As Week 2 began, I was hoping that I would be able to announce how much easier the second week was than the first. The start was promising: it was a lot easier getting up early than it was last Monday. In fact, I set my alarm for eight (since it was a holiday and all) but I woke up at 7, so I got up. In spite of that, it was almost noon before I prodded myself out the door for my run, and it was warmer and muggier out there than I had anticipated.
It’s cooler this week than it was last week, but it’s still warm when the sun is out. Between the heat and the humidity, plus the fact that the running time on my training schedule had increased from 2 minutes run/3 minutes walk (times six) to 3 minutes run/ 2 minutes walk (times six), it was a huge struggle to complete my assignment for the day.
But I did it. (My musical accompaniment was Pink.) And today I went for my walk, dodging raindrops. So I’m still on track.
Tomorrow I’ll go out when I get up. Difficult as it is, it’s really the only way, at least as long as the summer heat is on us.
I found an article in The Guardianlast week that certainly might help get me out the door if my brain were functional enough at 6:30 in the morning to think about scientific evidence of any kind, which normally it is not. It concerns a report from the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention and care in the UK that reviewed a lot of existing literature and added some new studies of its own on the subject of dementia. The Commission determined that by addressing certain lifestyle factors, “up to 40% of dementia cases worldwide could be delayed or prevented.” Physical inactivity is only one of twelve risk factors mentioned in the report, but it’s one of the ones that individuals can do something about — unlike, say, pollution. (Note to younger readers: exercise is particularly beneficial in this regard when practised starting in middle age.) Since the report points out that depression is also associated with dementia, and since exercise definitely helps to lift the spirits, physical activity may thwart dementia on two fronts.
I am very grateful to my friends and followers for the positive feedback I’ve been getting on this undertaking. It helps a lot.
Photos from my walk today include an unidentified flowering tree and a snail – both enjoying the rain.
My goal at the outset of this new regimen is to get out there every other day for a total of three runs a week. I have read that muscles need an opportunity to recover, and for that reason running every day is not recommended. (Those who offer such advice are probably talking to people who run five k in half an hour, which isn’t me. But I figure I might as well keep the wear and tear on my aging joints to a minimum.)
However, running only three days a week creates a problem. I know that if I don’t get up at the same time on the other days as I do on my running days, I will never develop the getting-up-early habit, and rolling out of bed will continue to be a battle. So I’ve decided to try to get up at the same time on the other days as well and instead of going for a run, go out for a walk.
Guess what? Going for a walk turns out to be far less onerous than going for a run. You have more time to check out cloud formations and you can smell the trees. You can even give yourself permission to stop to take pictures of interesting things, which you can’t do when you’re running. Take this chair set in the back of someone’s yard, looking out on Sheppard Ave. It’s the kind of chair I’d love to sit in: it’s far from human activity on three sides, well shaded, and looks out on the traffic going by on a pretty busy street (albeit somewhat less busy during a pandemic than usual).
I also found a path heading off into the woods from that busy street, and I was very tempted to see where it led.
So far this week, I’ve done two runs and two walks. This is a definite improvement over last week, and the week before that, and the one before that, etc. Many steps in the right direction. I am grateful to all those people who I imagine are reading this blog, because you’re the ones who got me out there! Onwards.
Just fyi, my first week’s schedule is 2 minutes of running plus 2 minutes of walking, repeated six times, plus a warmup and cool down at five minutes each. The first day out I was accompanied by Queen, and the second time by Chris Isaak.
This little guy has been the highlight of my outings so far. I paused on the path when I saw him and asked if he’d stay where he was if I moved a bit closer to take a picture. Keeping his eyes on me, he sat still until I’d snapped this photo.
So the alarm went off at 7 o’clock this morning, and I did what I always do: I turned it off and I went back to sleep.
When I woke up for real at 8, my immediate thought – of course – was that I had promised myself and the small corner of the universe that reads my blog that I would get up and go for a run, and I had failed to do that. Guilt set in immediately. My one hope was that no one had read the blog post yet… maybe I could take it down and repost it today and everyone would think tomorrow (Tuesday) was the day I had promised myself to start this new regimen.
No such luck, of course. My WordPress dashboard indicated that quite a few people had clicked on the post during the night (in addition to those who get the post whether they want it or not because they are subscribers). Someone had even commented already.
Although my first instinct was to throw myself off a very high escarpment somewhere, that seemed a bit dramatic even to me. My more realistic choices were: a) to confess in my post today that I had failed to get up and go for a run, and to say I would try again tomorrow (we’re all human, blah blah blah); or b) to go for a run today at some later hour than 7 a.m., and then to confess in today’s post that I might have failed to get up, but at least I had gone for a run.
There was, obviously, only one option available to me, and that was Option B. But the problems associated with Option B were almost enough for me to seriously contemplate settling for Option A. The first problem was that I could not go out until an hour after I’d eaten breakfast (because I don’t like running on a full stomach. I am such a delicate flower) and the temperature was already nearly 30° (that’s 86°F). By the time my oatmeal had settled, it would be several degrees higher. I was going to bake out there. Sunstroke. Ambulances. I visualized them all.
Don’t be a wuss, I told myself.
The next problem arose just after the oatmeal had found its happy place. This one took the form of a Severe Thunderstorm Watch that had now appeared on the Environment Canada website. I could see the clouds moving in. I weighed the heroics of having been killed by lightning because of my determination to get some exercise against the horror of having to admit defeat (see Option A).
Sure enough, we got a huge downpour — and then it was time for lunch.
And so it went all afternoon — heat and stormy weather. But by five p.m., I could delay no longer. It was still more than 30° and the Thunderstorm Watch was still in effect (as it is even as I write this post at 9 p.m.), but by now I knew I could not face this blog tonight if I had not gone for a run.
So off I went. I went down into the ravine by the Don River, where it was marginally cooler than on the paved streets above, and most of the trail was shaded. But it was still the hottest run I can remember doing in about ten years – and that one was in Edmonton, which is in a much drier climate. I was drenched with sweat when I got back. But I did manage to attain my tiny beginner goal for Week 1, Day 1: run (or “wog.” Thanks for that term, Lee. That is in fact what I did) for two minutes, walk for two minutes, six times. With a five minute warmup (hah!) at the beginning and a five-minute cool-down (hah!) at the end.
As I was dragging the weary puddle I’d turned into back up from the ravine, it occurred to me that given the heat and the weather warnings, I would never have gone out today — never never never — if it hadn’t been for this blog, and the people I knew had read it. So the trap I set for myself has worked, at least for today. I just hope that I have enough sense to avoid putting myself into such a hot, humid and embarrassing position again. Tomorrow is a walk day, rather than a run day, and I swear I am going out at 7, when it is still cool.
I do have an extra nudge to get me up and moving tomorrow. The first comment I received on last night’s post was from my son Dan, who does a hit on Radio 1010 about science and technology every morning at 6:50 a.m. He suggested I listen to the hit live (instead of tracking down the recording online once I am awake, as I usually do), and then head out the door. Thanks, Dan. If you can get up in time to do the segment, I can get up in time to hear it.
I think I can.
I hope I can.
P.S. Thanks to Lee and Ruth for their very supportive comments, too. Your feedback helped so much!!
At the start of this pandemic, when it came to looking after myself I did fairly well. I went out walking or running every other day, and I was watching what I ate. I was even meditating fairly regularly.
But the interminability of the crisis and the unpredictability of the future got to me after a month or so and I fell into an extended period of languor, disinterest and general malaise. I know I am not the only one to have had this experience because when I tell other people I have “Quarantine Brain” or “Isolation Brain,” they tell me they have it too.
In addition to Quarantine Brain, I also have Quarantine Body, by which I mean that I’ve gained a few pounds that I really didn’t need. And now I need to get rid of them – which, as we all know, is more easily said than done. (As you may also know, I have been fighting against excess body weight for long enough that I have written a novel about the challenges of dieting, trying to work out why almost any diet will do the trick as long as your head is in the right space, and why nothing will work when it’s not.)
I am not sure that my head is anywhere near the right space, but I do know that I can’t afford to put this off any longer. I am having some surgery on my left foot in early September to remove a bunionette, which will mean no running for six weeks. And we all know what comes after October in Canada: winter. If I don’t get around to addressing my lack of condition and extra pounds until after that — well, I don’t want to think about it. I am no spring chicken and if I let my body go, I might never get it back.
For several weeks, I’ve been absolutely determined to get up in the morning and go for a (slow) run before it gets too hot. The only problem is that I’m totally determined until the instant before the alarm clock goes off. When it does, I find myself quite undetermined to do anything but roll over and go to sleep again. My husband is kind enough not to point out what a lazy-butt I have turned into, so I need to build some external accountability into my life. So here we are.
Since we’re unable to travel, which means I’m unable to regale you with stories about our trip to Spain (which is where we were planning to go when COVID-19 raised its ugly head, or its nasty coronas to be more accurate), I will be giving you a tour of my running program in the days and weeks ahead. Enjoy. I hope you will find some humour and possibly even some inspiration here.
And if you’re engaging in your own Quarantine-Brain-and-Body Battle, share your experiences in the comments section below. As they say about masks and social distancing, we’re all in this together.
A Memorable End to an Unforgettable Trip: Back to Venice, Then Back to Toronto
May 25-27, 2019
On the morning of Saturday, May 25 (one year ago today, as I begin to write this final post), we drove the final leg of our road trip, from Florence back to Venice. It is amazing how even one previous visit, however brief, can affect you when you return to a place: even though we had been in Venice for only two days at the beginning of our adventure, the city felt welcoming and familiar. We knew our way around, knew which vaporettos went where, and knew how to get our bearings when we took the wrong turn (which we continued to do). Maybe part of the reason we felt so much more comfortable was that we had now been in Italy for three weeks, but “La Serenissima” (Venice was a sovereign state for 1100 years, from 697 to 1797, and in Venetian its name was Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta) felt very different this time from the days of our arrival. At the beginning of our trip, I had remarked to Arnie that Venice reminded me a little of West Edmonton Mall. This time I was able to get a feel for Venice as a richly historical and cultured city, rather than as a tourist destination.
The rooftop of the parkade where we dropped the rental car gave us a distinctive view of the city. We particularly noted the proliferation of cruise ships parked along the waterfront near St. Mark’s Square. As I mentioned in the first Italy post, cruise ships are (were? — who knows what will happen to the cruise-ship industry post-pandemic) a serious problem for Venetians: they bring in tourist dollars, but the ships are also destroying the environment. In addition, unlike tourists who come to Venice in other ways, many cruise-ship passengers do not stay in hotels but sleep and eat on board. So the costs can outweigh the benefits.
As we had the first few days of our trip, we stayed on Lido – the long (11k) thin barrier island that forms part of the series of islands in the Venetian lagoon. This time we stayed at the Hotel Villa Pannonia, which was modern and very comfortable. On our second-last evening in Italy, we wandered along Lido’s streets, and shared a pizza next to one of its canals. It was a lovely warm evening, perfect for a stroll through the warm night air and (of course) the consumption of a gelato.
The next morning we had tickets to tour the synagogues in the ancient Jewish quarter of Venice, which has the distinction of being one of the first places in the world where people were segregated and their whereabouts monitored on the basis of their religion. In fact, the word “ghetto” — which is used in a host of different contexts now – originated here, likely because until 1516, this part of the city had been a foundry, which is a “getto” in Italian. In March of that year, the chief magistrate, or doge, turned it into an area where the city’s 900 Jews were required to live. (The population of Venice as a whole at the time was 160,000.) It was not until two hundred years later, when Bonaparte forced the Republic of Venice to dissolved itself and tore down the gates, that Jews were again allowed to move freely throughout the city.
From Wikipedia, we learn that “The ghetto was connected to the rest of the city by two bridges that were only open during the day. Gates were opened in the morning at the ringing of the marangona, the largest bell in St. Mark’s Campanile, and locked in the evening. Permanent, round-the-clock surveillance of the gates occurred at the Jewish residents’ expense.” Charming.
In 2016, the city marked the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish ghetto with five months of commemorative events, including an extensive art and historical exhibition, costume galas and even a performance of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony. The quincentenary program also included the first-ever performance of The Merchant of Venice in the ghetto, which must have been both moving and distressing. I well remember the scenes involving Shylock (played by Al Pacino in one of his better roles) in the 2004 movie version: these were also set in the “Campo di Ghetto Nuovo,” and they were haunting.
There are five synagogues in the small area (one and a quarter acres) to which the Jews were confined, each of them built by a different ethnic group: German; Italian; Spanish and Portuguese; Levantine Sephardic; and Venetian Ashkenazi. One can only imagine the crowds and mix of languages and cultures. An excellent article about the quincentenary that appeared in The New York Times in 2016 quotes the noted travel writer Jan Morris, who wrote that in the 17th century, “the city was a ‘treasure-box’ full of ‘ivory, spices, scents, apes, ebony, indigo, slaves, great galleons, Jews, mosaics, shining domes, rubies, and all the gorgeous commodities of Arabia, China and the Indies’.”
At its peak in the 17th century, 5,000 Jews lived in Venice; today there are about 450. Most do not live in the ghetto area (the few who do are mostly from the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher sect; the Lubavitcher we saw when we were there were visiting from New York) but the synagogues are still in use, and there is a bookstore, displays and museums commemorating the Ghetto’s past.
We toured two of the synagogues and wandered around the main square in the Ghetto. We also had the opportunity to drop into a lovely photography gallery that is located there — the Ikona Gallery — which is owned by Živa Kraus, the sister of a friend of the friend we visited in Zagreb. We had a really wonderful (if brief) visit with Živa Kraus herself, who has lived in Venice for many years (and despairs for its future).
The entire tour was memorable and enlightening. I was particularly moved by an installation in the Ghetto square, a bas relief by Arbit Blatas called “The Last Train” that commemorates the deportation of the Jews from the Venetian Ghetto by the Nazis. It is a reminder (as if we needed one) that prejudice against the Jews has continued undiminished throughout history.
Casino di Venizia
On our way back to our hotel, we stopped in at the “oldest casino in the world,” the Casino di Venezia (est. 1638). I had been intrigued when I’d read about it before I left for Italy – the elegance of the gaming rooms on the top floor (which weren’t open when we were there: too early in the day) have been compared to those in Monaco. The dealers wear tuxedos, guests arrive at the front door by boat, and the decor includes chandeliers, Italian art works, and vintage mirrors from nearby Murano. It was splendid. Arnie played a game or two of blackjack; I just took in the atmosphere.
I was surprised to discover from a plaque on the wall as we entered (we came on foot, through the back door) that Richard Wagner, the composer of many of my favourite operas (I know. How can I say this in the same blog as I write about the Ghetto? I refer you to Wagner and Me, an excellent exploration of this issue of loving Wagner and deploring ant-semitism by Stephen Fry) had died in the Casino di Venizia. It wasn’t a casino at the time (it has served several other purposes since it was first established), and Wagner apparently spent quite a bit of time in Italy, part of it in exile. “After a funerary gondola bore Wagner’s remains over the Grand Canal, his body was taken to Germany where it was buried in the garden of the Villa Wahnfried in Bayreuth” (Where would I be without Wikipedia?).
We were not allowed to take photos inside the casino, but fortunately there are pictures of it on the Architectural Digest site.
A Dinner to Remember
We had tried without success on our first night back in Venice to get a table at the Andri Fish and Seafood restaurant on Lido, so we’d made a reservation for our last night in Italy. It was a perfect choice. The seafood was outstanding, and Arnie took a great interest in the grappa — they just put a full bottle of the powerful fruit and booze concoction down on each table with the dessert menu and let the guests go at it. Different fruit for different tables. (Ours was full of mandarins.) No charge. I doubt that anyone but the non-drinkers walked out of that place steadily. As well as watching Arnie’s enjoyment of the drink, I was intrigued by what it did to a couple sitting across from us on the patio who seemed to have barely known one another when they arrived.
The Flight Home
I’m just going to leave these photos here. The views of Greenland and northern Canada from the air may not have been worth the price of the flight, but they certainly enhanced it.
And that’s it. Thanks following along as I shared these memories. As soon as there’s a vaccine, we’re off again (right after we hug all the grandkids till they squeal. We had nine when the lockdown started. Now we have ten.) Next? España tal vez. Oder vielleicht Deutschland. 甚至中国。In the meantime, Addio per ora. (And where would I be without Google Translate?)
The Great Synagogue (Tempio Maggiore) of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882, is a magnificent building located not far from the major museums of the city, which is appropriate as it houses an extensive museum on its upper floor. The style of the building is Italian and Moorish Revival but signage at the synagogue indicates that it is also known as “of the Emancipation” as it “was designed as an independent building and is not disguised as something else, as happened in the ghettoes.” The lovely pink and beige colours of the travertine and granite that dapple the building used to be darker – were, in fact, once red and beige.
The domes of the synagogue were familiar to Separdhic Jewry, of which the Florentine community primarily consisted, which had its origins in Berber Moorish Spain. The domes, finished in copper now oxidized to green, stand out against the skyline. (Note: I am grateful to the photographers whose photos are posted for public use on Wikipedia. They make it possible for me to show these two angles on the synagogue that we were not able to capture ourselves. If you click on the images you can see the source photos.)
These are the photos we did take of the exterior:
The interior of the synagogue is wonderfully ornate. (Click on images to see them better.) “During World War II, Nazi soldiers occupied the synagogue and they used that as a storehouse. In August 1944 retreating German troops worked with Italian Fascists to lay explosives to destroy the synagogue. However, Italian resistance fighters managed to defuse most of the explosives and only a limited amount of damage was done. What damage was done was restored after the war. The synagogue was restored yet again after damage from the flood of the River Arno in 1966.” (Wikipedia)
Wikipedia also tells us that “The Jewish community in Florence is composed of about 1,400 people. However, it has a long history which reaches back to the medieval era. In addition, there was a nearby Jewish community in the Oltrarno area, south of the Arno river , that dates to the Roman era. It is thought that the first synagogue was probably built in the 13th century.”
The Jewish Museum of Florence, opened in 1987, is located on the second floor of the synagogue. We were not allowed to take photos, but you can see some of the lovely pieces on the Museums of Florence website. We spent quite a bit of time admiring the “kiddush cups, prayer shawls, silver ornaments and embroidered vestments dating from the 16th to the twentieth century, with illustrative panels of the community’s history, together with a carved model of the old ghetto and along with a pictorial display which is occasionally changed.”
It was as much a reminder of the history of the Jews as it was a sign of the times that the synagogue was guarded by soldiers with rifles, and the process for being admitted to the grounds was very strict and thorough –involving passports, metal gates, and lockers for bags and coats.
We were sorry to have already eaten lunch when we saw this inviting spot, just beyond the grounds of the synagogue. Next time. (Where have I heard that before?)
“After the ruling house of Medici died out, their art collections were gifted to the city of Florence under the famous Patto di famiglia negotiated by Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress. The Uffizi is one of the first modern museums. The gallery had been open to visitors by request since the sixteenth century, and in 1765 it was officially opened to the public, formally becoming a museum in 1865.” (Wikipedia)
The Uffizi Gallery, one of the most important museums in the world, and particularly known for its Italian Renaissance collection, is huge. It has always been huge, but in 2006 the viewing area was expanded by 6,000 metres2, to 13,000 metres2 (139,000 ft2). The exhibition area comprises three floors, with rooms opening into other rooms and then onto corridors on either side of an internal courtyard (which opens onto the Arno).
Various sections of the gallery are devoted to Spanish artists, Dutch artists, Flemish artists, French artists and, of course, Italian artists — from Florence, Siena, Venice and many other regions. Different exhibition areas feature individuals and schools of art – Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and the Florentines, the Lombardi School, and on and on. There are several Rembrandt self-portraits that I wish I’d paid more attention to — a documentary we saw recently about Lucian Freud mentioned Rembrandt as an early adopter of the form.
Individual rooms display cabinets full of miniatures, and there is a mathematics room and a “hall with ancient inscriptions.” The long corridors along the piazzale are lined with statues dating from the 13th century. Everywhere you look, there is something that you do not want to miss.
It is overwhelming.
When it came to paintings at the Uffuzi, my eyes were drawn particularly to the works of Sandro Botticelli and Filippo Lippi — some of which were new to me, others familiar from photographs. I loved the colours and the range of characters and, as in the case of “Madonna of the Pomegranate,” the titles.
Then there were the sculptures. This one, of Hercules slaying the Centaur, was a relic from early Roman times – missing its heads and legs – and was completed during the Renaissance by Giovanni Caccini. Check out the marble base on which the sculpture is set, the long hallway beyond it lined with other treasures, and the delicate artwork on the ceiling.
I was intrigued by the plaster cast of the monument commissioned by the husband and children of Sofia Czartoryski Zamoyska, following her death in 1837 at the age of 59. Zamoyska had ten children and was once named the most beautiful woman in Europe. She and her husband were exiled in Florence following uprisings in Warsaw in 1830-31. The photo at the bottom, by Saiko, shows the monument by Lorenzo Bartolini that is located in Zamoskya’s tomb in the Machiavelli-Salviati chapel in St. Croce, and the engraving from the British Museum depicts the princess in her mid-twenties.
It continues to amaze me how stone (and even plaster) can be made to look so natural — like the actual fabrics and skin they depict – in the hands of a gifted sculptor.
We not have the oomph to look at all the works on display in the Uffizi Gallery, nor was there time to make notes on many of the ones we did see. The more modern creations/interpretations below intrigued me, but I have no idea who did them or when. (The one on the right seems to reflect the more traditional sculpture behind it. The two on the right are clearly cast from the same mold.) Feedback from anyone who knows about these works is welcome.
We enjoyed wandering around Florence as much as we did touring its galleries and, still fortunate with the weather, we managed to get quite a bit of fresh air. As I continued to recover from my face-plant in the Borghese Gardens, I was amused to see a street sign that seemed to warn me against landing on my head again. (As if I needed a warning.)
We spent time on both days in Florence in the Piazza della Signoria because it is so central. Surrounded by several “palazzos” and the Uffizi Gallery, the piazza is massive, accommodating outdoor restaurant seating, a lovely old merry-go-round and many shops (including an Apple store). At times in its history, the square has been less welcoming: it was here that the puritanical Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and his followers carried out the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities” – burning secular “books, gaming tables, fine dresses, and works of poets” in their attempt to build a new Jerusalem, and here – in front of the fountain of Neptune – Savonarola and two of his fellow friars were ultimately hanged and burned on May 23, 1498 (Wikipedia).
As is true in many major cities in Italy, being outside can be very much like being inside a museum, and that was certainly true of the large space just off the Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that is known as the Loggia dei Lanzi. We went there one afternoon to rest our feet between tours, but I soon found myself standing up again to more closely examine the huge sculptures on display in the loggia.
The Loggia dei Lanzi or Loggia della Signoria was built in the late 1300s and was intended to accommodate public meetings and events. The statues now located there include two Medici lions, historical figures, and a number of sculptures depicting characters and events from Greek and Roman myths. One of these, Perseus with the head of Medusa, I remember seeing in an encyclopedia when I was a girl, and being absolutely horrified. The actual statue is pretty horrifying too.
The River Arno flows from its source in the Apennines through Florence on its way to the sea, and while the water itself looks uninviting (it is fast and dirty), there is no matching the spectacle the river offers, especially when the light is right. There are six bridges across the Arno in Florence, five of which were bombed during the retreat of the Nazis from Italy in 1944. These have been rebuilt, either in a more modern form or to resemble the historic structures they replaced.
The Ponte Vecchio is a “closed-spandrel bridge with three segmental arches” built from stone at the end of the first century. (The spandrel is the space between the outer part of the arch and the deck.) Its design was determined in part by the need to allow horses and carts to cross it easily, and vendors have been selling their wares from stalls on the bridge for more than a thousand years. We wandered past clothing and jewellery shops, some selling products of the highest quality (and price!) and others selling schlock for tourists, also at the highest price. The kicker was a gelato that I bought on the Ponte Vecchio for eight euros ($12)! (It did involve two tasty scoops, but the only reason it is memorable is because of how much it cost me.)
I was quite tickled to be standing in a place where Dante had also stood.
Florence, like other major Italian cities, must be particularly magical to those with limitless wealth and a fondness for shopping. We meet neither of those conditions, but we did enjoy wandering past some of the exclusive shops.
We are hard-pressed to remember even one disappointing meal in Italy. However, we discovered a couple of outstanding restaurants in Florence, one of them thanks to a fellow-writer from the U.S. who I’d met online on a writers’ forum. Caron Guillo had spent the previous four or five years leading tours in Europe and she had lived for an extended period of time in Italy. Before we left on our trip, I saw that she had posted a photo of a dinner she’d just eaten in her favourite restaurant in Florence. She gave me the name — 4 Leoni — we tracked it down, and had a most spectacular dinner. My main course was the restaurant’s popular ravioli dish featuring pears in taleggio cheese and asparagus sauce (the same dish that Caron had posted on Facebook) and for dessert a chocolate pudding. We should have made a reservation: we were lucky that they let us in without one.
Of course, even the graffiti in Italy is artistic. I liked this piece, which somehow evoked both Banksy and Magritte.
During the Virus: Remembering “The David” and Some Really Off-Beat (?) Musical Instruments at the Galleria Dell’Accademia
May 24, 2019
I am writing this post in March of 2020 — ten months after our trip to Italy — and at this moment Italians are experiencing the horrors of the peak days of the coronavirus: the most lethal and widespread catastrophe to have hit their country in decades. Thousands have died and the health-care system is overwhelmed. Italy has become a worst-case scenario for the rest of the world: a warning of what will happen if we don’t stay physically apart and “flatten the curve.”
Although Florence is not in one of the hardest-hit regions, Twitter posts show deserted streets and closed stores and bars. Clearly, the impact of this event on the economy will be immeasurable. At the moment, it all looks so desolate and yet so familiar. I’m so glad we have been there, and my thoughts are with all of the wonderful Italian people we met during our visit to their beautiful country.
On our second day in Florence, we visited two galleries — the Galleria Dell’Accademia and the Uffuzi Gallery. That was a lot of art for one day, and as we neared the final rooms of the Uffuzi we were hurrying past some astonishing works of art simply because we were physically worn out and (dare I admit it?) tired of looking at art. I’ll talk about the Uffuzi in a separate post, in the hope that my readers do not experience art-gallery fatigue as well.
The Galleria dell’Accademia was established in 1784 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1873, Michelangelo’s David was moved into the Galleria from an outdoor piazza in Florence, and the facility features several other sculptures by the world-famous artist – who was born in the Florence region. It also includes pieces by Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto, plus the original full-size plaster model for the Rape of the Sabine Women by the sculptor Giambologna, who was Flemish, but based his career in Italy.
The Accademia also houses a number of Florentine Gothic paintings, and a collection of Russian icons. All told, the collection represents an overwhelming representation of primarily Renaissance art.
The Museum of Musical Instruments, housed in the same building, opened in 2001. It includes a red spruce and maple viola made by Antonio Stradivarius, a cello by Niccolò Amati, and several instruments designed by Bartolomeo Cristofori — including the first-ever pianoforte, which Cristofori created for the Medicis in 1699.
The Galleria Dell’Accademia was a very satisfying museum to visit because, despite the size and glory of the pieces on display, the relatively cohesive parameters of the collection (compared to the Vatican and Borghese, for example, or the Uffuzi which we saw later that day) meant that my mind could (almost) accommodate it.
Aside from the “David” – which we have all seen so often in photographs that there is no point in trying to describe it – I was most drawn to the four “Prisoner” or “Slave” sculptures by Michelangelo: which he may or may not have left deliberately unfinished. To some they suggest the struggle of humans to break away from the earthly desires and material objects that hold their spirits down. To others, they represent the challenges of a human “becoming,” in all senses of that word.
In “The Prisoners,” I saw the struggle of an artistic work to become what it is intended to be – intended by the artist in some cases, more often (in my experience) by the work itself. But above all, they are testaments to the shining talents of the man who created them, his genius for bringing blocks of stone to life.
I think of Michelangelo’s “Prisoners” tonight, struggling their ways out of their stone integuments in the vast, silent, darkened halls – rooms now empty of visitors. Outside the Galleria is a world that evokes the Middle Ages, where humans fall sick and die for a lack of scientific knowledge, medical equipment and supplies – awaiting our own Renaissance.
Our first tourist destination in Florence was the magnificent Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on this building began more than 700 years ago, in 1296, and was completed 141 years later, in 1436. The original designer of this Gothic-style building was Arnolfio di Cambio, and its crowning glory, il duomo, was the creation of Filippo Brunelleschi.
Wikipedia is quite helpful (and also quite interesting) in explaining what Gothic architecture is: “[The] most prominent features included the use of the rib vault and the flying buttress, which allowed the weight of the roof to be counterbalanced by buttresses outside the building, giving greater height and more space for windows. Another important feature was the extensive use of stained glass and the rose window, to bring light and color to the interior. Another feature was the use of realistic statuary on the exterior, particularly over the portals, to illustrate biblical stories for the largely illiterate parishioners. Some key architectural features, such as the pointed arch and a decorative kind of rib vault, existed earlier outside Europe, and may have been derived from Islamic architecture.These features had both existed in Romanesque architecture, but they were used more extensively and in more innovative ways to make Gothic cathedrals higher, stronger, and filled with light.”
Having purchased a ticket to climb to the top of the dome, we entered the cathedral through a side door (the baptistery and cathedral were a separate tour) and once all of us with tickets for the appointed time had gathered, we immediately started climbing. We climbed and climbed and climbed, with an occasional break to have a look around at pre-designated stages on our way up (you can see the walkways around the inside of the dome in a couple of the photos above). As we climbed higher and higher we were able to get a closer view of the frescoes of the Last Judgement inside the cupola, designed by Georgio Vasari but “mostly painted by his less talented student, Frederico Zuccari” (what a way to go down in history!) They were completed in 1579, and cleaned relatively recently (1996) — apparently to the consternation of many of Florence’s residents who felt that the money could have been better spent.
The passageways containing the stairs are very narrow with low ceilings, and the steps are steep: they were used by the workers during construction, and no one back then ever envisioned that the public would use them – especially not in the great numbers that now visit the cathedral every day (except Sundays). The higher up we went, the farther below us was the floor of the cathedral: from the “lantern” (the walkway inside the cupola), the drop is 40 metres, according to the “Visit Florence” website. The site encourages those with a fear of heights and small spaces to think twice before they sign on to this tour.
In all, we climbed 463 stairs.
As I had already learned in Siena, in addition to the view that awaited us at the top, climbing hundreds of stairs is a great way to meet people from all over the world who are climbing along with you. Misery loves company.
The climb, of course, was worth it. Once we got out onto the terrace no one regretted having made the trek — at least not until we remembered that going down such narrow steps was going to be even more disconcerting than climbing up had been.
A story I loved reading during my research for this post involved a balcony that Baccio d’Agnolo started to build at the base of the dome in 1507. It took him eight years to complete one balcony on one of the eight sides. At that point, “someone asked Michelangelo – whose artistic opinion was by this time taken as cardinal law – what he thought of it. The master reportedly scoffed, ‘It looks like a cricket cage.’ Work was immediately halted, and to this day the other seven sides remain rough brick!”