandiose neoclassical room filled with wooden shelves. The Theological Hall is perhaps even more impressive, featuring an elaborate stucco ceiling whose designs incorporate religious paintings. I love seeing such care lavished on libraries. Our books deserve it.
I descended from the monastery to the riverside, and found myself in Malá Strana. Literally this name means “Lesser District”—though, as my Airbnb host said, “There’s nothing ‘lesser’ about it.” This is one of the oldest parts of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages; but wars and fires largely destroyed the original town. What stands now mainly owes its origin to the Baroque era. As a result the buildings have a more uniform look, all around the same height with the same orange tiled roofs; and the streets are wider and straighter than in the Old City It is a pleasant place to walk around, if only because it is far less crowded than Prague’s center. There are some notable buildings to be seen, such as the Wallenstein Palace, an extensive mansion originally built for a general, and which now houses the Czech Senate. And there is the monumental St. Nicholas Church, an excellent example of Baroque architecture.
After a stroll through Malá Strana I squeezed over the Charles Bridge back into the Old City. This is what Prague is famous for. I have heard this part of the city described as “Disneyland for adults,” which is not far from the truth. For the Old City is swarming with people and full of restaurants and shops catering to foreign visitors. There is everything on sale between cheap junk and expensive trinkets, everything to eat from take-away pizza to pricey sit-down establishments. All this is crammed into the narrow, winding streets of the medieval city. It would be a beautiful place to walk around in if everyone else didn’t think so, too.
Feeling peckish myself, I ducked into a kebab place, hopeful that it would offer the highest ratio of foot-to-money. But I found, after calculating the conversion (which I unwisely did post-meal), that the kebab was three times more expensive than it would have been in Madrid—and didn’t taste any better. I had a much more positive experience at Naše maso, a butcher and delicatessen with great meat dishes at low prices. I had a meatloaf sandwich that was fantastic.
Next I walked down the river. (Just to be clear, I am putting multiple days together to streamline the narrative. This would be too much for one day.) The area beside the river is picturesque on either side. On the Malá Strana side I found a dock with a series of yellow penguins walking atop it. Nearby are three giant statues of faceless babies by the Czech sculptor David Černý, who was also responsible for the urination fountain outside the Kafka museum. Similar baby statues by Černý can be found crawling up and down Prague’s massive broadcasting tower, the Zikov TV Tower. Incidentally, there is a famous work of Černý’s that I missed on my visit to Vienna: a statue of Freud hanging from a roof. No Michelangelo, perhaps; but his work is memorable.
On the Old City side of the river the walk is just as lovely, taking me on a gentle curving road with the river on my right and a row of pretty, colorful building on my left. Walking along this way, I came upon the famous Dancing House of Prague. This is a modernistic (“deconstructivist,” as the designers call it) building designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić. The name is well-chosen, since the building does give the unmistakable impression of two figures in a waltz. A tower of glass swirls up next to the concrete body of the building, whose form is equally unstable. Irregular concrete panels and pop-out windows give the edifice a funhouse effect, as if it had been squished in a trick mirror. It makes for quite a sight next to the staid forms of the baroque apartments next door. For my part, I think the apartment provides a welcome moment of contrast with the rest of the city.
Nearby is the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, which is the principal Orthodox church in the Czech Republic. The church itself is an attractive place; but its fame does not rest on its architecture, but its history. Now, as you may know, Czechoslovakia, despite possessing formidable defenses, did not get a chance to defend itself from Nazi aggression during the Second World War. This is because Neville Chamberlain, as part of his appeasement strategy, ceded Czechoslovakia (without input from the Czechs) to Hitler in the hopes of satisfying the dictator’s expansionist threats. Thus the country was simply annexed without a fight. After the war broke out the Czechs set up a government-in-exile in England; and to establish its legitimacy and contribute towards the war effort, this government (in participation with England) planned and carried out Operation Anthropoid.
The idea was to kill Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most powerful men in Nazi Germany. A ruthless and vicious man—commander of internal security forces (such as the Gestapo), head of the Final Solution, and administrator of Nazi-controlled Bohemia—Heydrich soon earned the universal hatred he deserved. To be rid of him, seven Czech soldiers were parachuted into the country under cover of darkness on British planes. Two of these soldiers attacked Heydrich’s relatively unprotected car on his commute from his house to his office in Prague Castle. After a submachine gun jammed, the assassins threw a tank grenade which inflicted fatal wounds on the Nazi official. The assassins then made their escape and joined the rest of their team.
After the assassination, the Czech soldiers retreated to the church, a hideout for the resistance. But the betrayal of a Czech resistance fighter, Karel Čurda, led to their discovery. A huge team of SS soldiers descended on the church, determined to take the assassins alive. The soldiers defended themselves with pistols until three were killed, and the rest driven to the church’s basement, where they eventually committed suicide to avoid capture. This was not the end of the grizzly tale. On the very day of the assassination, Hitler ordered reprisals. Over 13,000 Czechs were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where 5,000 of them died. And this isn’t all. Based on false intelligence that the assassins had a connection to the small village of Lice, the Germans sent soldiers to commit a complete massacre. All the men were shot; the women and children were sent to the concentration camps, where most of them were killed. (After the war, Čurda the betrayer was hanged.)
In the basement of this church is now a permanent exposition and memorial to these soldiers. In a large circular room there are artifacts, such as weapons and parachute gear, on display; and panels of information tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. In the crypt—appropriately gloomy and grey—are busts of each of the seven soldiers, with plaques telling of their lives. Operation Anthropoid is a fascinating episode from the Second World War, equal parts uplifting and depressing; and standing before the graves of these young men who shook the world is a moving experience.
My last stop was further south along the river: Vyšehrad. The name literally means “upper castle,” and refers to the hill’s previous use as a fortress. Like Petřín Hill, Vyšehrad is an elevated green space that provides excellent views of the city. Crowning the hill is the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, an imposing neo-gothic structure. I wanted to go inside but, unfortunately, they were having mass. (Isn’t it irritating when people pray in churches?) It was late in the day when I arrived, so the attractive Vyšehrad cemetery was also closed—which is a shame, since Antonín Dvořák, the most famous of Czech composers, is buried here.
The sun was setting. Without anything to do, I walked to the front of the hillside and looked out at Prague—the shimmering blue river, crossed by iron and stone bridges; the orange rooftops and pink façades of the apartments; and in the distance Prague Castle, with the grey towers of its cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. I can see why people like this place.
Admittedly, I am not sure if I can concur with Norman Davies in calling Prague the most beautiful city in Europe—though it is certainly in the running. For my part there is too much tourism for it to be entirely comfortable; and it must be said that the city suffers from the lack of a really top-notch museum. Even so, nobody can deny that Prague is one of the jewels of this continent. There is something for everyone here—for the history buffs, for the art-lovers, and, yes, for the aficionados of knick-knacks and beer.
The train from Munich crawled through the city’s surroundings towards the central train station. We were entering Vienna. I gazed eagerly through the window, but could discern nothing save for the usual nondescript buildings, the industrial wreckage, and the bleak tracks and power cables that surrounds every modern city like a cage. Nevertheless I was excited. I had just finished Stefan Zweig’s absorbing autobiography, The World of Yesterday, which portrays the Vienna of the pre-War years (before World War I, that is), in loving detail. But I hardly needed Zweig’s description to know that I was entering one of Europe’s cultural capitals, where great artists, writers, and especially musicians lived and worked.
Thus I felt a little disoriented when I stepped off the train and found myself on a city street. I don’t know what I was expecting—a giant opera house or a city-sized museum—but certainly not an ordinary street, full of ordinary people, doing ordinary things. Indeed, the scene that confronted me was rather ugly, full of glass office buildings surrounded by yellow cranes (no doubt busy erecting more glass office buildings). Yet the disillusion quickly passed, since, after storing my bags in a luggage locker, I went straight to the Belvedere Palace Museum, a quick ten-minute walk away. Thus before I could even glimpse the city I was plunged into its art.
The Belvedere Palace consists of two buildings, an upper and a lower, both built during the Baroque period. They are separated by a lovely orangerie, a French-style garden full of neoclassical statues, carefully pruned ferns, decorous fountains, and artificial ponds. From the Upper Belvedere (where the museum’s most famous art is located), the visitor can see Vienna’s center looming beyond, with its cathedral’s dark spire splitting the skyline. It is a lovely place, worth visiting even if it were not full of famous works of art; and its design, by Johann Lukas von Hildebrant, proved stylistically influential. But I am no connoisseur of palaces or their deadening pomp. So after a quick walk around the gardens, I queued up and passed through the ornate lobby into the museum.
The Upper Belvedere’s collection focuses on art from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The highlight of its collection, and the reason why so many tourists bother visiting, is its extensive collection of Klimt’s work. For my part I knew close to nothing about Gustav Klimt before my visit; thus I felt somewhat out of place in such a horde of gaping spectators. Klimt is much more famous than I had suspected. There was a frenetic energy in the Klimt rooms, much like the atmosphere in the Louvre around the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, with tour groups jostling for photos (which are inevitably ruined by other jostling tourists). What was all the fuss about?
The first works I encountered were of plants, trees, and other natural scenes. Klimt’s style immediately struck me for its resemblance to wallpaper. An eye for pattern and design transforms everything into an ornament: the colors decorate rather than delineate, and any sense of depth is flattened into the scheme. As I gazed into the swarming mass of greens, pinks, reds, blues, and yellows, I felt a tingling sense of pleasure, like that of drinking cool soda water on a hot day. Every element of the paintings was subservient to a sense of texture, an almost tactile use of color. I would not call them beautiful, but they are very pretty.
But Klimt’s most famous works are not of nature, but of women. These combine his taste for the ornate with a surprisingly frank sensuality; and the combination has proven popular.
Judith and the Head of Holofernes illustrates this perfectly. Klimt takes the original story from the Book of Judith—about a widow visiting an enemy force and decapitating its general, Holofernes, traditionally interpreted as an act of pious devotion—and turns it into one of the most iconic images of the femme fatale. The disrobed Judith looks at the viewer with an extraordinary expression, a perfect mixture of scorn and invitation, of seduction and triumph. Her carefully realistic skin contrasts sharply with the abstract two-dimensional background, made from gold-leaf, which makes her seem to pop out from a graphic design. Though the painting celebrates the triumph of woman over man, to me it represents the double poles of fear and desire of the male gaze—the sex drive tinged with castration anxiety, to use a Freudian expression (as we must, in his home city).
Even more famous than this painting is The Kiss. Indeed, it is so famous it can hardly be properly seen, which is the irony of so many famous painting. The crowds they attract make it impossible for the visitor to observe closely, to ponder, to become completely absorbed in the work. To give the museum credit, they have set up a printed copy of the work in an adjoining room, marked “Kiss Selfie Point,” in the hopes that selfie-seekers would go there and leave the original unmolested. But it did not work. Dozens of people were gathered around, all busy taking pictures of each other and of themselves, and seemingly none actually looking at the painting.
All this notwithstanding, I can see why the painting has become so iconic. The woman kneels on a flowery meadow, her lover bending down to kiss her cheek. The poses are exaggerated and unnatural, reminding me of Mannerism; the man’s neck in particular seems painfully bent. Yet all the attention is focused on the woman’s face, which wears a look of rapturous joy. They are both wrapped in golden clokes, the man’s with a stiff vertical design, the woman’s with swirling spirals, which serve to obscure their bodies into one amorphous whole. The composition of the figures, situated at the top of the canvass, makes it seem as if all nature—the earth, the flowers, the stars—are swelling and concentrating themselves on this one blissful moment.
Having said all this in Klimt’s praise, I must admit that I am not particularly fond of his work. At best the strike me as excellent graphic designs, absorbing and attractive, but failing to touch any strong emotional or intellectual keys in me.
The Upper Belvedere has more to offer besides the world’s best collection of Klimt. One painting which stands out in my memory is a pentaptych (consisting of five separate panels) by Hans Makart, portraying the five senses in allegorical form, as female nudes engaged in symbolic poses—looking at a mirror, cupping an ear, smelling a flower, reaching for an apple, or resting a hand on a cloth. The painting is saved from its potentially trite theme and shallow symbolism by excellent technique and tasteful execution; the result is an ode to sensuality, which artfully represents Makart’s own views on ‘Total Art’ (art that appeals to all the senses). As you may know this idea is mostly associated with Wagner, and indeed the two of them were friends in life. The sensuality of Makart’s work was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a notable influence on Klimt, who is said to have worshipped him.
Another famous painting on display is Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. This is one of five surviving versions by the painter, the others scattered around Europe. The original painting, which hangs in Malmaison, was commissioned by Napoleon to send to Charles IV of Spain after the two countries’ rapprochement following the strife of the Revolution. (Charles sent Napoleon a portrait of himself by Goya.) The painting is executed in David’s characteristic neoclassical style, turning Napoleon into a second Alexander the Great. Though the heroic ethos of David’s paintings is ethically questionable at best—the worship of warriors and conquerors is something I have trouble understanding—his works are undeniably visually striking and impressive, and this one is no exception.
The only other work I will mention (though there are many more deserving of note, ranging stylistically from neoclassicism to romanticism to impressionism) is the collection of busts by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. These are hard to miss: they cover an entire wall in the museum and, besides, are unlike any other busts in the world. Rather than sculpt images of calm dignity, Messerschmidt made a collection of extreme expressions and distorted features. Apparently he achieved this by pinching himself and observing his reactions in the mirror. They must have been awfully painful pinches, since many of the busts portray horrendous grimaces. But pain is not all he captured; some are smiling maniacally, some have their lips pursed like an old lecher, some are engaged in a terrific yawn, and so on, covering everything from delirium to disgust. It strikes one as a little silly at first; but given how often we tense up our faces—from pain, from pleasure, from a curious odor—we may rank Messerschmidt as a more accurate chronicler of the human soul than many more famous sculptors.
After taking in my fill of art, I returned to the train station, picked up my bags, and went off to check in to my Airbnb. The gap between my arrival in a city and the check-in time of my accomodations, by the way, is something that had been troubling me. For how can I take advantage of arriving early if I have to drag my bags around until the afternoon? The luggage lockers in train stations have proven to be the best way to solve this problem; and I recommend their use to any similarly beset travelers.
Now it was time to see the old city center. The first thing I noticed is that Vienna is very flat. Everything seemed situated on a level plain, which somehow made distances seem longer. Little deviations in angle help to make one feel progression; without that, one feels as though one is on a treadmill. The wide and long avenues also contributed to this impression: I felt small in the openness of the city’s streets, trying to traverse a space too expansive for my puny legs. But what most struck me about Vienna was the city’s unified aesthetic. Everything is built in a grand, stately style, in a noble marble-white. Walking around the center, you do indeed get the impression that you are wandering around a massive palace or museum or opera house, or rather some combination of all of the above. And this is not very far from the truth.
Vienna is sometimes called the “City of Music,” and the city will not let you forget it. Concerts are everywhere. Salesmen sporting white wigs and dressed in fluffy satin suits walk the streets selling tickets to see performances of Mozart and Beethoven. It is no wonder that the city is known for music, considering that not only Mozart and Beethoven, but also Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg have worked here. Nevertheless I find it somewhat depressing that the genuine cultural vibrancy that made the city so famous—the universal love of art that Zweig lovingly describes in his autobiography, in which the theater and the opera were universal obsessions—have been turned into a kind of parody of what it was, a tourist industry, in which cookie-cutter performances of canonical works are sold to tourists, the majority of whom have only a very limited interested in classical music. I suppose this is only to be expected, considering that the profit motive of the vendors harmonizes with the desire of the tourist for iconic experiences.
All this being said, it is no doubt true that Vienna still has a thriving performance scene. This is evidenced by the city’s several opera houses, the most famous of which being the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. This is a monumental and dignified building, built in the nineteenth century, in which Gustav Mahler worked as a conductor. Though I unfortunately did not take this opportunity (since I didn’t know at the time), it is possible to buy cheap standing-room tickets 80 minutes before a show. Another notable venue in Vienna is the Burgtheater, a elegantly decorated circular building near the Town Hall. I did not venture within, but from the outside I observed busts of Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing hovering above me, the gods of German theater. This theater, still popular, has historically been important in the German-speaking world for its trend-setting style.
From there I walked to Vienna’s lovely neo-gothic city hall, situated at the end of a large plaza. Opened in 1883, the building bears a strong resemblance to Munich’s neo-gothic town hall (built around the same time). I suppose this resemblance is due to both structures owing much to Brussels’ authentically gothic city hall. On the day I visited there was an outdoor fair set up, and the square was full of trailers and tents selling appetizing food. Though I was tempted by Indian curry and Turkish kebab, I decided that, since I was in Vienna, I had better have a sausage. It was spicy, filled with cheese, and came with warm potato salad. The Austrians, like the Germans, certainly know how to accompany a beer.
Near the City Hall (or Rathaus, in the teutonic speech) is Universität Wien’s central building. It does not look especially interesting from the street; but after wandering inside I found myself in a lovely courtyard, whose shaded walk enclosed busts of the notable Austrian intellectuals that have been associated with the university. There I found Freud’s scowling face, whose enormous forehead and glowering eyes reveal a man who sought dark secrets. Much more cheerful is Karl Popper, who looks eminently professorial and harmless, even avuncular—though I think the real Popper was not so mild. Erwin Schrödinger looks completely abstracted, as if lost in an uncomfortable dream (presumably featuring a cat); his bust has his famous equation—used to calculate quantum effects—written beneath his name. Vienna is certainly not short on intellectuals.
Klimt was famously commissioned to decorate the Great Hall of this university in 1894. When he finally revealed his designs for Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, the university reacted with shock and alarm, declaiming the works as pornographic and refusing to install them. The originals no longer survive, since the Nazis reportedly destroyed them during their retreat, though this is not confirmed. Judging from the surviving photographs, the works are quite impressive allegorical designs—both deeply original and visually striking. That being said, the profusion of nude women is hardly in keeping with the sober dignity of an old university. But when they commissioned Klimt, what did they expect?
Next to the university is the Sigmund Freud Park, where I observed college students in their native habitat—bent over cheap takeout noodles, their heads buried in books. This park is presided over by the Votivkirche, an excellent example of neo-gothic architecture, comparable even to St. Patrick’s in New York City. Its name (“Votive Church”) alludes to its construction: it was built to give thanks to God after a failed assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853, for saving the emperor’s life. God may have not been so pleased, seeing as Franz Joseph lived to see the death of his brother, his wife, and his son (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and to witness the beginning of the Great War which would end his empire for good. Lovely as the church is, I could not properly appreciate its form, since it was being restored when I visited; and so its façade was covered with scaffolding, which in turn was covered with a giant advertisement. Nowadays even churches are billboards.
Vienna’s most famous church may be the Peterskirche. This was remodeled by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt, who you may remember as the same man who designed the Belvedere Palace. Though the outside of the church is, in my opinion, unremarkable, its inside is quite impressive, decorated from top to bottom in a florid yet tasteful Baroque. Outside the church’s front entrance is the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, a memorial to the Great Plague epidemic of 1679. The column is bursting with forms and figures, using a complex iconography to represent the victory of faith over the threatening disease (in those days thought to be caused by sin). Though full of angels, the bulbous form of the column manages to be quite grotesque, which I think is appropriate given what it commemorates.
One more church deserves mention. On one of my walks back to my Airbnb I stumbled upon the Karlskirche, which unfortunately was closed when I found it. Yet, even from the outside, the church leaves an impression for its monumental size and for the spiral columns (inspired by Trajan’s column) that flank its entrance. The Karlskirche is only a five-minute walk from another of Vienna’s treasures: the Naschmarkt. This is a street market that has existed since the sixteenth century. Now, I am no foodie, nor do I enjoy shopping for exotic products. Nevertheless I was impressed by the vast display of fresh fruits and vegetables, of spices and herbs, of candies and baked goods, all of which seem to go on forever—indeed, it was almost unbearable to witness, since I visited on an empty stomach (but didn’t leave that way).
Yet dwarfing even the finest of these churches in size and splendor is Vienna’s Cathedral, the Stephansdom. Its profile is unmistakable. The front entrance of the cathedral (to the west) is flanked by two Romanesque towers, rising up in grandiose dignity. To the back is the cathedral’s famous southern bell tower, a massive gothic spire that can be seen from many corners of the city, a feature as characteristic of Vienna’s skyline as is the Duomo in Florence. Yet the Cathedral’s most striking feature is not its towers nor its profile, but its colorful roof. The Stephansdom’s slanted roof is decorated with glazed tiles; on the southern side these are arranged into a bright diagonal pattern; and on the north the tiles create Vienna’s and Austria’s coats of arms. The inside of the cathedral is decorated in a high gothic style and contains the tomb of Emperor Frederick III, who was responsible for obtaining cathedral-status for the church from Pope Paul II.
I feel that I am rambling on about Vienna, and yet failing to capture the flavor of the city—a city which for so long was one of the great cultural and political centers of the continent. “Center” is the operative word here, since the city leaves no doubt that it was the seat of power and the ultimate arbiter of artistic taste. Yet I am cataloguing buildings as if they were a random assemblage, while Vienna seldom feels haphazard or fortuitous; rather the city feels planned down the last centimeter, like one giant palatial complex. Indeed, you might say that the city seems to grow out of the labyrinthine Hofburg Palace in the city center. This palace served as the winter residence of the omnipotent Habsburgs for generations; and it is still occupied by the President of Austria.
The most iconic view of the palace is from the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square, a crushingly vast, open space that features two heroic equestrian statues: of Archduke Charles of Austria, and of Prince Eugene of Savoy, two of Austria’s greatest generals. Facing this plaza are the arching wings of the Neue Burg, the newer section of the palace (built in the 1800s), whose arms sweep out like a giant embrace. This is only a fraction of the palace, however, which expands chaotically through the area. Built over a span of centuries, the Hofburg lacks the unified grandeur of, say, Versailles or the Schönbrunn. Indeed, when I visited I could not tell where it begun or ended.
Nowadays the gargantuan complex, in addition to being the official residence of Austria’s leader, is the home of several institutions. One wonders how any emperor, however egotistical and vain, could ever have used so much space. The aforementioned Neue Burg, for example, is home to an ethnology museum, a museum of arms and armor, and a museum of musical instruments. Elsewhere in the complex is Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School, which puts on horse shows that are a popular attraction. (I didn’t go.) The Imperial Treasure is also on display—with its bejewelled crowns and scepters and other ornaments of power—though no doubt well guarded. What attracted me most was the Court Library (now part of the Austrian National Library), famous for its gorgeously decorated Punksaal (“State Hall”). And this is only a taste of the behemoth.
Right next door to the Neue Burg of the Hofburg is the Maria-Theresien-Platz, an attractive square named for the statue of Empress Maria Theresa in its center. Two of Vienna’s most famous museums face each other from across the square: the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of the History of Art) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (the Museum of Natural History). These are housed in matching grand, palatial buildings, topped with a dome, which creates a satisfying symmetry across the square. The two buildings were built under the reign of the unhappy Franz Joseph in order to make the imperial art and science collections public—for which we may heartily thank him. Though both museums are popular attractions, the art museum is indisputably the more so. Being in all things a follower, I visited this one.
The museum building itself is attractive. A mock-palace decorated in a neoclassical style, each room is well-tailored to the art it displays: providing a charming but not distracting background. The exception to this is the central stairwell, which is adorned with statues of heroes and lions, and whose ceiling and walls are covered in paintings. Klimt is responsible for a few of these paintings, such as a nude Cleopatra that occupies a nook. Not only is the building itself impressive, but the exhibitions are expertly arranged and displayed. It is an excellent institution.
Despite the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s name, the museum is not an attempt to portray the whole history of art. The collection is, rather, the result of the tastes of Emperors and the periods of their glory. Thus we begin with antiquities—Egyptian and Greco-Roman—for the Empire funded and commissioned many excavations in the years when it was easier to simply take artifacts from their native lands. I admit that it was difficult for me to pay proper attention to these collections, since I was in Austria to learn about Austria, not Egypt or Greece. This is a shame, however, as the collections are undeniably impressive, well-organized and displayed, and featuring thousands of items—many of them beautiful and all of them instructive. Of particular note is the Cult Chamber of Ka-ni-nisut (a section of an Old Egyptian Temple) and marvelous Gemma Augusta, a delicately carved inscribed gem from a Roman workman.
From these relics of ancient peoples the collection jumps to the high point of Habsburg in the Kunstkammer rooms. A Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer (normally translated as “chamber of curiosities”) originated during the Renaissance as a kind of private a museum, a collection of strange and rare objects to stimulate the mind (and sometimes thought to have occult properties). The other examples I have seen contained fossils (not understood at the time), stuffed exotic animals, and foreign artifacts. But the Kunstkammer in the Kunsthistorisches Museum is full to the brim of luxury items, the most striking of which are delicate creations in gold. Far from the product of intellectual curiosity, this collection seems more to be a display of wealth.
The most notable item in this section is the salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini. I was especially keen to see this, since I had read and loved Cellini’s roguish autobiography—possibly my favorite example of the genre—in which he repeatedly boasts that he is the best goldsmith in the world, even of all time. So I was curious to see whether his boasting was justified. It was. I find it depressing to think that this man, who wrote one of the great books of the Italian Renaissance, was also an extremely accomplished artist. Some people can do everything. The cellar contains two reclining figures: a man representing the sea, and a woman representing the earth. Each is seated next to decorous boxes, one to contain salt, the other pepper. The craftsmanship is exquisite in every detail: the bodies lithe and expressive, the ornamentation sumptuous. Imagine having something like that at your dinner table.
Though the Cellini Salt Cellar is without doubt the highlight of the Kunstkammer rooms for its artistry, it is only a small part of the extraordinary display of craftsmanship and wealth. A succession of Habsburgs used their combination of resources and connections to assemble a vast collection of scientific instruments, statuettes, models, clocks, lamps, and decorative plates, trays, and cutlery, all of it made with the finest craftsmanship out of the most expensive materials. And yet, aside from Cellini’s cellar, the display produced in me little more than an admiration for the fine skill required, and a mixture of awe and disgust at the flaunting of riches.
After exploring the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Habsburg rooms, I thought there could be little more to see in the museum. But I was blissfully wrong. The second floor of the museum is a world-class painting gallery, comparable to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum or even Madrid’s Prado. The collection mainly contains works by Germanic, Dutch, and Flemish artists, though there are some notable exceptions. One of these is Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadow, with the rosy-faced Virgin Mary watching over the infant John the Baptist and Jesus, playing in a field. The painting exhibits the Renaissance master’s smooth forms, agreeable colors, and harmonious compositions. Also notable are the several works by Velazquez on display, which were originally given as a gift by the Spanish to the Austrian Habsburgs.
Other paintings call out for attention: several excellent portraits by Jan Van Eyck, self-portraits by Peter Paul Rubens (looking resplendent) and Rembrandt (looking rather shabby), and one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Art of Painting, which portrays a painter (himself, presumably) engaged in painting a woman dressed in blue (possibly his daughter). As is usual with Vermeer, an expert composition is matched with exquisite realism, blending the iconic and the intimate. On the one hand, the painting looks like a snapshot of an ordinary day; you can almost guess the time of day from the shadowing on the crickled map on the far wall. And yet, once examined, the painting reveals itself to be anything but casual, but even more carefully composed than the painting which is being painted in the painting.
All of these wonderful works notwithstanding, the highlight of the gallery is indisputably its collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The acknowledged master of the Flemish Renaissance, Bruegel began his career as an engraver of prints, and only took up the brush comparatively late in his short life (he died at around the age of 40). Even so, he left us with a treasury of paintings, which combine the engraver’s eye for detail with an earthy humor and an ironic sensibility, making him one of Europe’s great artists.
Perhaps I enjoyed Bruegel’s work so much because there were influenced by another of my favorite artists, Hieronymus Bosch. This is most apparent in Bruegel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent, which tackles the typical Boschian theme of the combat between sin and piety in the typical Boschian manner of a vast panorama. In the lower-left of the large town square the people boisterously celebrate Carnival, with all the hilarity, mirth, and drunkenness expected; and in the upper right, robed figures and well-behaved children carry out the abstemious rituals of Lent. The riot of detail is too much for the eye to take in at a glance, or even several; and no central narrative emerges from the busy activity of the town. The closest thing to a central action is the joust between the figure of Carnival, a fat man seated on a barrel, being pushed by drunkards, wielding a skewer, and Lent, a skinny, miserably figure in religious vestments, being pulled by a monk and a nun. Both of these figures are pure Bosch in their exaggerated ghastliness, down to the odd objects sitting on their heads.
Another remarkable panorama by Bruegel is his painting, Children’s Games, which shows hundreds of kids engaged in dozens of sorts of play—with masks, with dolls, in groups, by themselves, climbing, rolling, play acting, and so on—creating a veritable anthology of childhood. But Bruegel’s artistry is not confined to these social summaries. He was also deeply sensitive to the beauties of nature, as is shown in his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow. I do not think that I am the only one to feel a peaceful sense of sublimity in this work. Somehow Bruegel has captured the feeling of the hours after snowfall, when the world is frozen still and silent, and the works of human hands are humbled in the anonymous white of winter. When I visited there was a guest artist busy making a copy of the work, which I admire, for there is much to learn in this work.
Yet my favorite work in the Bruegel collection is his Tower of Babel, the most convincing representation of that mythical tower I know of. I admit I am predisposed to like the painting because the story is among my favorits of the Bible. It shows how much we humans, individually weak, can accomplish if we unite together—a power so great as to even make God in heaven tremble, since He decided that He had better scatter us and confuse our speech if He was to defend his astral territory. The story seems so prescient, too, considering that we have succeeded in leaving earth and entered the heavens, and with the help of two universal languages: English and mathematics, the international languages of science. Though the story has traditionally been interpreted as an allegory for humanity’s presumption, I tend to see it as an allegory for the potential of cooperation. Thus I feel a strange pathos when I look at Bruegel’s image of the unfinished—never to be finished—tower, dominating the landscape and brushing away the clouds.
This does it for my tour of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. But one museum remains: the Sigmund Freud Museum.
This is located in the apartment were the psychoanalyst lived and worked for over 40 years, on Berggasse 19. I believe the rest of the apartments in the building are still residencial. To enter I had to queue up on the stairwell, since only a limited number of visitors can be admitted at any one time, due to the limited space. I admit that I was somewhat disappointed by the museum. You see, when Freud fled the Nazis and moved to London, he was able to take all of his furniture (such as the famous couch) with him; so the museum in Vienna is largely bereft of its original furnishings. (There is a Freud Museum in London in which you can see what his house and office looked like.) Instead, the exhibition mainly consists of information and photographs, with a few antique items on display.
Even though I did not learn very much about Freud—since I already knew a fair amount about the psychoanalyst before my visit—it was still special to know that I was standing in the apartment of somebody whose thoughts had changed the world. For even if Freud’s ideas are bunk as science and questionable as therapy, he undoubtedly contributed to our concept of the human condition, helping to erode the old Platonic idea in rational beings, and instead accustoming us to the now-common notion of unconscious, unreasonable, and ugly motivations. Since Freud, we have not been able to trust so blithely in the logic of our thoughts or the purity of our actions; and I think this is ultimately a good thing: since blindness to the animal within makes us unable to restrain it.
Evening was falling now, and I was going to leave the next day. I was tired and sore from having walked all day for days on end; but there was one more place to visit: the Schönbrunn Palace.
Sometimes called the “Versailles of Vienna” (which is somewhat Francocentric, I think), the Schönbrunn (literally, “Beautiful Fountain”) is the marvelous palace that, for hundreds of years, was used by the Habsburgs as a summer residence. As such, it stands in the center of Austrian history. Franz Joseph, Austria’s aforementioned last emperor, was born, lived, and died within these walls. Located about an hour’s walk from the center, the palace is accessible by metro, tram, and bus for the foot-weary, and is easily worth the detour.
As it stands today, the Schönbrunn mainly owes its monumental, neoclassical form to that remarkable empress, Maria Theresa. It is painted a cheerful yellow color, which helps to humanize the inhuman proportions of the building. The visitor entering from the street passes two imperial eagles, elevated on columns, which lead into a stone courtyard. By the time I arrived the palace was closed (which did not much bother me, since I prefer gardens anyhow). So I walked around the monumental pile to the other side, which opens up into the palace’s orangerie.
The gardens are arranged in the orderly French style, with rows of ferns adorned with classicalizing statues of heroes and gods. These lead up a gentle hill to the famous Gloriette, a kind of ceremonial structure, vaguely reminiscent of a triumphal arch, built to celebrate Habsburg power. I slowly ascended the slope until I reached its modest peak. The grass swells like an ocean wave on its way down the hill; and at the bottom, flower patches lead up to the palace, which does not look so presumptuously big from up here, and whose yellow façade grows agreeably in the sunset light. Vienna is stretched out in the distance, almost completely flat, save for the dark spire of a church silhouetted against the pink sky. I wrote in my diary: “The clouds look painted. I can almost see the brushstrokes.”
I made my way back down through a side path, which took me through a more wooded area and passed near the palace’s zoo. Some large animal—a lion, a bear, or even an elephant—was growling powerfully in its enclosure. The deep and throaty roar made my hair stand on end; the sound was so deep it even seemed to shake the leaves on the trees. A panic momentarily came over me; and this instinctual fear quickened my senses and snapped me out of my fatigue. I was here, I was in Vienna, listening to an elephant in the palace gardens.
Finally I reached the bottom of the hill and passed by the palace on my way back to my apartment. As I passed, strains of music caught my ears. A concert of chamber music was being held in the palace; and by standing nearby, I could hear the players quite well. It was Mozart, whose composition accompanied my final moments of wonder in the City of Music.
The next day, as I waited for my train to take me to the airport, I wrote these concluding thoughts in my diary:
Every day I ingest Culture, sometimes so much I can hardly swallow it all without feeling ill. What effect does all the art-viewing and book-reading have on me? Does the sophisticated, elegant, finely crafted decorations of, say, an Egyptian sarcophagus create any reflected, echoed, imprinted form in my mind? Do I gain something from visually processing the forms of brilliant men and women? My mind has its limits, which I feel all the more keenly when I measure myself against these artists.
If you wish to see a German Altstadt (historic center) that escaped the fire and the bombs of the Second World War, you will need to go to a smaller city than Munich and Nuremberg. For this I took a day trip to Bamberg, a city about 60 kilometers north of Nuremberg, an hour away by train. The city of 75,000 souls is wrapped around the winding river Regnitz. Like Rome the city is built upon seven hills, each one topped with a church. Thus it is a city of sweeping views and picturesque quays by the riverside.
The historic center of Bamberg has been a designated UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993, not only for its excellent preservation, but also for its historical importance. The ecclesiastical architecture and the town’s layout proved influential throughout the rest of Germany (or at least that is what the UNESCO website says); and Bamberg also played an important part in the German Enlightenment, being where the philosopher G.F. Hegel and the writer E.T.A. Hoffman spent many years. For my part, I arrived in Bamberg completely ignorant of its history and I have improved very little since then. I just wanted to take some nice photos.
The most iconic image of Bamberg is the Altes Rathaus, or the old town hall. It is built on a little island in the middle of the river, with part of the structure hanging over the water. A bridge goes through the building and out the other side, connecting the island with both sides of the land, making it look like a man holding hands with two partners. Since it proved too small for the intricate bureaucracy of the current age, the building is no longer used as a town hall, but now houses the Museum of the City of Bamberg. No doubt the town hall erected to replace this one has no charming façade or bright colors, since we have grown out of such quaint customs.
On a nearby bridge you can see Igor Mitoraj’s sculpture, Centurion, an attractive fragment of a sharp Roman visage. From here Bamberg’s “Little Venice” comes into view, a colorful row of fisherman’s houses along the riverside. They don’t have gondolas but they do have ducks. I walked a short circuit along the south side of the river, returning on the north. At this time the coffee from this morning had hit my bladder, which is one of the traveler’s most persistent distractions. Luckily I found a public restroom along the river’s northern edge. Yet like seemingly all the restrooms in Central Europe it cost 50 cents to use, which I think is rather steep for a bodily function—though in fairness, the bathroom was quite clean.
Now it was time to ascend one of Bamberg’s famous hills, for I wanted to see the city’s cathedral. After the Altes Rathaus, this is Bamberg’s most recognizable structure, with the cathedral’s four spires topping a hill like an iron crown. It is a late Romanesque edifice that reminded me somewhat of Toulouse’s Basilica of Saint-Sernin; the cathedral’s massive form lacks that ebullient pointiness of later gothic structures, instead preserving a sort of grand dignity with its symmetrical mass. The cathedral is noteworthy for being one of the few places outside of Italy where a pope is buried—in this case, Pope Clement II (1005-47). A more attractive grave is reserved for Heinrich II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 to 1024. The sarcophagi, which shows scenes from the emperor’s life, was carved several hundred years after his death by the German Renaissance sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. Standing watch nearby is the famous Bamberger Reiter, an equine sculpture portraying a dashing man of uncertain identity.
By now I was hungry, so I walked to some food stands I had seen earlier in the Grüner Markt square. There I indulged in a modern classic of German cuisine, Currywurst: a pork sausage drenched in ketchup spiced with curry. It may sound strange but tastes exactly how you would expect—though for my part the curry flavor is always too mild. In any case, it is filling, sweet, and salty, and does not leave me feeling particularly well. To complete the experience I had a Bavarian Weißbier, which literally means “white beer” but is really wheat beer. It is a rather sweet and light brew, with hardly any bitterness (since few hops are used) or sourness (since more wheat than malt is used). I much prefer them to pilsners. Having topped all this off with another coffee, you can imagine that I was soon paying for the bathrooms once again.
Having got my fill of grease, alcohol, and caffeine, I went off once again to see Bamberg. As I walked aimlessly on, I happened upon a building with a commemorative plaque on the side, which announced that Hegel stayed here while writing his famous Phänomenologie des Geistes, which I had painfully read the year before. I reached out my hand and touched the building with all the reverence due to Teutonic obscurity. From there I went to see the Hoffman house, which has since been converted into a museum about the polymath’s life. I went inside but everything on the walls was written in German, and I did not feel like fighting a battle.
Next I went to the top of another hill, to see the Michaelsberg Abbey. This is no longer an abbey, but a retirement home; but the abbey church is still open—at least, it normally is. When I arrived the building was covered in a thick mass of scaffolding; the church is undergoing substantial repairs and has been closed since 2016. But the abbey is surrounded by attractive gardens; and the patio still offers a wonderful view of Bamberg. On the day I went there were several gliders floating around in the air, their long white wings difficult to see against the clouds. I imagine it would be peaceful to be in one of those, sailing around the sky.
After walking along some more, enjoying the tree-lines streets that wind up and down the hills, examining the charming stone and wood-framed buildings that make the town feel so idyllically rustic, I came upon the Alte Hofhaltung and the Neue Residenz. The former is a lovely building with a steep roof and timber balconies that acted as a sort of palace for the bishops until the seventeenth century, when they moved to the Neue Residenz, a bigger, grander, but somewhat lifeless neoclassical structure nearby. Drunk with the scenery, I continued walking up the hill away from the river, until I came upon the Jacobskirche. This church, dedicated to St. James, was located outside of the now-demolished city walls, and acted as an important stop on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage that terminates in Spain. I was surprised and delighted to see signs of the Camino in a distant land, and I enjoyed the peacefulness of the church’s Romanesque interior.
From there it isn’t far to leave the city altogether, entering some of the lush forests that surround Bamberg. On my offline map—I was using the application maps.me to get around—I found a lookout point in a grassy field. Though much of the city center was hidden from view, I could see the whole surrounding valley, with wind turbines on a distant hillside, and the town’s industrial sector off to my left, with freight trains rumbling by. Bavaria is an astonishingly lovely place—at least in summer. The town is surrounded by an extensive system of trails, something which the residents themselves—the Germans are an outdoorsy people—amply take advantage of.
Now the hour of my return train to Nuremberg was approaching. So I walked back into town and back towards the train station. On my way I stopped at the Obere Pfarrekirche, or Upper Parish Church, also called the Church of Our Lady. This is the only purely gothic church in the city; and its altar and ceiling frescos are lovely to behold. Sadly, I missed the opportunity to visit one of Bamberg’s many breweries. In the finest Bavarian tradition, the city has its own local brews and is spotted with beer cellars. Truly, Bamberg is a garden of delights, bucolic and picturesque, and I wish I could have spent more time there.
If there is one city more strongly associated with National Socialism than Munich, it is Nuremberg. For it was here that the Nazis had their infamous rallies, and also here that the Nazi leaders were tried and convicted after the war. But even without these epochal events, the city would be worth visiting, for it has the same charming combination of an attractive city center and a Bavarian beer culture that makes Munich so popular. And as the second-biggest city in Bavaria, after Munich itself, Nuremberg has quite a lot to see.
When I arrived in Nuremberg I was in a sour mood. I was coming to the city from Prague (a place for another post), and had very thoughtfully planned the trip by buying a bus ticket beforehand. But I failed to take into account that the metro runs more slowly on Sundays; and so my trip took ten fatal minutes more than planned, and I arrived at the station just as the bus was pulling away. Thus I had to buy a ticket for the next bus, which cost twice as much as the one I already had and which lost me two precious hours in Nuremberg. Admittedly this is not very important; but I hate wasting money and I felt like a fool for not giving myself more time to get to the bus.
But my ill temper was soon alleviated as I walked around the center of Nuremberg. This was my first trip with my new camera, a Canon Rebel T6—all my photography before having been with my phone—so I eagerly marched through the city, snapping photos like a maniac of anything and everything that caught my eye. And this was quite a lot of things, since the old center of Nuremberg is a handsome place.
Like Munich, Berlin, and so many German cities, Nuremberg’s original old center was sadly bombed out of existence during the Second World War. The ability to aim bombs back then was rudimentary at best; and in any case I do not think the Allied bombers were apt to be very careful, since one of their goals was to demoralize the population. I do not know whether or not it would have significantly impeded the war effort to have tried to avoid destroying these historic cities, but still I find it sad that so much great architecture went up in flames and was reduced to rubble. War and art are perpetual enemies. Lucky for us, however, the people of Nuremberg reconstructed their historic city after the war; and if not perfectly replicated, the result is still very fine.
Nuremberg has historically been a walled city; and the old center still stands behind high walls, lookout towers, and an old moat that has been converted into a park. Nuremberg’s central square is the Hauptmarkt, which in December is home of a Christmas market, and all year long has stalls selling fruits, vegetables, sweets, preserves, and other delicacies. The square is presided over by the noble Frauenkirche (“Church of Our Lady”), a brick gothic structure whose stepping roof leads up to a central clock, under which the Holy Roman Emperor sits enthroned in a golden robe, surrounded by counselors. The church is rather unusual in having a balcony above its front portal. This was originally because the Holy Roman Emperors wanted to use the church for ceremonial functions. Nowadays it is used to give the opening speech of the Christkindlesmarkt.
In the center of the Hauptmarkt is the Schöner Brunnen (“beautiful fountain”), whose tall, golden, gothic spire juts into the air, decorated with statues representing the liberal arts, the church fathers, and other political and religious figures important to the Holy Roman Empire. The fountain is aptly named.
Right next to this central square is the river Pegnitz, which runs right through the center of the city, and whose calm surface is never free of a couple loafing ducks. From the city’s well-preserved Fleishbrücke (literally, “meat bridge”)—a lovely Renaissance bridge that escaped the bombs—you can see the Heilig-Geist-Spital (Holy Ghost Hospital), a pretty building that extends out into the river, supported by two arches. Built in 1399, it long served its medical function, in addition to being a kind of old folks’ home and, from 1424 to 1796, the depository of the imperial jewels. Originally there was a church attached to the building, but the bombs destroyed it in 1945 and it wasn’t rebuilt. But there is a nice restaurant there nowadays, apparently.
The most magnificent church in Nuremberg is, without doubt, the Lorenzkirche, or St. Lorenz Church. This is a Lutheran church which was another casualty of the world war, not destroyed but badly damaged. But it has been restored magnificently. The imposing gothic façade gives way to an equally impressive interior, whose vaulting, statues, and stained glass form a harmoniously somber whole. Standing on the other side of the old town is the almost equally majestic Sebalduskirche, which has the same curiously hunchbacked profile as the Lorenzkirche. This distinctive shape resulted, I believe, from converting an older cruciform church into a larger gothic building, raising the side aisles and adding an ambulatory in the back. In any case, it is another damaged and well-restored structure, which preserves the original shrine of St. Sebaldus, Nuremberg’s patron saint. (I was under the impression that Lutherans don’t have shrines to saints, but apparently I was wrong.)
Presiding over the northern edge of the old city, perched like an enormous eagle on a hill that overlooks the town, is the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg (Kaiserburg Nürnberg). This castle was extensively used by the Holy Roman Emperors, making Nuremberg a sort of unofficial capital of the empire. (This association with the Holy Roman Empire, which Hitler retroactively named the “First Reich,” is one reason why he chose to have his rallies here.) Like everything else, the castle was badly damaged during the war, but has been repaired beautifully; its brown buildings and rust-colored roofs fit in perfectly with the city’s aesthetic.
Walking towards the castle, you may come upon the attractive Tiergärtnerplatz, a plaza surrounded by pretty buildings and, in good weather, full of beer drinkers sitting on the pavement. Nearby is the historic Albrecht Dürer Haus, where the famous painter lived from 1509 until his death. It is a typical municipal dwelling, with a sandstone bottom and a timber-framed top, and houses a museum dedicated to the artist. If you continue from this square up the hill into the castle, you will be rewarded with an excellent view of the city, spread out before you like a dinner table.
Feeling ravenous at this point, I went off to find dinner. For this I went to Som Tam Siam Food, a Thai restaurant in the north of the city that I found online. You may think it’s silly to eat Thai food on a trip to Germany, but it was delicious and cheap, and I didn’t regret a thing. To be fair, the next day I tried the culinary specialty of Nuremberg, which are its bratwurst—greasy, juicy, meaty, delicious sausage. I also treated myself to a German pretzel, which are buttery and rich, much better than the pretzels that are sold on the streets of New York. But I have to admit the Thai food was my favorite; I went back the next day.
It is worth taking a stroll from the city center to one of Nuremberg’s cemeteries, the Johannisfriedhof. In my travels I have discovered that there is a great variety in cemetery design. In Spain, France, Ireland, the United States, and Germany, they all have a distinctive look. The Johannisfriedhof is a lovely open space filled with stone sarcophagi, filled with flowers, ferns, and trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a solemn and silent place, mostly empty, and full of benches to sit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Its most famous inhabitant is Nuremberg’s most famous son, Albrecht Dürer, widely regarded as the greatest of German artists, in a league with the best Renaissance painters for his brilliance. I sadly missed the opportunity to see his iconic Self-Portait at 28, which is in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, yet another of my traveler’s regrets. The artist’s grave is modest and plain, blending in with those surrounding him. His best friend, Willibald Pirckheimer, of whom Dürer made many portraits, is also buried in this cemetery.
My last stop in the city center was the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. It was founded during the eighteenth-century upsurge in cultural interest, and has since grown into a massive institution—Germany’s largest museum of cultural history. I visited on my last day in Nuremberg, when I only had a few hours to explore before going to the airport. This was not nearly enough time to properly see everything—or anything—but how much time is enough will depend, of course, on the visitor’s tastes.
The museum building itself is a sort of artifact, having been converted from an old monastery, like the Musée des Augustines in Toulouse. The lovely old cloisters and church are preserved and stocked with statues, most notably by the local gothic sculptor Adam Kraft. From there the museum seems to expand in every direction. There is a sizable collection of prehistoric and ancient artifacts, including Roman military equipment. One large hall is dedicated to fashion—and walking past so many oddly-dressed mannequins is a little creepy. Directly below is the museum’s impressive exhibition of antique instruments, showing viol de gambas, ornate pianos, obsolete reed instruments, and much more.
In five minutes you can go from the pious passion of gothic painting to the stylish precision of scientific instruments. Among these, the most famous is Martin Behaim’s Erdapfel (“earth apple”), the earliest surviving globe. The map is difficult to read now, discolored and faded with age; but it is obvious that the Americas are not included, since it was made in 1490-92, before Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage in 1493. (This, by the way, is yet another proof that people back then already knew the earth was round.) Leaving no stone unturned, the museum also has a substantial collection of paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Enlightenment periods. This includes Dürer’s imaginary portrait of Charlemagne, a famous miniature portrait of Martin Luther, and several works by Rembrandt. But the museum is impressive for the range and depth of its collections rather than outstanding specimens, though it has its fair number of these too. The place is worth as much time as you care to spend in it.
As everybody knows, Nuremberg’s reputation as a seat of imperial power and the home of the German Renaissance’s most famous representative, Albrecht Dürer, was considerably darkened in the twentieth century. Nowadays it is nearly impossible for most outsiders to think of Nuremberg without immediately thinking of the Nazis. Far from trying to cover up this association, the people of Nuremberg have admirably opened two excellent exhibitions about this dark era, the first at the former rally grounds, the second at the courthouse where the Nazi leaders were put on trial. Because both are on site, they are situated a little far from the center; but they are well worth visiting.
The documentation center at the rally grounds has been built into its largest preserved structure, the Congress Hall. This is a semicircular arena, loosely based on the Coliseum, that could hold 50,000 party members. The documentation center’s metallic exterior seems to spear through the older stone building, creating a visual pun on the name of Albert Speer, the chief Nazi architect. Opened in 2001, the center is designed to explain the rise of Hitler’s party and the part that the Nuremberg rallies played in that story. The ticket automatically comes with an audioguide, which is good, since all of the text in the museum is in German so you have little choice but to listen. The exhibitions are organized by chronology and theme, taking the visitor through the early days of National Socialism, the Beer Hall Putsch and the writing of Mein Kampf, and on to their rise to power—including much else along the way: their ideology and rituals, their organization and methods of control, their use of propaganda and pageantry, and so on. Though there are plenty of photos, the main substance of the exhibit consists in this self-guided tour, making the experience of visit somewhat like listening to an audiobook—though a very good one.
Since I had recently read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a lot of the information was not new to me. The explanations of the actual rituals were, however, new and fascinating. As in my visit to Berlin’s Topography of Terror, what most struck me about the Nazi party was the degree to which its organization, rituals, and ethos of manliness were reminiscent of the Boy Scouts. By this I do not intend to insult boy scouts; rather, mean that, in its rituals and architecture, these rallies were like nightmare versions of boyish fantasies. Propaganda films show grown men roughhousing, partaking in good clean fun, exercising with their mates, laughing and singing songs together, and demonstrating their manly martial prowess in mock battles. The melodramatic gravity of the rituals reminds me of a children’s game, aping the movements and motions of real solemnity while missing their substance. The architecture consists of shallow imitations of classical structures or medieval fortresses; and you get the impression that, like so many boys, they were imagining themselves in an ancient time, in an epoch of emperors and knights and Crusades.
But clearly the rallies were effective. Indeed, during their tenure in power the Nazis proved themselves to be geniuses of propaganda. The rallies’ tight choreography and grand orchestration showcased the dazzling efficiency of the German army. Their massive marches and endless parades reinforced the image of German might. The mixture of military and religious rituals created an effective blend of awe and aggression. The free use of symbols from the past—the ancient Romans, the church, the Holy Roman Empire—impressed on the German people the idea that they were following in the footsteps of illustrious ancestors and fulfilling their destiny. The total coordination of myth, pageantry, rhetoric, and spectacle created a hermetically sealed whole, a cultural space where beauty, truth, and goodness were the party line, and the attendee just a passionate part of a glorious movement. The ability to inspire had never been so abused.
These were the lessons I learned from my visit to the documentation center and a short walk around the remaining buildings. It is a sobering experience.
Somewhat more uplifting is a visit to the Nuremberg Trial courtroom. The room is in the monumental Palace of Justice, Nuremberg’s court building on the other side of town from the Documentation Center. Nuremberg was chosen as the site of the trials partly for the city’s association with Nazism, and also because the Palace of Justice has a sizable adjoining prison. After entering through a side door of the building, paying the entrance fee, and ascending some stairs, the visitor is confronted with Courtroom 600, where the trial actually took place. My first impression was that it was much smaller than I expected, indeed hardly bigger than a civil courtroom I had seen in New York. Admittedly the courtroom is now significantly smaller than it was during the trial, since the back wall was at that time removed to allow for a double-decker gallery of onlookers and reporters.
Even so, it was a small stage on which to create history. For into this modest room there presided judges from the four allied powers (one main and one alternative for each, making eight); a bank of interpreters simultaneously translated between the four official languages (Russian, French, German, and English); prosecutors from every Allied power; defense attorneys for all the 24 accused; the accused themselves; a witness stand; guards, clerks, and amanuenses; and then the press, with cameras and notepads. It must have been very crowded. Standing in that room, I felt that strange mixture of disappointment and awe that historical places create—in this case, disappointment that it is an ordinary courtroom, awe that such normal surroundings could have been host to such a world-changing event. But history does not always leave an obvious mark; and the courtroom—which is still occasionally used—looks clean and polished.
Up another flight of stairs is the main exhibition, which has only been open since 2010. As in the rally grounds, here the visit consists of an audioguide and lots of panels. Really, the amount of information on display is overwhelming; to listen to all of it, one would need two hours at least. But it is good information, giving some idea of the leadup and consequences of the trial, but mainly focusing on the trial itself—its legal bases, its personalities, its progress. The audioguide takes an uncompromising pro-trial stance, which is somewhat surprising, given that they were often seen within Germany as an example of “victor’s justice.” For it hardly seems like a recipe for fairness that the victors to put the leaders of an enemy country on trial. And anyone must admit that the victor’s hands were hardly clean. The most extreme case are the Soviets, who had their own mass killings, invasions, and wars of aggression; but none of the Allies were beyond reproach: many French collaborated, the English appeasement strategy aided Germany’s rise, and America’s bombing of Dresden is nefarious.
Even granting all this, I still think that the Nuremberg Trials were a step forward in the bumbling progress of our species. The victorious powers could simply have shot the Nazis without due process, or have submitted them to a shallow show-trial. It is rather remarkable that we didn’t. As Robert H. Jackson said in his opening speech: “That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.” The trial set new precedents for international law—defining war crimes and crimes against humanity—which served as a model for similar trials ever since, such as those in the wake of the Rwandan massacre or the Balkan Wars. And the trials were instrumental in uncovering the horrible truth of the Nazi atrocities and the full extent of their culpability, since the prosecutors were determined to convict the defendants using their own documents.
If the Nuremberg trials were a victory for Reason, that the city most associated with Nazism could be home to two thorough and honest exhibitions about the history of their crimes is yet another.