The train slowly creaked into motion, taking me away from Amsterdam Centraal. My hand was still a little bloody from cutting it on the bicycle; and my stomach was full of kebab (I haven’t properly visited a city unless I sample the local kebab), which is never an exactly pleasant sensation. Soon we were speeding through the Dutch countryside. What was most striking about the scenery is how amazingly flat it is (being largely recovered marshland); the only thing that broke the skyline were distant church spires.
I was on my way to Belgium. Now, this modest member of the Low Countries has a special significance for me. Growing up, I had a close friend from Belgium. His parents worked for the United Nations and so they ended up living in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I didn’t know anyone else from Europe, so my impression of the continent was shaped by my experience with my Belgian friend and his family.
They were an impressive bunch—tall, blond, active. I remember once witnessing the parents have lunch; to my amazement, they were eating salads! (My friend took every opportunity to eat junk food when he visited my house.) I heard strange stories of tasty waffles and french fries (which, the Belgians reminded me, weren’t really French). Finally, in my last year of high school, my Belgian friend had to move with his family to Tokyo, and I was permanently left with a hazy impression of a far-off land where everyone lived in cozy little houses eating salads and waffles. Now I could finally see Belgium for myself.
My train rolled into Brussels, and I got out to find my Airbnb and to explore the city as best I could in the remaining hours of daylight. Brussels cannot help but be at least a little disappointing to someone who has just finished visiting Amsterdam. While the Dutch city is full of personality, Brussels immediately struck me as bland and anonymous. I felt as if I could be anywhere: Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Was this the place I had been dreaming about all these years?
My impression of the city considerably improved when I found my Airbnb. It was near a street full of attractive restaurants (yes, including kebab), and it was a surprisingly beautiful apartment for the price I had paid. The host, who spoke excellent English, worked in the movie industry; so the flat was decorated with many posters and other movie paraphernalia. This was some real European culture.
I had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. After checking in I hightailed it to the main attraction of the city: the Manneken Pis. I wonder how the Brusselites feel that the identifying sculptural icon of their city is little peeing boy. Perhaps they have a good sense of humor, as the statue seems to indicate. In any case, I confess that I did not feel the profound sense of awe and wonder that the statue can inspire. But maybe this was because someone had cheekily dressed the statue up for winter, so his impishly naked form was buried under heavy fabrics. (Apparently this is the usual state of affairs. In the post-war European recovery and boom, the relieved and happy Belgians took to dressing their iconic statue in an ever-increasing assortment of traditional costumes. The young urinating rascal apparently has a wardrobe several times bigger than even a dedicated shopaholic.)
Five minutes from the “little pisser” is the central square of the city, the magnificent Grand Place. This expansive plaza contradicted everything that I thought I had observed about the Brussels. For it is not plain, generic, or blandly modern. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful central squares that I have ever seen, comparable to the Marienplatz in Munich and Prague’s Old Town Square. It gives the visitor that unmistakably pleasurable sensation of being, without a doubt, in Europe.
Dominating the Grand Place is the old gothic Town Hall, which looks strikingly similar to the New Town Hall in Munich or the Town Hall in Vienna. And this is no coincidence, since both of those neo-gothic edifices take their inspiration from this genuinely gothic construction. The hall has survived fires and bombardment to serve as an archetype for the secular gothic style. Facing the Town Hall is the King’s House. This building—an administrative building that now houses the city’s museum—gets its name from the King of Spain (specifically, Philip I of Castile, the first Habsburg king in the Iberian peninsula); and thus it serves as a strange reminder of the erstwhile dominance of this Lowlandish nation by the Mediterranean country.* Apart from these two imposing spired structures, the rest of the plaza is dominated by guild houses, which look like ornate apartment buildings. One of these is called Le Roy d’Espagne, and could very well refer to me.
*You might be interested to learn that the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, and in the past was used for anything deemed extravagant. Thus it came to be applied to the genre of music, which of course does not come from Flanders.
My next and last stop (the sun was already setting) was the Cathedral of Brussels—or, more formally, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It has only been a proper cathedral for sixty years or so, since Brussels falls within the diocese of Mechelen; and that city already had a cathedral. Oversized church or a properly-sized cathedral, it is an attractive building—made in the formidable French gothic, with its two towers standing like bulwarks over the city. The inside is correspondingly impressive, though little stands out for comment besides a resplendently decorated baroque altar. In sum, it is a worthy cathedral, and its front porch offers an attractive view of the city—especially during sunset. The worst that can be said of the building is that, like so much of Brussels, it blends in with other parts of Europe so seamlessly as to lack character.
My short time in Brussels was spent. The sun had set, and every attraction would be closed. I had decided to spent the next and final day of my trip visiting Bruges, so it seemed unlikely that I would be seeing anymore of the nation’s capital. This meant that I would not see the enormous Atomium, a steel sculpture of a unit of an iron crystal (and not, as some wrongly say, of an iron atom). I would also miss the Museum of Fine Art, which is so good that W. H. Auden dedicated a depressing poem to it. Indeed, I would not see any of Brussels many fine museums—which include those dedicated to trains, musical instruments, and comic strips. I had to choose between all this and Bruges, and I chose Bruges.
I ate dinner in a fish and chips shop (Bia Mara), bought some Belgian beers (Leffe) in supermarket to drink in the Airbnb, and then walked back to drink delicious beer by myself and to post photos (edited for extra saturation) on Instagram. Obviously I was having a great vacation.
But before I leave Brussels, I wanted to share some of what I learned about Belgium during my time there. I found, to my great surprise, that the country is still a monarchy; and the old royal palace (now unused by the royal family) stands in the city center—a palace which, if I can judge from the photos, is as bereft of character as the rest of the city. I also learned that Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, with much of the organization’s offices located here; indeed, sometimes “Brussels” is used as a synecdoche for the EU. The presence of so many thousands of native and foreign bureaucrats in the city has not helped its reputation as a tourist destination. Perhaps this helps explain why the city gives such a strong impression of being anonymously European—it really is at the crossroads of Europe. NATO also has its headquarters here, only adding to the mix.
Yet it is not only Brussels that has something of an identity crisis. The whole country is split strongly and starkly along linguistic lines. In the south there is Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country; and in the north, the Dutch-speaking Flanders. Brussels straddles these two regions uncomfortably, situated somewhat north of the Wallonian border and yet predominantly French-speaking, although it is nominally bilingual. From what I understand, those in the French part of the country rarely learn Dutch, and vice versa, leading to little intermingling and consequently little feeling of camaraderie between the two regions. The result is a strangely bipartite country, almost as if two smaller countries had been uncomfortably welded together.
This inner division expressed itself in the famous attempt to form a governing coalition that followed elections in 2010. After a record-shattering 589 days without a working government, the Flemish and Wallonian parties—who, you will remember, typically do not speak one another’s languages—finally managed to form a working alliance and elect somebody. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong independence movement among the Flemish. Much like Catalonia in Spain, Flanders is the most affluent area of the country; and there are some who think the region would do better if not attached to Wallonia. After all this time, it seems that many Europeans still have not learned to live with one another. Unfortunately, when Europeans do live together, the result can be a city like Brussels.
The train ride to Bruges was, if anything, more flat and watery than the trip from Amsterdam down to Brussels. I had never known why the Netherlands and Brussels were referred to as the “low countries” until this trip. There is hardly a hint of elevation to speak of. To pass the time, I read a selection of the works of John Ruskin, the eccentric Victorian art critic who was obsessed with the Alps; and he even went so far as to suggest that the inhabitants of flat regions have little notion of true grandeur. Clearly he had never been to Bruges.
When the train pulled in to Bruges’s station—taking slightly over an hour, and passing Ghent along the way—I could hardly contain my excitement. Bruges is one place I had never expected to visit. Indeed, even the day before I was unsure whether I should visit Bruges or stay in Brussels. Rewatching a few scenes from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges convinced me that I should opt for the first option; sassy Irish hitmen seemed a welcome improvement over European bureaucrats.
Bruges is among that small class of cities, such as Venice or Toledo, whose every corner is picturesque. It is an adorable place. The downside of such places, however, is that they quickly become overrun by tourists. Though I was there during the off-season, I did not get a strong sense of local life; there seemed to little more than tourist attractions, gift shops, and overpriced restaurants. Still the city is worth it. I don’t know when exactly humankind lost its ability to make such splendidly pretty places; nowadays we only build such quaint dwellings using CGI.
I was delighted with everything—the narrow cobblestone streets, the brick houses with step-gabled roofs, the canals crossing this way and that. I just wanted to walk into one of the little houses, build a fire, start a family, and spend a happy life eating waffles and drinking beer. But I contented myself with taking lots of mediocre pictures, which is at least less of a commitment.
Why is Bruges so beautiful? The answer, as in so many cases, is money. Bruges spent the late middle ages as a commercial superpower, strategically situated near the English channel between Germany, France, and Spain. Merchants took advantage of a channel which led from the city’s harbor out into the ocean. Yet the good fortune was not destined to last. As with Seville’s equally lucrative river port, Bruges’s channel silted up and commerce, not usually loyal, moved elsewhere. This led to a long, slow, grinding decline, which was only broken centuries later when tourists realized that, as a result of this process, the city’s beautiful building had survived intact. Two World Wars also left the city unscathed, giving the contemporary traveler a time-capsule of a city.
The skyline of Bruges is dominated by three towers. The first I encountered was the city’s cathedral, St. Salvator’s. For such a stately purpose, it is a fairly homely building—at least when compared to such gothic monsters as the cathedral in Brussels. Built of brick and lightly decorated, its inside is restrained and calming. The next tower is that of the Belfry. This enormous protuberance stands proudly over market square, the central plaza, sprouting out of a lower building like an oak from a grassy field. In Bruges featured the tower in a starring role, such as when Colin Farrell tells a group of pudgy Americans that they shouldn’t try to climb to the top, and that he’s “not being funny.” As an out of shape American myself, I took Farrell’s advice and admired the Belfry from the ground.
The last and tallest tower belongs to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), a mostly gothic church which nevertheless, like the rest of the town, is mostly built of brick. But the church is more famous for what it contains that for its tower. First there are the gilded tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy. Charles the Bold was cut down in battle and initially buried nearby; but his great-grandson, Emperor Charles V, had him and his daughter moved to Bruges. Strangely, however, modern researchers have been unable to find Charles’s body—though Mary’s corpse did make it to its intended location. In any case, the tombs are impressively lifelike and appropriately resplendent for noble bodies; and it was gratifying to find the forebears of the family which would one day come to dominate Spain: the Habsburgs.
Yet most people do not pause at the tombs for very long, since in the next room, in the center of an altar, is a work by Michelangelo. Few works by the dour master can be seen outside of Italy, and fewer still in such a small city as Bruges. The subject is simple: The Madonna and Child, with Jesus resting tranquility on the Virgin’s knee, who is looking just as pretty and angelic as she does in the Pietà in St. Peters. If you are familiar with Michelangelo’s work, it is not difficult to spot the master’s touch here. Every element is just so finely executed—the poses, the fabric, the composition—that the statue immediately calls out to the viewer.
It seems strange that this should be so. I have seen hundreds of statues of this same subject, many by masters of their craft. How could Michelangelo take something that so many able men had been trying to do for so long, and do it better? This is the mystery of genius, I suppose. But could he have created such superlative art had not so many artists paved the way before him?
I should mention that this statue has been stolen and replaced twice: first during the Napoleonic invasions, and second during World War II. Luckily, violence and greed have so far left the statue intact, and have restored it to its rightful place.
It is difficult to write adequately about Bruges, I find, since you cannot give an accurate impression of the city by going through its parts, one by one, as a writer must do. So much of the experience of visiting consists in being lost in picturesque streets, surrounded by ever-changing views on all sides. Focusing on individual sights would detract from the impression of the whole. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the city that are worth singling out. One of these is Markt, or Market Square, the center of the city. This is where the famous Belfry can be seen. On one side of the square, the neo-gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court) rises in brooding majesty; while on the other, a row of pretty, brightly colored apartment buildings lightens the city’s aspect. In the center of the square is a statue of two Flemish heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who helped lead an (unsuccessful) uprising against the French in the 1300s.
Another important plaza is the Burg Square, where Bruges’s City Hall is located. Compared with that of Brussels, this city hall is rather unprepossessing, though it is yet another excellent example of secular gothic architecture.
Near the city hall is Bruges’s most impressive church: the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Though ornately decorated, the church does not look like very much from the outside; indeed I hardly noticed it at first, since the rest of the city is just as attractive. But what I found up the staircase took me by surprise. This is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, dedicated to a vial of Jesus’s blood-stained cloth—supposedly picked up during the Crusades. If memory serves, there was a line of the faithful waiting to do reverence to this holy relic, and so to obtain divine favor. I didn’t join in. But I did admire the church. A vaulted, wooden ceiling focused all attention on the far wall, which is decorated with a colorful 20th century painting of the bloody scene. The walls on each side, and the ceiling above, are decorated in pleasing geometric patterns; and the stained glass, too, is of high quality, only adding to the swirl of color in the space. It is a rather cheerful place for worshiping blood.
I realize that I have come this far without mentioning the canals. The city is criss-crossed with watery channels, another legacy of its days as an active port; and this has earned the city, like Amsterdam, the nickname “Venice of the north.” As you can imagine, the constant presence of water only adds to the city’s considerable charm. The canals prevent Bruges from feeling constrained and claustrophobic, like so many medieval cities. One of the most photogenic spots in the city is the bridge crossing the Minnewater—a sort of pond that used to serve as a mooring-place for ships. From there I spotted a band of roving Spanish musicians, dressed in capes and strumming guitars. Were they street musicians, or just on vacation?
My last stop for the day—and what turned out to be my best experience in Bruges—was De Halve Maan brewery. (I thought that the name meant “half man,” but it means “half moon,” which I think is somewhat less cool.) This is a historic brewery, going back to the 1850s, right in the center of the city; and they give tours. I signed up for the next English group, waited a bit in the gift shop, and then embarked on a journey of discovery. Photos were not allowed, so I can’t give a detailed account of the tour; however, it was 45 minutes well spent. Our guide, a deadpan Flemish woman, took us from the modern brewing equipment on the ground floor, then up several steep and slender stairwells to rooms displaying antique brewing equipment. (Some of the staircases were so precipitous that my life flashed before my eyes; the tour is not well-suited to those with mobility issues.)
This was my first brewery tour, so I was eager to learn how this marvelous liquid is created. The process of making beer is at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, consisting of four natural ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast) mixed, strained, heated, cooled, and aged in such a way that the end-result is a fizzy, bitter, refreshing and slightly intoxicating substance. I was certainly inspired to have a drink—and, luckily, the tour comes with a beer at the bar downstairs. As another added bonus, the view of Bruges from the top of the brewery is excellent, and photos are allowed. I left the brewery quite impressed with the company. They still make all their beer on site (though it is pumped through an underground tube several miles away for bottling).
What makes Belgian beer so special? Well, I am not exactly an expert in the subject. But even in my dilettantish tasting of Belgian beer, a definite flavor emerges: rich and sweet, almost like brown sugar. In contrast to many English and American ales, the bitter, floral flavor of hops is never very pronounced. Instead the beer is heavy and scrumptious, like a good dessert. Much of the brewing culture in Belgium dates back to medieval monasteries, a tradition which has led to the country’s beer culture being listed as UNESCO intangible world heritage. Without doubt Belgian beer is one of the treasures and pleasures of Europe.
So ended my day in Bruges. Now it was time to return to Brussels and then to Madrid. Thankfully I took the time to examine my Ryanair boarding pass that night, or else I would not have realized that (of course) Ryanair does not fly out of Brussels’s primary airport, but out of the South Charleroi airport—considerably more difficult to get to. But who could complain about early flights and inconvenient airports when Belgium is the reward?
I arrived at my Airbnb late—almost midnight—after illegally riding the bus to the outskirts of the city.
I can never get used to these transport system where there are no turnstiles for the metro and where you cannot simply pay the busdriver. Instead, you must buy a ticket beforehand and validad it yourself. This makes the temptation to ride for free very difficult to resist, especially if it’s late and you don’t know where the ticket machines are. In Madrid or New York, if you try to ride a bus for free the driver will kick you off; and if you jump the turnstiles you can get a big fine. But in Amsterdam, you will only face consequences if the metro inspectors catch you. And what are the chances of that?
My Airbnb host was a relaxed fellow. I suspected that he enjoyed the free availability of marijuana in the city. In any case, he very kindly offered to lend me his museum pass, which allows any resident of the city to get into the museums for free. Unfortunately for me, I had foolishly planned ahead and bought my museum tickets online. The money was spent—and for nothing. This was the last time that I travelled responsibly.
It was a cold February night and I was hungry for dinner. The only place open was a kebab restaurant—not fast food, but genuine kebab. It was delicious. Biting into the spiced meat, I knew that Amsterdam was going to be a special place.
I woke up early the following morning and set off for the Van Gogh museum. Instead of riding illegally again, I decided that I would take the time to walk through the city. The weather was cold, grey, misty, and threatening rain. Despite the circumstances, however, and even though I hadn’t had breakfast, the city immediately caught my attention.
Amsterdam is among that small class of cities whose every avenue announces its identity. Even outside of the historic city center, it is impossible to forget that one is in Amsterdam. For one, there are the bicycles. There are thousands of them—hundreds of thousands. It is said that there are more bikes than people, and what I find online seems to confirm it: the population is around 820,000, while there are over 880,000 bikes. Why anyone would need more than one bicycle, I can hardly guess. Nonetheless it is an inspiring sight. Every corner of the city is crammed with pedalled contraptions; and there is more traffic on the bike lanes than on those for cars. But pedestrians have an extra worry when crossing the street.
The style of architecture is distinct, too. In the center there are the crow-stepped gables—creating the Netherlands’ distinctive skyline. Also distinctive is the use of brick. Everything seems to made of the baked clay blocks, giving the city a dark, brooding, and quasi-industrial feel. Certainly it is impossible to mistake a single street of Amsterdam for one in Madrid.
But perhaps the most distinctive touch of Amsterdam are the canals. Like much of the Netherlands, the city itself rests on what was previously swampland. The canals were used to redirect the water, thus making the land available to build on while providing convenient transportation within the city. The canals have also, historically, been useful in the city’s defense. The Stelling van Amsterdam is a system of forts surrounding the center, with low-lying ground that can be flooded to create a watery barrier too shallow for boats. Unfortunately for the Netherlands, this system of defence, however elegant, was rendered obsolete by advances in military technology—such as bombers.
Nowadays, the canals are mostly just pretty to look at. And they are plentiful. There are 165 canals, which is more than even Venice has; and well over a thousand bridges are needed to connect all the isles of land floating between them. Personally I found the constant presence of running water to be extremely charming. The canals make the whole city seem to breathe in the open air, counteracting the somewhat cramped aspect of the city’s narrow buildings.
The final result is a beguiling mixture: wide vistas and narrow alleys, crowded footbridges and bustling bike lanes, historic brick husks concealing modern interiors.
As I walked, listening to the soundtrack of Phantom Thread, I was lost in an aesthetic reverie—marvelling at every new perspective afforded to me. Each shop window and city street gained a strange significance, each one a kind of monument to past and present lives. The cold and the dark gave the city a melancholic hue; but it was a sweet sadness, the kind of sorrow one feels at all beauty, knowing that it is temporary. This, then, was my first and final impression of Amsterdam: the beauty of everyday life.
My first stop was the Van Gogh Museum.
Few museums dedicated solely to the art of one man can be ranked among the great museums of the world, but this is one of them. The institution is situated in a sleek, modern building in Museum Square. The museum received its collection—the largest in the world of Van Gogh’s works—from the artist’s family. After Vincent and his brother, Theo, passed away, his unsold work fell into the able hands of Theo’s widow, Johanna. She, in turn, left the collection to her son, named after his uncle, Vincent. The museum only opened its doors in 1973; before that, Van Gogh’s works were held and displayed in the state modern art museum, the Stedelijk.
No photographs are allowed inside the museum, which is likely a good thing, since otherwise there would be far too many selfie-takers clogging the halls. Thus, I will have to rely on my memory. On the ground floor there is a series of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. His oeuvre is particularly rich in self-portraits, perhaps because he was prone to melancholy self-examination, or perhaps because he simply could not afford other models. In any case, they are milestones in the history of art: an attempt at introspection whose nearest literary equivalent is, perhaps, Montaigne’s Essays. When the portraits are arranged chronologically, one can see the progression in his style, from lumpy forms of dull browns and greys, to bright blues and yellows in dashing lines. His best self-portraits achieve a mesmerizing stare about the eyes, comparable to the intensity in Michelangelo’s David.
Next, the visitor ascends the stairs to enter the main collection. The exhibit begins with some of Van Gogh’s influences. One of the most important of these was Jean-François Millet, a French social realist who often painted rural scenes. Van Gogh was himself a passionate believer in painting from life; and in his early years especially he was fascinated by poverty and peasant ways. Many of his early sketches (which are on display) are of workers in a field or townspeople attending a mass. Van Gogh got a relatively late start in the craft (27, which is good news for the rest of us) and his early work displays no technical brilliance, to say the least. But it does show, if my eye may judge, a keen emotional sensitivity to the world around him, especially to the toil, drudgery, and misery of life. There is nothing in his work that can be called frivolous.
I came well prepared, since I had just finished reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters (highly recommended). You may imagine, then, how much of a treat it was to see the artist’s work laid out chronologically after I had worked my way through his life. Again, what most strikes the viewer about Van Gogh’s early work is its lack of color. He seems to have had almost no interest in pigment. This is epitomized in his early masterwork, The Potato Eaters. He shows us a scene of peasants eating a humble meal. It is not an inspiring sight. The men and women have heavy, almost simian features, reminiscent of Goya’s black paintings (though I do not think Van Gogh ever saw them). The oil lamp illuminates the hovel with a sickly light, which reinforces the ill and withered look of the painting’s subject. Van Gogh shows us an ugly truth, horridly naked, and yet made monumental in its composition.
Vincent’s style underwent a dramatic change when, after enduring years of isolated poverty and estrangement with his family, he moved in with his brother, Theo, in his Paris apartment. Theo was an art dealer, and Paris the art capital of the world, so Vincent was well-positioned to take stock of the dominant artistic currents of his time. In Paris he saw the work of modern masters like Monet, Seurat, and Cezanne, and befriended many other prominent artists (most famously Gauguin, who later came to stay with Vincent until they had a quarrel). The most immediate consequence of this exposure was Vincent’s discovery of color. Compared to his earlier work, the paintings he started to produce were bright and joyful, though still burning with intensity.
I would also like to add a curiosity I learned on my visit: that Van Gogh was enamored of Japanese art. Like many artists of the time, he collected Japanese prints. He even went to far as to copy them, producing his own versions of works by Hiroshige. His copies, though lacking the lightness and clean execution of the original, are well done. And he even went so far as to write Japanese all around the border of the painting (though I don’t know if it is proper Japanese, since I do not think he could read the language).
Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s years in Paris are some of his worst documented, since he was living with his brother and so had no need to write him letters. Nevertheless, it is clear that the artist was busy practicing his craft. The Van Gogh museum even has a study that he made of an object (I remember it was a small statue of an animal, but I cannot remember which). Van Gogh’s distinctively heavy brushstrokes also begin to make their emergence at this stage. In another room, a recreating of one of his paintings is on display under a microscope, so that the visitor can see the swirling textures of the master’s paint up close. This habit of daubing on pigment in glooping quantities caused his paintings to have an almost sculptural feel, something that no poster or print can capture.
After two years Van Gogh left Paris for more the amiable climate of southern France. Here is when his real mature period begins. While his early works tend to focus on humans in action, his mature style was more focused on scenes: buildings, rooms, landscapes. One painting which epitomizes the change is The Yellow House, depicting the building in which he rented an apartment with the naive hope of turning it into an artists’ colony. Far from the center of focus, the people in the work are anonymous shadows, only serving to illustrate the city street that is his main focus. Van Gogh also painted his room. Here the painter’s expressionism is especially obvious. The perspective is warped; it is not quite believable as a space. But the bold yellows and light blues convey a sense of joyfulness and peace, which is nevertheless somewhat belied by the faint whiff of poverty one senses from looking at the barely furnished room.
But Van Gogh’s most famous painting from this period is likely the Sunflowers. Van Gogh made multiple versions of this painting; the most famous of these is at the museum. It is a masterpiece. The painting has the strong and instantly memorable visual impact of the best graphic design. Yet it is better than any design, of course. With his thick and skillful dabs of paint, Van Gogh makes the sunflowers almost tactile. Though more abstract and more beautiful than any real sunflower, one almost feels that she can reach into the painting and grab one. But the emotional effect of the painting goes far beyond its obvious visual properties. As in all of Van Gogh’s best work, the dominant feeling is joy, immense joy, struggling with and overcoming equally intense feelings of despair. During his stay at the Yellow House, Gauguin created a valuable image (also at the museum) of Van Gogh at work on the sunflowers.
Needless to say his dreams of founding an artists’ colony failed. Van Gogh was hardly the figure to command a movement, not least because he was tetchy and unyielding. For example, he constantly clashed with Gauguin over the necessity of drawing from nature. Gauguin believed in letting the artist’s imagination run wild, free of constraint, but Van Gogh insisted that great art only resulted from close observation. In any case, their falling out had as much to do with Van Gogh’s worsening mental state as with his opinions. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh attempted to attack him with a razor; later this same night was when Van Gogh famously severed his ear.
This led to Van Gogh’s hospitalization and eventual suicide—and also to the most productive and extraordinary phase of his career. It is still unclear what ailment plagued the artist in his final years. His lifestyle—smoking and drinking heavily, frequenting prostitutes and possibly contracting syphilis, eating scantily and sleeping sporadically—no doubt contributed. The museum has a display of various hypotheses: Freudian theories of repression, bipolar disorder, sunstroke, digitalis poisoning. Likely we will never know for certain. Whatever the explanation, Van Gogh struggled heroically with his worsening condition, creating an oeuvre that rivals any in the history of art.
One of these remarkable late paintings is his Almond Blossoms. The twisted branch of an almost tree in bloom stretches across the canvas. Beyond is the blue sky, as if the viewer is below and looking up at the boughs. It is a painting of extraordinary calm. One wonders how a man recently admitted into an asylum could conjure such a tranquil image of nature in its simple beauty. And here, once again, we see the artist’s talent for reproducing the emotional effect of nature, rather than nature herself. For the painting is impossible to mistake with a photograph; the brush marks are visible, the flowers are not finely detailed. Yet the painting gives the sense of lying on grass, looking up at an almost tree—the cool breeze, the gentle sun, the fresh smell of spring—better than any photograph can.
Among the final paintings on display is Wheatfield with Crows. This is commonly said to be Van Gogh’s last completed painting—though no reliable record exists of it being so—and so critics are apt to see in it signs of depression. Certainly these are not difficult to find: the brooding, stormy sky; the windswept field; the black birds heralding death—and all in a style of extraordinary intensity. But to me this is not the work of a man tired with life, bent on leaving this world. Indeed, though it is hard to argue that the painting is happy, I still sense in it the same joy that one feels in Sunflowers: the awe in the face of a natural spectacle, the wonder at the basic scenes of everyday life. That the same man who painted this would, shortly later, shoot himself in a similar field, beggars my imagination.
Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, confinement, and eventual suicide form an essential part of his myth. No doubt he was dogged by a serious illness, which at times sent him into delusional fits. Yet it is very much disputable the role that Van Gogh’s mental illness—whatever its cause—played in his painting. Some have argued that it contributed to his creativity, giving him a unique vision. One can equally well argue that his art was a way of staying sane and fighting off his demons. Personally, I am averse to this modern tendency to diagnose everyone who seems odd, different, or eccentric with a mental disorder, equating different forms of genius with conditions or illnesses. Such diagnoses strip the individual of his agency, and even of his individuality. More importantly, post mortem diagnoses are impossible to prove.
This did it for the Van Gogh Museum. I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most extraordinary museums that I have had the pleasure of visiting. Fortunately, another one was just around the corner. So after a quick sandwich in Bagels and Beans—a local chain, very tasty—I was on my way to Amsterdam’s other major museum: the Rijksmuseum.
The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands’ national museum, comparable to Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid. Founded in 1800, the museum is located in a grand, palatial building—appropriately Dutch in design—right in the center of the city. In it can be found some of the finest examples of Dutch art, including many famous paintings by the Dutch Golden Age masters. It is a necessary visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of art.
Aside from a small collection of Asian and Medieval art, the museum’s collection really begins in force with the Renaissance. Here we see the beginning of portraiture as we know it: the attempt to capture the personality of one ordinary individual through a close concentration on their features. We see characters of various sorts—the proud, the crafty, the self-indulgent, the vain—at times ridiculous, yet rendered iconic through the painter’s brush. It is one of the great mysteries of art that it can transform the unique into the universal by emphasizing what is most unique. Perhaps this is because we are all different in the same ways.
The museum does not only contain paintings. There are also ornate chess-sets, statuettes, altarpieces, and even what were supposed to be unicorn horns (in reality, the tusks of narwhals). And there is a fascinating section devoted to colonial art—both art collected from, and inspired by, the Dutch colonization of the Indies. Here we find ornate cannon barrels, one with the head of a dragon, as well as small dioramas depicting colonial life. Also on display are delicate luxury items, such as furniture, candelabras, and mirrors—even an ornate harpsichord. Nearby are the 19th century paintings, among which are excellent examples of Dutch landscapes and portraits.
Yet the museum’s most valuable treasures are gathered together in the Gallery of Honor. And just as Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, occupies pride of place in the center of the Prado, so does Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch dominate the central gallery.
This painting is justly famous for its revolutionary take on a group portrait. Traditionally, a portrait of this kind—not of nobles, but of the local militia—was a formal and static affair, with the participants lines up in rows according to their rank. Rembrandt cracks this convention wide open with this work. Every person is individualized, and everyone is engaged in some sort of action. As a result the group portrait is full of bustle and even confusion, as each character is busy loading their riffle, having a chat, or gesticulating heroically. It is difficult to imagine this chaotic rabble of men marching in formation, but easy to imagine them relaxing in a pub. Only a master of portraiture such as Rembrandt could have put together such a marvelously memorable image out of such seemingly unpromising material. And if any evidence was needed of his technical ability, examine the foreshortening on the lieutenant’s spear in the foreground.
Another, somewhat lesser-known master of the Dutch Golden Age was Jacob van Ruisdael, who was the preeminent landscape artist of the period. One might think that the Netherlands is an unpromising land for landscape painters, since the Dutch countryside is so flat and domesticated. But Ruisdael has shown us otherwise. Personally I find his use of color and texture mesmerizing: the fluffy clouds floating in the light blue, the varying greens of the trees and the dull browns of the dirt—it all comes together in such a way that the ordinary beauty of daily scenes emerges. I particularly like his Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede for its brooding, grey sky silhouetting a lonely windmill—perhaps an ironic comment on the force of technology as compared to that of nature.
My favorite painter of this period, and the one that most perfectly captures my impression of Dutch life, is Johannes Vermeer. Here we see something almost entirely new in the history of art. Rather than focus on the forces of nature, the royalty, aristocrats, or wealthy merchants, we have a focus on the most absolutely ordinary of daily, domestic scenes. The most famous example of this is The Milkmaid, which shows us a serving woman engaged in pouring milk. Again, it is the most typical and unromantic of gestures; and yet Vermeer, with his fine attention to daily, manages to imbue into this gesture an extreme pathos—an elemental poetry.
Another one of my favorites is The Little Street, which shows us a typical, middle-class street in the city of Delft. The buildings are in the homely, Dutch style, made with step-gabled roofs of brick, and they are a little bit worn by the weather. Inside Vermeer allows us to spy on a woman at work, washing clothes. Nearby, seated in a doorstep, another woman is sewing; while two children are searching for something (or playing a game?) underneath a bench. Again, the painting is poignant for its very ordinariness. Vermeer shows us the quiet nobility of these neighborhood scenes, normally taken for granted and yet necessary for life to go on. And in the process the artist has created an image more impressive than the full-length portrait of Napoleon, dressed in the most pompous of imperial outfits, in another gallery of the museum.
In a word, I found in the Rijksmuseum what I had also found in the Van Gogh Museum, and indeed in the city itself—a celebration of the beauty of everyday life.
My next destination was Amsterdam’s infamous Red-Light District. This is so-called because of the red lighting used to advertise a prostitute’s service at night. The area is famous, not only for the working women displaying themselves in shop windows, but also for the many peripheral sex-related businesses: sex shops, sex shows, and even a museum of prostitution (which was what I decided to visit).
Ironically, perhaps, the red-light district in Amsterdam is in the most historic and beautiful part of the city. Canals criss-cross this side of town in a circular pattern, making all foot-travel a labyrinth of alleys, narrow streets, and foot-bridges. Hardly a street goes by that does not reveal another picturesque view of the city. It was a clear February afternoon, with the blue sky gradually turning pink in the sunset, and shadows gradually extending across the canals. I was there before dinner, so the area was fairly quiet. Indeed, apart from a few signs, it was difficult to know that I was even in a red-light district. No scantily clad women graced the windows overlooking the street. This meant that I could take pictures without fear. From what I hear, the women get angry when people photograph them, and may even leave their perch in violent pursuit.
Before I relate what I learned in the Museum of Prostitution, I wish first to cover another of Amsterdam’s famous markets: marijuana. Now, you may be surprised to learn that marijuana is not legal in the city; it is decriminalized—or tolerated, in other words. The result is the same, however: a visitor may consume weed without fear of the police, and even buy small quantities with impunity. This is normally done in “coffee” shops. I did not visit one of these during my stay—I was traveling alone, so it didn’t seem like a good idea—but I have heard ample stories of friends smoking too much, or eating too much of an edible, and repenting afterwards. Well, maybe next time.
The Museum of Prostitution is dedicated to Amsterdam’s other great vice: sex. It is right in the center of the red-light district, in a space that was formerly used by call girls. The ticket came with an audioguide, in my case narrated by a Russian sex worker. The museum itself is designed to replicate the spaces used in these circumstances, complete with bathrooms, beds, and chains. I learned some interesting facts along the way. The standard deal is to pay €50 until the man finishes—which normally takes less than 10 minutes. A working girl makes more money with a faster turnover, you see. The guide also told us about some of the dangers that prostitutes face, even in a highly regulated industry like Amsterdam’s, as well as some amusing stories about customers. Really, the most striking thing about the museum was how un-sexy the experience is made to seem, for both client and purveyor.
I especially appreciated the information about prostitution throughout the world. In most of the United States it is absolutely illegal. In Spain, it is decriminalized to be a prostitute, but pimping is illegal. In France it is legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it—a curious situation. In Amsterdam it is highly regulated, with a certain number of legal permits. Window prostitutes only constitute a moderate portion of the business in the country, with street walkers, sex clubs, and escort services rounding out the rest of the market. I have heard people say that STD testing is mandatory, but this is not actually true—though I am sure that many prostitutes regularly get tested, and condom use is universal.
Unfortunately, despite the increase in legal protections, the industry is still rife with problems. Prostitutes are far more likely to suffer abuse or rape. And since prostitution is still illegal in much of the world, and in any case there is a lot of money to be made by unscrupulous people, human trafficking, especially of underage girls, is still a serious problem. This has led to some crackdowns by the authorities. Coffee shops have not escaped this legal limbo, either, since although it is not illegal to buy or possess marijuana in small quantities, it is illegal to grow or buy it in large quantities—which leads one to wonder where these coffee shops get their supplies.
Though I was not inspired to try it for myself, I left the museum greatly impressed by the huge and so often ignored role that the world’s oldest profession has played, and still plays, in society. To pick a relevant example, Van Gogh was a dedicated patron of brothels. At one point he decided to live with a prostitute and her young child—despite the protests of his family and friends—and after his self-inflicted wound to the ear, he delivered the severed appendage to a local prostitute. And this story is just one of millions.
Sex work has been a constant presence in the history of every nation; yet this indecorous profession has consistently been pushed into the shadows. It is something we prefer to ignore, even if we all know it exists. Personally, despite its shortcomings, I think that the Dutch approach is far better than American prudishness. If we simply admit that, one way or another, sex work will continue to exist, we can install the necessary safeguards to make it safe for its practitioners. Pretending it does not exist only serves those who prey on the vulnerable.
I only had a long weekend to spend on this trip; and I had decided, perhaps too ambitiously, to visit both Amsterdam and Brussels in the three full days I had available. This meant that, after my long day exploring the treasures of Amsterdam, I had to catch a train the following afternoon. Only the morning remained to see more of this enchanting city.
I decided that my time was best spent in renting a bicycle. Amsterdam is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world; and if you want to see the city from the perspective of a native, this is the only way to do it. So I trekked from my Airbnb to Centraal Station (listening to Frankenstein on audiobook, whose dark gothic tone did not quite match the bourgeois beauty of the city), deposited my big orange backpack in a luggage locker (they are located beyond the train turnstiles), and rented a bike from a place called MacBike (no relation to Apple).
It was a simple contraption with a few gears and decently working brakes. Somehow, while I was adjusting the seat for my overlong legs, I cut myself in my palm. It did not hurt at all; in fact I didn’t notice until after several minutes of riding; but it bled quite a bit and the scar lasted for months. Thus I bloodily made my way into the city. I was quite nervous at first. My riding skills are reasonable, but I felt intimidated by the rules of the road. I had never signalled, passed on the outside lane, stopped at a stop sign, or dealt with intersections on a bike. And I can hardly do those things in a car in any case. But once I got my biking legs back, I felt marvelous as I drifted down the historic city streets.
Bicycles are one of the most extraordinary inventions our species has blundered upon, and I think many cities could be vastly improved by following Amsterdam’s example and relying more on bike transport. They require no fuel except the food you eat, are fast enough to quickly navigate most city centers, need little space to store, produce no pollution, and as an added bonus promote healthiness and well-being. I remember watching a presentation by Bill Nye while I was in high school in which he told us that bicycles are the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to man. They are also quite relaxing and enjoyable.
As you can tell from this paean to bicycles, I was having a splendid time. But it was difficult to navigate the city, since I couldn’t follow any maps on my phone while I was riding. After several wrong turns and detours, then, I found my way to Vondelpark, a very pretty green space with twisting paths for walking and biking, and a little pond running down the center.
As I rode through this park, I had one of those surreal moments when one seems to be seeing oneself from a distance. I had heard of people visiting Amsterdam and renting bikes back when I was in high school, but never did I imagine that I might do the same thing myself one day. Yet here I was, less than ten years after graduating high school, pedaling around in this beautiful foreign city before my train left to Belgium—another place I never imagined that I would visit. It seemed too good to be true, like I was living somebody else’s life. This was an irrational reaction, since it is not as if biking in Amsterdam is objectively more pleasurable than biking in, say, my old university. What made it special was that, throughout the years, I had unconsciously invested the experience with an exotic, unreachable quality; and now I was finding that, far from unreachable, it was the easiest thing in the world.
In an hour I had arrived back in the train station. It was to be my last glimpse of the city before my ride to Belgium. The experience only confirmed what was, from the start, my constant impression of Amsterdam: the appreciation of ordinary pleasures, the celebration of daily beauty, the quiet contentment with the simple things in life. It is a city of high culture but of little pretense, of hard work yet of an easygoing attitude. I hope to return someday.
There is a legend that, if you see the frog on the façade of the old university building, you are destined to return to Salamanca. Well, I saw the frog on my first trip, three years ago. And sure enough I returned.
Salamanca is without doubt one of the best daytrips from Madrid. Like so many places in Spain, it is extremely photogenic. Here is the evidence.
Recently I revisited Peñalara—the biggest mountain in Madrid’s Guadarrama range. I had already been to the mountain four times, but never before in the dead of winter. I doubted that there would be any snow at all. But I was wrong. The landscape was completely covered with snow and ice, smoothed slick by the wind. Rebe and I tried to climb to the peak, but we couldn’t even get halfway. The ground was too slippery, the wind too strong, and the fog too dense.
But it was still a lovely time. As a New Yorker, I sometimes find myself yearning for a proper winter in Spain. Going to the mountains gave me a taste of the cold without my having to live in it. It’s a perfect daytrip from Madrid. The only negative aspect was that, this time, I had to pay almost 30 euros round-trip to get there. Rebe, on the other hand, traveled for free, since it was included in her youth metro pass. Oh, the lost dreams of youth.
Recently I returned to Sevilla for the third time, to show my brother the enchanting city. (For my original post, click here.) I used the opportunity to take pictures with my new camera.
Our first stop was the Plaza de España, a place so attractive that anyone with any camera can take a fine photo.
The plaza was built for the 1929 Ibero-American exposition to showcase the wonders of Spain. The architectural style is a cross between Spanish Baroque and Neo-Mudéjar. Along the semi-circular building there are nooks with ceramic images of every Spanish province, accompanied by illustrations of important events in Spain’s history. Running parallel to the building is a little moat in which you can rent a boat and paddle about.
Next we went to the Alcázar—Seville’s Moorish palace. Curiously, the most famous part of the palace was not built under Muslim rule, but under the Christian king Peter (alternatively called “the cruel” or “the just”). He employed Muslim workmen to construct a kind of homage to the Alhambra in Granada. Later kings added to the palace, and maintained the large and lush garden surrounding the building complex.
After the Alcázar, we went to Seville’s famous cathedral—one of the biggest in the world.
Nextdoor to the cathedral is the famous Archivo General de las Indias (General Archive of the Indies). The building was designed by Juan de Herrera (also respondible for El Escorial and the palace in Aranjuez) in the 16th century, to be used by the merchant guild, it was later converted to be the central storehouse of documents pertaining to Spanish colonization. As such, it is now a repository of immense value to historians, and was thus included in Seville’s UNESCO designation.
The building itself is stately and restrained, consisting of two stories around a central courtyard. Every wall is lined with binders on glass-covered shelves, containing millions upon millions of pages.
The building also contains some delightful paintings by Murillo.
Because went in December, outside the cathedral the streets were full of stalls selling nativity figurines.
Our next stop was new for me: the Monasterio de la Cartuja (Carthusian Monastery, or charterhouse). This is an old religous complex, located across the Guadarrama River, that was also used to manufacture ceramics—which explains the conical chimneys that stick up all around the central religious buildings.
More recently the center has been converted into a modern art museum. It was completely free to visit. Outside, in the courtyard, a band was playing rock music (with the volume turned up a bit too loud) while children danced on the grass.
Some of the permanent artworks (see below) were charming. But the temporary exhibition spaces (housed in the empty church and among ornate graves) were extremely disappointing—self-important post-modernism at its worst.
After this, we crossed the Guadarrama River again, and went to see Setas de Sevilla (“Mushrooms of Seville”)—enormous, bulbous wooden figures that sprout from the center of the city. These were constructed in 2011, and have succeeded in becoming one of the city’s most distinctive sights.
Later, we decided to visit the Basilica of Macarena, which is famous for housing the Virgen de la Macarena. This is a wooden devotional figure, considered the patroness of bullfighters, widely known through the Catholic country.
On the way there, we dipped into another church, where we witnessed another wooden Virgin playing its role in worship. Congregants lined up to kiss the Virgin’s hand, after which a young man would patiently rub away the saliva with a rag, thus preparing the hand to bless the next devotee.
The Virgin of the Macarena did not disappoint. She is ensconced high in the altar, looking omnipotent and tragic. But the dedicated believer can go behind the altar and ascend some stairs, to examine the blessed figure up close.
Our final stop was a flamenco show in the center of town. As usual, I loved every minute of it. Seville never disappoints.
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—Caveof 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.