Venice certainly does not lack for sights. The entire city is virtually an open-air museum; there are architectural masterpieces on every other corner. And even if you get tired of the historical center of Venice, there are plenty of islands in the Venetian lagoon that are worth visiting. But I think that it is worth going even further afield during your trip. The famous city of Verona is not far off, and the Prosecco wine region is also within reach. But if you are interested in art, then the place to go is Padua.
Trains leave regularly from Venice to Padua. They cost less than 10 euros, and the trip takes substantially less than an hour. In no time I was stepping off the train and walking towards my destination: the Arena Chapel. Also called the Scrovegni chapel, this is the small church where Giotto—known as the father of the Italian Renaissance—did his finest work. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, I booked my ticket online in advance. The chapel is small, and the artwork is delicate; so only 25 people are allowed in during any visit; and a visit lasts about 15 minutes. I certainly did not want to go all the way to Padua to be told that there were no more tours that day.
Indeed, I was so worried about making the tour in time that I arrived substantially early, leaving me an hour to kill. Luckily, the Musei Civici di Padova—the municipal museum—is right next door. This was free to visit and actually quite beautiful. The collection is housed in a former monastery, filling the old cloisters within and without; and this former monastery itself sits in the bucolic monastery gardens (now a public park). The collection was far more impressive than I expected. There are bits of Roman ruins, fine works of ancient pottery, original manuscripts, and prints and drawings.
But of course, this being Italy, the main attraction were the many sculptures and paintings on display. Both the quality and variety of these works astounded me. In Europe, art is truly endless; every city has its own collection of minor masterpieces. Padua has some fairly major masterpieces in its collection. There were some wonderful examples of religious wood carvings, with faces distorted in grief at the dead Christ. The paintings were quite wonderful as well. There are works by Tiepolo, Bellini, and Tintoretto, and dozens of works by lesser-known masters. By the time that I had to leave for the chapel, I was rather disappointed that I could not spend more time enjoying this charming collection.
Now it was time to visit the chapel. This is a separate building off to the side of the former monastery. We gathered in front of the entrance, just as the previous tour group was exiting through a separate doorway. Soon enough we were being herded inside—all twenty-five of us—to watch a short informative film while the climate adjusted around us. It is a very good system, I think. The film gives us a bit of background, while the air conditioning gradually cools down the temperature and reduces the humidity, so that when we enter we do no harm to the artwork. I must admit, though, that I was a bit cold by the end of the film.
Before we go inside, allow me to give you some background. The chapel was never part of a public church, but was rather built at the behest of a wealthy banker, Enrico Scrovegni (thus the name), who owned a large mansion—now demolished—right next door. The chapel was built over a Roman arena which once occupied the spot (thus the other name), whose ruins can still be seen nearby. Scrovegni must have been quite a wealthy man, since he was able to recruit the great Giotto from Florence, the preeminent painter of his day. Giotto came, and spent about two years on the project. The result was one of the great masterpieces in the history of European art. For his time, Giotto was an extremely innovative figure, pioneering techniques for adding realism, dimension, and form to his paintings. There is a lifelike drama to his work that makes him a forerunner of the entire Italian Renaissance.
Finally it was time to enter. I walked through just one doorway and, finally, I was there. I remembered seeing this chapel in my art history textbooks, and finding it astonishing even then. In person, the chapel was extraordinary. Everyone who entered was reduced to the hushed silence that accompanies any great work of art—the feeling of awe that forces us to speak in reverential whispers. Though composed of dozens of individual works, the Arena chapel is a unified work, with a single aesthetic sensibility pervading the atmosphere. The dominant color is blue—a shade between the bright blue of the sky and the dark violet of the late evening. It helps to give the chapel the lush, cool ambience of a cloudless summer night.
This comparison is quite obvious, when you look up to see the ceiling painted as the night sky. In two panels, Giotto represents Christ and Mary as the center of the universe (earth, in Giotto’s day), with the prophets as planets, against a starry background. Then, in four distinct levels, panels tell the story of Mary and Christ, and represent the virtues and vices. At the far end is the centerpiece of the program: a magnificent portrayal of the Last Judgment. The entire work has been aptly compared with Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Giotto, who was a near-contemporary of Dante, may have been directly influenced by that great poem in its images of heaven and hell. In any case, the Scrovegni chapel is a work of comparable ambition and skill: a grand cosmic vision, attempting to encompass the human experience.
The main entrance of the chapel (which is not where the modern visitor enters) is right below the Last Judgment. On the opposite side is a triumphal arch, underneath which the priest would have stood. The grand program of decoration begins right at the top of this triumphal arch and then works its way down tier by tier. The cosmic cycle is set in motion by God the Father, who calls the archangel Gabriel to his side, and instructs the angel to deliver the annunciation to Mary. This is done immediately below, on either sides of the arch—Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right—who form a beautiful pair. Already, we can see some of Giotto’s innovation here. The two figures occupy a convincing architectural space, with balconies that sing to hang into the air. This was something quite new in the history of art. Though still not true perspective (since the lines to not converge on a vanishing point), even this little background is a more convincing three-dimensional representation of space than anything in gothic painting.
The story on the upper tier begins even before the annunciation to Mary, with the story of Mary’s parents, Joachin and St. Anne. Mary herself was the subject of an annunciation, as an angel informed her mother that Mary would be born without original sin (immaculately, in other words). The story of Mary’s birth and marriage takes us back around to the triumphal arch, where Gabriel’s annunciation has its proper chronological setting. This sets in motion the story of Christ, which begins with the birth, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the rest of the typical scenes of Christ’s childhood. This sequence takes us to the first half of the second tier. Now, Christ’s adulthood begins, with its many scenes: the baptism, the miracles, the betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. This takes us all the way to the Last Judgment, the logical end of the series (and, indeed, of the world).
Of course, this is a story often told. You can see it, or part of it, in any church in Europe. Giotto’s excellence is revealed in the execution of this standard program. He was an artist of many talents. One is his sense of dramatic narrative. Rather than a series of disconnected scenes, as is often found in gothic art, the scenes in Giotto’s work all lead very naturally to the next. This is done through simple but effective visual cues, such as having Christ constantly facing in the direction of the next panel, or having the ground seem to continue from one scene to the next. This gives Giotto’s rendition of these classic stories an organic continuity and unity, easy and pleasant to follow.
Giotto was a dramatist in other ways. Whereas emotion is rather abstract or generalized in medieval art, Giotto renders emotion more palpable. This is apparent in many scenes: the tender kiss shared between St. Anne and Joachim at the golden gate of Israel, or the way that the Virgin gently cradles her newborn son, or the passionate grief apparent in those mourning Christ. The emotion in these scenes is shockingly direct; and this is a measure of Giotto’s realism. His figures are not generic or unreal, but solid and substantial. Their emotions are expressed through their very physicality—an embrace, a kiss, a gesture.
Giotto’s realism and his dramatic sensibility are tied together through his gift for composition. Several of the panels are masterpieces of formal study, guiding the viewer’s eye to the central drama, and expressing that drama through shape and line.
The best example of this—and perhaps the best painting in the entire chapel—is the arrest of Christ (or the kiss of Judah). It is a traditional scene, but its execution is far from traditional. Judas is normally shown coming and kissing Christ on the cheek, as Christ looks forward. But in this work, Christ and Judas directly face each other; Judas actually embraces Christ, covering him with the fold of his gown, and appears to kiss him directly on the mouth. The contrast between the stoic, tall Christ and the lowly, cowardly Judas—who looks both timorous and ridiculous, as he puckers—is extreme. And yet the pair, locked together, stand as a kind of anchor for the chaos raging around them. The torches, clubs, and lances of the mob are positioned so that they seem to emerge from the pair, splitting the night sky. On the left St. Peter is cutting off the ear of one of the assailants, while a hooded figure grabs somebody off to the side. On the other side, an official (painted with impressive volume and foreshortening) points menacingly to Jesus, signaling the others to apprehend him.
As impressive as this is, my personal favorite from the chapel is the Last Judgment. Like any typical representation of this awesome event, the scene is divided horizontally and vertically. On the top Christ sits among the saints in heaven, while below him the world is split between the saved and the damned, the former to his right and the latter to his left. Right at the bottom, we can see Scrovegni himself offering his chapel to the angels (presumably to secure his salvation). And we can see that the chapel, as it was when this was painted, is not as it is today. Concretely, the chapel today is smaller and less ornate that this drawing, which has led scholars to conclude that parts of the original chapel were demolished because the local church complained of competition.
Right at the bottom, below Scrovegni, there are a collection of naked, impish figures emerging from coffins. Presumably these are the dead, arising to be judged. Like many great painters, Giotto let his imagination run wild in his depiction of hell. Jets of flame shoot down into the abyss, carrying the damned into the inferno, where Satan and his minions are waiting. Demons pull and push the frightened sinners. Some unfortunates are hanging, while many others are being stuffed into pits at the bottom. In the center, Satan himself chews on a sinner, while others grasped in his hands await the same fate. Serpents emerge from his ears and he sits on a bed of dragons, which also gnaw hungrily on corrupt flesh. If Giotto was not inspired directly by Dante, he was responding to similar cultural currents. Or perhaps both imaginative men just enjoyed picturing the suffering of their enemies.
This more or less brings us to the end of the religious scenes. But I still have not mentioned the exquisite decorative painting that occupies the spaces between these scenes. They are beautiful works of abstract art, with geometrical and floral patterns perfectly imitating the appearance of marble inlays. Individual portraits of Old Testament figures occupy the spaces between the New Testament panels; and the knowledgeable viewer will notice that these, too, are carefully selected, in order to draw connections between the stories of the prophets and the story of Christ. For example, the story of Jonah and the Whale is placed before the resurrection, since Jesus’s death and rebirth were mirrored in Jonah’s being swallowed and then spit out again. (Many theologians spilled a lot of ink trying to prove that the New Testament was prefigured by the Old.)
We come finally to the representations of virtues and vices in the bottom tier. Though not explicitly religious, these only reinforce the message of the chapel: for the virtues lead directly to salvation and the vices to damnation. They are, thus, the abstract lessons to be learned from this great cosmic story, or if you prefer a moral philosophy expressed through personification. The execution of these vices and virtues in monochrome (thus imitating sculpture), only heightens their abstractness.
There are seven virtues, all mirrored by their corresponding vice on the opposite wall: hope with desperation, prudence with folly, justice with injustice, and so on. They are all wonderful, my personal favorite being the portrayal of Envy: standing in flames, clutching a bag of money, with a serpent emerging his mouth and turning around to bite him in the face. There can be no more graphic illustration of the torture and self-destruction inherent in envy. The representation of hope is also justly famous, as winged woman reaching up towards a crown; while her counterpart, desperation, has hung herself.
After fifteen wonderful minutes, we were led out of the chapel. I was exhausted. I had spent the morning rushing to the train, rushing to the museum, and then absorbed in artwork. It was time for lunch. For this, I headed to one of Padua’s better-known cheap eats, Dalla Zita, a small sandwich shop in the center. Dozens of color-coded sticky notes cover one of the walls, informing the visitor of the many sandwich options available, each one with a cute name. Somehow, the staff of the shop have memorized all of these sandwich names, and so you need only say “Steve” or “Babu” to get the sandwich you want. I do not remember what I ordered, but I am sure it involved roast beef and was delicious.
While I sat on the corner, stuffing the assemblage of bread, meat, and sauce into my mouth, I had quite a charming interaction. A woman, who had accidentally cut me in line in the sandwich shop, saw me, realized her mistake, and came over and actually apologized to me. That had never happened to me before. This was only the second act of small kindness that day. When I was in the monastery gardens trying to find the chapel a young man came over and pointed me in the right direction. He did not even want a reward! These things rarely happen in New York.
Now I had a few hours before my return train to Venice. I decided to spend some of it simply walking around the city of Padua. Though not as shockingly beautiful as Venice (no city is), Padua is a charming city, with an attractive historic center. Its most characteristic feature are the shaded arcades lining the wide, cobblestone streets. The walk along the river Bacchiglione—which runs through the center of the city—is also quite lovely. But the most picturesque spot in the city is, undoubtedly, the massive central square: the Prato della Valle (literally, “meadow of the valley”). At 90,000 square meters, this is the biggest plaza in Italy and among the largest in Europe. But it is not only special for its size. A moat encircles around a grassy central island, with no fewer than 78 neoclassical statues on either side of the canal.
Two of Padua’s most splendid church buildings stand nearby. Within sight of the Prato della Valle is the Abbey of Santa Giustina, a massive brick church building topped with domes. Like so many Italian churches, this church is richly and beautifully decorated. But it is perhaps most notable for holding the remains of St. Luke the Evangelist. Well, at least most of the remains: the evangelist’s body is entombed here, but his head is in Prague, and one of his ribs is in Thebes. In any case, I unfortunately did not have the chance to visit this church, since I was more interested in visiting another one nearby: the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua.
This basilica is the largest and, undoubtedly, the most glorious church building in Padua, though it is not the city’s cathedral. (This distinction is held by a far more modest structure, which has a famous fresco cycle by Guisto de’ Menabuoi.) Its profile is difficult to miss. Though the building has few external sculptures or friezes—being mainly composed of red brick—the roof is forest of domes and spires, which gives the building a vaguely Russian appearance.
Before going inside, it is worth pausing to examine an equestrian statue located right next to the building. This is the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata, by none other than Donatello. Gattamelata is the nickname of Erasmo da Narni—it means “honeyed cat”—a famous condottiero (basically a general for hire). Though this statue lacks the ferocious strength of Andrea del Verrochio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, it is perhaps more historically significant in the history of art, if only because it was made earlier. The statue has many of the hallmarks of the early Renaissance: humanism, realism, secularism, classicism. After all, the subject of the sculpture is neither a saint nor a king, but a person famous for his own exploits—an individual. And Donatello obviously paid close attention to the anatomy of horses, as we can see from the careful modeling of the muscles and even the veins in the horse’s head.
The statue’s classicism is not only apparent in its realistic style, but also in the technique used: a bronze sculpture made using the lost-wax technique. Such a large-scale equestrian statue had been beyond the technical abilities of Europeans since the fall of Rome. It was the rediscovery of the statue of Marcus Aurelius (misidentified as Constantine) which showed Renaissance artists the possibilities of bronze sculpture. Donatello was both a pioneer and a master of this technique. It is also worth comparing this statue to one of the masterpieces of medieval sculpture, the Bamberg Horseman. The two works—both beautiful and realistic—reveal a difference in worldview. The Bamberg Horseman is graceful, handsome, and above all royal: a man of elevated status. Gattamelata is a much more imposing presence: self-contained, intelligent, determined, he seems to be a heroic man riding out of history.
Now, let us enter the basilica itself (where Gattamelata is buried, incidentally). Like so many Italian churches, the Basilica of Saint Anthony is lushly decorated. When not covered with fresco, every surface shimmers with gold, silver, or marble, in sharp contrast with the fairly plain walls outside the building. Because I could not take pictures, my ability to talk about any aspect of the church in detail is limited. What most sticks out in my memory is the palatial shrine of St. Anthony of Padua. When I visited, pilgrims were lined up to receive a blessing and to kneel by the saint’s relics. Indeed, this basilica is an important site of pilgrimage, and is one of the eight international shrines designated by the Catholic Church (two of the three are in Italy, and three are in Poland).
With my visit concluded, I retreated outside to take a final look at the basilica. I had spent far less than a day in Padua, and almost every minute of it was enjoyable. Indeed, I found the city so charming that I wished I could spend far more time there. At the very least, the streets of Padua are more lively than those of Venice. But I had scheduled my train back and I could not stay any longer. One major site I missed was the Palazzo della Ragione, an enormous medieval town hall, decorated with dozens of paintings. I also wish I had visited the University of Padua, one of the oldest universities in Europe, where Galileo himself once taught. I suppose that the next time I return to Venice, I will have to return to Padua as well.
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… nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it…
I did not think that a collection of tales from the late Middle Ages would be so raunchy and ribald. While artisans were busy erecting gothic cathedrals—symbols of humanity’s insignificance before an omnipotent deity—Boccaccio was busy writing this most human of books. Indeed, the Decameron can be seen as the humanistic reply to Dante’s Divine Comedy: a celebration of our very worldliness. In Boccaccio’s world, the keystone virtue is not holiness nor piety, but cunning; and those who lack it are sure to be the victims of those who possess it.
Seen from the present day, Boccaccio’s masterpiece seems progressive in many respects. For one, he treats of nobles and peasants indifferently; and in the final (and incredibly sadistic) story he even asserts that these distinctions are of no importance compared with personal merit. More shocking is Boccaccio’s frank portrayal of female sexuality, something that would be taboo for much of European history. At times Boccaccio even seems like a proto-feminist: Women are central to the book, as Boccaccio frames the collection of stories as a diversion for women who have been forced into idleness by their social position. To be sure, there are many regressive and even alarming views about women mixed in with his more “advanced” ideas; even so, he does a better job than, say, Dickens often does.
Another surprising feature of these stories is Boccaccio’s open anticlericalism. The way he speaks of monks and nuns would be scandalous even now. There are many moments in the book in which he seems to be advocating a kind of hippy-ish tolerance for the pleasures of the flesh, condemning all opponents to sensual delight as hypocrites and fools. He even portrays homosexuality as an amusing foible rather than a deadly sin. Considering all this, it is difficult to imagine the reaction if it had been published considerably later. It seems that tolerance does not progress in a neat line.
Boccaccio’s chief virtue as a storyteller is his ability to manipulate plot. In this he is the exact reflection of Shakespeare (one of Boccaccio’s borrowers), who had every gift except plot. Boccaccio’s characters are never round nor indeed memorable; they can for the most part be interchanged at random. But each of these 100 tales, with very few exceptions, is thoroughly charming for having all the elements of a good story: a setup (inevitably involving a man and a woman), a problem (normally somebody trying to sleep with someone else), a clever trick to solve it (and a dunce to suffer as a consequence), a dramatic climax (the heroes are almost foiled), and a satisfying conclusion. All together, these 100 stories are a treasure trove which every responsible storyteller must pilfer mercilessly. If you are going on a camping trip, you could do much worse than to bring a copy of the Decameron along for the evenings.
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.
An artist lives and acquires fame through his works; but with the passing of time, which consumes everything, these works—the first, then the second, and the third—fade away.
After Plutarch’s Lives, Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is likely the most iconic collection of biographies of famous men. He published two editions of the book, the first in 1550, the second in 1568; and both found success in Vasari’s lifetime and have continued to sell well ever since. In life Vasari was a typical Renaissance man, achieving fame for his paintings (he decorated the Palazzo Vecchio) and his architecture (he was responsible for the loggia of the Uffizi), in addition to his work as a biographer. Granted, his paintings are not highly regarded nowadays (though many are pleasing enough to my eyes); but this posthumous verdict did not prevent him from making a fine living. And when you write the first book of art history in the history of art, the rest hardly matters.
The edition I own is highly abridged, as are nearly all popular versions, since the original contains dozens upon dozens of painters, sculptors, and architects—most of whom the casual reader does not know of or care for. This explains why most of the Lives are so short. Indeed, fans of any particular Renaissance artist are liable to be disappointed by Vasari’s treatment. He runs through Sandro Botticelli in all of ten pages, for example, barely pausing to mention the Birth of Venus. Indeed, many of these biographies are hardly biographies at all, just extended catalogues of works. This is certainly useful for the art historian (though Vasari made many mistakes) but it does not make for electrifying reading.
The modern psychoanalyzing mode of artistic biographies was, of course, entirely alien to Vasari, and he seems to regard the artist’s personality as a source of gossip but not of insight. This does not prevent him from including many good stories. Like Plutarch himself, Vasari is rich in anecdote—and, as in Plutarch, half of them are probably false. Fact or fiction, a good story is preferable to a dry fact, and this is when Vasari’s Lives really come alive. We hear of Cimabue agreeing to take on Giotto as a pupil, after seeing the young boy scratching on a stone; or of Paolo Uccello staying up long nights to work on problems of perspective. Whether these stories help us to understand the paintings is doubtful; but they do help to bring alive this amazing time in history.
Vasari begins the book with a sketch of the history of art as he understood it. His opinion is not a masterpiece of subtlety. In essence, the Greeks and Romans understood that art begins by copying nature, and so produced excellent works; then art fell into barbarism (Vasari coined the term “gothic” to describe medieval art) in which the ancient knowledge was lost and artists had no knowledge of proper technique; finally the painter Giotto came and revived the arts, inaugurating a process that culminated in the works of Michelangelo. I must say that this view, though little more than naked prejudice, is at least refreshing in Vasari’s conviction that art was ascending and culminating in his own epoch. (Most of us are disposed to think it is declining.) It is striking that Michelangelo’s historic importance was understood even during his own lifetime. This was not an age of poor Van Goghs working in lonely shacks. The great artists were recognized and rewarded when they lived; and younger artists were seen to have surpassed their masters—novel concepts in our romantic age.
The Life of Michelangelo, whom Vasari knew and worshipped, is by far the longest and forms the core of this collection. Indeed, all the other lives can be seen as mere leadup to the great Florentine, who fulfils all the promise of former ages. Vasari here turns from chronicler to hagiographer, praising Michelangelo with every breath. You might even say that Vasari turns into quite the Boswell, including various bits of Michelangelo’s conversation, and also several letters written to him by the great artist, as if to prove that Michelangelo really was his friend. All this makes for good reading, even if the worshipful tone is grating. The second longest Life in my collection is that of another Florentine (Vasari was a fierce patriot of his home city), Filippo Brunelleschi. This life is perhaps even better than that of Michelangelo, as Vasari charts the squabbles and drama behind the scenes of Brunelleschi’s dome.
Vasari’s style is easygoing and almost conversational, and the pages go by quickly. He strikes me as a man full of shallow opinions but of a generous mind and a steady judgment. This book—full of errors, lacking any historical context, and greatly out of step with modern opinion—could hardly be read as a standalone volume on Renaissance painting. But every book on the subject borrows, knowingly or unknowingly, from Vasari, who has given bread to scholars and delight to readers for generations with this charming book.
I have endeavored not only to record what the artists have done but to distinguish between the good, the better, and the best, and to note with some care the methods, manners, styles, behavior, and ideas of the painters and sculptors; I have tried as well as I know how to help people who cannot find out for themselves to understand the sources and origins of various styles, and the reasons for the improvement or decline of the arts at various times and among different people.
All men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they be persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand
Why we like or dislike someone, why we admire or despise them, why we are happy or annoyed by their conversation, are questions more difficult than they look. After reading this book, for example, I have grown quite enamored of Benvenuto Cellini, even though he had many ugly sides to his character—besides being criminally immoral. These flaws were unmistakable and impossible to ignore; and yet he had one quality that allowed me, and has allowed many others, to grow fond of him nevertheless: charisma.
Born in Florence in 1500, Benvenuto Cellini was a goldsmith and a sculptor, considered one of the most important artists of Mannerism. During his lifetime he traveled all around Italy and France, making rings, necklaces, salt shakers, statues, fountains, buttons, lapels, and coins for rich and powerful patrons. Perhaps his most famous work is the statue of Perseus standing over the body of Medusa, her bloody head held aloft in his hand, which can be found in Florence. As far as I know, the only work of his I have personally seen is his fine crucifix in the Escorial near Madrid. But despite Cellini being, to quote his book, “the greatest artist ever born in his craft,” he is nowadays mostly remembered for his autobiography, which is without doubt the most important work of its kind from the Renaissance.
Cellini wrote his autobiography in a simple, matter-of-fact style. His main focus was on his development and career as an artist, but he also relates many stories from his personal life along the way. And from this narration emerges a remarkable portrait of the man himself.
The most conspicuous part of Cellini’s character is his arrogance. He says near the beginning “in a work like this there will always be found occasion for natural bragging,” but occasional is hardly a fitting description of his boasting. Every page is stuffed with self-praise. He compliments himself for his robust constitution, his strong body, his keen mind, his kind nature, his skill in combat, and most of all his artistic prowess. The only artist he thinks equal to himself is Michelangelo, and with few exceptions he considers his rivals to be incompetent dunces, or worse.
It does not take shrewd judgment to read between the lines of this autobiography. Cellini only admits to being in the wrong once in his life. (After taking sexual advantage of one of his models, he viciously beat her. He felt guilty because the day before he had forced her at gunpoint to marry her lover. The next day, he beat her up again.) Other than this, Cellini would have you believe he is a decent, honest, respectful man and that all his enemies were motivated by jealousy or pure wickedness. And yet, the speed and consistency with which he finds himself surrounded by enemies, and the frequency with which he gets into disputes and fights, makes it painfully clear that he must have been a bellicose and infuriating fellow.
The degree to which Cellini was blind to his faults is both terrifying and oddly endearing. That someone could be so unconcerned with the morality of his actions or with the justice of his behavior is an instructive lesson in human nature. (And that he is still likable is another lesson.) Cellini narrates the vilest deeds in such a mundane tone that you almost forget what he is talking about. Here is Benvenuto’s forth murder, the killing of Pompeo, a rival goldsmith:
I drew a little dagger with a sharpened edge, and breaking the line of his defenders, laid my hand upon his breast so quickly and coolly, that none of them were able to prevent me. Then I aimed to strike him in the face; but fright made him turn his head round; and I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I only gave two blows, for he fell stone dead by the second. I had not meant to kill him; but as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt by measure.
(Besides the tone of that passage, the most amazing thing for me is that he aimed for Pompeo’s head but professed he didn’t mean to kill him. The guy was seriously nuts.)
When I reread the above excerpt, I think I ought to loathe such a man, who can both commit a murder and then talk about it so coolly. But Cellini’s ego and his personality are so exaggerated that I have trouble thinking of him as a real person. With all his misadventures, crimes, vanities, boasts, and disputes, he seems more like a character invented by Dickens or Cervantes than a man I can identify with. In this, I couldn’t help being reminded of Trump, who is relentlessly egotistical and cruel, but who escapes normal consequences because he seems more like a caricature than a human being.
Because Cellini is focused on his own doings, the world of the Renaissance stays mostly in the background. Sometimes it is easy to forget the setting entirely, since Benvenuto is one of those rare, timeless personalities. But at other times, the great difference between his world and mine was simply alarming.
One night during dinner, for example, his friend brought a prostitute; out of respect for his friend, Benvenuto refused her advances; but after those two went to bed, Benvenuto seduced the prostitute’s 14-year-old serving girl. The next morning he woke up with the bubonic plague. Another time, when he was sick, the best doctors in Rome instructed him that he couldn’t drink any water. His condition got worse and worse—doubtless due to dehydration—until finally, disobeying their orders, he drank a pitcher of water and felt immediately better. The doctors were stunned. The doctors had better luck on another occasion, though. When Benvenuto got a metal splinter in his eye, a doctor successfully flushed it out by slicing open live pigeons and letting their blood rush into his eye.
These are just a taste of some of Benvenuto’s anecdotes. His life was enviously exciting—indeed it’s rather amazing he lived so long, since he had many close calls with death. When he wasn’t being poisoned or fighting off highway bandits, he was suffering illness, injury, and imprisonment. And amidst all this, he managed to attain the highest reputation and skill as an artist, and also to write the most important autobiography of his century. If being a Renaissance Man means living life to the fullest, Cellini is a prime example.
If you are planning on taking a trip to Italy, or just want to learn more about the Renaissance, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I listened to the audiobook version while I was in Rome. Cellini was narrating the time he defended the Castel Sant’Angelo during the 1527 sack of Rome. As Cellini boasted about his heroic deeds—he would have you believe he defended the castle single-handedly—I turned a corner and found myself face to face with that very castle (see above). It was one of the most memorable moments of my reading life.
I set little store by my own opinions, but just as little by other people’s.
—Michel de Montaigne
Although nobody is free from self-doubt, I have long felt that I have this quality to an inordinate degree. The problem is that I can’t decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.
On the one hand, doubting yourself is one of the keys of moderation and wisdom. If you think you already know everything you cannot learn. If you are sure that your perspective is right you cannot empathize. Dogmatism, selfishness, and ignorance result from the inability to doubt the truth of your own opinions.
There are no such things as self-doubting fanatics. The ability to question your own opinions and conclusions is what prevents most people from committing atrocities. I couldn’t kill somebody in the name of an idea, since there is no idea I believe in strongly enough.
And yet, this tendency to doubt my own beliefs and conclusions so often makes me hesitating, indecisive, and occasionally spineless. Never mind killing anyone: I don’t even believe in my political ideals enough to stand up to somebody I find offensive. I doubt the worth of my dreams, the reason of my arguments, the virtue of my actions; and I am not terribly sure about my professional competency or my literary skill.
No matter what I do, I have this nagging feeling that, somewhere out there, there are people who could make me appear ridiculous by comparison. So often I feel out of the loop. I hesitate to submit my writing anywhere because I think a professional editor would cut it to pieces. I hesitate to put forth arguments because I think a real expert could see right through them. I hesitate to commit to a profession because I doubt my own ability to follow through, to perform difficult tasks, and to do my duties responsibly.
My nagging self-doubt is more of a feeling than a thought; but insofar as a feeling can be expressed in words, it goes like this: “Well, maybe there’s something big out there that I don’t know, something important that would render all my knowledge and standards inadequate.”
The odd thing is that I have no evidence that this fear is justified. In fact, I have evidence to the contrary. The more I read and travel, the more people I meet, the more places I work, the less surprised I am by what I find. The contours of daily reality have grown ever-more familiar, and yet this fear—the fear that, somehow, I have missed something big—this fear remains.
The perilous side of self-doubt is that it can easily ally itself with baser qualities. I can argue myself out of taking risks because I am unsure whether I really want the goal. I can argue myself out of standing up for what I believe is right by doubting whether it really is right, and whether I could prove it. Self-doubt and fear—fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of being publically embarrassed—so often go hand-in-hand.
I can’t say why exactly, but the thought of writing a flawed argument, with a logical fallacy, an unwarranted assumption, or a sloppy generalization, fills me with dread. How mortifying to have my mental errors exposed to the world! Maybe this is from spending so much time in a school environment wherein the number of correct answers was used as a measure of my worth. Or maybe it is simply my personality; being “right” has always been important to me.
This fear of being wrong is particularly irrational, since some of the greatest minds and most influential thinkers in history have been wrong—Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, all of them have erred. Indeed, the fear of being wrong is not only irrational, but counterproductive to learning, since it sometimes prevents me from exposing my thoughts, increasing the likelihood that I will persist in an error.
Despite the negatives, I admit that I am often proud of my ability to doubt my own conclusions and change my opinions. I see it as a source of my independence of mind, my ability to think differently from others and to come to my own conclusions. After all, doubting yourself is the prerequisite of doubting anything at all. As Plato illustrated in his Socratic dialogues, from the moment we our born our minds are filled with all sorts of assumptions and prejudices which we absorb from our culture. The first step of doubting conventional opinion is thus doubting our own opinions.
But just as often as my self-doubt is a source of pride, it is a source of shame. I am sometimes filled with envy for those rare souls who seem perfectly self-confident. In this connection I think of Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance artist who left us his remarkable autobiography. Cocksure, boastful, selfish, prideful, Cellini was in many ways a despicable man. And yet he tells his story with such perfect certainty of himself that you can’t help but be won over.
Logically, self-confidence should come after success, since otherwise it isn’t justified. But so often self-confidence comes beforehand, and is actually the cause of success. In my experience, when you believe in yourself, others are inclined to believe in you. When you are confident you take risks, and these risks often enough pay off. When you are confident you state your opinions boldly and clearly, and thus have a better chance of convincing others.
Confidence is often discussed in dating. Self-confident people are seen as more attractive, and tend to have more romantic success since they take more risks. The ability to look somebody in the eye and say what you think and what you want—these are almost universally seen as attractive qualities; and not only in romance, but in politics, academics, business, and nearly everything else.
The charisma of confidence notwithstanding, this leads to an obvious danger. Many people are confident without substance. They boast more than they can accomplish; they speak with authority and yet have neither evidence nor logic to back their opinions. The world is ruled by such people—usually men—and I think most of us have personal experience with this type. I call it incompetent confidence, and it is rampant.
As Aristotle would say, there must be some ideal middle-ground between being confidently clueless, and being timidly thoughtful. And yet, in my experience, this middle-ground, if it even exists, is difficult to find.
I suppose that, ideally, we would be exactly as confident as the reach of our knowledge permitted: bold where we were sure, hesitating where we were ignorant. In practice, however, this is an impossible ideal. How can we ever be sure of how much we know, or how dependable our theories are? Indeed, this seems to be precisely what we can never know for sure—how much we know.
For the world to function, it seems that it needs doers and doubters. We need confident leaders and skeptical followers. And within our own brains, we need the same division: the ability to act boldly when needed, and to question ourselves when possible. Personally, I tend to err on the side of self-doubt, since it easily allies itself with laziness, inaction, and fear; but now I am starting to doubt my own doubting.
In my several reviews of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, I have consistently praised his writing. The more I read, the more I want to read; and the more I digest, the more impressed I become. For this reason, I wanted to collect some samples of Durant’s prose, both for my own benefit, to serve as models for my prose, and to show others why I recommend Durant so highly.
For me, Durant is a writer of rare caliber, capable of being clear, charming, and graceful through thousands of pages. In many ways, Durant epitomized the pedagogical approach William Zinsser suggests in his book, Writing to Learn. Through his writing, Durant explored nearly every subject and epoch. He wrote his way through metaphysics and mercantilism, through paintings and plagues, through English law and ancient engineering. So, without further preface, here is a sampling of Durant’s prose. And mind you that these excerpts are not atypical, but representative of his whole work.
Durant on Religion. He is giving an overview of the Catholic Church; from The Reformation (Volume VI):
Through a formative millennium, from Constantine to Dante, the Christian Church offered the gifts of religion to men and states. It molded the figure of Jesus into a divine embodiment of virtues by which rough barbarians might be shamed into civilization. It formulated a creed that made every man’s life a part, however modest, of a sublime cosmic drama; it bound each individual to in a momentous relation with a God Who had created him, Who had spoken to him in sacred Scripture, Who had descended from heaven to suffer ignominy and death in atonement for the sins of humanity, and Who had founded the church as the repository of His teaching and the earthly agents of His power. Year by year the magnificent drama grew; saints and martyrs died for the creed, and bequeathed their example and their merits to the faithful. A hundred forms—a hundred thousand works—of art interpreted the drama and made it vivid even for letterless minds.
Durant on Home Life. He is painting a portrait of the home in medieval Europe; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):
There was not much comfort in the medieval home. Windows were few, and seldom glassed; wooden shutters closed them against glare or cold. Heating was by one or more fireplaces; drafts came in from a hundred cracks in the walls, and made high-backed chairs a boon. In winter it was common to wear warm hats and fur indoors. Furniture was scanty but well made. Chairs were few, and usually had no backs; but sometimes they were elegantly carved, engraved with armorial bearings, and inlaid with precious stones. Most seats were cut into the masonry walls, or built upon chests in alcoves. Carpets were unusual before the thirteenth century. Italy and Spain had them; and when Eleanor of Castile went to England in 1254 as the bride of the future Edward I, her servants covered the floor of her apartment at Westminster with carpets after the Spanish custom—which then spread through England. Ordinary floors were strewn with rushes or straw, making some houses so malodorous that the parish priest refused to visit them.
Durant on Visual Art. He is describing the Sistine Chapel; from The Renaissance (Volume V):
[Michelangelo] divided the convex vault into over a hundred panels by picturing columns and moldings between them; and he enhanced the tridimensional illusion with lusty, youthful figures upholding the cornices or seated on capitals. In the major panels, running along the crest of the ceiling, Angelo painted scenes from Genesis: the initial act of creation separates light from darkness; the sun, moon, and planets come into being at the command of the Creator—a majestic figure stern of face, powerful of body, with beard and robes flying in the air; the Almighty, even finer in form than in the previous panel, extends His right arm to create Adam, while with his left arm He holds a very pretty Angel—this panel is Michelangelo’s pictorial masterpiece; God, now a much older and patriarchal deity, evokes Eve from Adam’s rib; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree, and are expelled from Eden; Noah and his sons prepare a sacrificial offering to God; the flood rises; Noah celebrates with too much wine. All in these panels is Old Testament, all is Hebraic; Michelangelo belongs to the prophets pronouncing doom, not to the evangelists expounding the gospel of love.
Durant on Architecture. He is evaluating the palace of Versailles; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):
Architecturally, Versailles is too complex and haphazard to approach perfection. The chapel is brilliant, but such flaunting of decoration hardly accords with the humility of prayer. Parts of the palace are beautiful, and the stairways to the garden are majestic; but the compulsion laid upon the designers to leave the hunting lodge intact, merely adding wings and ornament, injured the appearance of the whole. Sometimes the proliferating pile leaves an impression of cold monotony and labyrinthine repetition—one room after another to the spread of 1,320 frontal feet. The internal arrangement seems to have ignored physiological convenience, and to have presumed upon remarkable retentive power in noble vesicles. Half a dozen rooms had to be traversed to reach the goal of desire; no wonder we hear of stairways and hallways serving in such emergencies.
Durant on Literature. He is discussing Shakespeare’s language; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):
The language is the richest in all of literature: fifteen thousand words, including the technical terms of heraldry, music, sports, and the professions, the dialect of the shires, the argot of the pavement, and a thousand hurried or lazy inventions—occulted, unkenneled, fumitory, burnet, spurring… He relished words and explored the nooks and crannies of the language; he loved words in general and poured them forth in frolicsome abandon; if he names a flower he must go on to name a dozen—the words themselves are fragrant. He makes simple characters mouth polysyllabic circumlocutions. He plays jolly havoc with the grammar: turns nouns, adjectives, even adverbs into verbs, and verbs, adjectives, even pronouns into nouns; gives a plural verb to a singular subject or a singular verb to a plural subject; but there were as yet no grammars of English usage. Shakespeare wrote in haste, and had no leisure to repent.
Durant on Engineering. He is summarizing the Roman techniques for constructing roads; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):
The consular roads were among their simpler achievements. They were from sixteen to twenty-four feet wide, but near Rome part of this width was taken up by sidewalks (margines) paved with rectangular stone slabs. They went straight to their goal in brave sacrifice of initial economy to permanent savings; they overleaped countless streams with costly bridges, crossed marshes with long, arched viaducts of brick and stone, climbed up and down steep hills with no use of cut and fill, and crept along mountaintops or high embankments secured by powerful retaining walls. Their pavement varied with locally available material. Usually the bottom layer (pavimentum) was a four- to six-inch bed of sand, or one inch of mortar. Upon this were imposed four strata of masonry: the statumen, a foot deep, consisting of stones bound with cement or clay; the rudens, ten inches of rammed concrete; the nucleus, twelve to eighteen inches of successively laid and rolled layers of concrete; and the summa crusta of silex or lava polygonal slabs, one to three feet in diameter, eight to twelve inches thick. The upper surface of slabs was smoothed, and the joints so well fitted as to be hardly discernible.
Durant on Music. He is explaining the development of musical notation; from The Age of Faith (Volume IV):
We owe to our medieval forebears still another invention that made modern music possible. Tones could now be determined by dots placed on or in between the lines of the staff, but these signs gave no hint as to how long the note was to be held. Some system for measuring and denoting the duration of each note was indispensable to development of contrapuntal music—the simultaneous and harmonious procedure of two or more independent melodies. Perhaps some knowledge had seeped from Spain of Arab treatises by al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and other Moslems who had dealt with measured music or mensural notation. At some time in the eleventh century Franco of Cologne, a priest mathematician, wrote a treatise Ars cantus mesurabilis, in which he gathered up the suggestion of earlier theory and practice, and laid down essentially our present system for indicating the duration of musical notes. A square-headed virga or rod, formerly used as a neume, was chosen to represent a long note; another neume, the punctum or point, was enlarged into a lozenge to represent a short note; these signs were in time altered; tails were added; by trial and error, through a hundred absurdities, our simple mensural notation was evolved.
Durant on War. He is describing the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War; from The Age of Reason Begins (Volume VII):
The towns suffered only less than the villages. Many of them were reduced to half their former population. Great cities were in ruins—Magdeburg, Heidelberg, Wurzburg, Neustadt, Bayreuth. Industry declined for lack of producers, purchasers, and trade; commerce hid its head; once-wealthy merchants begged and robbed for bread. Communes, declaring themselves bankrupt, repudiated their debts. Financiers were loath to lend, fearing that loans would be gifts. Taxation impoverished everyone but generals, tax collectors, prelates, and kings. The air was poisonous with refuse and offal and carcasses rotting in the streets. Epidemics of typhus, typhoid, dysentery, and scurvy ran through the terrified population and from town to town…
Morals and morale alike collapsed. The fatalism of despair invited the cynicism of brutality. All the ideals of religion and patriotism disappeared after a generation of violence; simple men now fought for food or drink or hate, while their masters mobilized their passions in a competition for taxable lands and political power. Here and there some humane features showed: Jesuits gathering and feeding deserted children; preachers demanding of governments an end to bloodshed and destruction. “God send that there may be an end at last,” wrote a peasant in his daybook. “God send that there be peace again. God in heaven, send us peace.”
Durant on Science. Here he explains the consequences of Newton’s work on light; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):
When [Newton] passed a small ray of sunlight through a transparent prism he found that the apparently monochrome light divided into all these colors of the rainbow; that each component color emerged from the prism at its own specific angle or degree or refraction; and that the colors arranged themselves in a row of bands, forming a continuous spectrum, with red at the one end and violet at the other. Later investigators showed that various substances, when made luminous by burning, give different spectra; by comparing these spectra with the one made by a given star, it became possible to analyze in some degree the star’s chemical constituents. Still more delicate observations of a star’s spectrum indicated its approximate motion toward or from earth; and from these calculations the distance of the star was theoretically deduced. Newton’s revelation of the composition of light, and its refraction in the spectrum, has therefore had almost cosmic consequences in astronomy.
Durant on Trade. Here he gives us a picture of Roman trade in the first century; from Caesar and Christ (Volume III):
The improvement of government and transport expanded Mediterranean trade to unprecedented amplitude. At one end of the busy process of exchange were peddlers hawking through the countryside everything from sulphur matches to costly imported silks; wandering auctioneers who served also as town criers and advertised lost goods and runaway slaves; daily markets and periodical fairs; shopkeepers haggling with customers, cheating with false or tipped scales, and keeping a tangential eye for the aedile’s inspectors of weights and measures.
Durant on Philosophy. Here he is summarizing Spinoza’s metaphysics; from The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII):
We may conclude that in Spinoza substance means the essential reality underlying all things. This reality is perceived by us in two forms: as extension or matter, and as thought or mind. These two are “attributes” of substance; not as qualities residing in it, but as the same reality perceived externally by our senses as matter, and internally by our consciousness as thought. Spinoza is a complete monist: these two aspects of reality—matter and thought—are not distinct and separate entities, they are two sides, the outside and the inside, of one reality; so are body and mind, so is physiological action and the corresponding mental state.
That it has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort.
I had no idea what to expect from these essays. The only reason I became aware of Pater was because a copy of this book was sitting on the bathroom floor in my friend’s father’s house. Since my friend’s father is a successful painter, I naturally took note of a book about art so intimately placed. Much later, after finishing Burckhardt’s famous analysis of the Renaissance, and with my trip to Rome looming, I decided that I would finally see why a painter sought out this book for his bathroom inspiration.
Pater was an idiosyncratic fellow, and these essays certainly reflect that. Some of the topics he covers are expected: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Others are more surprising: Joachim du Bellay, a Frenchman who wrote a defense of the French language; two medieval French stories about love and adventure; and Johann Winckelmann, the 18th century German classicist. Clearly, Pater’s conception of the Renaissance was far broader than Burckhardt’s, who considered the Renaissance a strictly Italian affair. Also broad is Pater’s conception of criticism: for him, it is not merely a vocation, but an entire philosophy of life.
I am referring specifically to the famous “Conclusion” that is tacked on to the end of these essays. In it, Pater puts forward a whole aesthetic philosophy of life: Everything is in flux; both matter and mind are temporary; the only thing we have is the moment; and since death may come at any time, and will come inevitably, the only rational response is to enjoy this moment as best you can. Now, some thought that Pater was advocating hedonism, but that is far from the case. He was, rather, an aesthete; and for him, “enjoying the moment” meant finding the most beautiful shade of green in a field of grass, or observing the play of light on a windowpane—that sort of thing. The ability to be constantly, delicately, indefatigably absorbed in one’s senses, and yet have the focus and taste necessary to select from these perceptions the most lovely, is what Pater meant with his famous suggestion to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame,” which for him is “success in life.”
At times, the age of these essays showed. This was most conspicuous in Pater’s essay on Giorgione, in which he bases his whole appreciation on one painting, elevating it to the height and epitome of Giorgione’s aesthetic—a painting which is now believed to be by Titian. But for the most part, the essays have retained their force and interest. Indeed, you may not realize how original this book was, since it anticipated and shaped so many of our attitudes about art and the Renaissance. To pick just one example, Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa, dwelling on her mysterious smile, certainly helped spur on our fascination for that work.
Nevertheless, I am unsure whether Pater actually deepened my appreciation for the Renaissance works he discussed. This is due, I think, to his ideal of the critic: to be acutely sensitive to the power of art, and to be finely discriminating of what is more or less beautiful. Sensitive and discriminating Pater certainly is. (Several times I wondered if he passed out while writing his essays, since, judging by his breathless and insistent tone, he was always to be right on the cusp of a brilliant epiphany or a transcendent experience. It must have been exhausting.)
But notice was is lacking from his ideal of the critic: to analyze, to discuss, to inform. The critics who have most helped me appreciate art are those who taught me about the painting the artist; who showed me what to look for, how best to situated the painting within a certain context; in short, who pulled me into the world of the painting. But since Pater holds up sensitivty and discrimination as ideals, he is faced with the problem: how does one communicate those qualities, which are personal, to somebody else? To do this, he resorts to writing long rhapsodies, reveries, aesthetic ecstasies about the works under consideration. These passages are almost uniformly brilliant, often breathtaking. Nevertheless, it felt more like watching Pater look at a painting, overhearing the thoughts and associations the painting inspires in his brain, rather than learning how to appreciate the painting myself.
I cannot finish this review without discussing Pater’s prose. He is considered to be one of the great stylists, and this reputation is well deserved. The man was such a brilliant writer that it often seemed irrelevant what he was writing about; he could write an essay on the underside of a mosquito and it would be good literature.
This is not to say that he has no limitations. Most conspicuously, he has not even a trace of the epigrammatic. If a point can be made in ten words, Pater will give you fifty, though those fifty will be as finely crafted as a Baroque statue. His sentences never arrest you or stop you short, but rather overwhelm you, burying you under a pile of clauses, metaphors, images, until you’re short of breath and so dazzled that it seems someone has shone a flashlight in your eyes. Comparisons with Proust and Woolf, especially the latter, come readily to mind; but Pater has a manic insistence that makes his writing uniquely urgent.
Another limitation is that Pater seems incapable of that kind of easy grace, that effortless virtuosity, which many of the greatest writers display. Rather, his prose strains every nerve, exerts every muscle, panting and sweating as it pushes itself onward. This impression is, apparently, an accurate one: According to Wiki, he obsessively polished, tweaked, and rewrote his works, until every word, every sentence, every paragraph was just to his taste. This makes his prose like a super-ornate jewel, breathtaking in its designs, its symmetries, and its technical daring; yet for all that rather delicate and precious, and inevitably a bit ostentatious.
I will leave you with a passage from his essay on Michelangelo:
And of all that range of sentiment he is the poet, a poet still alive, and in possession of our inmost thoughts—dumb inquiry over the relapse after death into the formlessness which preceded life, the change, the revolt from that change, then the correcting, hallowing, consoling rush of pity; at last, far off, thin and vague, yet not more vague than the most definite thoughts men have had through three centuries on a matter that has been so near their hearts, the new body—a passing light, a mere intangible, external effect, over those too rigid, or too formless faces; a dream that lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless, helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.