Just a “highlight” from Italy, where there is always something
new old to rediscover. I went for a meeting right before Easter – and then, joined by my partner, wandered off to visit family and old friends, with a bit of sight seeing along the way. The day after Easter, we heard about and made it to the main Cathedral in Pisa just on time to see a ray of sun strike a very particular spot in the church that contains a marble egg, signaling the new year when it was traditionally celebrated, at least since the XII century, until 1749 when the city was required to adopt the Gregorian calendar. But the tradition seems to have been revived, marked also with a procession in full medieval attire (see picture below).
Not far outside the city walls, in the direction of the sea, an entire shipyard of roman ships is being excavated, buried in the sediment that long ago filled in the port of what is still often referred to as the Maritime Republic of Pisa – probably as a result of cutting down the trees used to build all those boats! Unfortunately that exhibit was closed when we peddled a few borrowed bikes over there to see it – and our visit too brief. But we did go into the Cathedral museum, which I had previously overlooked. After reading this caption about “The sculptures of the cathedral” in a room that contained samples of the different styles of carvings found in it, I started to see the place in a whole new light – lest you think of Pisa as a place to visit only to see the Leaning Tower:
“Those who go to Pisa can see monsters coming from the sea: this town is full of pagans, Turks, Lilbyans and also Parthians and mysterious Chaldeans frequent its coast” (Donizone, 12th century). At the beginning of the 12th century the monk Donizone was terrified by the infidels living in Pisa. The different “languages” spoken in the town at the time are well represented by the works preserved in this room. In fact, during its Golden Age, artists coming from all over the Mediterranean worked on the Cathedral. Romance languages were derived from spoken Latin but adopted a number of words from other languages. In the same way, Romanesque art comes form the Classic style but with the addition of elements taken from distant countries. The cultural heritage of ancient Rome is testified by the large quantities of classic marble inserted in the walls of the Duomo. The frieze of the Basilica of Neptune in Rome was used as the presbyterial screen in the Cathedral where it was completed with relief work on its reverse side by the workshop of Guglielmo, Rainaldo, and subsequently Guglielmo. These were the first known artists to take part in the decoration of the Cathedral. We can also admire three masterpieces of Islamic art: the Capital signed by Fath, the bronze basin bearing a long invocation to Allah and the famous Grifo. A combination of the lion and the eagle, the griffin was highly venerated by the Greeks and subsequently became a Christian symbol of the earthly and heavenly nature of Christ. Originally used as a perfume-burner, the griffin was placed at the top of the Cathedral until 1828, as a memento of Pisan victories over the Arabs.
The sculpture of David with the Lyre was carved by an artist from Provence and the momumental wooden Crucifix was also realised by French masters. Recent restoration has revealed the Crucifix to be the only surviving sculptlure of a group representing the Deposition, which originally decorated the main altar of the cathedral.
The trip ended back in Milan, where fashion still shows no sign of world economic trouble, pink is the new black – and a major advertising campaign, complete with pink snow, informs that it is “the color of life.” Were it not for the crumbling dollar, I might have come home with a pair of pink rimmed rose colored glasses. But I did have the chance to visit with Angela Pereira – the co-editor of this blog, who will soon be reporting from some upcoming meetings on science and policy, and also with Silvio Funtowicz and Bruna de Marchi, who may yet send in highlights from a recent trip to Ecuador, along with further reflections on Post-Normal Science – a topic I’ll come back to in the next post. But the more I ponder it, the more it seems like just plain common sense, which often seems lost in our feudal academic institutions.
Before it gets to be September, one more post about Florence and then I promise I will get back to more normal post-normal topics in science and policy….
My visit there earlier in the summer made me really wonder what it is people think they are buying when they buy GUCCI products, which is now only a trademark for a company that has little if anything to do with its more humble roots in the quality of design and craftsmanship for which the city is known, and, of course, with the Gucci family. On one side of the Arno river, there are, of course, still GUCCI stores in Florence. On the other side, in the older part of Florence, around where Guccio Gucci first started crafting leather, his grand-daughter Elisabetta, who grew up around the smell of it, and working in the family business, is now the artistic director for a gallery called Mirabili. In highschool where I first knew her, she was often referred to as “La Gucci” but I find it awkward to even say her last name now because it has practically become a figure of speech associated with fantasies that can be found in the ads in Vanity Fair, or with the power of well-heeled lobbyists in the corridors of the US Capitol – a place sometimesreferred to as Gucci Gulch.
Mirabili represents a group of artistic furniture designers whose work is on display behind a shop window that looks like no other – anywhere. At the time of my visit, they had teamed up with another art gallery for a combined exhibit of museum quality work, for which Elisabetta herself could easily have been mistaken. She is the only person I know with enough panache to wear yellow lipstick. It matched the yellow dress she was wearing on one of the days I visited with her. And when combined with a piece of jewelry made by one of the artists whose work was on display, and then the yellow wind jacket in which she left for the day – on a vespa – she is literally a self-designed piece of art work. Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of that but, the next time I stopped by, she was dressed in a simple brown outfit that matched her battered leather Gucci daybook that she still has from way back when GUCCI was a just a family-owned but well-known and expensive leather goods shop in Florence. It was around that time that we spent 2 years in the same high school. She also wore her hair exactly the same way as now, pulled back in a pony tail – which accentuates an infectious smile. So I had the opportunity to have a few long talks with her about Florence past and present.
First, a bit of background. Florence is a subject of obsession also among Florentines who have a reputation of being sharp-witted disenchanted and often cynical and sarcastic, holier-than-thou snobs whose directness of expression pushes up against the borders of the offensive – and is not directed only towards the arrogant and pompous (like Mussolini for example) – for whom an ironic smile can more than suffice. Even some Florentines will tell you as much, as did Candida Vig – another high school friend, who helped me to elaborate on a less verbose description I had written. As her husband Maurizio subsequently explained (in a comment on the previous post, (Petrified irreverence) it is the immense presumption of the Florentines that God is happy to have invented them, and was himself born in Florence but does not wish to admit it. He also recalls Roberto Benigni talking about episodes with his father who, upon observing a majestic display of stars, would say “my how many stars there are!” and would go on to conclude with a heavy dose of swearing. Maurizio goes on to explain, “We Tuscans, when we love and admire a person, often kindly offend him as a way to truly demonstrate our sincere and genuine affection.”
But Florentines do remain enchanted with their own history. According to an American friend who also studied there, they are living off of it like whores. But as Elisabetta G. is the first to explain, they are for the most part trapped in this history that has given them their identity. As if to demonstrate, on a previous visit she took me to visit Alessandro Riccio, director of the Tedavi ’98 theater company that almost exclusively produces meticulously researched plays about the various characters in the Medici family, in authentic costumes entirely made by his mother. When I asked to take a picture of one of the renaissance gowns, she promptly put it on and modeled it – as you can see in the first picture above. Meanwhile, Alessandro put on the mask of Gian Gastone, the last of the Medici family. Some of my high school classmates were convinced that Gian Gastone haunted the school, which was situated in one of the former Medici residences on the outskirts of town.
Elisabetta also explained that, much of the innovation for which Florence is known, has come from those who have left, and sometimes returned, as did her grandfather who, while working abroad, saw possibilities he might never have imagined had he stayed put. Her most knowledgeable and appreciative gallery customers have been the Germans – she thinks this is because WWII left them with a tabula rasa, or a void to be filled. As for the city’s appearance, she directs her most caustic remarks towards the shop windows across the river that look like they could just as well be in New York or Paris, new buildings that are oblivious to their historic surroundings, and the bright and noisy fairs that also clash with everything around them. Other Florentines will tell you that, in the midst of all of this tourism generated wealth, the public schools do not even have tp in the bathrooms, or even doors on them. They are also subject to a bumbling municipal bureaucracy that hands out tickets and tows cars by mistake – it still takes 6 months to get a refund.
Interestingly, Sifossifoco [warning: link is to a blog written in Florentine vernacular] ponders whether the displays in those stores across the river are polluting their very way of thinking. He also comments on the even more insidious chromatic pollution of the city and wonders – if chromotherapy can heal, perhaps the wrong colors can also kill. What then might be the damage caused by the loud tourist busses, publicity posters, parked cars, flags hung on balconies instead of seasonal flowers – all of which could be avoided if the city had a color manager? (him and Elisabetta need to talk…)
Not everyone else is oblivious. Over the past few weeks, in Piazza Santa Croce, Roberto Benigni has been talking to Dante – or at least to his statue, just as Dante spoke with his predecessors in the Divine Comedy. It was a warm-up to a recital of selected cantos from the Comedy which he also learned from his father, and has known by heart since long before he became Benigni the film star. Had I known of this before booking my plane tickets, I would probably still be there myself, and could also tell you what Dante had to say this time. But perhaps someone reading this blog can fill us all in?
However – I did finally find out what Dante said after the flood in 1966. At the time of that flood, I would not have been of any help had I been in Florence instead of visiting my grandmother in Pisa over a long holiday weekend. I was 11 years old, barely spoke Italian yet, and had my right arm in a cast – the result of having tried to spiral backwards into a turning jump on roller skates, as a few of my classmates were able to quite easily do. But over the years, I had heard of a song composed by Florentines during the clean-up, and was able to find it via google after asking and being told by Candida that it must be the one about the floodwaters washing the balls of David. This time I actually found a recording of it by Riccardo Marasco. Sung to the tune of La guerra di Piero (a popular anti-war song by the late Fabrizio de André), the song’s unnamed protagonist swims submerged in a sea of s___ of unclear origins (man or cow?), and ends up in Piazza Santa Croce where Dante exclaims: “Oh Florentines, you sent me into exile… take this s___ that God has sent you!.” It must have been an expression of sincere and genuine affection.
OK, I’m back in Muddy Spring so, catching up on a few things I didn’t have time to blog while I was away, this picture is of a statue I had go to see with my own eyes. If it has been in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence all these years, I must have seen it before… at least a few times during art history class field trips in middle school. As have many other people. Titled, “The Liberty of Poetry,” it sits just inside the church between the middle and right hand main doors, on top of the tomb of Giovanni Battista Niccolini – a professor of history and mythology and also a poet and playwright whose main theme was the ideal of freedom. In her raised hand is a broken chain, which represents the defeat of tyranny through artistic expression and other forms of creative genius – which, of course, includes real science. On either side of the doors are the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo, and not far, the empty tomb of Dante whose bones remain in his place of exile. And some other well-known figures. Since it carries the mark of the water the 1966 flood, it had to have been there. Like the tombs and statues, that water line is also noted with a plaque, which makes it now an official part of Florentine history and which makes me feel old. But sometime in the past couple of years, the Tuscan-American Association, which was looking to demonstrate relationships between Tuscany and America, pointed to an obvious resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, and made a case that it was most likely its inspiration. What is known is that, although not completed until 1877, the sculptor, Pio Fedi, had completed a plaster cast for itby 1872, and that the drawings had been in circulation before that. It is also known that Bartholdi, who sculpted the Statue of Liberty, was in Italy in those early years of Italian unification, and got around in artistic and intellectual circles. More and better pictures can be found here. You can read more details at the site of the Tuscan-American Association, which also used an image of this statue for the cover of a book.
If you have ever been to Florence, here is a detail you might have missed, that is right smack on the front of the main cathedral. This picture is the final in a series of carvings of angels that surround the main doors. As the story goes, the first in the series (pictured below the jump), holds a tax bill in his hands and passes it on up to the next angel, who passes in on to the next, who points to the next… until it gets to a few who can’t seem to hear, until it gets to the last one, who dismisses it with this infamous gesture. According to Maurizio Ranieri, a Florentine who brought it to my attention, the series is the story of Florence – which you really can’t separate from the Florentines themselves, without whom the place would not exist. A place where miracles, like the construction of that dome that sits on top of the cathedral, according to Malaparte, are not performed by saints.
I have added a few more of these angels below the jump so they don’t slow down the loading of the page any further. I am on a high speed connection at the moment but, while on travel these past few weeks, I was reminded just how slow dial-up internet can be – particularly when there are pictures… And prices for high-speed wireless access in hotels that have it is highway robbery.