Venice certainly does not lack for sights. The entire city is virtually an open-air museum; there are architectural masterpieces on every other corner. And even if you get tired of the historical center of Venice, there are plenty of islands in the Venetian lagoon that are worth visiting. But I think that it is worth going even further afield during your trip. The famous city of Verona is not far off, and the Prosecco wine region is also within reach. But if you are interested in art, then the place to go is Padua.
Trains leave regularly from Venice to Padua. They cost less than 10 euros, and the trip takes substantially less than an hour. In no time I was stepping off the train and walking towards my destination: the Arena Chapel. Also called the Scrovegni chapel, this is the small church where Giotto—known as the father of the Italian Renaissance—did his finest work. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, I booked my ticket online in advance. The chapel is small, and the artwork is delicate; so only 25 people are allowed in during any visit; and a visit lasts about 15 minutes. I certainly did not want to go all the way to Padua to be told that there were no more tours that day.
Indeed, I was so worried about making the tour in time that I arrived substantially early, leaving me an hour to kill. Luckily, the Musei Civici di Padova—the municipal museum—is right next door. This was free to visit and actually quite beautiful. The collection is housed in a former monastery, filling the old cloisters within and without; and this former monastery itself sits in the bucolic monastery gardens (now a public park). The collection was far more impressive than I expected. There are bits of Roman ruins, fine works of ancient pottery, original manuscripts, and prints and drawings.
But of course, this being Italy, the main attraction were the many sculptures and paintings on display. Both the quality and variety of these works astounded me. In Europe, art is truly endless; every city has its own collection of minor masterpieces. Padua has some fairly major masterpieces in its collection. There were some wonderful examples of religious wood carvings, with faces distorted in grief at the dead Christ. The paintings were quite wonderful as well. There are works by Tiepolo, Bellini, and Tintoretto, and dozens of works by lesser-known masters. By the time that I had to leave for the chapel, I was rather disappointed that I could not spend more time enjoying this charming collection.
Now it was time to visit the chapel. This is a separate building off to the side of the former monastery. We gathered in front of the entrance, just as the previous tour group was exiting through a separate doorway. Soon enough we were being herded inside—all twenty-five of us—to watch a short informative film while the climate adjusted around us. It is a very good system, I think. The film gives us a bit of background, while the air conditioning gradually cools down the temperature and reduces the humidity, so that when we enter we do no harm to the artwork. I must admit, though, that I was a bit cold by the end of the film.
Before we go inside, allow me to give you some background. The chapel was never part of a public church, but was rather built at the behest of a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni (thus the name), who owned a large mansion—now demolished—right next door. The chapel was built over a Roman arena which once occupied the spot (thus the other name), whose ruins can still be seen nearby. Scrovegni must have been quite a wealthy man, since he was able to recruit the great Giotto from Florence, the preeminent painter of his day. Giotto came, and spent about two years on the project. The result was one of the great masterpieces in the history of European art. For his time, Giotto was an extremely innovative figure, pioneering techniques for adding realism, dimension, and form to his paintings. There is a lifelike drama to his work that makes him a forerunner of the entire Italian Renaissance.
Finally it was time to enter. I walked through just one doorway and, finally, I was there. I remembered seeing this chapel in my art history textbooks, and finding it astonishing even then. In person, the chapel was extraordinary. Everyone who entered was reduced to the hushed silence that accompanies any great work of art—the feeling of awe that forces us to speak in reverential whispers. Though composed of dozens of individual works, the Arena chapel is a unified work, with a single aesthetic sensibility pervading the atmosphere. The dominant color is blue—a shade between the bright blue of the sky and the dark violet of the late evening. It helps to give the chapel the lush, cool ambience of a cloudless summer night.
This comparison is quite obvious, when you look up to see the ceiling painted as the night sky. In two panels, Giotto represents Christ and Mary as the center of the universe (earth, in Giotto’s day), with the prophets as planets, against a starry background. Then, in four distinct levels, panels tell the story of Mary and Christ, and represent the virtues and vices. At the far end is the centerpiece of the program: a magnificent portrayal of the Last Judgment. The entire work has been aptly compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Giotto, who was a near-contemporary of Dante, may have been directly influenced by that great poem in its images of heaven and hell. In any case, the Scrovegni chapel is a work of comparable ambition and skill: a grand cosmic vision, attempting to encompass the human experience.
The main entrance of the chapel (which is not where the modern visitor enters) is right below the Last Judgment. On the opposite side is a triumphal arch, underneath which the priest would have stood. The grand program of decoration begins right at the top of this triumphal arch and then works its way down tier by tier. The cosmic cycle is set in motion by God the Father, who calls the archangel Gabriel to his side, and instructs the angel to deliver the annunciation to Mary. This is done immediately below, on either sides of the arch—Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right—who form a beautiful pair. Already, we can see some of Giotto’s innovation here. The two figures occupy a convincing architectural space, with balconies that sing to hang into the air. This was something quite new in the history of art. Though still not true perspective (since the lines to not converge on a vanishing point), even this little background is a more convincing three-dimensional representation of space than anything in gothic painting.
The story on the upper tier begins even before the annunciation to Mary, with the story of Mary’s parents, Joachin and St. Anne. Mary herself was the subject of an annunciation, as an angel informed her mother that Mary would be born without original sin (immaculately, in other words). The story of Mary’s birth and marriage takes us back around to the triumphal arch, where Gabriel’s annunciation has its proper chronological setting. This sets in motion the story of Christ, which begins with the birth, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the rest of the typical scenes of Christ’s childhood. This sequence takes us to the first half of the second tier. Now, Christ’s adulthood begins, with its many scenes: the baptism, the miracles, the betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. This takes us all the way to the Last Judgment, the logical end of the series (and, indeed, of the world).
Of course, this is a story often told. You can see it, or part of it, in any church in Europe. Giotto’s excellence is revealed in the execution of this standard program. He was an artist of many talents. One is his sense of dramatic narrative. Rather than a series of disconnected scenes, as is often found in gothic art, the scenes in Giotto’s work all lead very naturally to the next. This is done through simple but effective visual cues, such as having Christ constantly facing in the direction of the next panel, or having the ground seem to continue from one scene to the next. This gives Giotto’s rendition of these classic stories an organic continuity and unity, easy and pleasant to follow.
Giotto was a dramatist in other ways. Whereas emotion is rather abstract or generalized in medieval art, Giotto renders emotion more palpable. This is apparent in many scenes: the tender kiss shared between St. Anne and Joachim at the golden gate of Israel, or the way that the Virgin gently cradles her newborn son, or the passionate grief apparent in those mourning Christ. The emotion in these scenes is shockingly direct; and this is a measure of Giotto’s realism. His figures are not generic or unreal, but solid and substantial. Their emotions are expressed through their very physicality—an embrace, a kiss, a gesture.
Giotto’s realism and his dramatic sensibility are tied together through his gift for composition. Several of the panels are masterpieces of formal study, guiding the viewer’s eye to the central drama, and expressing that drama through shape and line.
The best example of this—and perhaps the best painting in the entire chapel—is the arrest of Christ (or the kiss of Judah). It is a traditional scene, but its execution is far from traditional. Judas is normally shown coming and kissing Christ on the cheek, as Christ looks forward. But in this work, Christ and Judas directly face each other; Judas actually embraces Christ, covering him with the fold of his gown, and appears to kiss him directly on the mouth. The contrast between the stoic, tall Christ and the lowly, cowardly Judas—who looks both timorous and ridiculous, as he puckers—is extreme. And yet the pair, locked together, stand as a kind of anchor for the chaos raging around them. The torches, clubs, and lances of the mob are positioned so that they seem to emerge from the pair, splitting the night sky. On the left St. Peter is cutting off the ear of one of the assailants, while a hooded figure grabs somebody off to the side. On the other side, an official (painted with impressive volume and foreshortening) points menacingly to Jesus, signaling the others to apprehend him.
As impressive as this is, my personal favorite from the chapel is the Last Judgment. Like any typical representation of this awesome event, the scene is divided horizontally and vertically. On the top Christ sits among the saints in heaven, while below him the world is split between the saved and the damned, the former to his right and the latter to his left. Right at the bottom, we can see Scrovegni himself offering his chapel to the angels (presumably to secure his salvation). And we can see that the chapel, as it was when this was painted, is not as it is today. Concretely, the chapel today is smaller and less ornate that this drawing, which has led scholars to conclude that parts of the original chapel were demolished because the local church complained of competition.
Right at the bottom, below Scrovegni, there are a collection of naked, impish figures emerging from coffins. Presumably these are the dead, arising to be judged. Like many great painters, Giotto let his imagination run wild in his depiction of hell. Jets of flame shoot down into the abyss, carrying the damned into the inferno, where Satan and his minions are waiting. Demons pull and push the frightened sinners. Some unfortunates are hanging, while many others are being stuffed into pits at the bottom. In the center, Satan himself chews on a sinner, while others grasped in his hands await the same fate. Serpents emerge from his ears and he sits on a bed of dragons, which also gnaw hungrily on corrupt flesh. If Giotto was not inspired directly by Dante, he was responding to similar cultural currents. Or perhaps both imaginative men just enjoyed picturing the suffering of their enemies.
This more or less brings us to the end of the religious scenes. But I still have not mentioned the exquisite decorative painting that occupies the spaces between these scenes. They are beautiful works of abstract art, with geometrical and floral patterns perfectly imitating the appearance of marble inlays. Individual portraits of Old Testament figures occupy the spaces between the New Testament panels; and the knowledgeable viewer will notice that these, too, are carefully selected, in order to draw connections between the stories of the prophets and the story of Christ. For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale is placed before the resurrection, since Jesus’s death and rebirth were mirrored in Jonah’s being swallowed and then spit out again. (Many theologians spilled a lot of ink trying to prove that the New Testament was prefigured by the Old.)
We come finally to the representations of virtues and vices in the bottom tier. Though not explicitly religious, these only reinforce the message of the chapel: for the virtues lead directly to salvation and the vices to damnation. They are, thus, the abstract lessons to be learned from this great cosmic story, or if you prefer a moral philosophy expressed through personification. The execution of these vices and virtues in monochrome (thus imitating sculpture), only heightens their abstractness.
There are seven virtues, all mirrored by their corresponding vice on the opposite wall: hope with desperation, prudence with folly, justice with injustice, and so on. They are all wonderful, my personal favorite being the portrayal of Envy: standing in flames, clutching a bag of money, with a serpent emerging his mouth and turning around to bite him in the face. There can be no more graphic illustration of the torture and self-destruction inherent in envy. The representation of hope is also justly famous, as winged woman reaching up towards a crown; while her counterpart, desperation, has hung herself.
After fifteen wonderful minutes, we were led out of the chapel. I was exhausted. I had spent the morning rushing to the train, rushing to the museum, and then absorbed in artwork. It was time for lunch. For this, I headed to one of Padua’s better-known cheap eats, Dalla Zita, a small sandwich shop in the center. Dozens of color-coded sticky notes cover one of the walls, informing the visitor of the many sandwich options available, each one with a cute name. Somehow, the staff of the shop have memorized all of these sandwich names, and so you need only say “Steve” or “Babu” to get the sandwich you want. I do not remember what I ordered, but I am sure it involved roast beef and was delicious.
While I sat on the corner, stuffing the assemblage of bread, meat, and sauce into my mouth, I had quite a charming interaction. A woman, who had accidentally cut me in line in the sandwich shop, saw me, realized her mistake, and came over and actually apologized to me. That had never happened to me before. This was only the second act of small kindness that day. When I was in the monastery gardens trying to find the chapel a young man came over and pointed me in the right direction. He did not even want a reward! These things rarely happen in New York.
Now I had a few hours before my return train to Venice. I decided to spend some of it simply walking around the city of Padua. Though not as shockingly beautiful as Venice (no city is), Padua is a charming city, with an attractive historic center. Its most characteristic feature are the shaded arcades lining the wide, cobblestone streets. The walk along the river Bacchiglione—which runs through the center of the city—is also quite lovely. But the most picturesque spot in the city is, undoubtedly, the massive central square: the Prato della Valle (literally, “meadow of the valley”). At 90,000 square meters, this is the biggest plaza in Italy and among the largest in Europe. But it is not only special for its size. A moat encircles around a grassy central island, with no fewer than 78 neoclassical statues on either side of the canal.
Two of Padua’s most splendid church buildings stand nearby. Within sight of the Prato della Valle is the Abbey of Santa Giustina, a massive brick church building topped with domes. Like so many Italian churches, this church is richly and beautifully decorated. But it is perhaps most notable for holding the remains of St. Luke the Evangelist. Well, at least most of the remains: the evangelist’s body is entombed here, but his head is in Prague, and one of his ribs is in Thebes. In any case, I unfortunately did not have the chance to visit this church, since I was more interested in visiting another one nearby: the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.
This basilica is the largest and, undoubtedly, the most glorious church building in Padua, though it is not the city’s cathedral. (This distinction is held by a far more modest structure, which has a famous fresco cycle by Guisto de’ Menabuoi.) Its profile is difficult to miss. Though the building has few external sculptures or friezes—being mainly composed of red brick—the roof is forest of domes and spires, which gives the building a vaguely Russian appearance.
Before going inside, it is worth pausing to examine an equestrian statue located right next to the building. This is the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, by none other than Donatello. Gattamelata is the nickname of Erasmo da Narni—it means “honeyed cat”—a famous condottiero (basically a general for hire). Though this statue lacks the ferocious strength of Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, it is perhaps more historically significant in the history of art, if only because it was made earlier. The statue has many of the hallmarks of the early Renaissance: humanism, realism, secularism, classicism. After all, the subject of the sculpture is neither a saint nor a king, but a person famous for his own exploits—an individual. And Donatello obviously paid close attention to the anatomy of horses, as we can see from the careful modeling of the muscles and even the veins in the horse’s head.
The statue’s classicism is not only apparent in its realistic style, but also in the technique used: a bronze sculpture made using the lost-wax technique. Such a large-scale equestrian statue had been beyond the technical abilities of Europeans since the fall of Rome. It was the rediscovery of the statue of Marcus Aurelius (misidentified as Constantine) which showed Renaissance artists the possibilities of bronze sculpture. Donatello was both a pioneer and a master of this technique. It is also worth comparing this statue to one of the masterpieces of medieval sculpture, the Bamberg Horseman. The two works—both beautiful and realistic—reveal a difference in worldview. The Bamberg Horseman is graceful, handsome, and above all royal: a man of elevated status. Gattamelata is a much more imposing presence: self-contained, intelligent, determined, he seems to be a heroic man riding out of history.
Now, let us enter the basilica itself (where Gattamelata is buried, incidentally). Like so many Italian churches, the Basilica of Saint Anthony is lushly decorated. When not covered with fresco, every surface shimmers with gold, silver, or marble, in sharp contrast with the fairly plain walls outside the building. Because I could not take pictures, my ability to talk about any aspect of the church in detail is limited. What most sticks out in my memory is the palatial shrine of St. Anthony of Padua. When I visited, pilgrims were lined up to receive a blessing and to kneel by the saint’s relics. Indeed, this basilica is an important site of pilgrimage, and is one of the eight international shrines designated by the Catholic Church (two of the three are in Italy, and three are in Poland).
With my visit concluded, I retreated outside to take a final look at the basilica. I had spent far less than a day in Padua, and almost every minute of it was enjoyable. Indeed, I found the city so charming that I wished I could spend far more time there. At the very least, the streets of Padua are more lively than those of Venice. But I had scheduled my train back and I could not stay any longer. One major site I missed was the Palazzo della Ragione, an enormous medieval town hall, decorated with dozens of paintings. I also wish I had visited the University of Padua, one of the oldest universities in Europe, where Galileo himself once taught. I suppose that the next time I return to Venice, I will have to return to Padua as well.
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It is redundant to speak of the “Venetian Islands,” since the entire city is composed of islands. Yet when people speak of “Venice” they are most commonly referring to the cluster of small islands, connected with bridges, that compose the historical city center. This is only a fraction of the Venetian lagoon, however. There are a great many larger islands, further away, that require a boat to get to. That is what this post is about.
If you are standing near the Doge’s Palace, looking out towards the Mediterranean Sea, you will immediately notice the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore. This is one of the bigger church buildings in the city, and its magnificent shape forms a wonderful profile in the sunset light. None other than Monet immortalized this image in a series of paintings. This basilica sits on an eponymous island, which is not much bigger than the church itself.
The island of San Giorgio Maggiore sits at the far end of a much longer island, Giudecca. This island has served many functions through Venice’s history—as a residence for the wealthy, as a center of industry, and now as a mainly residential area. The most important structure on this island is Il Redentore, another grandiose church (Europe is so full of them). This one was built in the late 16th century, as a way of showing thanks to god for the end of a bad outbreak of the plague. It was designed by none other than Andrea Palladio, who is perhaps the most influential architect of the Italian Renaissance. This church is entirely typical of his style: an elegant blend of Greco-Roman models and Christian influences. During the Festa del Redentore, a pontoon bridge is built between the city center and Il Redentore, so that pilgrims can fill this historical church.
Moving further away from the center, we come to the Lido. Along with the Pellestrina further south, the Lido is one of Venice’s barrier islands—an island formed by the tide, which protects the Venetian lagoon from harsher weather. Historically the Lido has often been used for defense, as it is the ideal place for fortresses. But my image of the island comes from much later in its history, when it became a center for tourism in the late 19th century (partly fueled by the notion that bathing in the waters was therapeutic). The German writer Thomas Mann stayed in the Grand Hotel des Bains, a large luxury resort that later became the setting for his novella Death in Venice. This is how Mann describes the atmosphere:
The gray and even ocean was enlivened by wading children, swimmers, garish figures, others, who were laying on sandbanks with their arms folded under their heads. Some were rowing small boats in red and blue without a keel, capsizing with roaring laughter. In front of the row of beach huts, whose platforms were like little verandas, there was playful motion and lazy rest, visits and chattering, careful early morning elegance but also nudity, which perfectly took pleasure in the freedom of the place.
It quite reminds me of a painting by Sorolla.
This little list hardly scratches the surface, of course. After all, there are literally hundreds of islands in the Venetian lagoon, some of them quite large. But I will focus on the islands that tourists most often go out of their way to visit.
Like the historical center of Venice, Murano is not a single island but a cluster of islands connected by bridge. Several vaporetto lines (3, 4.1, 4.2, and 12) can get you to this island from many different points in Venice, and the trip is around ten minutes. Architecturally speaking, Murano is certainly not among the most impressive parts of Venice. It is worth the trip, rather, for being the seat of Venice’s legendary glass-making industry.
Glass has been made in Venice for well over a millennium. And for centuries Venice was incontestably the source of the finest glass products in Europe. Products ranged from bowls and jars to chandeliers and mirrors. The technique and formula used by the Venetians was a closely-guarded secret. When Louis XIV of France persuaded some Venetian glass-makers to work on the palace of Versailles, agents were sent to poison the defectors. But like all good things, the golden age of Venetian glass faded into history, as the ability to make high-quality glass products became more widespread.
Although the industry is much shrunken, Murano is still the site of world-class glassmaking. It is also a popular tourist destination, thanks in no small part to places like the Murano Glass Factory, which displays some of the finest historical examples of Venetian glass. Another popular attraction is to see glass being blown by experts. One popular place to do this is Vetreria Murano Arte, which I visited during my class trip in 2007. I highly recommend it. Glass-blowing is an art and a science; it requires careful temperature control, a trained eye, a steady hand, and a deep knowledge of the structural properties of different materials. The assurance with which the artisans handle the flaming-hot glass is wonderful to see.
Significantly closer to the city center than Murano is the little island of San Michele. For centuries, the only residents of this island were monks in a small monastery. But now the only residents are the dead. During the Napoleonic invasions, the monastery was suppressed, and the island was turned into a municipal cemetery. The island is easily recognizable for the brick wall going around its perimeter.
Though not a particularly big cemetery, San Michele is the final resting place of some big names. The two biggest are Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound. Part of the reason Stravinsky chose this little island is because Sergei Diaghilev—the famous impresario of the Russian ballet—was already buried there. Ezra Pound had lived in Italy since the 1920s, and after the Second World War was forcibly removed to the United States because of his openly fascist views. After his eventual release from a lunatic asylum, Pound made his way back to Italy, where he died in 1972. He is buried near Stravinsky and Diagheliv.
It would be harder to find any three people buried together who exerted a greater influence on the art of the previous century than these two Russians and one American.
Burano lies significantly further off, past both San Michele and Murano, at the northern corner of the lagoon. To get there, just take the line 12 vaporetto, which will deliver you in under an hour. Or if you prefer spending over 100 euros, you can take a private water taxi. But I do not recommend that route.
Like Murano, Burano was also the home to a fine-arts industry, in this case lacemaking. The island is full of touristy shops selling lace products, though certainly not all of it is made in the time-consuming traditional way. La Scuola del Merletto is a small museum dedicated to this historical art. The fine lace was used in everything from clothes, to furniture, to church decorations, until demand fell off in the 18th century. Eventually, somebody is always going to figure out how to make a cheap and convincing imitation.
Most tourists do not, however, come for the history. They do not even come from the church of San Martino, which has a leaning campanile. Burano is, rather, a heaven for amateur photographers, thanks to its many canals and its brightly colored houses. No two adjacent houses have the same color; and the municipality even regulates what color residents may paint their houses, in order to maintain the aesthetic. Considering that the island’s only industry nowadays is tourism, this is certainly in their self-interest.
While I enjoyed the pretty colors, I have to admit that I lost interest rather quickly. I wanted something more historical. Thankfully, the next island had just that.
Like many islands in the Venetian lagoon, Torcello has a long history, dating back at least to Roman times. Torcello is particularly important in the history of Venice, as the first cathedral in the area—before St. Mark’s—was built here. Indeed, for many years Torcello was a more important center of trade than Venice itself. This is not true anymore, of course. Though thousands used to live on this little island, in recent years that number is probably much less than 100. Aside from tourism, Torcello seems to be a place where locals gather to relax. There were dozens of private boats moored to the canal, and several large outdoor restaurants filled to the brim.
The environment of Torcello is quite beautiful. Here you really feel as though you are in a lagoon. Aquatic birds fly overhead, and the tall reeds are abuzz with insects. I took some time to walk along some of the rugged paths in the island, relieved to finally be in a natural space (something that Venice entirely lacks). Eventually I stumbled upon “Attila’s Throne,” an old stone chair that now sits exposed to the elements. Almost undoubtedly, this throne has nothing to do with Attila, and probably belonged to a local political or religious leader. Still, it is an impressive piece of furniture. This chair is located right outside the island’s museum, which displays some of the antique ruins that have been found there.
Torcello’s main attraction is the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, which is sometimes simply called Torcello Cathedral (though it is a cathedral no longer). This is a truly ancient church, dating back to the 7th century, when Torcello still had strong ties to the Byzantine Empire, and when it was still more powerful than Venice itself. The building’s age is quite apparent from a single glance. A relatively simple construction of faded brick, the church is mostly unadorned on the outside. The inside, however, is another story. Here you will find some extremely fine examples of Byzantine mosaics. Unlike the mosaics in St. Mark’s, these retain their original form, and so have all of that naïve charm and grace of early medieval art. The portrayal of the Last Judgment is particularly masterful—a cosmic vision against a gold background.
This fairly well wraps up my experience with the islands of Venice. But of course this list leaves out several dozens. There is San Servolo, which once housed a Benedictine monastery (and now is home to a museum). In San Francisco del Deserto, Franciscan monks still pray amid the cloisters and the cypress trees. And this is not all. There is also San Lazzaro degli Armeni, an island where Mekhitarist monks (a type of Armenian Catholic sect) go about their daily rituals. Lord Byron famously stayed at this island, using the time to translate Armenian into English and to author textbooks on the language. This island is still one of the world’s most important centers of Armenian culture.
And there are still more. The biggest island in the lagoon is Sant’Erasmo, which is mainly agricultural nowadays. Two islands have served as quarantine stations, Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo (named after the Biblical figure with leprosy). During outbreaks of the plague, any incoming ships were required to dock here and wait a mandatory minimum number of days.* And everything aboard was disinfected through fumigation. Aside from this function, these islands also functioned as leper colonies, where those afflicted with leprosy (a bacterial infection) were isolated. But many islands have more cheerful functions, such as the exclusive hotels and resorts scattered throughout the lagoon.
(*The word “quarantine” actually comes from the Venetian dialect, which means “forty days.” This is the time from infection to either death or recovery in the bubonic plague.)
Considering all of this great, unexplored variety, it appears that, one day, I will once again have to return to Venice. Hopefully that day will be soon.
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My first footsteps in Europe were in the airport in Venice. It was in 2007, when I was a sophomore in high school, some time before my sixteenth birthday. Typical of that age, I was awkward, hormonal, pubescent, immature. During this trip, I was exposed to the most beautiful things that I had ever seen, and was largely unimpressed. Teenagers are too wrapped up in themselves to care much for the outside world. I had a digital camera that my mom had lent me; but over half of the photos I brought back from the trip are of my friends, or cats, or other nonsense. The only thing that roused me to enthusiasm was the food, which was quite excellent.
Eleven years later, I finally returned to the city, to see what I had missed. It was quite a lot.
As usual, I was travelling on a budget. This pretty much ruled out the possibility of staying on the island of Venice itself. Small, antique, and exclusively devoted to tourism, accommodations are not cheap. Thankfully, there is the Mestre—the mainland of Venice (not the old city), which is generally quite a bit more reasonably priced. I stayed at an Airbnb in a quiet neighborhood and very much enjoyed the experience.
Frankly, I think staying in Mestre was better than staying in Venice itself, partly because I could get away from the crowds at night. And unlike the island of Venice, this quiet neighborhood had a real community of locals, which certainly improved the atmosphere. I had some beautiful mornings sipping coffee at a corner café, while I watched senior citizens come in for their morning glass of wine. And being close to affordable restaurants and supermarkets was also quite nice.
My memories of my first day in Venice, in 2007, are all a blur. We arrived early in the morning, all of us disoriented and jetlagged. Our hotel was right in the city center. Since virtually all of the buildings on the island are old, the rooms were tiny and the elevator only fit for one or two people. Most amusingly, our bathroom fan made a screeching, wailing noise that I will never forget. All of us badly wanted to take a nap, but our Irish tour guide insisted that we stay awake all day in order to adjust to the jet lag. By the time we had dinner, kids were falling asleep at the table. I nearly did the same.
Coming from Spain, at least I did not have to deal with jet lag this time.
The Mestre is very well connected to the city center with public transportation. In my case, all I needed was about a twenty-minute bus ride. Soon I arrived at the train station, stepped off, and confronted the new but strangely familiar profile of Venice.
Now, I have called the center of Venice “an island,” but that is not accurate. Rather, it is a collection of small islands—over 100—which are connected with bridges. The city occupies a lagoon between two rivers. This oddity of location is what gives the city its charm. Though Amsterdam and even New York may have more individual bridges, no city I know of is more dominated by the presence of water. But of course, having a city built on a lagoon entails unique challenges. The foundation of the city has been sinking, partly as a result of settling, and partly as a result of pumping groundwater (causing buildings to sink further into the ground). This, combined with climate change-induced rises in sea-levels, have worsened the periodic floods suffered by the city. Already, many ground floors are uninhabitable.
(In 2003, a massive engineering project was initiated, called MOSE, but it stalled because so much money had been siphoned off due to corruption. Work seems underway again, as global warming exacerbates the flooding problem. The flooding in 2019 was the worst in fifty years, causing widespread damage to the city’s cultural heritage.)
Building a city on a lagoon also entails unique transportation challenges. The lagoon is far too unstable for a subway, and the city is too cramped for either trains or buses; so the only option within the old center is by boat. The Venetian equivalent to a bus is the vaporetto, or water taxi, fair sized ferries that patrol the city in 19 lines. Line 1 is popular with tourists, since it goes down the Grand Canal. The other famous option for water transport is the gondola—operated by a single gondolier, pushing the elegant boat through the water with an oar. Nowadays the gondola exists exclusively for tourists, and the price reflects that: 80 euros for about half an hour, and more at night.
As I walked through the city, I have to admit that my first impressions were rather mixed. Venice is obviously and undeniably beautiful; indeed, judged purely in terms of its buildings, I believe it has a claim to being the most beautiful city in Europe. But the atmosphere of Venice is odd and empty. Keep in mind that I was visiting during the high tourist season, in July, when many locals go on holiday (about 55,000 live in the old center). This meant that whatever local life that Venice may have was largely dead. Instead, the streets were dominated by people carrying cameras, and others dragging suitcases. It felt like being in the world’s most beautiful airport. Or perhaps Venice is better compared to an enormous, open-air museum. This meant that one of the chief charms of travel—taking part in local life—was off the table.
Venice is probably at its most lively in the weeks leading up to carnival. During this time, people dress up in beautiful masks and elaborate costumes, now famous throughout the world. You may be surprised to learn that this is a modern tradition, though it has historical roots. Masks were banned in Venice for about two hundred years, from the 18th to the 20th century. It was only in the 1970s that the tradition was revived. When I visited in 2007 it was mid February, and the streets were full of these disguised Venetians. For the most part these seemed to be street performers, however, who only dressed up so that tourists would pay to take photos with them.
If you look at the old center from the air, you will see an S-shaped gash running through the city. This is the Grand Canal, the largest canal in the city. For many years it was the main artery of Venice, since there was only one bridge which crossed it (the Rialto). As a result, it became something like Fifth Avenue in New York City: a place for the wealthy of the city to flaunt their success. As the canal was the central thoroughfare, the magnificent façades of private palaces face the water, displaying a variety of different architectural styles from the city’s history. The Ponte de Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal. It provides a lovely view as well as being quite attractive in itself. However, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, it is covered in shops, which makes it rather cramped. (For centuries the bridge in this spot was a wooden construction; but multiple collapses convinced the authorities to rebuild it in stone.)
After crossing the bridge, and taking the obligatory photo, I continued making my way to the central square: the Piazza San Marco. This is easily the most famous area of the city. For the most part the plaza is dominated by long buildings composed of many levels of arcades. At the far end is St. Mark’s Cathedral (which I will describe later) and its marvelous campanile, or bell tower. At nearly 100 meters, this tower is the tallest structure in the old city, and quite attractive in spite of its simple form.
Not far off is the clocktower (Torre dell’Orogio), another of the city’s landmarks. Two bronze shepherds with hammers ring the bell on the top, while a winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark) holds an open book below them. (A statue of the Doge once accompanied these lions, but Napoleon had him removed.) Below the lion sits the Virgin and child; and twice a year (on Epiphany and Ascension) mechanical figures of the three wise men emerge from the adjacent door and make their bows as they pass. For the time it was created—during the Renaissance—this was an impressive engineering feat.
The face of the clock itself is also a marvel. The sun travels along the twenty-four hours of the day, against the background of the zodiac. In accordance with Ptolemaic astronomy, the earth sits right at the center of the clock, while the sun, moon, and stars rotate around it. Bad science aside, the clock’s combination of blue and gold is quite pleasing on the eyes.
If you are standing at the end of the square, with the clock tower to your left and the basilica directly ahead, you will see the space open up to your right. This is called the Piazzetta, and it leads directly to the sea. The view is framed by two columns topped with statues—one of St. Theodore (who was one of Venice’s patron saints) and the lion of St. Mark.
Proceeding forward, you arrive at yet another iconic area of the city, the Riva degli Schiavoni, a waterfront promenade. At almost any time of year (except during a pandemic) this place is extremely crowded. Gondolas bounce up and down in the waves, while people sell all sorts of knick knacks from stalls. The waters around this area are typically quite busy, with ferries going back and forth, as this is near one of the mouths of the Grand Canal. The view is characterized by the distant form of San Giorgio Maggiore, an enormous basilica that sits on an eponymous island across the waters. Its campanile looks quite like the San Marco’s, creating a pleasing symmetry.
Now the first major stop on our tour has arrived: the Doge’s Palace. If you are looking out at the water, this palace will be right behind you, though you may not have paid it much attention. In the context of Venice, the building’s exterior is not immediately eye-catching (though I will return to it later). But within is a palace of quite astonishing dimensions. I recommend going early, as there can be long lines to enter. I arrived at around ten in the morning and was basically able to walk right inside. The visit began with a small exhibition space, where I was delighted to find some drawings by John Ruskin. The famous art critic was also a talented draughtsman, and he made dozens of meticulous sketches of the city in preparation for his monumental book, The Stones of Venice. As I happened to be reading the book at the time, this seemed to bode well for my visit.
On display were also the forty-two original capitals of the stone pillars on the palace’s exterior. (Those there now are replacements.) Ruskin considered these capitals—which most of us overlook—to be the most significant artistic statement of the palace, and devoted much attention to their analysis. I will leave my own commentary for the end, and will instead embark now on the palace interior.
But before moving on, it is worth asking: What is a “doge”? This title, sometimes translated as “duke,” is unique to Venice. It is a cross between a king and a president: a ruler given royal prerogatives who was elected for life. The political organization of Venice was somewhat complicated, but suffice to say that it was an aristocracy with a touch of republicanism. The ruling class was basically hereditary; but they were divided into governing bodies—councils, parliaments, senates—and held elections (within their own ranks); and there were some checks on arbitrary power.
If the cases of Athens, Amsterdam, and England can be trusted, there seems to be some connection between a maritime, mercantile orientation and democratic forms of government. This is the case of the Republic of Venice as well, which rose to wealth and power through sea trade rather than conquest (though it was not averse to war). This, perhaps, is one reason why the city’s government—with its separation of powers and its checks on authority—developed the way it did. This also explains the moderate degree of intellectual freedom allowed in Venice, where the censors of the Catholic world could not reach. Venice also had a degree of religious autonomy, as its highest religious figure was the Patriarch of Venice, who himself was elected by the senate (from among its own ranks, of course).
From Venice’s beginnings in the 8th century, as a satellite of the Byzantine Empire, the city-state gradually rose in power and influence. It was a major staging ground during the crusades and profited enormously from trade with Asia along the Silk Road. By the Renaissance, the Republic had the wealth and the means to compete with the Ottomon Empire for control of the Mediterranean. But the “discovery” of America by Europe spelled the end of Venice’s high-point, as trade gradually shifted away from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Thus began a long, gradual period of decline which ended in 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city and formally ended the rule of the Doge. All told, the Republic of Venice survived some thousand years.
With this brief history lesson out of the way, let us see how this humble Doge lived. After passing the courtyard (enclosed on the far side by St. Mark’s Basilica), and ascending a flight of stairs, the visitor enters into a succession of brilliantly decorated rooms. The rooms are so ornate, in fact, that it even impressed my fifteen-year-old self. The second time around, I was stunned. Every ceiling is covered with carved engravings and panelling, and every wall is adorned with enormous paintings. Though the palace was built in the 14th century, and thus owes its form to the Venetian gothic, several fires required the interior rooms to be redecorated. Luckily, the great painter Tintoretto was on hand to provide much of the new decoration. The painters Veronese and Tiepolo, and the architect Andrea Palladio, also contributed; so there was no shortage of talent.
The palace contains some rooms that you would expect to find in any palace: luxuriant apartments for the ruler and antechambers where ambassadors could cool their heels. (Unfortunately, the Doge’s apartments were closed for renovation when I visited.) But there are also many sorts of rooms that you will not find in any other European palace. There is a Council Chamber, a Senate Chamber, a chamber for the Council of Ten, and rooms for the administration of justice. Judging from the size of the room’s alone, they were not built for a single ruler, but for hundreds. This did not stop them from decorating like kings.
There are simply too many rooms and too much decoration to enter into too much detail. I will let the photos do the talking:
One chamber does, however, stand out for special comment. This is the Grand Council Chamber, which is not only the biggest room in the palace, but one of the biggest rooms in all of Europe. It is simply massive: 1325 square meters (over 14,200 square feet!). The room had to be big because the Grand Council included all of the patrician males over age 25 into its ranks, which amounted to well over one thousand men. This may not sound inclusive to us, but for its day this was radical. One of this council’s tasks was the election of the Doge, who sat on the podium at the far end of the room. Behind this podium is one of the largest oil paintings in the world: El Paraiso, by Tintoretto (though largely executed by his son). The painting stretches over 25 meters and includes many dozens of figures. Ruskin thought that it was an artistic masterpiece, though I found its sheer size more impressive than its artistic quality.
The other noteworthy aspect of the room are the portraits of the first 76 Doges running around the top of the room. These, too, were commissioned to Tintoretto, but were mostly done by his son (the painter was quite old at the time). Each of the Doges is present along with a scroll, on which are written their most important achievements. The one exception to this is Marino Faliero, a Doge who attempted a coup d’etat and was beheaded. In place of a portrait, there is a black cloth for this tratorious duke. History is not kind to the subverters of democracy. (Well, perhaps Julius Caesar is a partial exception to this. Napoleon as well, I suppose.)
After the grand tour of the regal rooms used by the Venetian government, I entered the prison. This dreary space has been known as the Pozzi (the wells) and the Piombi (lead), and it deserves both names, as it is a damp space with a leaden atmosphere. (You can tell that the Venetians were concerned with laws and their efficacy, since they built the major prison next to the center of government.) The “old” prison is connected to the “new” prison (built several hundred years apart) via the “Bridge of Sighs,” which was so known because it was the last place a prisoner could see a bit of sunlight and utter a weary sight before his long confinement. In 1756, the infamous Giacomo Casanova effected a daring escape from these prisons by climbing onto the roof.
Thus ended my tour. But before moving on, I ought finally to address the columns on the outside of the building. John Ruskin was extremely fond of the sculptures carved into the capitals of these columns, and devoted ample space to them in his book on Venice. Indeed, by common consent they are masterpieces of gothic sculpture. Inspired by Ruskin, I spent a good thirty minutes examining these columns in detail, and I was glad I did (even though, as mentioned before, the columns currently outside the palace are copies of the originals inside). They generally consist of figures interspersed within vegetable patterns, usually demonstrating some allegorical significance. Rather than launching on a giant Ruskinian rant myself, I will be content with a few photos:
Thus ended my tour of the Doge’s Palace. But I did not have time for a break. After all, St. Mark’s Basilica is right next door.
No monument in Venice better illustrates the city’s role as a conduit between the Catholic and Byzantine worlds. St. Mark’s embodies both influences. Neither wholly gothic nor wholly byzantine, the church is an alluring hybrid structure, unlike anything else in the world. At a first glance, the basilica (it is also a cathedral, though more commonly called a basilica) presented a chaotic forest of towers, domes, and semi-domes. It bears very little resemblance to the towering gothic spires that are so common elsewhere in Europe. Rather than awe the viewer with harmony or height, the basilica is profuse in details of decoration. Mosaic scenes from the life of Jesus—quite lovely in its bright colors and gold backgrounds—adorn the surface, while statues of saints stand guard above.
The most famous figures on the cathedral are the four bronze horses that adorn the roof, right above the entrance. They are Roman copies of Greek originals, supposedly designed by the famed Greek sculptor Lysippos (more probably they adorned a Roman triumphal arch). Certainly they are wonderful works of art. The reason they are here is because the Fourth Crusade went sour, and culminated in the sacking of Constantinople (a Christian city) by the Catholic forces. Napoleon had the horses taken to Paris in 1797, but they were eventually returned after his defeat, in 1815.
The other famous decorations are the tetrarchs. This is a rather odd and unsettling sculpture, made in the fourth century and, like the horses, taken from Constantiple during the Fourth Crusade. By the time this work was made, the Roman Empire was in disarray, and the Emperor Diocletian decided that he needed to divide power between three additional co-rulers in order to maintain order. This sculpture represents the co-dependence of these four rulers. But the four men do not seem like confident allies; rather, they seem scared out of their wits. Certainly it is not a work that inspires confidence—they clutch each other in fearful desperation. The sculpture is also remarkable for the degree of abstraction. The great Roman tradition of realistic sculpture (as epitomized by the horses) had already been lost by this time.
Saint Mark’s owes its name to a Venetian trick. According to the story, two wily Venetian merchants smuggled the saint’s body from Alexandria to Venice in the 9th century. (Supposedly, they covered the body with pork to prevent Muslims from investigating.) The story is extremely difficult to believe, if only because the body would have already been nine centuries old and unrecognizably decayed. However, standards of evidence were not very high in the Middle Ages; and in any case the city had much to gain by being the home of the evangelist’s relics. The story seemed doubly dubious when one considers that, according to legend, the saint’s relics could not be found when construction began on the basilica; Mark himself had to appear to direct the Venetians to his mortal remains.
Well, eternal resting place of St. Mark or not, the basilica is an immortal work of art. Entrance to St. Mark’s is free. All one has to do is stand in a long line and wait. Once inside, you will find yourself in a space quite unlike any other European cathedral. The floorplan is a Grecian rather than a Latin cross, meaning that the building is as wide as it is long. But St. Mark’s is not like a gothic cathedral, which impresses with its architectural majesty. Rather, basilica’s outstanding feature is its decoration. The overwhelming impression is of light, gold, and color. Every inch of the interior is covered in mosaics with gilded backgrounds. Unfortunately, many of these have been retouched or restored, most often with a definite loss in quality. Even so, the whole has a power greater than the sum of its parts—hypnotic in its use of color.
My next stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Even though this building is called a “school,” it is really the historical seat of a powerful religious confraternity. (A confraternity is essentially a private club that promotes a religious cause. San Rocco—”Saint Roch”—was a saint commonly invoked against the plague.) Though magnificent enough, the façade of this building does not attract attention in the context of Venice. But the inside is special indeed. As in the Doge’s Palace, there are several enormous rooms, all of them richly decorated. Unlike the Doge’s Palace, however, much of the decoration in the Scuola Grande was provided by one man: Tintoretto.
After Titian, Tintoretto is probably the most highly-regarded painter of the Venetian school. Nicknamed “il furioso” for the energy of his brushwork, he was known for working fast and rough. He was no perfectionist. By general consent, the quality of his work is highly uneven. But his style was very well-suited to the semi-darkness of these enormous rooms, where his figures could dazzle with their suggestiveness rather than their perfection of form. His paintings are notable for the drama and movement of their subject, rather than the typical Renaissance solidity and harmony. I would be lying if I ranked Tintoretto among my own personal favorites, though Ruskin was quite wildly fond of him. For me, the wooden carvings in the seats along the walls were, if anything, more charming than Tintoretto’s great pictorial spread. But I do admire his productivity.
After this I made my way to one of Venice’s many museums: the Gallerie dell’Accademia. This museum is the Venetian equivalent of the Uffizi in Florence: housing a massive collection of Italian art, from the medieval period to the 19th century. It is housed in another former confraternity building, this one the Scuola della Caritá. When I visited, parts of the museum were undergoing restorations, and so were unavailable. Even so, the museum has an impressive collection.
As usual, I was most captivated by the works of Hieronymous Bosch. There are three major works by this Dutch painter to be seen. One is the triptych The Hermit Saints, which shows three saints resisting temptation in the wilderness. In keeping with his typical, bizarre style, Bosch represents these temptations in a series of absurd little figures—monsters, skeletons, nun’s heads—that surround these simple, pious men. Another triptych is The Crucifixion of St. Julia, which shows us a bearded woman nailed to the cross. Christians explained the beard with a story about a woman who prayed to God to make her repulsive (and thus protect her virginity); but probably the historical reason involves images of Christ from Eastern Europe, in which Christ’s dress was misinterpreted by Westerners as being that of a woman.
My favorite work, however, is a series of four paintings called Visions of the Hereafter. Here, as usual, Bosch sets his vivid imagination to work picturing the world beyond our own. The most captivating of these images is the Ascent of the Blessed, which shows us the infinite white light that leads to paradise. To our modern eyes, the image cannot but remind us of some space exploration movie. We have used the same sort of image to represent portals to other dimensions or accelerations to speeds beyond light. Bosch proves himself, once again, to be one of the modern age’s visual godfathers.
The museum has works by Titian and Tintoretto, of course. But a more elusive Venetian painter is also on display: Giorgione. A few years older than Titian, Giorgione is normally regarded as one of the great innovators of Venetian painting. The trouble is that it has historically been difficult to definitively attribute works to him. Indeed, an air of mystery seems to surround Giorgione, which is apparent in his painting The Tempest. It shows a young woman suckling a baby, while a traveller looks on with a curious expression. In the background we can see an Italian village, while a storm rages overhead (thus the title).
The execution is quite beautiful indeed. Its meaning, however, is difficult to decipher. To my eye it looks like a depiction of the “rest on the flight from Egypt,” when the Virgin Mary escaped Egypt with the infant Jesus, and stopped to suckle him on the road. But the woman—almost completely naked, and staring rather boldly at the viewer—is unlike any other depicting of the Virgin. Contemporaries referred to her as a “gypsy” and the man as a “shepherd,” but art historians, straining for cohesion, have proposed obscure stories from classical mythology and fanciful allegorical meanings. Yet none of these interpretations sheds light on the particular power of this painting, in which the heavy and humid atmosphere of a storm, the grey, shadowy light through the clouds, is so palpable. I can see why it was Lord Byron’s favorite.
I cannot leave the museum without mentioning, if not the greatest, than the painter who did the most to show Venice to the world: Canaletto. This was not his real name, of course; he was called “little canal” because his paintings were so often focused on Venice’s many waterways. His paintings are consistently impressive, capturing the city with photographic accuracy. Personally I cannot fathom how much time it would take in order to create such a scrupulously detailed image. But in a world before photography, this was the only way that wealthy nobles could catch a glimpse of the city from afar. Canaletto was more than a mere technician of monumental patience, however. His paintings have a very charming, wistful emotion running through them, a kind of atmospheric joy. They are absorbing and refreshing works.
My next stop was another church: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (normally just called the “Frari”). After St. Mark’s itself, this is perhaps the most important church building in Venice. If you only saw the exterior, however, you would be excused for not thinking so. The basilica’s brick façade and relatively plain decoration do not make it stand out in the context of Venice. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth a visit. From the inside, the basilica looks like unlike any church building I have seen. It is an incongruous mixture of dark materials and open windows, of plain surfaces and rich decorations. The entire building does not come together as an organic whole; rather it seems like a warehouse for art and monuments. But it is a beautiful warehouse.
Among the artwork, the best may be the large-scale paintings by Titian. I found the Pesero Madonna especially beautiful for the shimmering effect of the brightly-colored robes. Titian is also responsible for the painting in the main altarpiece, a wonderful depiction of the Assumption of the Virgin. But what really caught my attention were the funerary monuments. The Frari is the resting place of many Doges, as well as some of the city’s most gifted artists. Titian himself is buried here, commemorated by an enormous marble sculpture by Antonio Canova—erected centuries after the artist’s death. Canova himself (arguably the greatest neoclassical sculptor) is buried here, in a stunning pyramidal cenotaph—my favorite work in the whole basilica. I also found myself captivated by the monument to the Doge Giovanni Pesaro (not the same Pesaro as in Titian’s painting). This gruesome monument features black skeletons emerging between African servants, who support the monument’s upper half. It is disturbing for many reasons.
It is worth mentioning another of Venice’s many basilicas, Santi Giovanni e Paolo. In appearance it is quite similar to the Frari, and it likewise is the final resting place of many Doges. However, I think the most impressive thing to see is not inside, but next to this old structure: the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. This was done by Andrea del Verrochio, most famous for being Leonardo da Vinci’s mentor. But he was a great artist in his own right, as this sculpture proves. It is really a marvelous work: the horse is rippling with muscle, and confidently striding forward. The condottiero is both heroic and ruthless: his face is ugly and yet compelling, and his pose one of unquestionable command. It is one of the finest depictions of a military leader.
After all of this glorious art and all of these magnificent monuments, my last stop is rather depressing: the Venetian Ghetto. This is the neighborhood where Jews were forced to live for hundreds of years. In fact, the word “ghetto” itself comes from this area of Venice. The derivation of the word remains rather difficult to pin down. It may come from a German word for street (many of the Venetian Jews spoke a German dialect), or a diminutive form of an Italian word (“borghetto,” or little town), or perhaps from a Hebrew word. We visited the Venetian Ghetto on my school trip, back in 2007; and I still remember our guide explaining that the buildings were taller in this area because the Jews did not have room to build anywhere else.
The Venetian Ghetto is split into two sections, the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio (the “new” and “old” ghettos), though this classification refers to when the area was used as foundries, not as a place of Jewish residence. (Indeed, one hypothesis for the word “ghetto” is that it comes from the Italian “getto,” which means to pour molten metal into a mold. Many foundries existed in this area.) Two bridges connect this part of Venice to the surrounding area; and Jews had to be sure to return to the ghetto before the nightly curfew, or face a stiff fine.
Even in my brief time walking through the ghetto, I noticed that there was still a significant Jewish presence here. There are several synagogues, cultural centers, and even a kosher restaurant. There is also several monument to the victims of the holocaust. Fortunately, the Jewish community largely escaped Nazi percesution in Venice, and this was thanks to the heroism of Giuseppe Jona. Jona was a Jewish physician who, like many Jews, was deprived of his profession during the Nazi occupation. He took it upon himself to stay in Venice and to help organize the Venetian Jewish community. In 1943 the Nazis ordered him to help them locate the Jews in the city. Instead of cooperating, Jona burned every document in his possession that could be used, and took his own life. He is memorialized in the Venetian Ghetto, and certainly deserves it.
As I walked through this distinct corner of the city—so strangely marked by tragedy and hope—I reflected on the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe. The Nazis were merely the last and worst in a long line of Jew-haters. Even great works of art are marred by this sentiment. The most obvious example of this is, perhaps, Shakespeare’sThe Merchant of Venice, which reflects many of the worst stereotypes of Jews. (Because Shylock is so compelling a character, some have argued that the play is not actually anti-semitic; however, I think the work is incoherent if you consider Shylock the real hero rather than, as I believe Shakespeare intended, the villain.) It is depressing to think that even a man with as free a mind as Shakespeare’s could not entirely escape prejudice. But prejudice runs very deep. The ramshackle buildings of the Venetian Ghetto are a testimony to this lasting hatred and also to the community’s lasting resilience.
This does it for my return to Venice. But listing the monuments does not do justice to the real experience of visiting the city. Venice is one gigantic work of art. Virtually every angle of the old city is picturesque—from the impressive works of architecture to the forgotten corners of run-down buildings. Venice is palpably an abandoned city, a floating relic, which gives it a kind of romantic charm. But the city is also refreshing—for the ocean breeze that blows through it, for the ever-present sight of water. Admittedly, for all of its beauty, Venice does lack the most charming part of any city: street-life. I cannot say it is my favorite European destination. Even so, the memories Venice evokes—of awkward pubescence, of my first window into a wider world—will always make the city special for me.
Before my flight home, I found a café and sat outside sipping grappa, the strong Italian brandy. I have to admit that I actually had no idea what grappa was. I thought it was some sort of wine, and I winced when I took my first taste (I normally do not drink liquor). Even so, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping on this flaming beverage, I could not help but feel rather satisfied with the way that my life had turned out. When I visited Venice in 2007, I could never have guessed that I would be living in Europe ten years later.
If you know anything about Venice, you will know that this post has left out virtually everything beyond the city center itself. There are many smaller islands that are also worth visiting. But that will have to wait for another post.
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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:
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.
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.
While I do have some scruples about including the Vatican in my series about Rome—since it technically is not a part of Rome—I think excluding it would be paying too much attention to official opinion at the expense of geographic fact.
To state the obvious, the Vatican is unique. The smallest state in the world, both by population and area, the Vatican is also distinguished for being a theocratic monarchy, governed by the bishop of Rome, the Pope. The Vatican’s economy is also unique, supported almost entirely by tourism.
The Vatican is not as old as you might imagine. In former times the Pope was as much a secular ruler as a spiritual guide; the Papacy had its own proper country, known as the Papal States—which lasted from the time of Charlemagne to the nineteenth century—which controlled a sizeable hunk of the Italian boot. This state was swallowed up by Italy during the rise of Italian nationalism after the Napoleonic Wars. The Vatican as we know it today was established in 1929 in the Lateran Treaty. It is thus only a little older than my grandmother.
Aside from the pilgrims, many millions of secular tourists visit the Vatican each year, and all of them to see three things: the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. This is what I saw, and this is what I’m here to tell you about.
The Vatican Museums
The first thing you should know about visiting the Vatican is that you must buy your tickets ahead of time. (Here in the link.) If you don’t, you will be one of the hundreds of people waiting—probably in vain—in the enormous line that stretches out the museum’s entrance and curves around the Vatican’s walls. I felt a mixture of pity and, I admit, self-congratulation upon seeing this line, its members sweating in the relentless sun, unremittingly pestered by tour guides.
I scheduled my visit to the Vatican for my first full day in Rome. I did not trust myself to figure out the public transportation, so I walked, which took me about an hour and a half. I was so worried about missing my entrance-time that I didn’t stop to eat or drink. Added to this, it was hot and humid, and I stayed in a room without air conditioning or even a window; so I slept poorly the night before. When I arrived, I was sticky with sweat, dehydrated and dizzy, my stomach filled with foam, disoriented by the heat and sleep deprivation, my legs a bit shaky, my heart pumping like mad, my body full of adrenalin. It was, in other words, a normal vacation day for me.
The Vatican Museum is one of the largest and most visited museums in the world. Begun in the fifteenth century by Pope Julius II, it displays some of the finest pieces in the papal collection, and thus some of the most important works in Western history. There are over 20,000 works on display; I will content myself with some highlights.
The real shame of the Vatican Museum is that most tourists rush through it to get to the Sistine Chapel. I do not blame the tourists: when you have something like the Sistine Chapel waiting for you, it is hard to take your time. Nevertheless, in the process visitors walk past one of the most impressive museums in the world.
Before visiting, I had hardly an inkling of the size and scope of the museum’s collection. In the Museo Gregorio Egiziano, for example, there is an enormous collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including mummies, sarcophagi, papyruses, statues, and even reproductions of the Book of the Dead; the museum boasts a similarly complete collection of Etruscan art. In another wing, much further along the visit, is a collection of modern religious art. Added to all this is a seemingly endless collection of Greek and Roman statues. In the Museo Chiaramonti, for example, such a huge number of busts and sculptures—of emperors, heroes, and gods, all white marble—are pilled up on top of one another that it seems as though you’ve wandered into a warehouse of a sculpture factory.
The museum is notable not only for its works, but for its spaces. In the Sala Rotunda (“round room”), larger-than-life statues occupy niches in a circular room, built to imitate the Pantheon; and in the middle of the room is a gorgeous ancient mosaic. The Gallery of Maps is a long hallway; the decoration of the ceiling is unspeakably ornate—totally covered in floral designs, patterns, paintings, and decorative moldings—lit up with a golden glow; and its walls, as befitting its name, are covered in a series of lovely maps of Italy.
The Cortile della Pigna, or Courtyard of the Pine Cone, takes its name from the Fountain of the Pine Cone. This fountain, of Roman origin, was moved in 1608 from its original location near the Pantheon to decorate a large niche in the courtyard’s wall. (At the time, this courtyard was twice as large, and was known as the Cortile del Belvedere; the Apollo Belvedere used to be displayed here, which is where it gets its name.) In the center of this courtyard is a version of Arnoldo Pomodoro’s famous statue, Sfera con sfera—a large golden sphere, cracked and broken, with another similarly damaged sphere inside. There is also a monumental bust of Augustus, who was given a new hairdo in during the Renaissance.
Among the hundreds of excellent sculptures, my favorite is Laocoön and His Sons—a work that can also be said to be the founding piece of the Vatican Museum. The statue was made sometime around the first century BCE (we think), and later found its way to the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus, where it was praised by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (first century CE). At some point in antiquity the statue was lost; it was only rediscovered during the Renaissance, in the February of 1506. The antiquarian and art-loving Pope, Julius II, was immediately informed of this discovery; Michelangelo went to investigate and sent an enthusiastic report of the statue; and one month later, Julius had the magnificent sculpture on public display in the Belvedere Courtyard. The statue now stands in the Museo Pio-Clementino.
The statue depicts a moment from Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks have given up trying to knock down the walls of Troy; instead they are following Odysseus’s sneaky plan, to gift them the Trojan Horse. The big, wooden horse is wheeled up to the walls, and the Trojans obligingly come out to admire it; soon they decide to bring the horse inside the walls. Laocoön, a priest, is the only person against this plan. “Beware of Greeks bringing gifts!” he says. At that moment, spurred on by the malevolent gods, two enormous snakes appear and strangle both him and his two sons. The Trojans interpret this as an omen, thinking that the gods disapproved of Laocoön’s skepticism. In reality, the gods were on the Greeks’ side.
The statue is extraordinary. Far removed from the Classic Greek ideals of perfect form and sublime grace, it is full of suffering and fear. The bodies are contorted and twisted, the faces scrunched up with pain; the snakes’ slithering bodies are wrapped around arms and legs, tying all the figures together into a writhing mass of limbs. Every detail is exaggerated. Indeed, the statue could have been melodramatic, even silly, if not for its perfect execution. Every detail seems just right: the arrangement of the figures, the anatomy, the posture, the expressions, the technical execution. It is one of those few masterpieces of art that impress themselves upon the memory after a split-second of viewing.
I stood for a long while admiring the work. How could so much movement be conveyed by immobile stone? How could an entire story be told instantaneously? The feeling evoked by the statue is one of gruesome tragedy. Laocoön will die even though he was right, and his sons will die even though they are innocent of any crime. All of them will die publicly, and in immense pain, for nothing, and with nothing to look forward to except oblivion. The image is much too exuberantly violent to be melancholy, much too grisly and ghastly to be beautiful. It is, rather, sublime: instead of conforming to your aesthetic sense, it overawes you, trampling over all your tastes and preconceived notions, soaring above all your attempts to measure or define it, leaving you simply dazed at the power of human art.
I could spend hours and pages in ecstasies over other works in the museum, but I will exercise self-restraint. The only other individual works I will mention are Raphael’s frescoes.
These were commissioned by that same Pope Julius II, in 1508, to decorate the papal apartments. They occupy four rooms, now called the Raphael Rooms: the Sala di Constanto, the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. Needless to say, each one is a masterpiece and worthy of study. But by far the most famous of these are in the Stanza della Segnatura. This was the first room that Raphael completed. At the time, this room contained the Pope’s personal library, which is why Raphael set about creating intellectual allegories.
No place in the world more perfectly captures the Renaissance blending of art and science, of classical education and effective government, of pagan philosophy and Christian theology. In the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Raphael depicts theology as a collection of saints, popes, and religious poets engaged in a discourse on the nature of God, while Jesus and the Father sit enshrined above. In The Parnassus we find an allegory poetic inspiration, Apollo and the Muses stand with a collection of melodramatic bards and troubadours, all crowned with laurels, crowded on top of a hillside. (Dante is the only figure to be represented twice in the fresco sequence, appearing both among the theologians and the poets.) And in the Cardinal Virtues, both human and divine virtues are depicted in allegorical form, the human virtues—prudence, fortitude, and temperance—as women, and the divine virtues—charity, hope, and faith—as accompanying cupids.
The last and incomparably most famous is the School of Athens. Even if you do not know its name, it is an image you have undoubtedly seen countless times. At least three books in my library have this painting as their cover image. It is one of the iconic images of Western art: a symbol of the Renaissance, of humanism, of philosophy, of science, and of the entire intellectual tradition. Like other iconic images—TheMona Lisa, Guernica, The Creation of Adam—it is somehow unforgettable: every detail is classic, perfect, and instantly memorable, and it is carried with you the rest of your life.
In his classic documentary, Civilisation, Kenneth Clarke tells us that Raphael’s works must be looked at long and hard to be truly appreciated. Rather like Mozart’s music, Raphael’s art is so perfectly balanced, so immediately appealing to the senses, so intuitively intelligible even to the ignorant, that it seems as if they are devoid of serious substance. Raphael’s painting is just so seeable. The painting unfolds itself to you; it almost sees itself for you. The viewer is not asked to do any work, just to enjoy. Every relevant detail is taken in at a glance. Again, like Mozart’s music, everyone might agree that Raphael’s work is pretty, charming, and pleasant, but many might not guess that it is also profound.
To sense this profundity, you must learn to unsee it before seeing it again: you must fight the immediate familiarity, the apparent ease, and try to see the painting as it might have appeared to its first viewers: as striking, imaginative, triumphant, and so utterly convincing that one man’s individual vision soon became a model for classic grace.
This is, of course, much easier said than done. It is especially difficult if you are standing in the middle of a crowded room, buffeted by tour group after tour group, trying to find a good angle to photograph the painting. By this time, I was thirsty, hungry, and feeling not a little claustrophobic from the swelling crowds. I tried to look at the painting long enough to see what Clarke saw; but the contrast between Clarke calmly meditating on the painting in solitude, and myself sweating and painting in the noisy crowd, was too much to overcome. After fifteen minutes of staring, I turned and left. I was about to enter the Sistine Chapel.
(If you want to take a virtual tour of the chapel, there is an online version that you can find here. I recommend viewing it while listening to Georgio Allegri’s beautiful “Miserer mei, Deus,” composed for performance in the Sistine Chapel.)
Stepping into the Sistine Chapel is an unforgettable mixture of sublime awe and petty annoyance. Security guards are posted all around the room, keeping the gaping tourists out of main channels, preventing the entrance and exit from getting blocked, and repeatedly reminding tourists that no photos are permitted. Hundreds of people were packed into the room, all of them standing elbow to elbow, standing singly or in tight groups, everyone with their eyes turned upwards. It reminded me of those cartoons in which turkeys drowned themselves by looking up, mouths agape, during a rainstorm.
The hushed and hurried sounds of voices, some whispering, some laughing, reverberated in the stone chamber, creating a decidedly unmeditative din. Every five minutes or so, a voice crackled onto a PA system and told everyone, in four or five languages and to respect the sacred space. This created about thirty seconds of respective silence until the talking irrupted again, and the process started over. Even in this place, the most important space in the world for Western art, a holy place for Catholics and humanists alike, we recreate the same silly dynamic as in a middle school classroom.
Even without Michelangelo’s frescos, the Sistine Chapel would contain enough artwork to make it a necessary visit for any art-lover. To pick just one example, Botticelli’s Temptations of Christ, an obvious masterpiece, is on one of the lower walls, along with numerous other paintings of similarly high quality. And yet it is nearly impossible to pay any attention to these paintings; indeed, I bet most visitors do not even notice them. Michelangelo’s ceiling frescos are so overpowering that you cannot look at anything else. Every visitor stares helplessly up at the ceiling, painfully craning their neck like Rodin’s statues.
The work is so famous that it seems superfluous to say anything about it. Everybody has seen it. Everybody knows the story of Michelangelo, tortuously arching his back on the scaffold, slowly and scrupulously completing the frescos almost single-handedly. Michelangelo even wrote a sonnet about his own discomfort (this is a translation by Gail Mazur):
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy (or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison). My stomach squashed under my chin, my beard’s pointing at heaven, my brain crushed in a casket my breasts twisted like a harpy’s. My brush, above me all the time, dribbles paint So my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
Both artwork and artist have been turned into one of the great creation myths of European history. The work even seems to allegorize its own heroic origin: Just as God, sublime and omnipotent, reaches out with one delicate figure to delineate the reclining figure of Man, so did Michelangelo himself give form to the ideal image of Man. Here is the perfect symbol of creativity.
The Sistine Chapel was commissioned by the same Julius II—the most important of the Renaissance Popes, perhaps—and interrupted Michelangelo’s work on the Pope’s tomb. This tomb, by the way, was never completed on the scale originally imagined. The half-finished sculptures that were to form a part of it are now considered to be among Michelangelo’s masterpieces, such as the Dying Slave in the Louvre. Although originally planned for St. Peter’s Basilica, the tomb, as eventually realized, is in San Pietro in Vincoli, a church near the Colosseum; this tomb is now most famous for its statue of Moses.
The most striking thing, aside from their awe and splendor, about Michelangelo’s frescos are their focus on man. I use “man” deliberately, because the vast majority of the figures are men, aggressively so. Michelangelo does not portray landscapes, vegetation, or animal life; there are hardly any objects to distract us from the people. Michelangelo was entranced by the body—its musculature, its skeletal structure, its twistings and turnings, its living flesh. This is most striking in his Last Judgment, an obscene explosion of naked bodies.
The Catholic Church has traditionally had a fraught relationship with the human body, to say the least; but Michelangelo seems not to have shared this aversion. If you believe that humanity was made in God’s image, his fascination for the human form is sensible: by studying the human, you might get a glimpse of the divine.
I end this section feeling much as I did when I walked out of that room: overwhelmed. What are you supposed to say when face to face with such a work of art? How are you supposed to feel? How can you even understand what you are seeing, much less properly appreciate it? Can you, through any means, do justice to the experience? Michelangelo’s frescos are, for me, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Beethoven’s final symphony: a work that reduces me to the same stunned speechlessness as the starry sky.
St. Peter’s Basilica
By the time I left the Vatican museum—winding my way down the double-helix staircase—I was hungry, thirsty, and totally dazed. I bought an overpriced coca-cola from a vending machine, gulped it down, and then bought a bottle of water. Soon I was out on the street again. I had just seen some of the greatest art in the world; but every trace of aesthetic pleasure vanished in the hot sun.
I wanted to go home and sleep, but I didn’t have time to waste. I still had to go see the Vatican’s Basilica.
San Pietro in Vaticano is the church at the very center of the Catholic world. It is the last of the four major basilicas (I’ve written about the other three here), and the most important. The building, as it appears today, is actually the second St. Peter’s Basilica; the first was built during the time of Constantine, and had fallen into such disrepair during the Avignon Papacy that it was clear repairs were needed. The infinitely ambitious Pope Julius II—the ever-present specter of this post—was not content with mere repairs, however, and conceived a project far more daring: to tear down the original St. Peter’s and rebuild it on an even grander scale.
If you bear in mind that the original church was one of the most venerable, most historical, and most important churches in Europe, not to mention one of the biggest, you can get a notion of how bold this plan really was. Julian wanted not only to rival, but to surpass the great ruins of Rome that still towered above everything else in the city.
A contest was held for designs of the new building, and Donato Bramante’s design was the winner; he called for a Greek cross and a massive dome, modeled after the Parthenon’s. One hundred years earlier, the architect Brunelleschi had designed the massive dome the cathedral of Florence, still the biggest brick dome in the world, and Bramante wanted to build something even bigger. But construction was slow in getting off the ground; and it was not long before both Bramante and Pope Julius died. The leadership eventually passed to Raphael, who altered the design to include three main apses; but Raphael died, too, and the project changed hands many times again. When Charles V’s troops sacked Rome, in 1527, this did not help matters. Eventually Michelangelo, then an old man, begrudgingly took on the job; and nowadays his contributions are regarded as the most important.
The Basilica sits at the end of St. Peter’s square. This is a massive plaza, closed to vehicles, that is enclosed by two sprawling colonnades that welcome the visitor in a gigantic embrace. The square was designed by Bernini during the 17th century, and is visibly a product of the Counter-Reformation: grand, impressive, and crushingly huge. The colonnade is four columns deep, and is topped by a row of statues that are difficult to identity from the ground. In the center of the plaza is an obelisk, originally taken from Egypt during the reign of Augustus (a visible marker of the continuity between the Roman Empire and the Roman Church).
On any given day, the plaza is probably one of the most diverse places on earth. Visitors from hundreds of countries, sporting clothes of every imaginable style, speaking a befuddling mix of languages, crowd the massive square. The one thing they all have in common—at least on a sunny, summer day—is that they are very sweaty, and are busy taking photographs.
I was certainly sweaty when I got on the line to enter the Basilica. To pass from the plaza to the Basilica, you need first to go through security: this means waiting in line for the metal detectors. After you pass through security, however, you can waltz right inside. The Basilica is free to visit, which means that you can still see one of the great works of Renaissance architecture even if you forget to buy tickets for the Vatican Museums.
When you walk into St. Peter’s, the first and most persistent impression is the sense of space—open space, empty space, expanding space flooded with light. Everything is on such a huge scale that it is difficult to keep it in perspective; the ceiling is far above you, but sometimes does not appear so high up because everything is proportionally large; and it is only when you compare the little men and women scurrying about on the floor that you realize how big is everything.
The next impression, for me, was an overpowering sense of splendor and fine taste. As in so many Italian churches, but on an even more magnificent scale, the decoration of every surface is lush: shiny, colorful, and finely textured. Statues adorn nooks and crannies—heroic statues of popes and saints—each of them of the highest quality; and yet there are so many, and each is so consistently masterful, that no single thing particularly attracts your attention. Instead, all of the decoration and the statues create an atmosphere of awe.
Seeing the dome of St. Peter’s from the inside is somewhat surreal. It is so big, and so far away, that it is difficult to gauge exactly how big and how far away it is, exactly. Underneath the dome is one of the most famous works in the Basilica, Bernini’s Baldachin. This is a canopy, somewhat like a pavilion, that sits above the main altar. And it is gigantic: stretching to 30 meters (98 feet) in height, it is the largest bronze object in the world. (And despite this, it still looks tiny in the massive space of the Basilica.) The most distinctive and, for me, the most attractive feature of the work are the twisting, swirling columns that support it.
After wandering my way through the Basilica for a while—open-mouthed, exhausted, too dumbstruck and tired to really process any of the experience—I turned to leave. But there, on the way to the exit, was the most famous artwork of all: Michelangelo’s Pietá. The statue now sits in a side-chapel near the front portal, protected by a shield of bulletproof glass. (This glass was not always there. In 1972, a mentally disturbed Australian geologist attacked the statue with a geological hammer, while shouting “I am Jesus Christ!” He managed to destroy Mary’s arm and nose, and it was only through painstaking reconstruction that the statue was restored to its previous appearance. The world is an odd place.)
The statue is extraordinary. Jesus lays sprawled on Mary’s lap, while she looks down at his lifeless body. Jesus’s face is impossible to see clearly, since it is turned limply toward the sky; but Mary’s face is fully visible. For a woman old enough to have an adult son, she is strikingly youthful and beautiful. Her expression is a masterpiece: so quietly sad, so mournful, and yet not despairing; a tranquil and meditative grief. The viewer cannot help but recall all the images of the Virgin with the Christ Child, rosy-cheeked and smiling, sitting on her lap; now Christ still sits on her lap, a grown man, gaunt, tortured, and put to death. The mother gave life to the son, and now he is gone; but the son will return, and he will give life to mankind. Death and life are united in one image—the tragedy of mortality and the injustice of the world, and the hope of immortality and the justice of the universe.
I stood there for a long while, admiring the statue, and then turned to go. There was only one thing I had left to see: the crypt. St. Peter’s contains the remains of over 100 people, most of them Popes. This crypt is free to visit. To get there, I walked around the side of the building and then down a staircase.
What surprised me, most of all, was its plainness. The walls are white and mostly devoid of decoration; the tombs are relatively simple—at least, compared to everything else I had seen that day. If memory serves, many of the tombs had little plaques near them, explaining who the Pope was and what were his most notable accomplishments. I paused to read some of these, but I find that I normally do not remember much when I do this, so I skipped most. (In retrospect, I was right: I do not remember anything I read.)
At the end of the crypt I came to one far more ornate than the rest. It was not a sarcophagus, but a whole shrine—filled with gold and marble—visible through a glass window. I noticed many people pausing, crossing themselves, and praying before the tomb. Who was he? Then I realized: it was the tomb of St. Peter himself.
According to the story, St. Peter was crucified here on Vatican Hill, during the reign of Nero. He was crucified head downward, at his own request, so as not to die in the same manner as his savior. Peter is traditionally regarded as the first Pope, largely because of this passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew (16.18-19): “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It was for this reason that Constantine decided to build the original St. Peter’s in this spot.
In the 20th century, archaeologists investigated the area underneath the Basilica’s main altar—right underneath Bernini’s Baldachin. Several burials, tombs, and bones have been discovered under the Basilica. It seems that the area had been used as a gravesite before even the Christian era; coins and even animal bones were discovered. In 1968 it was finally announced that the bones of St. Peter’s had been identified. How any bones could be confidently attributed to St. Peter is another question; what matters, I suppose, is that they were given the official sanction, which makes them officially St. Peter’s bones.
Whenever I visit a cemetery, a tomb, or a graveyard, I think about human finitude. Our bodies are so frail, and will inevitably fail one day. Death comes for us all. And when I see these big stone structures we build for our bodies, it seems as if they are attempts to cope with this finitude. Maybe I will die, but my tomb will survive, and my name will be known, and my memory will live on. But this form of immortality is sterile. What is a tomb but a pile of rock? What is a name but a puff of air? What is a memory but a vague light flitting in darkness?
But when I see Laocoön and His Sons, The School of Athens, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica, it gives me pause. So much imagination, effort, will, knowledge, and force is compressed into these things that they seem as if they cannot die. This is fanciful thinking, of course. Everything can die, and everything will. But how could anything so splendid be undone, even by destruction? These works seem to transcend their earthly matter and break into the realm of pure forms, immaterial and everlasting. Why I feel this way, and why I choose to express myself using metaphysics and metaphors, I cannot quite say. What I can say is that these works of art do give me a certain feeling of faith: a faith in the human spirit.
The idea of a museum seems somewhat superfluous in Rome, a city that is itself a work of art. Monuments abound; and famous paintings and statues can be seen—for free!—in several churches and basilicas around the city. But Rome is also home to some of the finest museums in the world, and this is not even counting the Vatican museum, which I will discuss in a later post.
I only went to two museums while in Rome, but they were two of the best museums I have had the pleasure of visiting. So, without further ado:
The Borghese Gallery
The first thing you must know about the Borghese Gallery is that you need to get tickets in advance if you want to have any shot of getting inside. (Go to the website to get them.) If you do not, your only remaining option is to stand by the entrance, offering to buy tickets from passersby, like I saw a few ragged tourists doing on my way inside. This is not the strategy I would recommend.
Your ticket will come with a specific date and time. You need to collect your ticket half an hour before entering or it will be canceled (that is what it says on their website, but I am not sure this policy is enforced); and you only have about an hour and a half to see the museum. This is more than enough time, however, since the museum is fairly small.
The Borghese Gallery originated as the private collection of Scipione Borghese (1577 – 1622), a Cardinal and nephew of Pope Paul V (there was a lot of nepotism in those days), who was a Caravaggio collector and a patron of Bernini. The beautiful building did not originate as a museum, but as the Cardinal’s villa; its garden is still known as the Villa Borghese, and is now perhaps the finest park in Rome.
I arrived at the museum hungry, sweaty, and stressed out. Every time I have to be a new place on time—be it a job, a date, or a museum—I panic and arrive very early. Today was no different; by the time I got there, I still had an hour to kill.
I tried strolling around the park, which is lovely, but eventually the Roman sun and humidity overwhelmed me, so I gave up and sat down on a bench. An American family chatted on my left (about gelato, if memory serves), and a group of young Chinese people chatted on my right (probably about gelato, too, but I can’t be sure).
Finally it was time for me to go inside. It is an extremely well-organized place, with tight security. They made me check my small bag, for example, but the line to drop off and pick up my bag moved very quickly. Soon I was about to enter, congratulating myself on buying a ticket early, eager to enjoy the fruits of my rare foresight.
I nearly gasped the first time I stepped inside the museum. Like so many Italian interiors, the space is staggeringly lush. The walls, ceiling, and floor are exquisitely decorated: doorways are framed by columns of fine marble and golden capitals; a delicately carved frieze of mythological figures runs along the upper walls; the ceiling is trimmed with gold and covered in neo-classical designs inspired by Pompey’s mosaics. Everything shines and sparkles and glitters, overwhelming you with prettiness but, even more so, with opulence. Borghese was a rich man.
The museum is divided into two floors: the first is mostly for statues, the second for paintings. Each floor is not terribly large, but each room is so packed with art, great art, that you can hardly give anything the time it deserves.
Like many people who visit the gallery, I was most interested in seeing the Bernini sculptures, since he’s one of my favorite sculptors. If you have any interest in Bernini, you can’t find anyplace more rewarding to visit than the Borghese Gallery. Almost every room on the first floor has a masterpiece by Bernini sitting right in the center.
The Bernini statue that greets you upon entry is The Rape of Proserpina. Though it is incredible to believe, Bernini completed this technical tour de force when he was only 23, while I am sitting here at 25 writing this blog. It depicts the moment when Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld, abducted Persephone (Proserpina) to be his queen in the underworld.
(The myth is literally a classic: Hades rips through a hole in the ground and abducts Persephone when she’s gathering flowers. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, seeks high and low to find her; and in her grief, she neglects her duties as goddess, letting crops wither and die. Zeus, seeing this, eventually intervenes, forcing Hades to return Persephone to her mother. Unfortunately for Persephone, however, she ate some pomegranates, fruit of the underworld, and for this reason she must return a part of each year to spend time with Hades. During these months, Demeter is so upset that she again neglects her duties as goddess of the harvest; and this is why we have winter every year.)
The sculpture depicts the moment when Hades grabbed Persephone to whisk her away into his dark underworld. Bernini, as usual, seems to transcend the limitations of sculpture, creating a scene of dramatic action rather than stable form. The bearded, crowned, and burly Hades is picking up Persephone and pulling her towards him. She is obviously not pleased with this: her body is turned violently away, her hand pushing on Hades’s forehead, her face filled with terror. For his part, Hades looks rather pleased.
The technical excellence of this sculpture is seen most impressively by looking at Hades’s hands gripping Persephone’s back and leg. Bernini has somehow rendered in stone the effect of hands pressing on soft skin. Looking closely at this, it is easy to forget that you are looking at sculpted marble, so anatomically perfect is every detail. I cannot help imaging that, if I were to touch the statue, I would feel the warmth of living flesh.
The next outstanding Bernini sculpture is his David. Here Bernini captures the moment when David is winding up his body to launch his stone at Goliath. The sculpture was, like so many of Bernini’s, a radical departure from previous efforts. Compare, for example, Michelangelo’s David. That Renaissance statue is perfect form, standing stable and erect, motionless and pure. Bernini’s statue, by contrast, is all fire and energy, drama and movement, contortion and stress.
Two aspects of the statue stick out in my impressions. First is the expression on David’s face: eyebrows knit, squinting with concentration, biting his lips. No photograph of any athlete in motion has better captured the mixture of focus and effort that all skilled physical activity requires. Next I would call your attention to the rope of David’s sling: two narrow bands of marble, floating miraculously in mid-air. How on earth did he acquire such enormous technical facility?
The last Bernini sculpture I will mention here—though there are others—is his Apollo and Daphne.
It is worth recounting the myth before seeing the work. Cupid, the eternal trouble-maker, shoots Apollo one day and causes him to fall in love with Daphne, a nymph who is repelled by men. Apollo pursues her, promising everything and more, and Daphne flees. When Apollo is about to catch her, Daphne prays to her father, the river-god Peneus, to destroy her beauty. Like any good father, he promptly turns his daughter into a tree. In Ovid’s famous poem, The Metamorphoses, this story is given as the origin of the laurel tree.
Bernini’s sculpture captures this moment, as Apollo is on the verge of capturing the nymph, and the nymph is mid-transformation. Daphne’s fingertips are sprouting leaves; branches grow from her thighs; her legs are disappearing into a tree trunk. Apollo seems to be unaware of this transformation; on his face he wears a serene, joyful expression. The nimble god’s pose is as light as a ballerina’s, almost as if he as flying. Daphne is a study in contrast. Her body is twisted violently away, struggling to escape his grasp, and on her face she wears a look of horror.
Perhaps at this point it would not be out of place to say a few words on Bernini in general. In technical facility he is unsurpassed; nobody disputes this. But what of his artistic aims? He is drawn to action rather than form, to motion rather than meditation. His statues lack classic grace but make up for it in their exuberance and vitality. True, there is something superficial about his art. Many of his sculptures seem like the Baroque equivalent of special effects, meant to dazzle but not to move the viewer; and this was in keeping with the spirit of times, when egregiously rich cardinals would vie with each other to commission the most extravagant art. And yet the surfaces of Bernini’s art are so staggering and magnificent that all misgivings about “deeper” meaning are shushes into silence.
The first level also contains several splendid paintings by Caravaggio. There is Boy with a Basket of Fruit, St. Jerome Writing, and David with the Head of Goliath. I particularly like the latter painting, since it exhibits Caravaggio’s talent for gruesome, gritty, and human depictions of Biblical scenes.
The second floor of the museum is mostly dedicated to paintings. It is a bit disappointing to move from the splendid decoration and several masterpieces of the first floor to this comparatively subdued level. This is not to say that it is not also a storehouse of riches and treasures. There are many wonderful paintings, too many to adequately view in one sitting, the most outstanding of which is Raphael’s Entombment, depicting the burial of the dead Christ.
I walked and looked and walked and looked, until my eyes hurt from squinting, and my brain, overwhelmed with art, gave up the ghost. There are few museums in the world that can compete with the Borghese Gallery for elegance and taste.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
The Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museum) has several branches around the city. The most famous of these is the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, located near Rome’s central Termini station, which houses an impressive collection of ancient artifacts.
I went fairly late in the afternoon on a Saturday, in the height of the tourist season. Nevertheless the museum was nearly empty; very often I was alone with the collection. This is a shame since, as I will venture to show, this is a museum well worth visiting, especially considering the modest price of admission and its central location.
The majority of the museum’s outstanding works can be found on the first floor (second floor for Americans). This floor is overflowing with portrait busts and sculptures—of gods, goddesses, heroes, emperors, senators, mythological creatures, philosophers, athletes, and everyday people—some of them larger than life, others small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
The piece I was most excited for was Boxer at Rest. I had first seen this statue in my introductory art history class, and was lucky enough to have seen it in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was on loan. This was the very first time it was displayed in the United States.
It is a bronze sculpture, made by the lost-wax technique out of eight separate pieces that were later joined together. Its subject matter is, unsurprisingly, a boxer at rest. This boxer does not look like he’s having a good day. He is naked except for a pair of boxing gloves, made from rope and leather. He seems to have just completed a fight. The poor man is stooped over; his face is covered in scars; his nose is broken; he has cauliflower ears; and drops of blood trickle down his arms and legs.
In this one sculpture, we can see how far the Hellenistic Greeks were from the mentality of the Golden Age Greeks and their idealized human forms. Far from calm and ideal, this athlete is battered, bruised, and ugly. His head is twisted around to one side, as if somebody had just called his name; but the pose looks so uncomfortable and unnatural that it reminds me of Rodin’s work. As I look into the shadows of his eye sockets, buried underneath is knit brows, I feel a mixture of admiration and pity for the man, for his resilience and his pain.
It is nearly impossible to believe that this magnificent sculpture was made in ancient times, before even the birth of Christ. There is a gritty, evocative, expressive quality of the work—the aging boxer, past his prime, pushing his injured body past its limits—that is strikingly modern. I suppose there really is nothing new under the sun.
Several other works are worth mentioning in passing. There are many vases, sarcophagi, and fragments of walls with wonderful sculptures in relief, including the Portonaccio Sarcophagus. There is the Aphrodite of Menophantos, the nude goddess of love shyly covering her private parts, as if embarrassed, but with a serene expression on her face. There were also busts of Socrates and Epicurus that I quite enjoyed.
Several essays could be written on any of the pieces in the collection; but here I will only pause to reflect on one more, the Discobolus. This is a Roman copy in marble of a Greek original in bronze, by the famous sculpture Myron (c. 480 – 440 BCE). The subject of the statue is an athlete, as usual nude, throwing a discus. His body is wound up to its maximum and he is about to reverse directions and release.
This sculpture dates from a much earlier period than the Boxer at Rest, and presents a striking contrast of mentality. Although the athlete’s body is doubtless under a tremendous about of strain, his face is emotionless and blank. He stares placidly at the viewer, his vacant eyes giving the impression that his mind is totally elsewhere, on a different plane, a realm of pure thought and idea. He seems to be so totally absorbed in the act of throwing that he feels no strain.
This is Greek idealization at its finest. There is not a flaw on his body. His muscles are not even tensed. Most striking, however, is the impression of stability that the sculpture conveys. Although the athlete is in mid-motion, it does not invite the viewer to imagine him coming to life and completing the throw. We are, rather, bidden to contemplate the perfection of the athlete’s body, the harmony of his pose, the calmness of his gaze. It is as if the flesh has been sublimated into pure thought.
A contrast with Bernini’s David might be appropriate here. Although both works portray a man about to launch a projectile, Bernini’s work is all fire and movement, while Myron’s is as still and lifeless as ice. The Classic Greeks are always there to remind us that passion and realism are not necessary, nor even always desirable, for great art.
The second floor of the museum is devoted to frescoes, stuccos, and mosaics. Although beautiful as works of art, these are, to me, more fascinating as windows into Roman life, since many originated as decorations in the homes of wealthy Romans. Wandering around this floor, it is easy to imagine that you stumbled into a Roman villa, full of images of sea monsters, gods, and strange beasts.
This does it for my experience of Rome’s museums; next I will discuss Rome’s ancient ruins.
Rome’s basilicas comprise one of the city’s most popular attractions, and rightly so: they are among the most beautiful examples of religious architecture in the world.
The four so-called major basilicas, so designated by the Pope, are all within the diocese of Rome. These are San Giovani in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore, San Paulo Fuori Le Mura, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican (which I discuss in my Vatican post). Besides these four major basilicas there are a multitude of minor basilicas to visit, which are minor in name only.
Santa Maria Maggiore
Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the few churches in Rome for which you need to pass through security to enter. In addition to the security guards manning the metal detector there are burly Italian soldiers carrying assault riffles standing outside. All these defenses should tell you that this is a precious building.
From the outside, the Basilica is hard to miss. Aside from its massive size, the basilica is notable for having the highest bell tower in Rome, a lovely 14th century construction. The inside is even more impressive. When you stand in the center, looking down the central nave, everything seems to be made of solid gold. The coffered ceiling is covered in gilded wooden flowers. Light pours in through the top row of windows, which sit above a row of marble columns. Straight ahead is the main chapel; on the apse above is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary’s coronation amid a golden background. The decoration is absolutely sumptuous.
The feature that most stuck in my memory was a sculpture of Pope Pius IX in prayer, which sits in a sunken area before the main altar. But much more important, historically and artistically, are the mosaics. Mosaics run along the nave in a row under the window, and also surround the semidome above the main altar. Unfortunately, the mosaics on the nave are difficult to see from the ground, but those around the arch are lovely works of art.
Santa Giovanni in Laterano
Bad luck again. I followed my phone to the Basilica di Santa Giovanni in Laterano, and it was not open. The gates were shut, the doors were closed.
In the plaza nearby was another Egyptian obelisk. (This is the Lateran Obelisk—the largest ancient obelisk in the world, apparently. I am embarrassed to say that I hardly took the time to look at it.)
I sat down sullenly on the surrounding barrier, determined to wait until the basilica opened. The thin metal railing was uncomfortably skinny, so I switched to one of the concrete supports. That was slightly better, but still too spherical to make a good seat. If I leaned forward or back, I would slip off; and my tail bone kept rubbing painfully against the concrete. On top of that, it looked like it was going to rain.
I sat and waited. A family of tourists walked up to the gate and then turned back, disappointed. A young couple did the same. Meanwhile, two Italian soldiers, standing beside an armored vehicle and carrying intimidating assault riffles, talked amongst themselves. Their job was not to interact with tourists; their job was to shoot anyone who did anything fishy.
An hour went by. Now it was drizzling. I began to seriously doubt whether this basilica was worth it. The outside was not terribly impressive. Maybe I could just bag it? But I’d come all this way to see it! And there’s no reason it should be closed. Idly, I checked the map on my phone. I could see that the building was quite big, occupying a whole block all by itself. Maybe there was another entrance?
With nothing to lose, I got off my perch, my bottom a bit tender, and walked around the corner. Once there, I smacked myself in the head. This was obviously the entrance. I had been waiting in the wrong place for a whole hour. But I am too used to messing up to get very frustrated when it happens.
As I lingered near the entrance, I was amused to see a young American couple being forced to tie bits of colorful cloth around their waists. They had to do this because they were both wearing shorts, and the churches in Rome have a dress code. In my brief experience, this dress code applies more stringently to women than to men; several times I observed men walking around basilicas in shorts, while women were always made to cover up their shoulders and legs. Keep this in mind on your visit.
The façade of the basilica is austere and neoclassical, full of straight lines and right angles, rising up to an impressive height. The interior is still more impressive. The main nave is cavernous and enormous. Far above hangs the gilded wooden ceiling, sectioned off into quadrilaterals and covered in armorial and floral motifs. The main altar is covered with a gothic baldachin; this is like a guard tower, with two figures (presumably saints) keeping watch inside.
The most outstanding feature of the basilica, however, is the series of statues of the twelve apostles. These are situated in niches in the columns of the main nave. Under the direction of Pope Clement XI, in the early years of the eighteenth century, seven sculptors were commissioned to make these statues. Each one larger than life-size, and each one is elegant and glorious.
Walking from one end of the basilica to the other, from the entrance to the main altar, dwarfed beneath the gilded roof, passing between these dramatic apostles with their flowing robes and outstretched hands, you can feel the gripping power of the Catholic faith—even if, like me, you do not belong to it.
San Clemente al Laterano
The Basilica of San Clement is one of the more historical and well-known minor basilicas in Rome. Unfortunately for me, my experience with this basilica is largely of frustration.
The first time I went—and I walked everywhere in Rome, so this was a major investment of time—it was closed. I do not know why it was closed, since it was the middle of the day, but it was.
The second time I went was quite late. I arrived at 5:30, just half an hour before the basilica shut its doors for the day. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem; the place is not very large, so half an hour was more than enough time to see everything.
But the Basilica of San Clement is not famous for its main floor; it is famous for what lies buried underneath. The present basilica—which I shall describe in a moment—was built around the year 1,100, over the remains of an older, smaller basilica, which had been converted from the remains of a Roman house. This house had served, at various times, as an early Christian church and as a small temple to the god Mithras. Before that, there had been a house built during the Roman Republic, destroyed in 64 AD by the Great Fire. These ruins are preserved in the lower levels of the basilica.
The basilica itself, like all basilicas in Rome, is free to enter; but you need to pay to go down to the basement levels to see the archaeological remains. I was more than willing to pay, since it sounded fascinating, but by the time I arrived they had stopped taking new visitors. I missed my opportunity. But I record this so you do not make the same mistake.
In any case, the current basilica was worth a visit. It is more on the scale of a church than a basilica; the roof does not tower above you, and there is no overwhelming sense of space. The semi-dome over the main altar, and the wooden roof above the central nave, are richly ornamented and glimmering with gold. The paintings and designs decorating the semi-dome have that lovely, medieval simplicity that always strikes me as noble and fresh.
San Paulo Fuori Le Mura
The only subway ride I took in Rome was to see the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. As you might have guessed, its name derives from the fact that it was situated outside of the (now nonexistent) walls of Rome. As a consequence, the basilica is quite far from the city center, which is why I had to take a subway.
The train was absolutely covered in graffiti. It reminded me of photos I had seen of the New York City subway in the seventies. There must be very lax security if people are able to so completely cover the outside of the train cars. I always wonder: where and how graffiti artists do it? Is there a place where the trains are stored for the night, that the artists can sneak into? Maybe a railway yard in some corner of the city? For my part, I thought that the paint job was a little messy, but I appreciated the bright colors.
The walk from the metro to the basilica was instantaneous. In a second I was there, sweating like a pig in the Roman sun, facing the grand edifice. To enter, I needed to pass through military-controlled security, perhaps because the basilica, although in Italy, is technically owned by the Vatican. I was going through customs.
Before entering the basilica proper, you must pass through a courtyard. In the center is a statue of Saint Paul, sword in one hand, book in another, his bearded face staring down ominously. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by rows of elegant columns, which makes it feel more like a Roman ruin than a Catholic church.
And indeed, this feeling is justified by the history of San Clement Outside the Walls. The basilica was founded all the way back in the reign of Constantine, and was later expanded by Theodosius in 386. Although damaged at various times in its history due to wars and earthquakes, it retained its original, ancient form until 1823. That year, a workman repairing the roof inadvertently caused a terrible fire that consumed nearly the whole structure. As it stands now, the building is almost entirely a reconstruction. It is ancient in design, but modern in appearance and execution.
When I went inside, the most lasting impression was of space. Even more than other basilicas, Saint Paul’s is vast and spacious. The paneled ceiling, covered in golden designs and decorations, glows from the light pouring in through the top row of windows. Between each of these windows is a painting of an episode from Saint Paul’s life. The ceiling is so long and wide, and the area underneath so empty, that it seems impossible it could stay suspended above you without more support. Why doesn’t the middle crack under so much weight?
The most beautiful part of the basilica, for me, was the apse mosaic. It captures wonderfully the medieval mood of simple piety that I find so appealing in religious art. Sitting underneath it, with Jesus benignly looking down upon me, I thought I could feel a trace of the comfort that believers must feel in these sacred places.
But I have not yet mentioned the basilica’s most holy treasure: the grave of St. Paul himself. In truth, there is not much to see. In a lowered section of the floor, there is a clear, plastic panel through which can be glimpsed white stone. In a wall adjacent there is another transparent screen with more white stone. I would not have had any idea what I was looking at if there hadn’t been a sign.
By chance, just when I walked down the stairs to see this tomb, an entire American football team came marching into the cathedral. They seemed to be of college age, and there must have been at least fifty. A nun with an Irish accent guided them to the tomb (I made a hasty retreat to get out of their way) and they all gathered to hear her give a brief explanation. Then, they all bowed their heads in prayer.
Perhaps I am just a cynic, but I could not help wondering how much time these burly, hormonal males spend on spiritual things compared with the time they devote to girls and sports. None of them looked particularly excited to be there.
Santa Maria in Trastevere
From Saint Paul Outside the Walls I took a long walk to Trastevere. For the most part, this walk was unexciting and unpleasant—just sweating and slogging my way past apartment buildings and parking lots in the heat and humidity. The most notable exception to this pattern of boredom was when I turned a corner and saw a pyramid.
This is the Pyramid of Cestius, and is actually one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome. To me it looked as though it could have been built yesterday. Instead, it was built in around 12 BCE as a tomb for Gauis Cestius, a magistrate, when Rome was conquering Egypt and there was consequently a fad for Egyptian paraphernalia in the city. I thought it was strange that Cestius would put up a tomb in the middle of the city; but of course, back when it was built, the tomb was well outside the city walls, and the city later expanded around it.
It has since been incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. This was done to save money and materials, but it looks a little funny to see a pyramid with walls sticking out on both sides. The fortified gate near the pyramid is also well-preserved.
I did not know this at the time, but near the pyramid is the famous Protestant Cemetery, where John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried. It is funny how fame works. Keats and Shelley have modest tombstones, no bigger than average; and yet they will be remembered at least as long as English is spoken. The name of Gaius Cestius, by contrast, is not associated with any notable words or deeds; the only reason we remember him is for his peculiar and grandiose taste in funerary architecture.
The novelist Thomas Hardy visited this area in 1887 to pay his respects to Keats and Shelley. The sight inspired him to write a poem, Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats. He begins by asking: “Who, then, was Cestius / And what is he to me?” He continues:
I can recall no word
Of anything he did;
For me he was a man who died and was interred
To leave a pyramid
And so he was.
Soon I passed the pyramid, walked through the gate, and found myself in Trastevere. This is one of the most historical and most hip neighborhoods in Rome. It is attractive for tourists because of its narrow, stone-paved streets and its plentiful bars and restaurants.
The basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is one of the oldest churches in the city. The basic floor plan comes from the 4th century; and the building as it stands now was largely built during the Romanesque period.
The basilica is lovely from the outside. Unlike many basilicas, it is not imposing or grandiose, but humble and pleasant. Its graceful brick campanile stands above a simple, triangular roof. At the top of the bell tower, above the clock, there is a small mosaic of the Virgin and Child, easy to miss if you are not looking; and beneath the roof is another, larger mosaic of the Virgin, surrounded by women holding lamps.
The inside of the basilica is even more charming. Its paneled roof is particularly nice; it is divided into stars, crosses, and other shapely forms, and has a painting of the assumption of the Virgin in the center. The glory of the basilca, however, is its apse, covered in medieval mosaics by Pietro Cavallini. (This is the same artist who did the mosaics in Saint Peter Outside the Walls, which were destroyed in the fire.) As is fitting in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, these mosaics depict her life, and center on her coronation in heaven.
Before moving to Spain, I had already thought the art of medieval Europe was simpleminded and cartoonish. But the more I look at this profoundly religious style, the more I fall under its spell. There is no pretence at realism. Two-dimensional figures, hardly individualized, stand in a neutral space with a gold background. And yet it is this lack of realism that allows the artwork to be so emotionally expressive. The figures are frankly symbols of higher things, too subtle and spiritual to be realistically expressed; the sign can thus not be confused with its signifier.
I sat under the apse and thought about time. How many years had it taken to build that basilica? How long has it stood? How many have worshipped here? How many have visited? I tried to think of all the people who were somehow connected with the basilica’s existence: the men who mined the rock, who baked the bricks, who carried the materials from the quarry to the building site. The Early Christians who founded the religion amid persecution, and the later Christians who built up the Catholic Church into the most impressive institution of the medieval world. The Popes who commissioned works, the priests who gave services, the artists who painted and sculpted. The poor mother who left a donation every Sunday. The specialists who helped preserve the aging artwork. The tourist who visits and takes a picture with his phone.
I thought of all the years that went into the place, and all the people who contributed, directly and indirectly, in big ways and small, and I thought about how many more people would visit this basilica after I was dead and gone, and I grasped, just slightly, how small I am in the grand scheme of things. Now, that is some good religious architecture.
It is an absurd understatement to say that Rome has many beautiful churches. You can hardly go two blocks without passing a church which would, in any other city, be a major tourist destination, but which in Rome is just another church.
Rome has so much world-class religious architecture that I need to divide up my posts by building type. This post is for the churches; the basilicas will come next. (The difference between a church and a basilica is largely a matter of size.) I only visited five churches, although they were quite famous ones. Thus this post, like everything written about Rome, will be woefully incomplete.
Santa Maria della Victoria
The first thing I did when I put down my bags was rush to Santa Maria della Victoria, which was luckily right near my Airbnb.
The main reason I wanted to go was because of Bernini’s famous statue: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. That was all I knew about the church. So I was astounded, upon entering, to find that every inch of the place was breathtaking. I found myself gasping, transfixed, at everything I saw. The church deservers Bernini’s masterpiece.
The first word that springs to mind, as I attempt to describe the place, is lush. Like a forest in springtime, the church overflowed with sensory pleasure. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, the statues, the altars—every surface, corner, and crevice provided fascination and delight to the eye.
After gaping at everything for a few moments, I went immediately to find Bernini’s statue. And there it was. In my experience, the first time you lay eyes on a famous work of art, one that you have seen many times in photos, there is a second of disappointment. “So, that’s it?” you say to yourself. At first glance, the statue looks like any other.
When you look closer and more deeply, the disappointment soon turns into a feeling of unreality. It’s like you just walked into a television program: you are suddenly inside something which you had been experiencing from without. “Am I really here?” you think.
This feeling, too, goes away soon enough, leaving only you and the artwork. Now that you can look at it, what do you see? To the modern eye, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa looks inescapably sexual. A smiling angel stands over the supine saint, an arrow raised in his hands. Teresa is crumpled over, obviously overwhelmed, her mouth hanging open (in pain, pleasure, or both?).
To us in the post-Freudian age, the spear, the postures, and the Saint’s expression all seem like an obvious depiction of coitus. This impression is confirmed when you know a bit about St. Teresa’s life, whose greatest religious struggle was her attraction to handsome men. Yet I wonder if this was intended by Bernini. He was certainly not unacquainted with the sexual side of life. But it is also hard for me to think that a sincerely pious man would have intentionally depicted something sexual for a church, and that the church would have accepted something it considered suggestive.
As usual with Bernini, the statue is a work of technical virtuosity. The most outstanding feature is Saint Teresa’s robe. In the Renaissance, as in Rome and Greece, cloaks and robes were depicted as falling naturally over the body, closely fitting the body underneath. But here the robe seems to be alive. Far from succumbing to gravity, it is animated as if by an electric current, rippling and folding and crashing like stormy ocean waves. Instead of revealing the saint’s body underneath, the robe totally obscures her form, absorbing her into a torrent of energy that represents, all too clearly, the ecstasy she is feeling. This also serves to highlight the saint’s face, since the rest of her is absorbed by her garment. And here too we find Bernini to be a master. The saint is angelic, beautiful, and otherworldly.
Across from this masterpiece is a much lesser work, The Dream of Joseph by Domenico Guido, which is nonetheless impressive. The ceiling is covered with a heavenly fresco, and is held up by white, stucco angels. Besides Bernini’s statue, what most stuck in my memory was the marble in the walls and the floor. Several different colored stones were used, all of extraordinary quality. I cannot fathom how much money went into this single church. I find marble to be nearly hypnotic to look at. Light and dark patches of color swirl around each other like puffs of petrified smoke.
Santa Maria del Popolo
I had the bright idea of trying to visit this church on Sunday morning. I walked in to find that, of course, they were celebrating mass, so I did an abrupt about-face and sat down on the steps outside.
Santa Maria del Popolo is situated in the Piazza del Popolo, one of the pleasantest plazas in the city. In the center is a large Egyptian obelisk, the second oldest obelisk in Rome; and bounding the plaza are two semicircular walls, with a fountain in the middle of each. Although the name literally means “Plaza of the People” in Italian, its name historically comes from the poplar trees that grew there. It was also the site of many public executions.
It was in this plaza that I waited, hungry and frustrated, for the mass to end. The only thing that provided amusement were the many other tourists who made the same mistake. Person after person walked into the door and immediately walked out again, as a beggar by the door futilely said “La messa, la messa!” (“The mass, the mass!”). Obviously nobody could understand the poor guy, or else people habitually ignore the homeless. In any case, the steps were soon full of frustrated tourists who were, like myself, waiting for the mass to end.
It is, by the way, a sardonic comment on religion in the modern world that hundreds of people were annoyed that a church was being used for worship. There are still millions of Catholics in the world, of course; but it seems obvious to me that, in Europe at least, the religion is dying. I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand it seems like progress; but on the other it is hard for me to be happy about a religion disappearing when it inspired and helped fund so much beautiful art. But with this new Pope, maybe the future of Catholicism is looking up.
Finally the mass was over, and we all poured inside. Compared with other churches in Rome, the interior of Santa Maria del Popolo is relatively austere. This isn’t saying very much, of course. There were statues, friezes, paintings, and shining golden surfaces in abundance. The church’s dome is lovely, with a pinkish-yellow swirl of clouds painted on the inside, and light pouring in the windows from all directions.
Although Santa Maria del Popolo is home to many important and lovely monuments, it is most known for two paintings by Caravaggio. As soon as we got inside, all of us immediately flocked to the altar where the paintings hang. These two works are the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Unfortunately, the paintings are hung in such a way that they face each other, rather than the viewer, so you have to see them at an odd angle. And if you want to see the paintings properly lighted, you have to put a euro into a little machine nearby (or wait till another visitor does it, like I did).
As usual with Caravaggio, the style is darkly realistic. Accurate anatomy, shadowy backgrounds, grubby details, and an intense focus on dramatic moments are what set Caravaggio apart from his contemporaries.
In Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Caravaggio pictures the saint—old, bearded, and grey—in the moment when he is being hoisted up on the cross (he was crucified upside down). Peter looks with helpless alarm at his hand, nailed to the cross. The workmen are, by contrast, anonymous forms: two of them have their backs turned to the viewer, and the last has his face cloaked in shadow. Caravaggio chose to portray the workers dressed in Renaissance Italian garb, giving the painting an extra feeling of realism.
Conversion on the Way to Damascus depicts the moment when Saul of Tarsus (later, St. Paul) was struck blind by God and converted to Christianity. The saint is laying flat on his back, his eyes closed, his hands reaching up to heaven. A horse and a servant look down at the supine man, confused at what transpired. The bright red and green of Saul’s clothes contrasts with the dull colors of the upper half. To me, there is something particularly touching about this painting. St. Paul is totally helpless, overwhelmed, as fragile as a newborn; and yet the look of rapture on his face tells us that he will soon be reborn.
Sant’Ignazio di Loyola
This church, which stands right in the center of the city, was built in the Baroque period to commemorate St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
The decoration of this church is lighthearted and joyful. This is exemplified in the fresco painted on the main vault (see above), which abounds in pinks, yellows, and blues, and whose numerous characters, flying through the heavenly skies, are almost cartoonish.
This playfulness is most apparent in the “dome.” Lacking funds to build a proper dome, the Jesuits commissioned a painter to create the illusion of one. It is excellently done: I am sure many visitors do not even notice it is false. When I did notice, I did a double take. “No, that can’t be right,” I thought, and tried to see it from a different angle. But soon the conclusion is inescapable: the dome is a fake.
Also notable are two friezes, one depicting the Annunciation and another St. Aloysius Gonzaga being welcomed into heaven. The swirling spiral columns of dark marble, which flank these friezes, particularly tickle my fancy.
Even more impressive is the monument to Pope Gregory XV. Four angels hold open a curtain, revealing the Pope sitting on a throne. What is most amazing is that the sculptor, Monnot, was able to make marble into a near-perfect semblance of fabric. Technically, at least, it is a masterful.
St. Louis of the French
This is the French national church in Rome. This means that the church originated as a charitable organization that helped French pilgrims in Rome. As a result, all the signs in the church are in French.
The church of St. Louis of the French is not far from the Piazza Navona. Although a lovely church by itself, it nowadays attracts visitors for its three famous Caravaggio paintings about the life of St. Matthew: The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. All three hang together in the Contarelli Chapel, and all three are masterpieces.
(Unfortunately, as in Santa Maria del Popolo, two of the three paintings are difficult to see, not only because they are a bit far away, because they are positioned at a right angle from the viewer. I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that such great works of art are not more easily visible.)
On the left wall is The Calling of Saint Matthew. Here is a perfect illustration of Caravaggio’s genius and originality. Instead of a heavenly scene, with the divine Jesus calling Matthew to serve God, we are shown a confused rabble in a bar. Jesus is almost invisible, hidden in shadow; most noticeable is his pointing finger. We follow this finger to a shabby, bearded man sitting behind a wooden table. This is Matthew. He thinks Jesus must be confused, looking for someone else; he points helpfully to his companion, who is bent over, counting money on the table. As usual, the costumes and the scenery are all taken from Caravaggio’s contemporary world (note the boy dressed in bright livery). The grimy realism, the dramatic gesture, the innocent surprise on Matthew’s face—all this combine to make the painting one of the most convincing portrayals of this Gospel scene.
In the center, facing the viewer, is The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. This was apparently a difficult commission for Caravaggio, since several earlier versions were rejected by his patron. Unfortunately for us, the most famous of these early versions, Saint Matthew and the Angel, was destroyed during World War II. (As the historian Will Durant notes, art and war are engaged in an eternal struggle.) This earlier painting is almost scandalous in its realism. St. Matthew is portrayed as a illiterate peasant. He is seated uncomfortably on a chair, his eyes squinting, his hand gripped awkwardly around the pen. An angel stands next to him, his hand guiding Matthew’s, acting the role as writing teacher. I love the painting, but I can see why the cardinal did not.
The later work is somewhat more conventional, but nonetheless wonderful. Instead of guiding St. Matthew’s hand, the angel hovers above the saint, talking to him (the angel seems to be counting something on his fingers). Matthew looks only slightly more comfortable. He is kneeling on a stool, hunched over his table, bending backward apprehensively to listen to the advising angel. Although less startlingly realistic, this painting makes up for that with its iconic design. The angel, robed in white, comes down from the upper right; while Matthew, robed in red, is positioned in a diagonal from the bottom right. The antithesis of the figures’ colors and postures make this painting instantly memorable.
Last we have The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. This painting is by far the most dramatic. A nearly naked, intensely muscular soldier stands over St. Matthew, whose has collapsed on the ground. The soldier’s face is pure anger and violence. He is the wrathful embodiment of human strength. Surrounding the two central actors are about a dozen figures, reacting to the scene in different ways, from horror to mild curiosity. The saint seems, at first glance, to be frightened. His arm is raised, as if pleading. But then we notice that he is not looking at or reaching towards the soldier, but is entranced by the angel floating above. The angel is holding down the branch of a tree, which St. Matthew reaches for, as if he is about to be pulled right into heaven.
San Pietro in Vincoli
San Pietro in Vincoli is a tremendously old church, first consecrated in the year 439 (although rebuilt after that). Nowadays, it is famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. The statue is part of a larger funeral monument to Pope Julius II (who was, incidentally, the subject of one of Raphael’s greatest portraits).
The relationship between fame and quality is interesting. To be honest, if I had not known that the statue was done by Michelangelo, I’m not sure I would have paid any special attention to it. This is most likely due to my own ignorance of art, rather than any defect on Michelangelo’s part. Nevertheless, I think the same is true of nearly every person who visits, not only this church, but many other famous works of art: we are impressed as much by the name as by the art itself (if not more).
You might notice that Moses is depicted with horns on his head. This isn’t because Michelangelo thought he was a cuckold, but because of the way St. Jerome, in his Latin Vulgate Bible, translated a Hebrew word. The original Hebrew word, used to describe Moses as he descended from Mt. Sinai, often meant “horned,” but also could mean “shining.” St. Jerome chose the first option; and thus there are many portrayals of Moses with little horns on his head.
Moses is seated. His long, flowing beard hangs down in tangled glory. In body and face he is so splendid that he could be mistaken for Zeus. Under his right arm are the two tablets with God’s commandments. On his face, he wears a dark and judgmental expression. What is he looking at? Perhaps he is casting a disappointed glance at his people, who are lost in idolatry. Freud made this statue the subject of some psychoanalysis, and later scholars have done likewise.