Drawing was one of my first obsessions. Not that I was ever any good at it. I had very little interest or ability in the visual arts; rather, I used drawing as a way to channel my other young obsessions. These ranged from whales, to dinosaurs, to guns, to cars, to phantasy battles—all of which I drew in a kind of careful, painstaking schematic style, wholly two-dimensional, like a crude blue-print. Eventually, my interest shifted to music and reading, and drawing was left behind.
My interest in this childhood preoccupation was reignited by reading Leonardo da Vinci and Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Both of these men used the pencil as a way of examining the world, of almost literally pulling it apart (both of them performed dissections, too), and of thinking about structure and form in ways no one had before. In short, for both the Renaissance painter and the Spanish neuroscientist, drawing was a philosophy and a science in addition to being an art, and this piqued my curiosity. Besides, I had always wondered if I could finally learn to draw in three-dimensions.
This set of lectures by David Brody was an excellent resource in this goal. Brody covers all of the basic techniques of drawing—line, composition, value, color, perspective, and the human form—including exercises, analysis, and history along with his demonstrations. To really work through all of these lectures would take a great deal of time. I spent over a year, on and off (mostly off), with these lectures, and even so I think far more time would be required to achieve results comparable to his (intimidatingly amazing) students.
On the whole, I would rate these lectures very highly. Brody takes an academic approach, trying to get his students to think analytically and to apply general-purpose techniques to a wide range of problems. That is, rather than focusing on specific tricks—such as how to draw convincing eyes or a tree—Brody tries to boil down drawing into fundamental techniques and approaches. Granted, I do think Brody took this approach too far, as a few lectures consist almost entirely of abstract discussions of visual space, hierarchy, color, and so forth. I think the series would have been improved with more draw-along types of activities.
Brody himself comes across as intelligent and surprisingly erudite. He uses many historical examples in his lectures—including many from Asia, which was a nice touch. (Brody is also, as it happens, a talented musician who published a popular fake book for the fiddle.) But he is, unfortunately, a rather dry and uncharismatic lecturer, which is one reason why it took me so long to get through this series.
Yet I cannot really complain, since Brody finally helped me to understand perspective, and to finally draw images in three dimensions. (I still need to work on bodies and faces.) And though I entertain few illusions about my own talent as an artist, I do think I developed a better artistic eye. And this is a reward in itself.
Below I have added some photos of the exercises, not because I am proud of them, but because it gives some idea of what one does in this course:
California and New York have a relationship like many siblings. The two have much in common: they are wealthy, cosmopolitan, populous, and mostly liberal. And yet they drive each other crazy with their differences. Whereas New Yorkers are traditionally rude, uptight, stressed, and workaholic, the archetypical Californian is relaxed, gentle, happy, and obsessed with organic food and fair-trade coffee. Who is to say which is better?
I found myself reflecting on these differences as I walked off the plane that had taken me from JFK to the San Francisco airport, in the summer of 2018. The contrast was immediate. Any time you walk into JFK, you soon have someone yelling at you. But the airport here was calm and quiet. All the staff spoke to us in cheerful, polite tones. Of course, I was suspicious.
We were here to celebrate my cousin’s wedding, and to do some sightseeing in our free time. As it happens, all of my mother’s four siblings moved to California when they left home (whether from a hatred of NY or a love of Cali, it is unclear), which means that all of my cousins on my mother’s side were born and raised here in the sunny side of the country. It was inevitable that one of them would get married here.
My aunt picked us up from the airport. We were jet-lagged, tired, and quite hungry, and so we immediately headed to a restaurant. This meant a little bit of driving. Driving is fundamental to the Californian lifestyle; and since so many people live here, that means traffic is as well. But at least there are some nice places to drive. As a case in point, we were soon crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, probably the most famous bridge in our country (the only competition being the Brooklyn Bridge).
Now, when we were crossing this bridge, I am afraid that I mostly did not get a good look at it, since the bridge and its surroundings were shrouded in a thick fog. As I quickly came to appreciate, this is not unusual in San Francisco during the summer. The reasons for such abundant mist are rather elusive to me. Essentially, the fog forms because the air over land is heated more quickly than the air over the oceans. The hot air, then, rises, which means cold air is sucked in to replace it. And this cold air happens to be foggy, since it comes from the ocean. And as this process works best when the sun is hottest, San Francisco summers are foggy.
(The reason I say that this reasoning is elusive to me is that the same logic would seem to apply to any coastal city; but New York, Valencia, and Hong Kong are not foggy to such a degree.)
The climatic consequences of this are interesting. You can have hot sunny days a few miles inland, but in San Francisco itself it will be cool and misty—even a bit chilly. Indeed, Mark Twain famously wrote: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” That adage has a few problems, however, the first being that Mark Twain never actually wrote it. Another problem is that it is not true to begin with. Winters in New York are a lot colder, as Twain well knew.
Well, if I could see the bridge on that foggy afternoon, I would have seen one of the great engineering marvels of the world. At the time it was built (in the 1930s), the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest and tallest bridge on earth. The bridge connects the city of San Francisco with Marin County (where we were going to eat), spanning the entrance to the ample San Francisco Bay. It owes its fame, not only to its dimensions, but to its elegant design and bold orange color (the paint is called “international orange”), not to mention its dramatic location at the crossroads of land and sea.
Soon enough, we parked the car in the small town of Sausalito. Like the city of San Francisco, this town’s name preserves its Spanish origins (sauce means “willow tree”; sauzal means “a willow grove”; and sauzalito means “a little willow grove”). In the past, the town was a center of ship construction; but nowadays it is a touristy little town full of nice restaurants and cute shops, with a great view of the bay. We ate in an Italian restaurant and I felt greatly relieved. But our chit chat was interrupted when somebody said: “Is that Santana?” Everyone’s eyes turned to look at someone behind me.
“There’s no way that Santana is in this Italian restaurant,” I thought, and mentally justified not turning around. Then I saw somebody walk out of the restaurant: It was, indeed, the legendary guitarist Santana. This was my welcome to California.
San Francisco is located at the tip of a peninsula enclosing the eponymous bay. In many ways the city’s geography was its destiny. A center of commerce with limited land, the city had little choice but to expand upwards. These same factors determined the history of Manhattan; and, as a result, the two are among the most visually striking cities in the United States—a collection of spires rising out of the blue.
If you have gone to Catholic school, you may have guessed that San Francisco was named after St. Francis of Assisi. To this day, the oldest structure in the city is a small white building topped with a crucifix, a part of the Misión San Francisco de Asís, a holdover of the original Spanish mission to the peninsula. One must realize, then, that a city known for being a center of liberal politics, of the Summer of Love, of the gay rights movement, of the ultra-wealthy Silican Valley technicians, was named after a Catholic monk who took a vow of poverty. History is full of these delightful ironies.
We awoke early the next day (though still groggy from the jetlag) to begin our first day of exploring San Francisco. This time, we entered the city through the Bay Bridge, directly across the bay. This of course meant traffic and a toll. But it did provide a rather dramatic entrance to the city. At four and a half miles long (over 7km), the Bay Bridge is one of the longest bridges in the United States. It is not one continuous span, however, but two separate bridges linked to the Yerba Buena island in the middle of the bay. (“Yerba Buena” is a corruption of hierbabuena, which literally means ‘good herb,’ and is commonly used to refer to spearmint.)
This bridge has been reconstructed fairly recently. The original construction consisted of a suspension bridge on the west, and a cantilever bridge on the east. But an earthquake in 1989 damaged the eastern section, which eventually led to its being rebuilt with another, more stylish, suspension bridge, opened in 2013. Photos of the construction look very much like the construction of the new Tappan Zee bridge in Westchester, quite near my home, where another old cantilever bridge was replaced by a sleek and stylish suspension bridge. And, indeed, the same barge crate was used in both constructions: the Left Coast Lifter, an enormous contraption painted patriotic red, white, and blue, used to heave big pieces of bridge into place.
On a clear day, the Bay Bridge would afford you a magnificent view of the city. On this particular day, however, it gave us a rather less magnificent view of gray fog. But this did lend the city an intriguing air of mystery.
Our first stop was Coit Tower. This tower is not exactly conspicuous amid the skyscrapers now crowding the city; but when it was built, in the 1930s, this was the finest view in town. The tower is of fairly modest dimensions, about 200 feet tall. But it stands on Telegraph Hill, one of the hilly city’s tallest and most ideally situated hills. This makes the tower a wonderful place to enjoy the view—when it is not foggy, that is. In any case, the tower is interesting in itself. Made of unadorned concrete, it has a vaguely industrial shape, perhaps like a sprinkler. Considering that the tower is dedicated to fallen firefighters, many have surmised that it was to look like a fire hydrant. The resemblance is apparently coincidental, however.
Coit Tower owes its name to Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy dowager who patronized the volunteer fire department, and who left money in her will for the beautification of the city. I would say that the money was well spent, considering the tourists crowded into every inch of the building. We entered, paid the fee, and went up to the top. The building is narrow and there is only one small elevator providing service up and down. In any case, as soon as I reached the roof, I wanted to turn back. It was rainy, the wind was howling, and the fog put a damper on the view.
But Coit Tower has much to offer besides its view. On the bottom floor, there is a continuous mural running across the outer and inner walls of the hallway. It is detailed and impressive work, done during the height of the Great Depression, under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project. Indeed, Coit Tower was the pilot project of this organization, an experiment in using public funds to employ artists to beautify public buildings. The results are still heartening. The murals are done in a Social Realist style, showing stylized scenes of America.
What makes the art “social realist” is not so much that the paintings are particularly realistic, but that they attempt to encapsulate the everyday American experience. Thus, we see street life, factories, and farms, rather than saints, heroes, or Greek gods. Personally I found the murals both aesthetically pleasing and even vaguely inspiring—showing pride and faith in our sprawling country. Certainly, such a thing seems very distant nowadays. Perhaps we ought to bring back the Public Works of Art Project. I am sure there are still lots of needy artists willing to paint inspirational scenes in public spaces.
After this we headed to the Financial District. Anywhere money is centered, big grey buildings are likely to follow; and so this is where the city’s skyscrapers are found. When you factor in the regular grid pattern of the streets, the final result looks remarkably similar to midtown Manhattan (though not as dirty). The Financial District even has its own Wall Street, in the form of Montgomery Street, one of the country’s great concentrations of capitalist activity.
For over forty years—from 1971 to 2017—the skyline of San Francisco was dominated by the Transamerica Pyramid, a daring modernist triangle of glass and steel. Even now, the building seems futuristic in its design. The same cannot quite be said for its younger brother, the Salesforce Tower, which surpassed the pyramid upon its completion in 2017. It is difficult to find anything positive to say about this building’s design. Its shape calls to mind objects not normally mentioned in polite conversation, and its bloated form does not harmoniously blend in with the San Francisco skyline, but dominates and disrupts the picture. I must admit, however, that the building is an impressive technical achievement, since erecting safe skyscrapers in the seismically-active city is no easy feat.
For lunch, we headed to Yank Sing, a dim sum restaurant in the famous Rincon Center. The building itself has an elegant art-deco design. But it is most notable for the murals inside, which also date from the Federal Arts Project. The best murals are to be found in the old post office, and were painted by the Russian immigrant Anton Refregier. They are also part of the social realist tradition, and treat of the history of San Francisco—covering major events, like the 1848 gold rush, the 1860 completion of the trans-continental railroad, and the horrible 1906 earthquake. Refregier’s sense of injustice and oppression caused some controversy, as it led him to portray some of the less attractive scenes of American history—a choice that got him into trouble as a communist sympathizer during the Red Scare. Thankfully, the murals have escaped destruction by bigots.
After we finished eating and enjoying the art, we got back in the car to head to the most iconic stretch of asphalt in the entire city: Lombard Street. This is a twisting street, consisting of eight hair-pin turns, that leads down one of San Francisco’s many hills. I have never seen anything else like it. The last time I had visited San Francisco was over ten years earlier, when I was quite young, and I still had a vivid memory of this road—so crazily misshaped. On this particular summer day, as the fog began to clear, the street was quite beautiful. Flowers bloomed in the little gardens beside the pavement, and plants even colonized one colorful house nearby.
This seems like an appropriate time to discuss San Francisco’s topography. Like Rome itself, San Francisco claims to have been built on “seven hills,” though there are an awful lot more than seven hills in the city. Indeed, there are six times more: 42 hills, ranging in height from 200 to over 900 feet tall. I can only imagine that the city’s marathon is punishing on one’s knees, and that owning a car means frequent brake repair. It is probably due to this inclination that San Francisco developed its famous cable car system—one of the city’s most identifiable symbols. In its hilliness and its in street cars, this Californian city has an intriguing resemblance to Lisbon, a city with its own big orange bridge.
Now we decided to visit the city’s most famous book store: City Lights. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and I walked out thinking that it was just a particularly nice shop. But my dear mother soon informed me that it was this humble store which published Allan Ginsberg’s iconic collection, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956—a pivotal moment in the Beats movement, as the resulting obscenity trial changed censorship practices and catapulted Ginsberg to national fame. When I found this out, I went right back inside and bought myself a copy of this poem. (Fortunately, after the store’s continued existence was threatened by the coronavirus lockdowns, an online fundraiser helped to save the business.)
After this adventure in literature, we retreated to the nearby Caffe Trieste for some caffeine. This is an elegant little establishment which holds the distinction of being the first Italian-style café on the West coast. As you might expect, having a quality coffee house near a center of the Beats movement meant that this spot also became a meeting-point for literati, like Alan Watts, Jack Keruac, and Alan Ginsberg himself. But I was mostly struck by the prices. Coffee in San Francisco is not cheap! Indeed, ever since we landed, everything I saw seemed absurdly expensive to me; and this is no coincidence.
Though San Francisco was the center of the Beats movement, the setting of the 1967 Summer of Love, and in the 1980s the epicenter of gay liberations, nowadays the city has gone the way of so many major cities—it is simply too expensive for anyone but high-earners to live there. A big part of this is due to the proximity of Silicon Valley, just a few miles south. The influx of big business has made the cost of living shoot up: the typical rent is higher than $4,500, and the typical house costs well over one million. According to this article, homelessness has increased by 17% in the last two years alone (and who knows how the coronavirus depression will affect that!). In short, it is not a great city to visit if you wish to travel on a budget.
Hippiedom and corporations aside, there are some traces of religion left in the coastal city. I have already mentioned the old San Francisco mission. There are some impressive church buildings as well, such as Grace Cathedral. This is the city’s Episcopal cathedral. The structure was completed in a resplendent neo-gothic style, doing a convincing imitation of Paris’s Notre-Dame. Yet the church doors are not gothic, but Renaissance in style; indeed, they are full-scale replicas of the Gates of Paradise. These are a set of bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, made for the baptistry of Florence, now considered to be great masterpieces of the early Renaissance. The replicas in San Francisco are wonderfully done, and were just as enjoyable to examine. The interior of the cathedral is quite as majestically gothic as the outside, with gilded paintings and stained glass illuminating the stone space. It even has a replica of Chartres’s labyrinth.
Not far off is the city’s catholic cathedral, Saint Mary’s. Completed in 1971, the building is so oddly shaped that you could be forgiven for not thinking it was a place of worship. To me, it resembles an enormous washing machine agitator, ready to rinse off the sky. While I am not an enemy of modern architecture, I do think that churches ought to be a bit more solemn and less, well, ridiculous in appearance. This church was built to replace the original cathedral, which had been standing since 1854. Reduced to the status of a humble church, this building still stands, now called Old St. Mary’s. While no architectural marvel, the simple brick building does have the conspicuous advantage of looking like a church.
Perhaps the most beautiful catholic church in the city is Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s. It is a pale white building with two long, narrow spires. The interior is quite lovely, with a coffered ceiling leading to a semi-dome above the main altar. The church even has a full-scale replica of Michelangelo’s Pietá—and it is extremely well-done. A center of the Italian-American community, the church holds services in Italian as well as in English. Somewhat more surprisingly, the church also holds services in Cantonese!
After some milling about in town, we got back in the car for the day’s final destination: Lands End. As you might have guessed, this is one of the many spots in San Francisco where earth meets water. More specifically, this is a park near the mouth of the bay. It is quite a romantic spot, with shrubby trees clinging to rocky soil, with the wind and the waves crashing in. The visitor’s center sits above a kind of rocky crater, beside which stand some ruins of old structures. This is all that remains of the famed Sutro Baths, an enormous complex of swimming pools that used to attract thousands of visitors.
I took some time to walk along the shoreline. The landscape is beautiful and dramatic, with whitecaps washing over sunbleached rocks, and the rolling hills crawling out from under the screen of fog. As I walked on, the Golden Gate Bridge came into view—still partially shrouded by the mist, but magnificent nonetheless.
I also noticed something strange in the water, a sort of concrete stump in the middle of the bay. I learned from a nearby sign that this is the Miles Rock Lighthouse. It was built after the SS City of Rio de Janeiro ran into a submerged reef and sank in 1901, killing 135 of the 220 on board. Originally, this lighthouse—which is built on a lonely rock—had the recognizable form of a tower, but in the 1960s the top floor was demolished in order to make room for a helicopter landing pad. Nowadays, the lights are automated, so nobody has to sit there, alone, in the middle of the foggy bay.
So ended my first day in San Francisco. We got back into the car and drove by the famous Cliff House restaurant, which overlooks the Seal Rocks (both of these very accurately named). Then, after a pizza dinner, we were on our way back to the suburbs. But I would return.
San Francisco is blessed to have the rail system with the dorkiest name in the country: BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit. For my next day in the city, I hopped on the BART by my aunt’s house in the suburbs, and disembarked at the Embarcadero. This is the city’s waterfront to the east, facing the bay; and its name is yet another mark of the city’s Spanish heritage (embarcadero is a place where you board a vehicle). With the weather quite clear and sunny, I could see the full span of the Bay Bridge. Infrastructure is inspiring.
I walked along the water, enjoying the gentle breeze and the bright sun, pausing occasionally to examine anything that caught my eye. This certainly included the giant sculpture, Cupid’s Span, which consists of a huge bow and arrow that have been stuck into the ground. Designed by the artist team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (who are married), the sculpture is meant to pay homage to San Francisco’s history as a city of love. (But to me it looks as though cupid had carelessly lost his weapon, which is not good news for would-be lovers.)
Next I passed the Ferry Building, which looks vaguely like a medieval city hall—with a large clocktower shooting up from a lower structure. This beaux-arts style building actually took its inspiration from the Giralda, the half-Moorish, half-Renaissance bell tower of Seville’s cathedral. As you may imagine, before the construction of the major bridges, ferries were quite important to the life of the city. But as time went on, the building came to be seen more and more as a historical monument, and parts were even rented out for use as office space. Nowadays, however, the building has regained some of its former luster, and is a tourist attraction in its own right—with a food court and a market in the “Grand Nave.” It is still the main ferry hub for the city.
While I walked along, I noticed an interesting presence on the streets: big, hulking streetcars. This is the city’s historic streetcar service. Much like the city’s cable cars, these streetcars now mainly serve a nostalgic purpose, ferrying tourists in creaky wooden and metallic boxes across the city. But they really are quite charming to see, as they scuttle past like big colorful beetles. Incidentally, I also passed by the Fog City Diner, a landmark restaurant with a classic, retro appeal. I later ate here with my family, and the food was fantastic.
My next stop was Pier 39. This pier is one of the city’s major tourist centers, which means it is crowded and filled with all sorts of touristy junk. But the pier is still worth visiting, if only for the view. From the end of the dock, you can see both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge; and behind you there is Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid. What most attracts attention, however, are the Sea Lions. A few decades ago, these animals preferred to lounge on the rocks near Cliff House, but for some reason they moved inside the bay and set up camp here. The sea lions took over these docks and have not budged since. The number of animals present on any given day fluctuated. When I visited, there were probably around 50; but there can be many times that number.
There are still more things to see from the pier. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien was docked not far off in the bay, a so-called Liberty ship. These were medium-sized cargo ships mass-produced during the Second World War, to ferry goods and men across the Atlantic. This particular ship has quite an impressive record, having been part of the D-Day Armada and seeing use in the Pacific Theater. The ship normally sits in the dock, available for tours; but occasionally it takes tourists on short rides.
Yet by far the most famous thing in the bay is not a ship, but an island: Alcatraz. You may be surprised to learn that this name also dates back to the Spanish occupation. Nowadays, the word alcatraz is used to refer to garrets; but at the time the word was used for pelicans (both are white, coastal birds). Thus, Alcatraz is the island of the pelicans—as it remains, incidentally.
(It is also curious to note that this word—like virtually all the Spanish words that begin with “al-”—is a loan word from Arabic, dating all the way back to Moorish Spain. It most likely comes from al-ḡaṭṭās (in Arabic: الْغَطَّاس), which means “the diver.” So the name of one of the world’s most famous prisons comes from a Spaniard misidentifying a bird, using a word that was misheard from Arabic several centuries earlier. History is a funny thing.)
The last time I had been in San Francisco, I visited this island with my family. Nowadays, unfortunately, you need to have booked tickets in advance in order to visit, so we missed our shot. But I do have a strangely vivid memory of my time on this island. It is an arresting mixture of the wretched and the beautiful—with dark, concrete cells surrounded by ocean and sky. Because of the frigid waters and strong tides of the bay, the prison was considered escape-proof, though three prisoners tested this notion in 1962 (as dramatized in the classic film). The iconic gangster Al Capone was imprisoned here, as well as the famous “Bird Man” of Alcatraz, Robert Franklin Stroud, who did important work on bird diseases during his many years of imprisonment. (Alcatraz, however, did not let him have either birds or equipment.)
By now, I had had enough of the overpriced and gaudy seaside, so I headed to one of San Francisco’s great neighborhoods: Chinatown. San Francisco has a claim to being the most important city in Chinese-American history, as the city’s Chinatown—established in 1848—is the country’s oldest. Though New York City has a higher Chinese population in total, people of Chinese descent make up a greater portion (about a quarter) of San Francisco than NYC or anywhere else in America. As it happens, most of the residents in the Bay Area hail from southern China, where Cantonese rather than Mandarin is spoken (which explains why some services at St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s are offered in that language).
The most recognizable landmark in the neighborhood is the Dragon Gate—a stylized arch (called a pailou), with two fearsome guardian lions on either side. This was actually a gift from Taiwan, and was erected as a kind of PR stunt during the Korean War for the Chinese-American community (since the People’s Republic of China was fighting on North Korea’s side).
Two other notable landmarks are the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings, both on Grant Street. These feature an arresting combination of typical Western and Chinese building styles—looking like ordinary buildings that have grown ornamental frills, towers, and swoops. But elaborate architecture is not needed to know that you are in Chinatown. Every surface is covered with Chinese characters, and red lamps hang over the streets.
I had quite a bit of fun simply walking around. I love walking into Chinese grocery stores and food shops, as they are always full of unfamiliar products and brands, all of them wrapped in sparkling colors. As I walked by an alley, I spotted a couple men practicing a dragon dance. And I even paid a short visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, which is exactly what it sounds like: a small factory for fortune cookies. But the best part of visiting Chinatown was the food. I waited online at a dumpling shop and walked out with enough food for three people, all for less than $10. In San Francisco, where a ham sandwich can cost more than that, this is beyond a bargain. And it was delicious.
Next, I wanted to visit a museum. San Francisco has plenty to offer in that regard. There is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which has a vast collection of 20th century art, all housed in an appropriately daring building. There is the Legion of Honor, an imposing neoclassical building with a wide-ranging collection of (mostly European) art; and the de Young Museum, which mainly focuses on art from the United States. If you are looking for something a little more interactive, the Exploratorium—located on the Embarcadero—is full of participatory exhibits. (The museum was the brainchild of Frank Oppenheimer—a far more beneficent gift to humankind than Frank’s older brother’s gift of the atomic bomb.)
But I only had time for one museum, and the one which interested me the most was the Asian Art Museum. This museum is located right across from San Francisco’s city hall—a lovely Palladian structure with a gilded dome—as well as from the main branch of the San Francisco public library. The museum is an enormous institution in its own right, with one of the country’s great collections of Asian art. As I walked through the galleries—going from India, to China, to Japan—I found myself more and more deeply amazed, both at the quality of the collection and of the art itself, and once again filled with a burning desire to learn more about these cultures. But as I am, alas, still quite deplorably ignorant, I will let my photos do the talking:
This concluded my last full day in San Francisco. It was late and I needed to get back to my Aunt’s house for dinner. So I made my way to the nearest BART station and was whisked back across the bay. But I still had time for a last glimpse of the city.
On one beautifully unfoggy day, I took BART into the city center. I was going to go on a bike ride with my cousins. And to get to our rendezvous-point, I had to walk through one of the most famous neighborhoods in San Francisco: Haight-Ashbury.
Of all the famous cultural moments in the history of San Francisco, the 1967 Summer of Love may be the most iconic. That summer, tens of thousands of hippies—dressed in tie-dye and bell-bottom jeans, taking every type of substance you can imagine—converged on the city in order to protest war, reject capitalism, and in general to imagine a different kind of world. It was one of the high points of the sixties counter-cultural movement, an event that helped to identify an entire generation. The moment was so notable as to even merit its own hit song: “San Francisco,” by Scott McKenzie. It summed up the moment thusly:
All across the nation
Such a strange vibration
People in motion
There’s a whole generation
With a new explanation
And indeed there was.
All hippiedom aside, the neighborhood is quite beautiful in itself, for its array of classic Victorian-style houses. These constitute perhaps the most distinctive buildings in the city—stately, elegant structures of wood and many windows, all scrunched up against one another in the city’s rolling hills. Residents have taken to painting them mellow, contrasting colors, leading to the popular nickname “Painted Ladies.” Personally, I found the neighborhoods quite charming. And I was also taken with the detectable aftershocks of the summer of love in the neighborhood, such as an “anarcho-syndicalist” bookstore (presumably one doesn’t have to pay?), and the coffee shop where I waited, which served a very nice brew in a space dominated by used books.
Finally it was time to assemble with my cousins. Within mere minutes, we had rented bikes and were pedalling our way through Golden Gate Park. If San Francisco’s Painted Ladies are the city’s equivalent to New York City’s brownstones, then the Golden Gate Park is the city’s Central Park. In fact, it is quite a bit larger than Manhattan’s greenspace, which is impressive in a city that is a fraction of NYC’s size. However, the two famous parks could never be confused by a visitor. Whereas Central Park is full of maples and oaks over a gently rolling field of grass, the Golden Gate Park has palm trees, eucalyptus, and cypress, which to me seemed quite beautiful and exotic.
Even more exotic were the bison, which were lounging casually in a field. This was almost certainly the first time I had ever laid eyes on a live bison. (There are stuffed ones in the American Museum of Natural History.) And, of all places, I did not expect it to happen in San Francisco. The park had purchased a herd back in 1899, when the country’s bison population was threatened; and it seems the habit of keeping bison is hard to kick.
We made our way through the patchwork of roads, paths, and bridges, until we came to a large open garden. This is where the de Young Museum (mentioned above) is located, as well as the California Academy of Sciences. But I was more interested in a lovely sculpture of two of my heroes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, praying to their creator Cervantes—yet another echo of Spain in this Californian city. We dismounted and walked for a bit, enjoying the sun and the bird calls (most of which were entirely unfamiliar to me), until we came to the park’s end.
Suddenly, the sky opened up and the land expanded into a sandy beach: the very literally-named Ocean Beach. There were a few scattered surfers in the distance (which caused my cousin’s boyfriend, an Australian, keen envy). Behind me, I observed a beautiful Dutch-style windmill, which had been constructed in 1903 as a tasteful way of pumping water into the park.
My time in the city was quickly coming to an end. We pedalled back to the other side of the parks, returned the bikes, and then had dinner in a bar. Soon, I was on the BART, heading back to the suburbs.
Inevitably, I missed a great deal during my trip. I would have liked to have visited more museums and to have seen Alcatraz once again. I also regret not paying a visit to the Castro District, one of the country’s most important gay neighborhoods. It was here that Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay elected official, before his gruesome assassination. It was also here that the nation first came to grips with the horrible AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
San Francisco is, without a doubt, one of the great American cities. Its history is fascinating, and its personality is unmistakable. Yet the city I had seen was very different from the city of Allen Ginsberg, Scott McKenzie, and Harvey Milk. Nowadays, San Francisco is the city of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. Whether or not this is an improvement, I will let its residents decide.
Soon enough I was walking through the airport gate, back into JFK. And it was not long before someone was yelling rudely. It felt good to be home.
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
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.
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
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.
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
In a city full of famous art museums, the Metropolitan is undoubtedly the queen. The institution is a behemoth. With a collection containing millions of objects—objects which come from every corner of the world, from ancient times to the present day—the museum has nary a rival in the world for range. And the objects comprising this encyclopedic collection are, inevitably, of the finest quality that money can buy. By now I have seen enough of the great European museums to say confidently that the Met can compete with any of them.
The museum was conceived as a kind of sister institution to the American Museum of Natural History. It was an age when the rich and educated sought to “civilize” the less privileged. Both museums are located near Central Park, a place which itself was designed as a civilizing project—a kind of pastoral refuge from the ills of city life, where the people could learn to appreciate more refined recreational activities: Sunday strolls, picnics, birdwatching, and so on. The Museum of Natural History would bring the light of knowledge to the uneducated, while the Met would show the unsophisticated the value of high art.
The museum’s founders were embarking on a pathbreaking project. There were already plenty of examples of great European museums to learn from. But what would an American art museum be like? When the museum opened in 1872, its collection was modest. Indeed, many of the works it displayed were either prints or reproductions of famous European works. Yet this quickly changed. New York was emerging as the financial capital of the world. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan were among the city’s residents. Since Europe was still considered the cultural epicenter of the West, these newly-minted super-rich naturally spent their piles of gold in buying up as much European artwork as they could.
The Metropolitan benefited immensely from this confluence of money and ostentatious display. Not only did the museum itself have the budget to purchase high-quality works, but it also increased its collection from gifts and bequests. After all, donating beautiful art to a public museum is a good way to demonstrate wealth and civic-mindedness at once. We ought not to criticize, however. There are times when the vanities of the world manage to produce genuine treasures. And the Met is certainly such a treasure.
At present, the museum’s holdings are so vast and varied that no single person, however knowledgeable, could hope to do justice to it all. It would take a team of professional art historians working for years on end to complete even a basic catalogue of the museum’s works, much less an appreciation along aesthetic grounds. And I am no art historian. So in this post I hope only to give you a superficial tour through this enormous institution. (Much of the information and many of the images come from the Met’s website, which is quite well-made. The people at the museum have done the world a service by publishing high-quality public domain images of their collection.)
We begin at the entrance on Fifth Avenue. The museum is difficult to miss. The building stretches out along several city blocks. Fountains shoot and sprinkle outside, and the sidewalk is always thick with crowds. The building is neoclassical in form, its façade a kind of pale white decorated in a pseudo-Roman style. The steps leading up to the main entrance, lined with imposing double columns, are one of the most iconic spots in New York. There are always food stands parked right below these steps, and usually a street performer—a dancing saxophonist, perhaps—plays for the amusement of those sitting on the steps.
We enter the building, and are faced with a choice: right or left. There are ticket stands on either side. To the left there is a graceful Greek statue of woman, and to the right a stiff Egyptian man seated on a throne. These statues are informative, since the respective galleries for these cultures are located in these directions. For the purpose of getting a ticket, the choice is immaterial: the lines on either side are normally about the same, and usually move pretty quickly.
Now, there was recently a significant change in the museum’s admissions policy. For the past few decades, visitors could pay any amount they liked. Just last year, however, the museum changed its recommended prices to mandatory payments—for everyone except residents of New York State, that is. (Lucky for me, I am still a resident.) Another change, by the way, was the switch from using metal clips to using stickers to identify visitors. I am sure that the Metropolitan has increased its budget by making these changes. But I admit I miss the old, pay-as-you-wish, metal clip Metropolitan. A man from China could pay a dollar, and leave with a nice little keepsake from his visit. I still have some of the old clips in my room.
Anyways, let us now enter the museum proper. I like to begin with the Egyptian section, not just because it is near the entrance, but also because it represents the chronological beginning of the museum’s collection. Here we can ground ourselves in one of the world’s oldest civilizations before we examine anything else.
The Egyptian section is massive and labyrinthine. Unlike the other departments of the museum, the Egyptian department displays everything in its collection—almost 30,000 objects. To make room for all of this, the halls double around one another, making it sometimes confusing to navigate the collection. But it is a worthwhile use of one’s time to get lost in the art. If you proceed carefully through the department, you can take a very satisfying chronological journey: beginning near the entrance, in prehistoric Egypt, and ending up in the same spot, having gone through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, and finishing in the Roman era.
Now, I love this department, because it has everything. Walking through it, the visitor gets a very complete picture of life in this ancient civilization. Of course there are sarcophagi and mummies, along with amulets, jewelry, and ceramics. Among the most famous of the smaller pieces in the museum is William the Hippopotamus, a beautiful figurine made of faience, which is a ceramic type specific to Egypt. It has a radiant blue color that is delightful to look at.
The museum also has a wealth of larger statues, ranging from the size of a child to the size of a giant. For me, the most beautiful of these is a statue of the pharaoh Hatshepsut. As you may know, Hatshepsut was the only woman to officially become the pharaoh. This presented a challenge for Egyptian artists. The art of Ancient Egypt is distinguished for its astonishing conservatism, preserving the same stylistic features through centuries. A single glance is all we need to know that something is Egyptian. But portraying a woman required innovation, and the artists rose to the challenge. Rather than making her appear masculine, as they did in other works, in this seated statue Hatshepsut appears both feminine and even feline. There is a smooth grace and delicacy to the sculpture which is rare in the usually rigid forms of Egyptian art, and I find it enchanting.
Though not, perhaps, especially beautiful, some of the most illuminating artifacts on displays are sets of models. Made around 1900 BCE, the models were found in the 1930s in a tomb in the Memphite region of Egypt. They show us rare scenes of daily life in Egypt. We can see several boats travelling along the Nile, one of them transporting a mummy, another for hunting. There are also models of more cotidian scenes: a granary, a garden, a house. These models are wonderful little things, since it is as if they were made by the Egyptians for a museum exhibit about Egypt. It is difficult to identify with the people who sculpted enormous statues of god kings, but very easy to see oneself gardening.
The centerpiece of the collection is the Temple of Dendur. The Met actually has large sections of several temples in its collection, from different periods of Egypt’s history, but this is the only complete, free-standing temple in the museum. It is in the center of a large room, surrounded by a little water moat where visitors like to throw coins. Statues of crocodiles and lion-headed gods surround the space. The temple itself is of a fairly modest size, and is from the end of Egyptian civilization. It was built after the conquest of Egypt by the Romans, and commissioned by Augustus himself. While the temple is a lovely work of architecture, what most stuck in my memory were the many graffiti carved into the walls.
When you complete your circuit through the Egyptian section, you will be where you began, right by the entrance. From there, I like to go across the hall and then into the section on Ancient Greece. This part of the museum looks very different. Whereas the Egyptian section is twisting and jam-packed, the Greek section is open and clear. The visitor enters a large hall with a vaulted roof. Free-standing statues are scattered through the space, while friezes line the walls. For any lovers of classical art—with its flowing robes, idealized forms, and restrained emotion—there are dozens of works to admire. While I greatly enjoy the statues, I find myself even more interested in the friezes. Some of these come from Athenian tombs, such as a touching portrayal of a little girl cradling a dove.
The collection contains many excellent examples of art from Classical Athens—art that we readily identify as quintessentially Greek. Besides the statues and freizes, there are many examples of Greek vase art. But the collection also contains works that do not fit this description. Among these are the many sculptures from pre-Classical Greece, which to our eyes can seem more Egyptian than anything. The museum has an excellent example of one of these kouroi: A young man, standing with one foot extended forward. I like the work, since it is an interesting example of a midpoint between Egyptian stylization and Greek realism. The young man is manifestly unreal, and yet the musculature in his limbs and torso is well done. An even older work—from around 750 BCE—is a terracotta vase. Its decoration is very much unlike the red, white, and black images of gods and heroes we normally associate with Greece. Rather, it is covered in a thick pattern of geometrical shapes and tiny like stick-like figures. I quite like it.
The collection of Roman art is perhaps even better than that devoted to Greece. There are several excellent busts of Roman Emperors. I have a long, personal attachment to a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the collection, which to me is the perfect image of a philosopher—calm, wise, detached. I use it as my own symbol now. A much more amusing work is a statue of Trebonianus Gallus. It is a rare example in the Met of art gone wrong. Clearly, whoever made it was not a master. The whole figure is awkward, with a bulging stomach and a head that is manifestly too small. Maybe Rome was not doing so well in the year 250 CE, when it was made.
Statues, being made of metal or rock, naturally preserve very well. But painting is another story. Even though the Greeks had a developed tradition of painting, nothing has survived the ravages of time. That is not the case for Rome, from which we have many well-preserved wall paintings. The Met has an entire room, the bedroom of P. Fannius Synistor, which was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The art on the walls is really wonderful, showing several architectural and natural scenes. It shows us how the Romans gave a realistic impression of space without using the technique of perspective. Having seen my fair share of Roman wall frescoes and mosaic floors, I must say that they had wonderful taste in interior decoration.
As you can see from this example and the Egyptian temple, the Met is big on re-creating interiors. This is a theme throughout the whole institution, and one of the Met’s most distinguishing features: The visitor is allowed to walk into history.
Before moving on to the next department, I want to mention the wonderful collection of Etruscan art (from Italy before the Roman period) on the balcony above the Roman section. One of the most outstanding pieces in this section is a bronze chariot from around 550 BCE. Having a preserved chariot is quite rare, so it is a treat to be able to see one so exquisitely decorated.
The Greek and Roman section leads direction to the collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Of course, one can tell at a glance that this grouping is a kind of mishmash of art from non-Western cultures, which in previous days was called “primitive.” In reality the arts of these three continents have nothing to do with each other; and, of course, the amount of geographical space supposedly represented in these galleries is incomparably more vast than that of Greco-Roman or Egyptian art. That being said, at least the Metropolitan has a fine collection of art from these parts of the world, which are too often ignored.
For my part, it is a great refreshment to go from the world of Greece and Rome to this gallery. Our culture has so internalized those classical forms that they charm us more for their “perfections” than for any surprises they contain. Thus it is a pleasure to sample some of the other great visual cultures from around the world, which really do contain surprises for Western eyes.
The grand hall of the collection (gallery 354) is one of the most spectacular in the museum. From the ceiling hangs an enormous collection of shields from Oceania, arranged into a kind of meta-shield formation. I am always reminded, incongruously, of a spaceship. Large sculptures fill the space below the shields. There are some slit gongs from the island of Vanuatu, which double as huge musical instruments and works of visual art. There are funerary sculptures from Papua New Guinea; called malaga carvings, they are beautiful and highly intricate wooden carvings meant to be used only temporarily to celebrate the dead, and then disposed of. (This certainly goes against the grain of Western thinking, wherein we want our art to be eternal.) The bis poles of the Asmata people, another culture in New Guinea, are used for a similar purpose, and are also beautifully carved and then disposed of.
The adjacent section on African art is equally captivating. During my last visit I was particularly attracted to a small wooden carving of a man, called a Power Figure, made by the Kongo peoples. Bent forward slightly, standing with arms akimbo, the statue has a real intensity when seen in person—the exaggerated form only magnified by the many steel nails emanating from the man’s body. More famous is the Benin ivory mask, a real masterpiece, made by the Edo people of Nigeria—one of the great pre-colonial states in sub-saharan Africa. The mask, which represents a powerful queen mother, is clearly the work of experts working within a vibrant tradition. The mask has an elegance and a graceful polish that make it very satisfying on the eye: each detail is finely crafted, and yet they all work together to make a perfect form.
During my last visit, I was especially interested in the section on pre-colonial American art, since I had just finished listening to an audio course on the peoples of North America. I was delighted to find beautiful examples of geometric pottery from the Ancestral Pueblo culture (fascinating to compare to the geometrical designs from pre-Classical Greece). Among the many sculptures on display, one of the most iconic is a ceramic baby from the Olmec culture, made around 1,000 BCE. It is a wonderful piece, surprisingly lifelike despite its stylized face. The folds of fat and the hand placed idly in the mouth serve to make this sculpture a far more realistic depiction of babyhood than the many portraits of the infant Jesus made over 2,000 years later in medieval Europe.
Moving on in our rapid tour, we come next to the museum’s Department of Modern and Contemporary art. The very fact that the Met has this department is a testament to its uniqueness. I can think of no other museum in the world that has significant holdings of ancient and non-Western art as well as “modern” art. But the Met is devoted to a vision of total universality—the art world’s equivalent of the Museum of Natural History—and so has it all.
The collection as the Met is almost as impressive as that in the MoMA—and that is saying a lot. Though there are so many great works on display, I will restrict myself to mentioning my favorite painting, which is also perhaps the most famous painting in the whole collection: Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.
It is an extraordinary portrait, arguably the greatest of the previous century. The painting is revolutionary. Gertrude Stein sits in a kind of abstract, unfinished space. She is not surrounded by her papers and books, but instead sits alone. While previous portraits in European art showed us the heroic and cultured male, handsome and lithe, Stein is hunched-over, short, and tick. Yet her body—mostly concealed under her heavy clothes—has a kind of elemental power on the canvass, even a monumental grandeur. But her face is what attracts the most attention. Rather than faithfully reproducing Stein, Picasso turns her face into a kind of mask. Thus her eyes and nose do not obey the normal rules of perspective and anatomy. Ironically, though this technique necessarily makes Stein’s face blank and inexpressive, the result is a convincing representation of the writer’s presence, of her indomitable energy. There is a charming story that, when told that Stein did not look anything like this portrait, Picasso responded “She will.” He was right: this portrait has helped to define Stein’s image far more than photographs of her.
I will also mention the largest work on display in this Department: America Today, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It consists of ten canvasses, and shows in visual form the America of the 1930s. The work was commissioned by the New School of Social Research—a kind of progressive think tank. I quite like the mural, as I do much of the public art created during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Looking at this work, one feels that we modern Americans were successfully creating our own visual language with which to decorate our public monuments—much like the Egyptians and the Greeks. The inclusion of this large mural is also keeping with the Met’s proclivity for immersive artistic experiences.
Next we come to the massive Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Once again, the Met excels when it comes to the re-creation of historical spaces. One of the most beautiful rooms in the Met is an entire patio taken from a Renaissance Spanish villa—the Castle of Veléz Blanco. Not only are the carvings on the arches and columns beautiful, but the space is filled with quite lovely statues of mythical, historical, and religious figures. Just as astounding is a study from the Ducal Palace of Gubbio. Every surface is covered in images made using the technique of wood inlay (intarsia, or marquestry), which consists of piecing together little bits of colored wood in order to make a complex image. The amount of time it must have taken to assemble a whole room this way is frankly stupefying. The result is an extraordinary work of immersive art, whose walls symbolize different areas of human activity. I am sure the room itself is a greater accomplishment than whatever happened inside it.
These two rooms only scratch the surface of the department’s holdings of decorative arts. There is everything one would expect to find in the homes of aristocrats and royalty, from elaborate coffee pots to ornate globes. I admit that, however fine these products are, they are generally less interesting to me than the sculptures.
Some of the museum’s best sculptures can be found in gallery 548, which takes the form of a large atrium. On one side of the space, you can even see the brick façade of the museum’s original building (which is mostly buried in the later constructions). There are two outstanding statues in this space. The first is Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova. It is an extremely fine work of Neoclassicism, achieving the idealized grace of the Greeks and Romans. Simply as a composition, the statue works marvelously, with the gruesome head balanced by the peculiarly barbed sword, making a strong diagonal. The other great statue (in my opinion) is Ugolino and his Sons, by Jean-Baptise Carpeux. This depicts a story taken out of Dante of an Italian count who—along with his sons and grandsons—was imprisoned and starved to death. We see the count, driven almost to insanity through starvation and despair, surrounded by the tortured forms of his progeny.
Continuing on through the museum, the visitor will next reach the museum’s section of Medieval Art. Now, I feel justified in mostly passing over this department, since the bulk of the museum’s medieval art resides in the Cloisters Museum, uptown (an enchanting branch of the Met). Even so, it must be said that the central room of the Medieval Department is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling and high windows, like a cathedral. An ornate grill (from the Valladolid Cathedral, in Spain) stretches most of the way to the ceiling, and charming examples of sculptures, tapestries, and stained glass give the space a properly church-like atmosphere. This last time around I was particularly impressed with the museum’s small collection of Byzantine art.
From here it is appropriate to go straight to the Department of Arms and Armor. As you can imagine, this was my favorite section to visit when I was a young kid, and did much to fuel my youthful obsession with swords and guns. Even now, I admit I find this section extremely impressive, and I have never seen any collection of historical weapons even half as good. The presentation is excellent. The visitor enters a large hall, where medieval flags are hanging from the ceiling. A group of mounted knights ride through the center, while other armored knights stand guard all around the periphery. One feels that one has entered a jousting tournament.
The suits of armor are fascinating and, often, strangely beautiful. They are like abstract sculptures of human forms, or a kind of proto-machine with moving parts. Though you naturally would think that a metal suit would be extremely cumbersome, you can see innumerable little joints made into the armor, giving the wearers a surprising range of movement. The most beautiful of these many suits on display is that made for Emperor Ferdinand I (brother of Charles V). Every piece of metal is covered in ornate designs. Just as wonderful are the Japanese suits of armor on display. Rather than turning their wearers into metallic turtles, this armor is clearly designed for a different sort of fighting—one requiring more lightness and flexibility. The monstrous grimaces on the helmets would be genuinely terrifying if someone was coming at you wearing this.
Right next to this department is the American Wing. This is one of the areas where the Met is really untouchable. Other museums may have finer paintings or sculptures or what have you, but I do not think any museum has such a complete and rich collection of American art. Indeed, the American Wing could be cut off and moved to a different spot, and it would still be one of the finest museums in the country. Its collection is vast, and it is so wonderfully presented. The visitor enters an enormous courtyard full of benches and statues. The glass wall and roof flood the space with light, making the department a welcome relief from the dark medieval section. Bright, colorful stained glass, and an equally colorful fountain, line the walls; and a beautiful bronze statue of Diana, lightly resting on one foot, occupies the center.
The visitor enters the main collection through a kind of pseudo-façade, as if this is an entirely different building. And, indeed, the visitor suddenly finds herself thrown into a richly-furnished home. In keeping with the museum’s penchant for interior spaces, there are a great many recreations of American interiors from different points in the country’s history. Surely, we have not invented anything as close to time travel as this. Proceeding onward, the visitor next finds a strange sort of room. It is in the shape of a large oval, and on the walls there is an enormous painting of the palace and the gardens of Versaille. When standing in the center of the room, the curving panoramic does create a satisfying illusion of actually standing in France. Just as the study in the Ducal Palace of Gubbio, this painting (by John Vanderlyn) must have taken a nauseating amount of time.
I walked up the stairs, and then found myself in what is called “open storage.” These are the chairs, tables, paintings, lamps, and everything else that the museum has but did not have the space to use. So they hang here, in transparent cases. I recommend a visit to this, if only because it gives you an idea of the enormous amount of material any major museum must be holding in storage.
Proceeding onward, we come to the painting gallery. There are far too many excellent works to name. I was particularly happy to see a portrait of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington—both of which used to hang in Hamilton’s home, up in Harlem. More conspicuously, there is the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware—almost ludicrously heroic. I was also happy to find Frederic Edwin Church’s painting, In the Heart of the Andes. Church was inspired by the naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, and included as much scientific detail as he could in this painting. Just as famous is John Singer Sargeant’s painting, Madame X, an intentionally risque (at the time) portrait of a society beauty (her real name was Madame Pierre Gautreau).
I was most delighted to learn that the museum has an entire room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I am no expert in the design of houses or in interior decoration, but I must say that it is both a welcoming and an animating space. It is easy to imagine myself reading a good novel within, while watching the snow fall out the windows.
This completes our long circuit around the museum’s massive ground floor. If we continue on, we reach the Egyptian section again. So now let us return once again to the Great Hall, and then ascend the grand staircase to the museum’s first floor (or second floor, in America).
Finally we come to the museum’s collection of European Paintings. Now, I must be careful here to avoid getting pulled into an endless catalogue of the museum’s excellent works. Like the American Wing, the Met’s Department of European Paintings could be a self-standing museum, and still be one of the best in the nation. Whether you like Dutch, Italian, French, or Spanish art, you will not leave the gallery disappointed (though German painting is fairly absent).
As you might expect, I am most interested in the Spanish paintings on display. The Met has excellent examples of the three great Spanish masters: Velázquez, El Greco, and Goya. The outstanding work of Velázquez is a portrait of Juan de Pareja, an enslaved man of African descent, which the artist executed in Italy. You will be pleased to hear that the great painter freed Juan de Pareja, who went on to become a skilled painter himself (there is a work of his hanging in the Prado). In any case, when you look at this painting, you do not see a man in bondage. To the contrary, Juan de Pareja appears almost regal with dignity. The painting is beautiful and startlingly realistic. To depict a man of African descent in such a way was a radical gesture on Velazquez’s part.
Goya’s contribution is a portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, a very young aristocrat. As usual with Goya, the figure has an odd stiffness, and the face is inexpressive. The viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the scene at the boy’s feet, where two cats hungrily eye a magpie on a leash. This is a strangely morbid scene for a portrait of a youth, and it becomes all the more eerie when one considers that the boy died only a few years later, at the age of eight. El Greco’s outstanding work is his View of Toledo, the best of the artist’s few landscape paintings. As always, the artist’s signature style is immediately apparent: deep, rich colors combined with a dramatic verticality. This style is perfect for the city of Toledo—which is built on a hill overlooking a river, and filled with sharp towers. El Greco manages to imbue this wholly secular and inanimate scene with a burning spiritual intensity.
The number of excellent French painters in attendance dwarfs the representatives of any other nation. My personal favorite is Jacques Louis David. There is a charming portrait of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was executed during the French Revolution under false accusations. This is quite a historic loss, considering that Lavoisier is normally considered to be the father of modern chemistry. David’s more famous painting is his The Death of Socrates, a historical scene showing the great philosopher’s final moments. Socrates, who was very ugly and was quite old at the time, is shown as a partially nude Greek hero—with a muscular torso to boot. While I am not sure the painting captures the spirit of Plato’s dialogues, it is a brilliantly theatrical image.
On the subject of French painters, I must also mention The Love Letter, by Jean Honoré Fregonard, a delightfully coquettish image of a young woman receiving a note from her secret admirer. (I use this image in my blog’s newsletter.) I would love to keep going—since paintings speak to use in a modern language, easy for us to appreciate—but I will content myself with a short list of the artists in attendance: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Ingres, Canaletto, Tiepollo, Turner, Klimt, Monet, Manet, Guaguin, Cézanne, Dürer, Memling, Rubens… Really even the list gets too long. The museum’s holdings of 19th century European paintings is so big, in fact, that the collection is held in a different section of the building.
To get there, you must pass a little hallway devoted to drawings, prints, and photographs. Now, you may be surprised to learn that, counted by individual works, this department is by far the biggest in the museum. But only a fraction of the drawings and prints in the museum’s holdings are on display at any given time. Sometimes they are taken out for special exhibitions, such as one on Michelangelo a few years ago. There, I got to see some of Michelangelo’s schematic drawings for fortresses, when he was briefly hired as a military engineer. Besides being innovative designs, the drawings themselves are beautiful works of abstract art.
Continuing on through the paintings of 19th and early 20th century Europe—where you can admire the great impressionists and post-impressionists—you get to the Department of Islamic Art. During my time in Spain I have come to admire Islamic art for its intricate designs, its geometrical sophistication, and its sense of divine calm. Wonderfully creative patterns decorate everything from tiles, to carpets, to pages of the Qur’an. As an example of the last, there is a stunning illuminated Qur’an from Turkey, whose decoration is just as intricate as the Book of Kells in Dublin.
Representational art is relatively uncommon in the Islamic world, as it is explicitly forbidden by the religion, but there are still some examples in the gallery. A particularly beautiful one is a tile panel from Iran, executed in a style that looks to my ignorant eye as if it could be Indian. A seductively posed woman is being courted by a man wearing a European hat. I wonder who made object, for whom, and where it would be placed, since it seems to so flagrantly flout the strictures of Islamic religion.
In keeping with the museum’s love of historical spaces, this section has the Damascus Room. This is a winter reception room from a palace in Damascus, Syria, made around the year 1700. It is a beautiful space. Shelves display ornate ceramics and the gilded covers of Qur’ans. Panels of lovely calligraphy (bearing messages from the Qur’an) and floral designs decorate the walls, and the floor is covered with geometrical tiles. The ceiling is perhaps the most stunning of all, composed of elaborate woodwork. It is such a sophisticated, elegant space; it must certainly have set the tone for any conversations which took place within.
Next we come to the museum’s relatively small section on the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia). For the most part these halls are filled with wonderful little objects from long ago, like cylinder seals, jewelry, incense burners, and small-scale statues. Among this last category is a small statue of Gudea, made around 2,000 BCE. It is a work of skilled craftsmanship, showing us a Sumerian king in a rather humble pose. His robe bears an inscription in cuneiform about his accomplishments (typical propaganda). What is striking is the thoughtfulness and even the humility of the king’s gaze and pose. He strikes us as more of a monk than a fearsome ruler. Another outstanding work is the bronze head of an unknown ruler, made between 2300 and 2000 BCE. Though not exactly realistic, I think this work is remarkable for the degree of individualization in the ruler’s features. We are not looking at a generic, stylized male head, but a particular man from 3,000 years ago.
But the real stars of this department are the lamassu: colossal sculptures of human-headed winged lions that flank the hallways. These were made in Assyria, around 850 BCE. Walking through this hallway, flanked by these mythical figures, feels like walking into the past. One detail I particularly like is that the creatures have five legs, as a result of a bit of illusionism. The front two legs are parallel, as if the creature is standing still; yet from the side, an extra leg is added (invisible from the front) to make it look as though the creature is mid-stride when seen from the side. The walls surrounding these stone guardians are covered with friezes in low relief, depicting other mythological scenes. For me, this Assyrian art is as lovely anything in the Egyptian section.
You emerge from ancient times onto the balcony overlooking the Great Hall. Here you can walk across and enter into the Department of Asian Art. This is one of my favorite areas of the museum, partly because of the art itself, and partly for the way that this department is laid out. Clever planning makes the department seem much bigger than it actually is, and walking through it the first time feels like exploring an old palace or temple.
The viewer enters the department by walking into a grand gallery, filled with enormous works of Chinese Buddhist art. There are large stele, bearing inscriptions and carvings, and a huge sculpture of a Bodhisattva. This may, in fact, be the biggest statue in the museum. It is 13’9’’ tall (over 4 m) and must weigh thousands of pounds. It is also quite beautiful, with richly decorated robes. On the wall is an even bigger paintings of the Buddha of Medicine, seated among a large retinue. It is a magnificent way to enter Asia.
From this large hall, one can either further explore Chinese art, on the left, or enter the arts of India, on the right. For the sake of consistency, we can begin with China. The Met’s collection of Chinese Buddhist sculpture is the largest outside of Asia, and more examples can be seen in Gallery 208. There are so many lovely sculptures. One I particularly like is a ceramic sculpture of an Arhat (or a Luohan, as they are known in China), which is a person who has achieved an advanced state of enlightenment. The sculpture is lifesize; and the man’s tired and worn expression is extremely compelling. His robes are still brightly colored, even though this was made over 1,000 years ago.
The Met also has a wonderful collection of Chinese drawings, calligraphy, pottery, and much else. But the most stunning room is the so-called Astor Court: a recreation of a Ming Dynasty-era courtyard. This is just another example of the stunning interiors from around the world collected at the Met. Finished in 1981, this installation was built by hand, using traditional methods; and besides being a beautiful work of art, it represented a landmark in cultural exchange between communist China and the United States. You enter through a round doorway guarded by two stone beasts (one is reminded of the lamassu in the Ancient Near East). Immediately you find yourself in a different world. A sheltered walkway surrounds a garden filled with oddly shaped rocks. These are called Taihu stones; they are formed via water erosion at the foot of a particular mountain in China (Dongting), and they are abstract sculptures in their own right.
At the end of the garden is a large room, designed to be used as a study, I believe. Unlike the great European interiors of the Met, this room does not appear at all ostentatious. Rather it is spare, restrained, and tasteful. As in the Damascus Room, it is impossible not to be awed by the high degree of sophistication and elegance of the room and the adjoining garden. I cannot but help imagining myself as a Ming Dynasty scholar, sitting in the garden and contemplating some intellectual puzzle. The space seems to invite contemplation.
Next we shall enter India and Southeast Asia. But before that, I ought to mention the Met’s small but delightful collection of Korean art. It is all in one room, Gallery 233, and I quite like the space. All of the objects are diminutive, and many have a kind of geometrical simplicity and elegance which gives the space its own distinct aesthetic. But we have no time to stop and savor. We walk from China, through Korea, and into India.
For me, the standout objects in these galleries are the many small figurines of gods. Indian sculpture enchants me for the kind of whimsical energy it often possesses. Though magnificent, the many gods do not seem remote or beyond reach, but rather quite approachable and inviting. These galleries are arranged chronologically, so we begin at around 2,000 BCE—about as old as anything in the Egyptian or the Ancient Near East sections—and move towards the present. To pick just a few of my favorite examples, there is an Avalokiteshvara Padmapani from the 7th century, a Bodhisattva who seems to be coyly beckoning. Or there is a statue of Shiva as the Lord of Dance, wherein the god is shown mid-stride, dancing within a fiery circle.
Another favorite is Yashoda with the Infant Krisha, who is suckling the young diety at her breast. This sculpture is especially resonant for Westerners, since we also have a tradition of representing the sacred mother suckling the divine child. But the style is here so very different. Whereas Mary is de-sexualized as much as possible, Yashoda is nearly naked and her breasts are almost comically large (of course, I am looking at this sculpture as a Westerner). Indian art is, after all, famous for its erotic content. An excellent example of this is a sculpture of a loving couple in a passionate embrace, made in the 13th century. You may be surprised to learn that this was part of the decoration of a temple. Certainly you would never see anything similar on a gothic cathedral!
The last work I will mention is a statue of Ganesha from the 12th century. This elephant-headed god is the bestower of good fortune, and it is customary to make an offering before doing anything important. When I visited a few years ago, I was delighted to find that this practice extended into the museum: there were coins left at the base of the statue.
We still have Japan to cover, but first we must take a little detour. Standing near the end of the section on India and Southern Asia is a beautiful wooden ceiling. This comes from a Jain temple built in the late 16th century. The staircase underneath this roof leads up to a small gallery on the floor above, this one devoted to the arts of Tibet and Nepal. For my part, this is some of the coolest art that I have ever seen. Though thematically related to art in both the Chinese and the Indian sections, the art here has a peculiar intensity not found anywhere else. An example of this is the painting of Walse Ngampa, a wrathful deity of Tibetan Buddhism. The figure has an electrifying intensity, with two arms wrapped around a terrified victim about to be devoured, while its many other arms are outstretched, holding symbolic objects.
When we descend, we can finally make our way to the section of Japanese art. Here, too, we can find some excellent statues. I particularly like the wooden guardian figures, which flank a statue of the Dainichi Nyorai, or the Cosmic Buddha. These guardian figures are formidable. I am always drawn to their fearsome grimaces. Even more wonderful is Ogata Korin’s ink drawing of waves on a folding panel. Here we can see a non-Western tradition of drawing that is intensely sophisticated. The waves do not occupy any kind of realistic space, but instead seem to emerge from nowhere and engulf everything. The lines of the waves are nothing like the blurry colors of Turner’s seascapes, which gives these waves a disturbing sense of solidity; the leading edge of the water appears sharp and even claw-like. It is a wonderful image.
We have already spent hours and hours in this museum, and yet there is still more to see. From the Japanese Department we can move on to the Department of Musical Instruments. This is housed in two galleries overlooking the section of Arms and Armor. I have never seen a collection of musical instrument that even comes close to the Met’s collection. There are superb examples of instruments from around the world: Italian harpsichords, Chinese pipas (similar to a lute), Native American rattles, Congolese horns, and Japanese drums. Seeing them in this context reminds us that instruments can be very beautiful simply as objects. To pick just one extravagant example, there is an Indian taus (a bowed lute) in the form of a peacock. And, of course, we must not neglect to mention the Stradivarius violins.
This gallery also has paintings with musical subjects hanging on the walls. My favorite is Dancing in Columbia, by Fernando Botero, if only because a copy of it has been hanging in my mother’s living room as far back as I can remember. Two balconies connect the two halves of the instrument department. On one of these is a charming old organ, and on the other is a fantastic assortment of wind instruments, arranged as if they are exploding from a central point. It is an evocative representation of a fanfare.
By now we have made our way through most of the major sections of the museum. There is only one place left on our tour: the Robert Lehman Collection.
Robert Lehman was a banker who owned one of the biggest and best private art collections in history. Active for a long time on the Metropolitan Board of Directors, he bequeathed his extraordinary collection to the Met, but on the condition that it not be mixed in with the other departments. Thus, the Met built a special space, attached at the back of the building, almost like a spaceship taking off from the main building. The rooms of the department are furnished to vaguely evoke a private home. Personally, I do not like having this department separate, since I do not see any good reason to do so other than vanity. If Lehman wanted his collection separate, he could have done what Frick or Morgan did, and established his own museum. But, in any case, there are some extraordinary works of art to be found, so it cannot be missed.
Robert Lehman seems to have been most interested in European paintings, and that is what we find in abundance. One of my favorites is The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo. I love the color palette of the paintings, filled with rich dark hues. But I am most drawn to the representation of the creation of the world: with God holding a series of concentric circles surrounding an image of Eden. Most famous, perhaps, is a portrait by Ingres of the Princesse de Broglie. Ingres’s technique is masterful, brilliantly capturing the rich fabric of her dress and furniture. It is also psychologically subtle, as it shows us a woman poised between shy reserve and self-assuredness.
There are dozens of other great paintings in this collection, and thousands upon thousands of great works in the museum, but this is where our tour must end. I have already written far too much. But the Met is endless—or, at least, it might as well be.
Confronted with such an enormous mass of culture and beauty from all around the world, it is difficult to know how to react. Part of me wonders whether all of these objects really should be here. With the financial resources that the Met possesses, the museum has been able to get nearly anything. But should they? And were all of the objects collected in ways that we would now approve of? Admittedly, the museum is trying to address this last question with their Provenance Project, paying particular attention to works that may have been looted by the Nazis and not restituted to their rightful owners. Personally I wonder about many of the objects in the Department of Oceanic, African, and American arts.
On the other hand, I think it is important that we do have spaces where we can see the human experience as one enormous tapestry. Traveling from Egypt, to China, to Turkey, to Senegal—in short, to nearly every inhabited corner of the world—and seeing these different traditions unfold through centuries of time: one would hope that this might lead to some insight into our human condition. There are some very obvious lessons, the most obvious one being that humans really like to make art. Other common themes are the relationships between art and power, or art and religion. It is all too much to really digest everything. But I hope every visit provides just a little bit more to chew on.
To conclude rather lamely, the Met is a uniquely excellent museum. Not only does it have vast and high-quality collections, but the museum is unique in many respects. As often mentioned, there is the museum’s emphasis on interior decoration and the arts of daily life. More important is the museum’s attempt to be all-inclusive: incorporating art from all over the world, and from every historical period. The Met’s view of art is expansive, incorporating not only paintings and sculptures, but swords, helmets, harpsichords, photographs, and dresses (the Costume Institute is downstairs). It is a kind of universal storehouse of human activity. I will surely keep going as long as my legs will take me.
The plane landed late; and by the time the metro took us to the city, it was midnight. Though the Airbnb was not far from the metro stop, we were so tired that we elected to take a taxi. The driver grimaced when he saw the address.
“How much you pay to stay there?” he asked.
“Not much,” I said truthfully.
“You should pay nothing!”
He dropped us off in front of a long, dark alley.
“Stay on that side,” he told us, before driving off.
“I guess this is it,” I said, and we hesitatingly began to walk into the darkness.
Just as we approached the door, a noise startled us. Two homeless people were crouched right beside the door, talking. In truth I had no reason to think that they posed any kind of threat. But the taxi driver’s words had put me on edge. I fumbled with the lockbox on the door, reading the relevant digits from my phone and tugging. The thing popped open and revealed our keys.
We took the elevator to the top floor. There, I read in the instructions that I was to use the blue key for this one. My friend Becca tried to open it, but to no avail.
“Are you sure it’s this one?” she said.
“Yes, it says the blue key for the blue door.”
She tried again.
“It’s not working,” she said. “Want to try?”
I pocketed my phone and grabbed the key. But as soon as I turned it I felt a snap—the key had broken off in the lock. I was horrified. It was one o’clock in the morning and I had just jammed the lock of our apartment. There was nothing to do but to call the host, who I hoped lived close by. Luckily he picked up quickly.
“You what?” he said.
“The key broke off in the lock.”
“How hard is it to open a door?” he said.
“You know ten people are staying there?”
“Yes, I know it’s…”
“Just wait there.”
I assumed that he would have to call the locksmith, which on a Friday night at one in the morning could easily take hours and cost hundreds of euros. But, to my immense relief, within five minutes he appeared carrying a box of tools. The key shard was extracted and, with some more scolding, we were ushered inside. He then opened a lockbox inside the apartment and gave us a replacement key. The charge was five euros.
“Thank you!” I said, marvelling at the efficiency of the process. Guests must break keys in the door all the time, if he had it down to such a science.
Anyways, the ordeal was over: we had arrived in Athens. From the balcony of our Airbnb we could see it: the Parthenon, high up on its hill, gleamingly lit with floodlights. I looked at the ancient temple, relaxed, and felt that strange wondrous feeling of finally seeing something with your eyes which you have seen a thousand times in photographs.
I was finally here, in Athens, the honorary birthplace of Western culture. I was in the city of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; of Thucydides and Pericles and Solon. For worshippers of history, no ground is more sacred. And yet my first experience in this city of philosophy and art was being frightened by a taxi driver and then criticized by a disgruntled landlord.
Our first stop was the National Archaeology Museum. As one might expect from an archaeology museum in one of the greatest of ancient cities, this is one of the city’s cultural jewels. It is located right in the heart of Athens, in an impressive neoclassical building that evokes the grandiose history it hopes to document. When we went, the line was short and the price was entirely reasonable.
The collection begins with a set of artifacts which cannot be properly called ‘Greek.’ Some of these are Cycladic art, from the Cyclades, a collection of small, rocky islands off the Greek coast. The art is remarkable, both for its high quality and for its extreme contrast to what we normally think of as ‘Greek’ art. There is no hint of realism in these works. To the contrary, the sculptures of faces and bodies are heavily stylized, leaving a characteristically angular and abstract form which would fit in well in any modern art gallery. One of my favorite works from this section is the representation of a harp player, whose instrument seems to emanate from his leg.
Another civilization which flourished before the ancient Greeks were the Mycenaeans, whose culture covered much of modern-day Greek, the Peloponesus, and the islands. The archaic culture takes its name from the greatest city of its era, Mycenae. One of the artistic masterpieces from this period is the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. This is a funerary mask made of pounded gold around 1500 BCE. The mask owes its name to its discoverer, Heinrich Schilemann, who believed it to belong to the legendary king of the Trojan War. Nowadays this link seems extremely unlikely, if not fanciful. The mask is beautiful, nonetheless. Its highly stylized features evoke an individual—noble, powerful, and tranquil in the repose of death.
What I stumbled upon next astonished me: the Antikythera mechanism. This is one of the most remarkable artefacts in history, one which I had heard about several times from documentaries and television. But I had no idea it was here. The Antikythera mechanism is a highly sophisticated device used to compute the positions of celestial objects and to calculate eclipses. In essence it is an ancient computer. It was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, in 1901, and was made some time around 100 BCE. Badly corroded by its centuries under the sea, and broken into several fragments, the pale green chunks of metal hardly do justice to the triumph that such an object represents.
In technical sophistication it would be over a thousand years until Europeans created anything comparable. The mechanism contained over 30 gears whose turnings could model the irregular movements of the sun, moon, and planets. It would be wound with a little crank, and it was originally covered with inscriptions of the months and days (Egyptian names written in Greek script) and the intercalandary days used to correct the Egyptian 360-day year. The level of knowledge needed to create such a device is extraordinary. Merely developing the mathematics needed to accurately calculate the moon’s orbit, for example, took generations of work. And to be able to build such a delicate device that embodies these mathematical relationships in a usable form—that is true sophistication.
Near the fragments of the original device are several modern reconstructions of what it may have looked like. All of these agree that it was a medium-sized box with a metallic face that displayed several rotating rings. The device is not exactly beautiful to look at; but in what it means for our species—the ability to chart and predict the movement of celestial bodies with mathematical precision—it is an artifact more moving than even the finest sculpture.
The museum’s sculpture collection allows the visitor to see the evolution of Greek technique. The archaic period was characterized by a notable influence of Egyptian art upon the Greeks. One can see this clearly in the Knoisos Kouros, a large statue of a young man made around 500 BCE to mark a grave. The figure is stiff, with his arms straight at his sides; his hair is braided behind him; and his mouth wears that characteristic ‘archaic smile,’ a sort of otherworldly grin typical of this period. Nearby is a statue of a sphinx—with a smiling human head, an eagle’s wings, and a lion’s body. Clearly these early Greeks were admirers of their ancient counterparts in the Nile Valley.
Compare this statue with one made about 100 years later: the Poseidon of Cape Artemision. This is a bronze statue depicting a bearded god, his arm raised in a gesture of smiting, found in a shipwreck. (It is unclear whether it is Poseidon or Zeus, since the object in the god’s arm—a trident or a thunderbolt—has been lost.) Here the body is far from stiff, but poised to strike, its right foot lifting up in preparation. The face, too, is far more expressive. Gone is the archaic smile. The bearded god is magnificent, foreboding, and regal.
Found in that same shipwreck is the Jockey of Artemision, a bronze statue that was made even later, at around 150 BCE. Here realism has advanced considerably. We see a young boy riding a horse. The horse is frozen mid-stride, while the impossibly small boy is seated bareback. To my eyes the work has a decidedly morbid air: the horse looks sickly while the boy looks frightened. But it is a masterful work of art, with every muscle of the horse’s body modeled beautifully, and its face wonderfully lifelike. Again, we must marvel at the technical sophistication needed to create such a well-balanced, realistic sculpture out of bronze.
The Golden Age of Greek art is, however, normally considered to lie between the stiffness of the archaic period and the realism of the Hellenistic period. During this properly classical age, idealized form met technical sophistication, creating those wonderful heroic figures who are both believable and yet beyond human. Among these we might class the Aphrodite of Knidos or the Capitoline Venus, iconic statues of the idealized female body, both of which can be found at the museum—or, at least, Roman-era copies.
One of the museum’s great male nudes is the Antikythera Ephebe, a bronze statue found in the same shipwreck that yielded up the above-mentioned mechanism. As with the case of the Poseidon statue mentioned above, the identity of the young man is unclear, since we do not know what he held in his hand. Nevertheless it is an extraordinary representation of the perfect human form—very far-removed in conception and execution from the Egyptian-influenced statues created just two centuries before.
The museum has many masterpieces; but one cannot do justice to its collection by focusing on these pieces alone. There are superb examples of ancient coins and pottery, and sculptures ranging from 1,000 BCE to the Roman era. The Greek vase-painting alone deserves and rewards close study. But, for me, the most moving galleries were those which contained ancient funerary markers. These are like tombstones, most often decorated with statues in high relief, that show us intimate and often touching representations of the departed. In one we see a father holding a baby, whose little hand is outstretched towards his deceased mother. It is wonderful art; but, more importantly, it is so wonderfully human.
This was our first morning. As visiting museums is tough work, we emerged tired and hungry. But the weather was lovely beyond belief. It was mid-March, and Madrid was still feeling the winter chill. Athens, meanwhile, was sunny and perfectly warm, and the sky had nary a cloud. We were also fortunate when it came to food. Greek food is justly famous; and Athens, of course, has no shortage of it. We ate lunch in a place called O Kostas, ordering two lamb gyros and fries with feta cheese. It was delicious. For dessert, we headed to a spot called Lukumades, which serves a type of pastry called, appropriately, Loukoumades. These are essentially like doughnut holes—fried balls of dough—but they are especially sumptuous, soft on the inside and slightly tough on the outside. Traditionally they are served with honey, which is what I ordered. It was a voluptuary experience.
After we ate, we headed to a tour that Becca had booked before we arrived. We wanted to see at least some of the country outside of Athens. A trip to Delphi or, better still, one of the Greek islands would have been ideal; but since we had limited time, we settled on a short trip to the Temple of Poseidon. The tour met at a hotel, where we boarded a large tour bus. I was rather impressed at the driver’s ability to maneuver the blimp-like vehicle through the narrow Athenian streets. Our guide gave us a running narration of the sites we were passing, through the bus’s PA system, as well as giving us some background as to the history and the mythology associated with the temple.
Apart from its major monuments, the city of Athens is itself not especially attractive—a clutter of unremarkably buildings—but the landscape surrounding the city partakes in all that fabled beauty of the Greek countryside. The bright blue Mediterranean, the gentle hills and small islands sparsely covered with green, and the little towns nestled among these elevations—the whole scene brought my thoughts back to the country’s ancient past.
Many times I have heard it said that the particular geography of Greece was the key to its cultural development: that the hills and mountains made overland travel difficult, while the many islands and harbors made sea travel, and thus international trade, far more profitable. Thus, the Greeks became excellent sailors and developed independent city-states, whose merchants sailed far and wide, coming into contact with other cultures and bringing back ideas, arts, and technologies from afar. I have even heard it said that the particular clarity of the Meditteranean sun in Greece shaped their logical philosophy and their classical art. Theories such as these should always be handled with caution. Still, as I looked at this dramatic and yet harmonious landscape, I could not help but feel inspired myself.
Finally we reached the temple. It stands on a bluff overlooking the sea, a commanding position for the house of a god. The guide led us from the parking lot to the site, gave us a little speech, and then let us roam free. Built during the Golden Age of Athens, under Pericles (c. 440 BCE), the temple itself is now in a ruined state, with less than half of the original columns standing and nothing of the roof or internal structures to speak of. Even so, the temple has been a tourist destination for many years, as attested by the many graffiti carved into the rock, including the name of Lord Byron. The ruined temple is perhaps all the more charming to modern visitors because of its ruin. As it stands now, the columns open up towards the viewer, and the temple itself becomes a kind of lens or frame for the landscape around it.
Martin Heidegger, the philosopher who idolized the Greeks, was horrified by most of what he actually saw on his trip to Greece. This temple was one of the few sites that inspired him, which he recorded in his influential essays on aesthetics:
Standing there, the building rests on the rocky ground. This resting of the work draws up out of the rock the obscurity of that rock’s bulky yet spontaneous support. Standing there, the building holds its ground against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm itself manifest in its violence. The luster and gleam of the stone, though itself apparently glowing only by the grace of the sun, first brings to radiance the light of the day, the breadth of the sky, the darkness of the night.
My response to the structure was, however, muted compared with my response to the landscape surrounding the temple. Nevertheless, it was special to see my first true Ancient Greek temple, in situ. It is a work of art that perfectly complements nature.
We arrived back around dinnertime, ate, and then went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
We awoke in our pitch-dark room early. It was time to visit the Acropolis. Breakfast was easy. The streets were full of vendors selling sesame bread rings—which taste like thin, crunchy bagels.
The walk to the base of the hill was short, and it was not long before we began to encounter ruins. First was Hadrian’s Library, built during the reign of that Roman Emperor to house some of the cultural treasures of Athens. (Educated Romans were acutely aware of the cultural debt they owed to Greece.) Little of this structure remains, just a few walls and free-standing columns in a grassy field. Nearby is the Roman agora (an agora is an open space used for assemblies). Athens’ original agora was apparently swallowed up by surrounding buildings, making a new one necessary during the Roman era. The most famous structure in this area is the Tower of the Winds, possibly the first weather station in history, equipped with a wind vane, multiple sundials, and a water clock.
Our path then took us past the iconic Theater of Dionysus. Built into the side of the hill, the theater will be familiar to anyone who has seen later Roman theaters, partially because the Romans refurbished it, and partially because this is the prototype of all theaters that came later—possibly history’s first theater. Semicircular rows of seats descend to the stage, which is framed by a grandiose stone backdrop. It was amazing to see the venue where, in all probability, the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were performed. It may be difficult for us to appreciate this nowadays, when theater and all its offspring (television, movies) so dominate our entertainment and art. But at one point theater was an entirely new, cutting-edge artistic medium. The Greeks not only gave birth to this artform, but quickly produced masterpieces, still powerful after more than 2,000 years.
The path took us on a gradual ascent up the hill of the Acropolis. Soon we came to the entrance to the site. Though there were lots of tourists mulling about, I was surprised that we did not have to wait on a long line to get inside. It was not at all like visiting the Colosseum in Rome: we paid and walked right inside. A little more walking, and we were standing before the ancient entrance to the Acropolis, the Propylaea. This consists of a marble colonnade, with wings on either side, which sits grandly atop the stairs leading up to the Acropolis. At the time this was a sacred space, and so the Propylaea served as a gate, and was used to control access to the city’s temples, barring the way of any undesirables.
We climbed the stairs, passed under the Propylaea—and there it was, the Parthenon.
Seeing any iconic site evokes a peculiar feeling: a quick succession of awe, disappointment, boredom, excitement, curiosity, wonder, and awe again. First you think, “That’s it!” Then you think, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And then you start to really look at it, in a way you never could in photos or in videos. Now you can sense the building’s proportions, and see it in the proper situation—the strong Mediteranean sun bearing down, the bear rock of the hill underfoot, and the expansive view on every side.
The Parthenon was built at the height of Athenian power, at around 450 BCE. Athens had just emerged victorious from a war with Persia, the very war recorded by Herodotus in his Histories. During that conflict, the Persians had ransacked the city of Athens and had burned several sacred sites, including an older temple. Nevertheless, Athens emerged from the war stronger than ever before, the de facto leader of the Delian League—a loose federation of Greek city-states. Indeed, the league dues paid to Athens by the other members helped to fund the new temple, something that the other cities did not appreciate. The high-handed leadership of Athens eventually resulted in the Peloponnesian War, recorded by Thucydides, which ended with the defeat of Athens by Sparta and its allies, and the end of the Athenian Golden Age.
The construction of the Parthenon, then, coincides exactly with Athens’ most glorious moment. On the surface the building is simplicity itself: rows of columns (69 in all, originally) holding up a roof. But the beauties are in the subtleties. First, the columns themselves swell slightly in the middle, in order to counteract the optical illusion that perfectly straight columns are narrower in the middle. The whole foundation itself is slightly bowed, or bent, which helped rain flow off the roof as well as made the building stronger—not to mention lessening the stiffness of the building’s profile.
Then there is the artwork. Very little of the original sculptures remain, much of it having been carted off to England by Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin (more on that later). As extraordinary as much of this artwork is, it was not meant to be the main focus on the structure. In fact, it was placed so high above that it is unclear how it could have been properly seen. The Ancient Greek traveller, Pausanias, does not even mention the friezes that are now considered touchstones in the history of art. Instead, the main focus of the building was an enormous statue of Athena, holding the winged form of Nike (or vistory), now lost to time.
We do have a good idea of what this statue would have looked like, though, from several reproductions and representations, as well as from written descriptions. Ironically, as the classicist Mary Beard points out, we in the present would likely not have found this statue particularly beautiful. Certainly the full-scale reproduction in Nashville is not inspiring. The gargantuan figure was not meant to be a work of art, after all, but a cult image—indeed, the goddess herself made incarnate. And the temple was not a place of services or worship, such as a church or a mosque, but a place to house the offerings to this physical goddess.
Nowadays, we are not apt to see the ruined temple as the house of a goddess, or even as primarily a religious structure. Rather, we cannot help seeing the Parthenon as a kind of visual representation of the culture that gave us philosophy, art, and democracy. We see the ancient structure, and we think of Pericles, the great leader of Athens, and his iconic funeral oration:
If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences…if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes…
But the Parthenon has been affected by far more history than merely Classical Athens. The building served as a church for much longer than it ever was the home of Athena. The pagan temple was first consecrated under the Byzantines as a Greek Orthodox church; and then, during the crusades, the Parthenon fell under the control of several different Western European states, becoming a Roman Catholic church controlled by the French, the Italians, and the Catalans in turn. Finally the Ottoman Turks seized control, and the Parthenon became a mosque. In 1687, during a war with Venice, the Ottomans unwisely decided to use the Parthenon as a refuge for civilians, as well as a storage depot for gunpowder. A stray Venetian shell ignited the powder, killing dozens and seriously damaging the building’s structure.
Thus, what we see now is merely a shadow of what the building would have originally looked like. In fact, the Parthenon has already been partially reconstructed; at the beginning of the previous century, not even the building’s outline remained standing. Even so, what would have been the dark internal chamber is now nothing but empty space (where a large crane was parked when I visited). What stands, in other words, is only the outer rim of the building—as if a house had been gutted, leaving only its external walls. What is more, almost all of the sculpture has been destroyed or removed; and, importantly, the bright paint that would have originally decorated the Parthenon has long ago been washed away.
The building we celebrate, then, is very different from what the Athenians actually built. And as in the case of the Temple of Poseidon, I suspect that we cherish the Parthenon because the passing years have turned it into a noble ruin. Rather than a colorful exterior containing a dark internal chamber, we now find a skeleton made of pure white marble, filled with nothing but sunlight and air. What we see, in other words, is only the mathematically clean and elegant outline of the original structure—giving us a rather false idea of what life in Ancient Greek was actually like.
Still, it is beguiling to behold. The temple has a mesmerizing power, its irregularities so subtle as to be unnoticeable and yet intriguing. What could have been a stiff and rather lifeless building instead appears supple, graceful, and dynamic.
It is worth momentarily pulling your gaze from the Parthenon to examine some of the other temples on the Acropolis. The most notable of these is the Erechtheion, a somewhat smaller temple dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena. According to the founding myth of the city, those two gods had a contest in order to which one of them would become the city’s patron deity. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and caused a well to gush forth. Unfortunately, however, it the water was salty. Athena responded by causing an olive tree to grow. As olives are fundamental to the Mediterranean diet, the Greeks wisely chose Athena. This temple marks the spot where the contest supposedly took place, and was built around the two miraculous gifts—the marks of Poseidon’s trident and the sacred olive tree.
The profile of the Erechtheion is somewhat odd, since it was perforce built over uneven ground, to which the architects had to adapt. Its most famous feature is the Porch of the Maidens, a porch held up by the statues of six young women, called Caryatids. Now the statues in the porch are all replicas. One of them was carted off by the infamous Lord Elgin, and now stands in the British Museum. The other five have been moved to the Parthenon Museum (more later).
The last temple on the hill is the Temple of Athena Nike. It is a small temple situated near the entrance, which was decorated with friezes of the highest quality, some of which are now in the British Museum, and others which have remained in Athens. Besides these other structures, it is worth mentioning the view from the hill of the Acropolis. Athens spreads out in all directions, an endless sea of mostly white buildings hemmed in by distant green mountains. From here I could see the Temple of Hephaestus, a remarkably well-preserved temple that does not receive a fraction of the attention from tourists as do the ruined temples in the city—which supports my earlier point, that we are attracted to these buildings precisely because they are ruins. Near the temple is the Church of the Holy Apostles, a 10th century Orthodox Church.
I could also see the famous Areopagus, a rocky outcropping said to be where the gods held Ares on trial (thus the name), and, according to Aeschylus, where the gods held Orestes on trial for the murder of his mother. The ancient Athenians used this hill for their own trials, and St. Paul was said to have made a speech to the Athenians in this spot. John Milton referenced this classical past in the title of his iconic defense of a free press, the Areopagitica. Looking in another direction I saw the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, at one time the largest temple in Greece, but now only a collection of free-standing columns in a grassy field. Most striking of all was Mount Lycabettus, a hill whose rocky peak is taller even than the Acropolis.
I descended from the Acropolis feeling a mixture of triumph and deflation. The big moment was over: I had seen the Parthenon. Was I any the better for it? But we still had a great deal more to see, much of it found in the Acropolis Museum, located right down the hill from the Acropolis itself.
The Acropolis Museum is the second great museum in the city of Athens. Compared with the Archaeology Museum, this one is a much younger institution, having been opened in 2009 after many false starts. The museum, thus, projects a sleek, modern aspect to the visitor. Even the building itself is interesting and innovative. Designed by the Swiss, Parisian, New Yorker Bernard Tschumi, the entire structure is lifted above an ancient archaeological site, leaving the ruins below both visible to visitors and accessible to researchers.
Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in most of the museum, so I must rely on my hazy memory. The first exhibit was housed in a large hall. Shards of broken pottery and other small archaeological remains were housed in glass cases along the walls, while free-standing statues and structures were scattered throughout the space. This is the gallery containing artifacts from the slopes of the Acropolis—consisting of a mishmash of domestic items and the remains of various small sanctuaries. The floor has several glass panels, allowing the visitor to look down at the ancient site below (called the “Makrygianni plot”). As the museum’s website explains, the upwards slope of this hall intentionally recalls the slope of the Acropolis hill itself: quite a nice touch.
After climbing some stairs, the visitor then finds herself in a sort of enormous warehouse, with concrete grey pillars holding up the high ceiling, and large windows letting in the bright Greek sun. The space is full of statues and fragments of buildings, many of them visibly archaic. These are the remains of the pre-Golden Age Acropolis, the temple complex which was largely destroyed by the invading Persians. Only broken fragments of the decorations remain, but they are beautifully suggestive. Particularly noteworthy are the pediments from the Hekatompedon, the so-called Ur-Parthenon that stood on the site of the current temple. We see a lion killing a calf, the curling body of a snake, and a man with three bodies (each of them wearing the above-mentioned archaic smile). For me, the statues of the animals are especially lovely. The Golden-Age Greeks seldom depicted animals in their visual art, preferring to focus instead on ideal human form.
Moving on through this floor, the visitor then comes to a special balcony, where she will find five familiar friends: the Caryatids who hold up the Porch of the Maidens in the Erechtheion. They are exhibited, appropriately, on a balcony within the museum. These are the originals—at least, those that have remained in Athens. Besides taking one back to England, Lord Elgin badly damaged another of the Caryatids in his attempt to remove the sculpture. The authories in the museum have done their best to piece her back together again, but the difference is stark. The mythological significance of these Caryatids is, as it happens, uncertain. According to the museum’s website, the most plausible theory is that they represent choephoroi (mourners, or “libation bearers”) of Cecrops I, the king of Athens who was supposedly buried there.
Nearby are the friezes taken from the Temple of Athena Nike. Among these is a justly famous sculpture of a goddess adjusting her sandal. For me, it is a wonderful piece. The way that the thin cloak drapes over the goddess’s body is masterful, both revealing the countours of her body and creating a fascinating geometrical pattern. Indeed, the lightness and daintiness of this image reminds me of nothing else so much as Degas’ many paintings of ballerinas.
So far, we have already had much to see: but the museum’s main raison d’être is still unmentioned. On the top floor is a space especially constructed to house the friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon. It is an enormous space, flooded with light, made to be the exact same dimensions of the original building, and even oriented the same way. In the original building, the friezes would have been far above the visitor, with most of their beautiful details impossible to see. Here, the friezes are dispalyed above the viewer, but close enough for pleasurable viewing. At either end are the remains of the pediments—fragmentary sculptures of gods and heroes.
In my opinion, it is a brilliant design, doing justice to the original setting of the works while allowing for added visibility. The Greek authorities had good reason for investing in such a cutting-edge design, you see. Remember that the vast majority of the original friezes are not in Greece at all, but in Athens, thanks to the aforementioned Lord Elgin. The Louvre has some other pieces, and a few other fragments are scattered here and there. As one might expect, Greece has been trying to get back these originals for decades, arguing that they were taken under improper settings. One of the main arguments against returning the works was that they are impossible to see in the original setting. But the construction of this gallery had made that argument a moot point. Now, Athens has arguably a better space for displaying the artwork than London or Paris.
The British Museum and its counterparts have, unsurprisingly, been less than forthcoming in these demands to return the originals. For one, losing the Parthenon freize would mean losing one of the British Museum’s prized posessions. What is more, giving back the artwork would set a precedent that could potentially unravel the British Museum completely, considering how many of the British Museum’s prized works have been taken from other parts of the world, often under less than scrictly legal circumstances. Greece is just one of many countries demanding repatriation.
For my part, I would be deeply sad to see the British Museum come apart. But after seeing the frankly amazing gallery in Athens, I cannot help but think that this is where the Parthenon freize belongs—lit up by the Mediterranean sun, with the Parthenon itself visible through the wide windows. Seen here, amid so much other classical art, the work is just more meaningful than in foggy London.
So what is in the gallery, if the originals are in London and Paris? Well, mostly plaster casts. Certainly they lack the quality and luster of the original marble, but it is better than the proverbial nothing.
The sculptures and friezes of the Parthenon are virtually the definition of classical perfection for us moderns. In the pediments (under the slanted roof) we see the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus on one end, and the competition between Athena and Poseidon for the loyalty of the citizens on the other—though these are so badly damaged that only fragments of heads and bodies remain. Somewhat better preserved are the metopes. These are panels of friezes in high relief that went around the outside of the building. There were, originally, 92 of these; but time, deliberate destruction (by Christians who thought them graven images), and accidental tragedies (such as the powder explosion) have destroyed most of them beyond recognition. The best ones are mostly in the British Museum, while some of the most ruined panels are still in place on the building, all by invisible to the visitor.
The metopes were divided into four themes, one per side: the gigantomachy (the fight between the gods and the giants); the Amazonomachy (the fight between Greeks and Amazon warriors); the fall of Troy; and the fight between the Lapiths and the centaurs. The theme is clear: war. Each of the panels depicts two figures, embroiled in conflict. These four mythical wars encapsulate the worldview of Periclean Athens quite well: the supriority of the divine over earthly force, the superiority of men over women (and the Athenians were patriarchal even by ancient standards), the superiority of Greeks over non-Greeks (xenophobia is nothing new), and the superiority of humans over the beasts. It is easy to see these articles of faith as a response to the Persian invasion—an assertion of the superiority of Greece over everyone else.
As works of art, the panels of the fight between the Lapiths (legendary Greeks) and the centaurs are perhaps the finest from the Parthenon. Some of them must certainly be ranked among the finest sculptures in Western history. However, as Mary Beard points out in her guide, several of these panels are manifestly inferior—stiff, awkward, misproportioned. It seems that the Greeks hired mediocre workmen in order to get the building finished. After all, the entire building was finished in less than ten years. Compare that to the decades, and even centuries, it took to build the great cathedrals!
The last major sculptural work is the frieze, which went around the naos in a continuous panel. Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon consisted of two major parts: the peristyle, which are the columns that wrap around the perimeter, and the naos, or inner chamber. The Parthenon as we know it today consists exclusively of the peristyle, which contained the pediments and the metopes. As a result, imagining how the frieze would have originally looked is somewhat more difficult for us.
The frieze, sculpted in rather low relief, depicts an enormous procession, with men, women, and children, animals of various sorts, and people on horseback, bearing all sorts of goods and objects. It is an amazing work of art, containing immense variety within a coherent narrative structure, in a style that has come to be synonymous with Classical Athens. Ironically, however, scholars are still unsure what this iconic work of art is supposed to represent. The work is virtually unique for being a representation of daily life—something otherwise absent in Greek artwork. Most would accept that it is some sort of religious procession, but which one is yet to be determined. The museum’s website asserts that it is the Panathenaia—the most important ritual in honor of Athena—but, according to Mary Beard, this is far from clear. So, as it happens, we do not know what one of the most influential works of Western art is about.
After our busy morning on the Acropolis and several hours in the museum, we had ingested all of the art and architecture we would digest for one day. Our next stop was quite a bit different. Becca wanted to visit a famous sandal shop, which used to be owned and run by Stavros Melissinos, known as the poet sandalmaker. The shop is well-known; and it counts many celebrities as past customers, including John Lennon (after whom there is now a sandal named). Now, I must admit that I am not an expert sandal connoisseure. I have been wearing Birkenstocks for most of my life, and they suit me just fine. But other people seem pretty pleased with the shop’s products.
We spent the rest of our time just wandering and eating. Virtually everything we tasted was excellent. Before long, it was time to brave the dark alley once more, and go to sleep in our little bunk-beds. The next morning we walked over to Syntagma square—the central plaza of Athens—and then took the metro back to the airport. It had been quite a journey. Surely, we had missed a great deal of what Athens has to offer. But what we had seen was enough to make Athens one of my favorite trips in Europe. I will return one day.
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room
I must admit immediately that I have never read nor even laid eyes on this book. I’m sure it’s lovely. This review is, rather, about the television series, which I’d wager is twice as lovely.
Civilisation is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Kenneth Clark takes his viewer from the Dark Ages, through romanesque, gothic, the Renaissance, the Reformation, baroque, rococo, neoclassicism, impressionism, through the industrial revolution and the two World Wars, all the way up to when the program was made in the late 1960s. This is a remarkable amount of ground to cover for a show with 13 episodes, each 50 minutes long.
Not only chronologically, but in subject matter, this documentary casts a wide net. Although the show’s primary emphasis is on architecture and art, Clark also dips into literature, poetry, music, engineering, politics, and wider social problems like inequality, poverty, oppression, and war. Of course, for lack of time Clark cannot delve too deeply into any one of these subjects; but because the presentation is so skillful and economical, and the selection of material so tasteful, the viewer is nevertheless satisfied at the end of every episode.
The documentary generally shifts between shots of Clark facing the camera, talking to the viewer, and extended, panoramic shots of churches, monuments, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and mountains, while beautiful music plays in the background. Clark himself chose the musical accompaniments to these visuals, and they are uniformly splendid (and this is one reason why I recommend the documentary over the book). More than perhaps anything I’ve seen on a screen, this series is rich, lavish, sumptuous. As the camera pans over the altarpiece of a church, while Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion plays in the background, it’s so lush and gorgeous that it almost gives you a stomach ache.
Aside from these visuals and music, the main attraction of the series is Clark himself. He comes across as refined, cosmopolitan—almost a freak of erudition. But for all that, he is charming and witty, if ultimately a bit cold. One of the strongest impressions I got was that Clark was a man from another time. He looks out of place as he walks through the modern streets, crowded with cars and buzzing with urban life. He has many misgivings about the modern world: he is anti-Marxist, anti-modern art, and certainly didn’t understand the student protests and hippie culture flourishing at the time. In his own words, he was a “stick in the mud,” and I think felt alienated from his time because of his intense appreciation, even worship, of Western art.
This brings me to some of this program’s shortcomings. Most of these are due to the time in which it was made. This is most apparent in the first episode, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” wherein he argues that civilization almost disappeared during the Dark Ages, and comes close to crediting Charlemagne as the savior of all subsequent culture. This requires that he completely discredit both Byzantine and Muslim culture (not to mention Chinese), both of which were doing just fine. He repeats the tired stereotype about Byzantium being a fossilized culture and treats the Muslims as simple destroyers. Later on in the series, he has some uncharitable things to say about the Germans, which I think was a product of growing up during the World War.
A more serious flaw might be that the series bites off more than it can chew. The questions Clark poses to answer are vast. What is civilization? What makes it thrive? What makes it fall apart? Deep questions, but his answers are by comparison shallow. Civilization requires confidence in the future; they cannot be built on fear. Civilization requires rebirth, the constant search for new styles and ideas; but it also requires continuity and tradition, a respect for the past. Civilization is pushed forward by men of genius (and in this series, they’re all men), who enlarge our faculties with their godlike creative powers; men like Michelangelo, Dante, Beethoven, men who are timeless and yet who forever alter the face of culture.
These are interesting answers, but they seem rather superficial to me. They describe, rather than explain, civilization. But of course, this is a documentary, not a monograph. And although Clark asks and tries to answer many questions, I think his primary goal was simply to inspire a sense of the worth, the preciousness, the grandeur of the accomplishments of European civilization. He wants to remind his viewers that our culture is fragile, and that we owe to it not only beautiful paintings and poetry, but also our very ability to see and appreciate the beauty in certain ways, to think about ideas in a certain light, to live not only a happy but a full and rich life.
Maybe this seems pinched and old-fashioned nowadays. Still, I can’t help thinking of all the times that a friend, a fellow student, or even a teacher has made a blanket statement about “Western culture,” “Enlightenment ideas,” “scientific materialism,” or some such thing, while seeming to understand none of it. (I’ve probably done this myself, too.) I’ve been in classes—serious, graduate-level classes—where, amid condemnations of “Western” ideas and gratuitous namedropping of Western philosophers, I realized that I was the only person there, professor included, who actually read some of these authors. I’m not making this up.
I suppose this is just a callow intellectual fashion, and it will eventually pass away. And I also suppose that this might be slightly preferable to the idiotic self-glorification of “European man” that prevailed in earlier times. At present, however, this program is a wonderful corrective to our bad habits of thought. It’s an education, a social critique, and a joy. I hope you get a chance to watch it.
As a child in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, I visited the Museum of Natural History nearly every week. It is a little boy’s paradise: dinosaur bones, stuffed lions and elephants, and my favorite—the whales. Later, in high school and college, I developed a taste for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was first drawn to the Arms and Armor room—swords and guns, another boy’s paradise—and then progressed to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities. It takes little sophistication to enjoy cursed mummies and violent gods.
But it was not until I moved to Europe, and began visiting art museum’s here, that I developed an appreciation for sculpture and painting. Thus it was only during one of my summer trips back home to New York that I finally visited one of the finest art museum’s in the city: the Frick.
The Frick Collection is housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick, who was one of the great robber barons that dominated the Gilded Age of America. He made his fortune by selling coke (the carbon fuel, not the drug), and achieved industrial dominance by partnering and eventually merging with Carnegie’s steel company. Despite his success and wealth, he is a difficult man to admire. Like many tycoons, he was adamantly opposed to organized labor, and played a key role in repressing the Homestead strike—a violent confrontation in which 9 strikers and 3 pinkerton detectives were killed, and which caused a major setback to the labor movement. He was so hated by laborers, in fact, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman tried to assassinate him. The attempt failed (Frick would die in 1919, at the age of 69, of a heart attack) and Berkman spent 14 years in jail as a consequence, where he wrote a famous memoir of his experience.
But whatever Frick’s defects in the realm of social justice, no one can accuse the man of bad taste. He accumulated superlative works of art during his lifetime; and, fortunately for us, he donated his house and his collection to the public upon his death, to be used as a museum. Along with Rockefeller and Carnegie, Frick is yet another example of a robber baron who managed to be both cutthroat and civic minded.
The museum sits across from Central Park, on 5th avenue and 70th street, about a 10 minute walk south from the Metropolitan. From the outside the mansion is not especially impressive: a squat neoclassical building, the color of granite. It has none of the conspicuous stateliness of Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion, located just up the road (it is a part of Cooper Union now). But the inside is not nearly so restrained: each room is richly decorated, with the finest furniture, chandeliers, mirrors, and wallpaper that money could buy. I have walked through my share of palaces in Europe, so I am used to seeing affluent interiors; but I still found myself gaping as I walked through the house. In the giddy years before income taxes, the robber barons could accumulate more wealth than Old World despots.
But of course the absorbing interest of the museum is not the interior decoration, however sumptuous, but the paintings on display. Though relatively small, the Frick has one of the finest collections of old masters in the city—perhaps in the country. Relatively few works by Velazquez are available outside of Spain. New Yorkers are fortunate: the Metropolitan has a handful, the Hispanic Society has three, and the Frick has one—a portrait of Felipe IV. Typical of Velazquez, it is a masterful work: we feel we are standing right in front of the king. The Spanish monarch’s magnificently regal outfit—painted with such delicacy that it is almost tactile—contrasts sharply with the awkward and gangly figure who wears it, with his monumental Hapsburg chin sticking out below his curled mustache. Most impressive of all, Velazquez manages to imbue this unpromising figure with a certain kingly dignity—his eyes calm, thoughtful, careworn, but in control.
The other two members of the Spanish triumvirate are also in attendance: Goya and El Greco. I especially like the former’s contribution to the collection: The Forge. It is an excellent example of Goya’s ability to convey strenuous action while preserving the harmony of the composition. The stocky figures, contorted with effort, nevertheless combine to form a solid triangle in the center of the painting. I also enjoy the gloomy, almost liquid blackness that engulfs the figures, emphasizing their solitary grandeur.
The Dutch masters are also here in force. Frick managed to get his hands on three Vermeers. My favorite of these, Officer and Laughing Girl, shows all the hallmarks of his style: an interior room lit from a side window, with a homely girl in the center and a detailed map in the background. In this case the girl is chatting with a soldier, seated with his back to us. Is she being courted, or is there something more scandalous afoot? From a purely technical perspective, the most extraordinary feature of the painting is the map, which is so beautifully and accurately rendered as to beggar belief. Rembrandt is here, too, with two works. One of these is a self-portrait, showcasing himself as a florid gentleman with a sword strapped to his hip. The other paintings is rather more mysterious: The Polish Rider. It shows us an armed man in slightly exotic garb, mounted on horseback. Scholars cannot decide who this person is supposed to be; he is called “Polish” because of the style of his hat and dress; but beyond that there is little but guesses.
We can also see a work by the greatest of English painters, J.W. Turner. The Harbor of Dieppe is entirely typical of his style: a bright yellow morning, a shimmering sea, and a large perspective with dozens of figures and boats. Nothing about the painting’s content is profound or especially moving. Its appeal is mainly to the eye—it is a joy to behold, since Turner captures so perfectly the warmth and the brilliance of a summer sunrise. Standing in front of the painting, you can almost feel the sun on your skin. How can paint be made to glow so intensely? In this glorious landscape of light—Turner paints the sun twice, in the sky and reflected in the sea—we can also sense the magic of all ports of travel: a place where different corners of the earth mingle, a gateway to the wide world, beckoning us towards the beyond.
In the interest of brevity, I will skip over many other worthwhile paintings to get to the two great masterpieces of the collection, both by Hans Holbein. They hang on either side of the great fireplace in the center of the mansion. To the right is a portrait of the English politician Thomas Cromwell, and to the left is the Renaissance humanist Thomas More (famous for inventing the word “utopia”). The two were adversaries in life. Cromwell aided Henry VIII in his quest to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, which resulted in England’s break with the Catholic Church; meanwhile, More remained loyal to the Pope and opposed the new marriage. Despite this opposition, the two men shared the same fate: beheaded by the order of the king. More was beheaded for opposing the establishment of the Church of England, and Cromwell because he helped arrange the king’s next marriage (after Boleyn was duly decapitated) to the German princess Anne of Cleves (who did not please the king, but who escaped execution). These were dangerous times for love.
The two portraits are masterful. Each detail is so sharply defined that you can lean in very close without noticing the brushstrokes. Both men sit in sumptuous rooms, and Holbein obviously delighted in painting the fabrics of their gowns, the tablecloth, the cushions. And, as in any great portrait, the personalities of the sitters shine through. Cromwell appears suspicious, scheming, intelligent, and alert; he is a man grasping for power and influence, and wary of all impediments. More’s portrait is a study in contrast. He is dignified and focused. Unlike Cromwell, who gazes sideways with narrowed eyes, More stares straight ahead. His eyes are soft and sensitive, almost like a poet’s, and yet the expression is far from naive; it is, rather, experienced and far-sighted. It is easy to picture such a man dying for his principles, just as it is easy to picture Cromwell plotting to bolster his influence with the king. The two portraits are complemented by Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII himself, which I have seen many times in the Thyssen in Madrid. As you stare past the corpulent face into his black beady eyes, you can tell that this was not a man to be trifled with.
I left the museum deeply impressed. By any standard the Frick has a marvelous collection of paintings, all the more remarkable for being here in America and for being showcased in a historical mansion. Whether you are a tourist or a New Yorker, I urge you to visit.
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.
Many people, capable of quickly sympathizing with any excellence, when once pointed out to them, easily deceive themselves into the supposition that they are judges of art.
I recently went on a short trip to Venice, for which I chose an abridged version of this work to accompany me. Ruskin is an eccentric guide, to say the least. To call him ‘opinionated’ is to risk absurd understatement. For Ruskin uses his survey of Venetian architecture, not merely to instruct, but as evidence for his grand theses of art and society. Few writers could turn descriptions of vaults, capitals, and statues into impassioned social criticism; but Ruskin was no ordinary man.
Ruskin’s primary contention is that gothic art was in every way superior to that of the Renaissance, and this was so because gothic art embodied positive social virtues. The workmen had considerable creative freedom, and did not simply execute the instructions of the master architect; not just nobles and popes, but ordinary citizens and guilds contributed to building projects; and the religious architecture was not done in a special style, but was an elaboration of the normal civic architecture of the town. In short, gothic art was communal, while the art and architecture of the Renaissance and later was individualistic, and suffered accordingly.
It is difficult to even critically engage with this thesis, since it rests on Ruskin’s unconvincing conviction that aesthetic and ethical virtues spring from the same root. Like Tolstoy and Orwell, Ruskin was a man possessed of both keen artistic sensitivity and a burning moral conscience; and like those two Ruskin struggled to reconcile these proclivities. To an extent this issue is troubling for us all. We are disturbed to find that our favorite singer beat his wife, or that our favorite writer is a white supremacist. Can we enjoy the art of such disreputable people? Many opt to boycott the works of artists they deem unacceptable. But Ruskin went further, and asserted that truly immoral people cannot make fine art. In this, Ruskin becomes a proper Platonist, equating beauty and goodness—and throwing truth into the bargain as well—thus cutting the uncomfortable gordian knot.
This position has the intellectual convenience of uniting all the goods on one side. This is very appealing for the social reformer. But this comes with the inconvenience of having to argue palpable absurdities. Ruskin is forced, for example, to make statements such as: “It is very possible that the reader may at first like fig. 14 best. I shall endeavor, in the next chapter, to show why he should not”—vainly trying to argue somebody out of an aesthetic preference. Contrariwise, when great art is made by figures whom history has shown to be immoral, Ruskin must commit the opposite absurdity—opposing his own aesthetic sense to documented fact:
I do not believe, of the majority of the leading Venetians of this period whose portraits have come down to us, that they were deliberately and everlastingly hypocrites. I see no hypocrisy in their countenances. Much capacity of it, much subtlety, much natural and acquired reserve; but no meanness. On the contrary, infinite grandeur, repose, courage, and the peculiar unity and tranquility of expression which come of sinciety or wholeness of heart, and which it would take much demonstration to believe could be any possibility be seen on the countenance of an insincere man.
Few people will be converted to this way of thinking, which submits reality to the whims of Ruskin’s moral and artistic senses. It is, however, refreshing to see a man so passionately convinced of the social importance of art. Ruskin scours to the city of Venice—sketchbook and notepad in one hand, step ladder under the other arm—making detailed studies of statues, capitals, friezes, cornices, and whatever other stone monuments he could find. The original edition of this book includes descriptions of eighty churches. Even in my heavily abridged edition, Ruskin goes through every capital of the Ducal Palace, comparing the representations of the virtues to Giotto’s and to Spenser’s—a tedious yet extraordinary feat. Idle fancy could hardly spur such devotion. He operated with the zeal of a reformer and the conviction of a crusader—ready to show all the world that these stones held the key to social welfare.
Personally I wish there were more people like Ruskin in the world, even if they can be insufferable at times. He wanted to live in a beautiful world, and he wanted that beauty to both reflect and encourage the health of its society. We may be inclined to laugh at Ruskin’s arguments; yet we are willing to pay thousands of dollars to go to these beautiful places and see them for ourselves—which, like Venice, consequently become hollowed out shells of their former selves from the influx of tourism—without stopping to wonder why we don’t spare ourselves the trouble and make our own cities beautiful. While I suspect the rise of urban ugliness is far more complex than Ruskin is apt to think, I agree with him in seeing a moral and social dimension to this aesthetic problem.
In any case, it is a pleasure to read Ruskin if only for his rococo prose, whose sentences twist, curl, and spiral into little infinities. One can see why Proust was a fan (and, indeed, his Narrator’s visit to Venice owes much to the Victorian critic). Ruskin was true to his principles, and strove to unite literary elegance, moral fervor, and insightful argument into every one of his paragraphs—and most of the time he achieves at least two out of three, which is not bad at all. Even if you disagree with Ruskin from first to last, it is scarcely possible to dive in his book and come out the other side without a few of his cobwebs sticking to your coat.