it has been hot. today is the first cloudy day in over a week here in Florence. i walk and draw and walk in the sun, some days to the Santa Maria Del Fiore, or the Duomo for short, one of the grandest cathedrals in the world. it provides sanctuary from the daily bustle of tourism–a cacophony of languages negotiating an endless selection of trinkets emblazoned with “Firenze” but made in China–as well as shelter from the heat. Unlike my hotel, which proudly advertises its two-star status on its website and has no air conditioning, the sun does not penetrate the enormous stone walls of the Santa Maria Del Fiore. its coolness is an old coolness, since the 1400’s. As I learned from an old Italian businessman sitting on a stoop the other day, the church was built over a period of 200 years beginning in the 1200’s. It took so long that upon its completion, the first sections that were built had begun falling apart. It has been in a constant state of restoration for hundreds of years since, which is not uncommon for the innumerable magnificent buildings in Italy. The Duomo is an enormous, magestic space. I don’t exactly consider myself catholic or even christian anymore. But it is something that stays with you if you are raised on it. At the great risk of sounding exclusionary, I feel proud knowing that a structure as magnificent as the Santa Maria Del Fiore exists for people raised on the same spiritual principles and tenants that I was. With this in mind, Saturday I attended mass for the first time in a long while. The masses are usually in Italian or Latin but on saturdays there is an english service. A middle aged priest pontificated with an accent that reminded me somewhat of Dracula, but friendlier and more subtle. The Homily was about Luke 7, 36-50: a sinful woman weeps at Jesus’ feet and cleans them with her tears. He explains to Simon that the sinful woman is forgiven because she loves much. I thought about my encounter with a beggar woman at dinner the previous evening. She practically stole money from my hand while kissing my arm and attempting to sob dramatically. I had never been so furiously attacked by a beggar. The experience was awkward and sad and made me feel dirty partly because i have been so privileged and partly because I have been taught to distrust strangers but I think of Jesus.
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here are some drawings. i wish i could make drawings as fast as i can make pictures. i miss my paints. i brought my guitar but i have little time to play it. i am also keeping a gelato diary, and i am on a european scavenger hunt for centaurs and nuns on bicycles.
I went to the leaning tower of Pisa which yes is still leaning and yes I have a photo of myself pretending to hold it up. They fixed the tower in the 1990’s apparently, so that after some 800 years of trepidation, the people of pisa are no longer worried that it will fall over. I never was worried but I guess I was too young to worry when it would have been a rational thing to do and Pisa is so very far from Trenton Ohio where nothing looms so high. I tried to imagine Galileo conducting his famous gravity experiments from the top of the tilted side. Galileo was born in Pisa, which is a much sleepier town than I expected. However, the downtown was bustling with clothing stores and restaurants and different kinds of people conversing and sharing ideas. You have to walk through the downtown to get to the tower from the train station.
In American cities like Cincinnati and Middletown the downtown areas have been largely abandoned and allowed to descend into poverty and disrepair while money is poured into suburban outlet malls and plywood houses which will collapse or be leveled in a few decades. america is a new country and maybe that explains what seems to me to be an infatuation with novelty verses a reverence for history. here in Florence (Firenze), age and the gravitas of age is everywhere. it is in the stones of the street, the surfaces of the buildings, in the food, in the air, in the people. the pride the people feel for their old structures is unparalleled. It helps that as the capital of renaissance thought and art, there are a great amount of beautiful famous old structures to be celebrated.
On one of my first nights here I was walking with some friends by one of the bridges that crosses the Arno river. We were stopped by a man who saw us taking pictures. he looked to be about fifty and wore dress pants with sneakers. he asked where we were from and we told him america and he was quick to explain that “this bridge is important,” speaking of the Ponte Santa Trinita where we stood. then he pointed further down the river to the Ponte (bridge) Amerigo Vespucci, near our hotel and said matter of factly, “that bridge is not important”. the importance correlates with age as three of the five bridges were destroyed by Nazis. but the Ponte Santa Trinita was unharmed and very old and beautiful and important. It is the oldest elliptic arch bridge in the known universe. you could feel his pride. not an arrogant pride but a congenial pride, a happy pride, a willingness to share. he lived in an apartment near the bridge and was watching the sunset waiting on an old friend to meet him. When his friend arrived they walked away together at once and were very happy arm and arm and i wondered if that was a normal thing to do with an old male friend in italy or if they were gay but regardless i wished for a second I was him and could walk happily by the Arno river watching the sunset forever and ever.
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Yesterday I went back to the Santa Maria Del Fiore for inspiration, cool air, a place to sit in peace, and free entertainment in the form of Vespers, a Catholic evening prayers service consisting entirely of ancient Latin songs in Gregorian chant with organ accompaniment. during the day when there are no services the cathedrals here function more as museums of religion more than places of worship. in the afternoon people from all over the world come in in a steady stream with their heads tilted back looking awed, snapping bad flash photos of faraway frescoes while mumbling
despite “shh’s” from guards and signs that say “SILENCE”. Vespers in Gregorian chant provided a stark contrast for me, a very personal experience of the space as it was meant to be experienced.
About fifteen old men in purple robes hobbled up to the alter, all of their bald heads shining from the lanterns and hanging objects above. I smiled at once of the priests struggling to walk and he smiled back at me although I could tell it was even difficult for him to smile and it wasn’t the best smile but I forgave him for that of course. I was one of twenty attendees in a space that can hold thousands. maybe tens or hundreds of thousands if people could be poured in like holy water or stacked up like pyramidal cheerleaders or by using scaffolding. The frail voices of the old men echoed in the hallowed space, each sacred phrase lingering for over ten seconds after leaving the wrinkled lips of clergy and the wrinkled lips of the Italian women in the front pews of the small congregation who still remembered the words. not singing is also singing; silences become echoes, swirling enveloping refusing to forget or let go of the passing seconds. in this way time moves slow like a memory, slow as it must move for god.