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!”
Late on the afternoon of May 22, we arrived in Firenze (Florence) after a long drive through central Italy from Salerno. The Hotel Villa Belvedere, our accommodation for our visit, was so lovely that if we had been advised that every tourist site in the city had been unexpectedly closed for repairs and we were going to have to stay at the hotel for the entire three days we were in Florence, I would not have complained too much. This is the kind of hotel that makes you want to sit outside and read a book, or sit near a window inside and write one. Since we had a lot to see and do, I felt as though we did not have time to properly enjoy our accommodations – although we gave it our best effort.
The Villa Belvedere is a family-owned hotel, and the members of the family seem to have been born for the hospitality business. Everyone, including the hired staff, was helpful, accommodating, and eager to help us resolve any issues we had, whether they related to the villa, the city, or our next destination. Several suites have balconies: ours did not, which is a good thing or I would have wanted to spend even more time lounging about, but our room was large and comfortable. The gardens are magnificent, obviously cared for like the house itself with loving care, and the main floor common areas are comfortable and decorated with of all kinds of unusual objets d’art.
The dining room is a bright, well-appointed room with large windows that look out onto the pool and the gardens. The food was outstanding and the service impeccable. The chef is one of the owners, and when we complimented her cooking and especially her baking one morning, she asked if we would let her mother-in-law know we’d enjoyed it. (I did as she’d asked, of course, amused at this glimpse into the family dynamics.)
The city was not far away: as we wandered in the garden in the evening, we could hear the enthusiastic sounds of fans cheering on their favourite local football (soccer) game at a nearby stadium. After a spectacular dinner at the hotel and a sound night’s sleep, windows open to the Italian night, we did – of course – bestir ourselves to check out the other sights and sounds and tastes of Florence: from the Duomo to the Accademia Dell’Arte to the Uffuzi Gallery, from the Arno River to “the David” (more on those in subsequent posts). And of course we were glad we did. But it was lovely to have this place to return to each day after our wanderings had worn our feet out once again.
Unlike most of the other cities we visited in Italy, no one had recommended Naples as a “must see” destination. In fact, the people we knew who had been there told us to keep our valuables close to us and our wits about us. Naples is, after all, a port city and major port cities offer anonymity and cover for those with less than the most selfless of agendas. Naples regularly appears at or near the top of Italian cities where crime (specifically robbery) is common.
Such statistics and personal cautions only reinforced the darker expectations I’d had of Naples before we went there. My primary sources were two powerful fiction writers whose works I’ve devoured within the past few years: Curzio Malaparte, by turns a Nazi and a communist and author of The Skin, which depicts war-crushed Naples during the American “invasion” (1943-45) with what is probably the cruelest and most derisive humour I have ever read, and Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels concerning two girls who grew up after the second war in what she describes as a violent and restrictive city.
The Neapolitan municipal region is home to more than three million people, which makes it (with Rome and Milan) one of three highest-ranking cities in Italy both in terms of population and economically, and it is the most densely populated. The port is home to Allied Joint Force Command Naples, an important NATO presence. Probably due to its strategic location, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe (since 9th century B.C.!)
We did not spend much time in Naples. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived from Rome and we still wanted to get to Pompeii before the entrance to the park closed at 6. However, we did drive through the city rather than taking one of the bypass routes, and that allow me to take enough photos to reinforce my pre-judgement of what Naples was going to look like. I really did feel like we were driving through the setting of a Ferrante novel rather than a Dean Martin song.
But then, as we left the city and began the drive past Mount Vesuvius up to Pompeii, I looked back and saw a spectacle I could not have imagined. What a beautiful city!
Pompeii (Archeological Park of)
There are advantages to travelling in the off season and of arriving at world heritage sites at close-to-closing time. This juxtaposition of photos illustrates one of them (We were there in May of 2019. The New York Times article says that 450,000 visitors toured the site in July of 2019.):
There are also disadvantages to such timing. In the case of Pompeii (which in Italian is “Pompei” with one “i”; “Pompei” is also the name of the nearby town), the lack of time to explore the site was the primary disadvantage of arriving at the hour that we did. A full day would have offered adequate opportunity to properly explore the park, and would also have allowed a visit to the Antiquarium Visitor Centre. I recommend no less to friends and relatives (!) who may be visiting there in future.
But there was no way to prepare myself for the feeling that came over me when I stepped into the Santuario di Apollo, where I was almost physically jarred by the realization that real people had lived and died (and had eaten, and prayed, and bathed) in this very spot, and that some areas of the site had probably looked very much the same way in 79 AD as they do today.
We had seen the 2015 Royal Ontario Museum exhibition In the Shadow of the Volcano, and almost every school kid has heard the story of what happened to the citizens of Pompeii 2000 years ago and about the city’s subsequent excavation (which began in 1748). So it’s not as though I didn’t know where we were going and what we were likely to see.
The full awareness of this truth prompted tears and added a few new screw-turns of conviction to my evolving awareness of my world: the domination of Earth by Sapiens is just a phase, and a brief one at that. Our individual lifespans are of no more importance than is the arc described by a speck of lint we have removed from our skirt or trousers and flicked off a fingernail in irritation. I don’t find this awareness sad or depressing. It’s just a poignancy-inducing reality.
For a sense of the atmosphere, the awareness of lives lived, that is evoked by a visit to Pompeii, along with an eloquent description of the problems that have plagued and continue to plague the site (which have included looting, defacement, flooding, scandal, earthquakes, overuse, and even a bombing by the Allies), I recommend theNew York Times article pictured above. The author, Paige McClanahan, weaves together historic and climatic details to imagine how it must have been to live in one of the restored homes: “The warm sea breeze would have blended the dry scent of cypress and bay leaves with the stench of rubbish and excrement from the street, and the gurgle of water in the baths would have been occasionally drowned out by cries from the crowd in the 20,000-seat amphitheater nearby.”
On top of being a fascinating place to visit, and one of great historic importance, Pompeii is also a situated in a magnificent location. No wonder its residents were reluctant to leave the day the mountain erupted.
We Finally See the Borghese Gallery and an Actual Physician (and Identify, in Retrospect, Rome’s Multitudes of Green Birds)
May 19-20, 2019
The first works of art selected for the collection that is housed in the Borghese Gallery were chosen by Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633), the nephew of Pope Paul V. He hired the architect Flaminio Ponzio to design a villa on what was then the outskirts of Rome where he could spend time with his sculptures, paintings and ancient artifacts when time permitted. Not a bad “country home.”
Among the notable artists the Cardinal included in the Galleria – which is now owned by the Italian government – were Bernini, Caravaggio, Bimini, Titian, Raphael, and Peter Paul Reubens. He was clearly a man of outstanding taste. Subsequent generations of Borgheses added to and modified both the villa and the collection, most of them enhancing it – although in 1808, Prince Camilio Borghese had to sell some of the most ancient (pre-BCE) and precious pieces to his wife’s brother, the Emperor Napoleon. Those pieces are now in the Louvre. Coincidentally, or maybe not, in the same year Prince Camilio’s wife, Paulina Bonaparte, served as the model for the lovely Venus Victrix, by Antonio Canova.
I learned most of the information you have just read from the Wikipedia entry “Galleria Borghese” (or re-learned it, to be more precise, as I am sure I also read the details six months ago when I was actually in Rome, and possibly even a few months before that when I booked the tickets). You can find lots of other information about the Gallery from that Wiki if you are so inclined.
There are two floors in the Galleria Borghese and one really ought to spend an entire day there, rather than attempting to see it all at the end of an afternoon. But something is better than nothing and I was delighted with it all (for by now my swollen eye had settled down enough that I could see out of it a little, and the other one continued to work perfectly).
Among my favourite sculptures — as is, I am sure, the case for most visitors — were the Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and – of course — David. All by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who was 23 (!) when he executed the Proserpina. These sculptures are stunning — the detail as you walk around them simply defies any belief that a human could have carved them out of stone — even if the stone was Italian marble. The sculptors (not just Bernini, several of the others displayed in the Galleria as well) managed to bring the marble to life as well as the subjects. As I looked at Daphne turning into a laurel tree as Apollo tries to catch her – her fear and loathing absolutely relatable, as is her story even in the Me, Too era – it seemed as plausible that this was a scene from history as one derived from myth.
The paintings I admired are far too numerous to mention, and the dozen of photographs we took in the Gallery now form a wonderful slideshow of memories. I am truly grateful to my friend Virginia Sharek for suggesting that we go there.
We left the gallery when it closed and made our way by taxi to the international medical clinic (“with English-speaking doctors,” the website said) that we had tracked down on the internet that morning. Unfortunately, the clinic was not too keen on being found. The address was on a narrow street not far from the Spanish Steps, but there was no sign of the street number we’d written down. A pull-down security grill suggested that even if the clinic was there, it must be closed. But Arnie was undeterred by such observations. While I waited in the cab in case we decided to simply go back to the hotel, he walked back up the street and knocked on a door in the vicinity of the address we had. To his surprise, a nurse (I assume a nurse: she was dressed in white) aged about 50 opened a door, stuck her head out and told him to come in.
I let the cab go, and joined Arnie as he entered the clinic. There we found a doctor as well as the nurse; she was his translator as well as his medical assistant, which was a good thing as the doctor spoke no English. He attended to me carefully and kindly — joking that we must be related, as his first name was Walter. He examined my eye and forehead, and said he thought that I should get an x ray. He gave us the address of a hospital where we could go to get that done. He also gave me a prescription for an antibiotic ointment. Again, there was no fee.
A Missed Opportunity
Little did I know how close we’d come that day (twice) to the house where John Keats spent his last weeks of life: unfortunately for the world, there were no antibiotics in the vicinity, or anywhere else for that matter, when he was dying there. I’d seen his house in Hampstead when I was in London twenty years ago, and it would have been satisfying to see this final dwelling place – which has, like his home in London, been turned into a museum. Close by apparently, there are the one-time residences of Percy Bysshe Shelley, J.M.W. Turner, Lord Byron and others.
As I read about Keats’s last months in this most interesting blog post by Giuseppe Albano, Curator of the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, it made me realize that in the western world, we have really forgotten the horrors of tuberculosis (or in my case have never known them, although before I was born, my aunt– an artist — contracted it and was in a sanitarium for two years). It seems kind of sad that ultimately, Keats was buried near Joseph Severn, an artist he’d travelled with to Rome from England, with whom – according to Albano, “he had maintained a cordial (but not intimate) relationship.” If you’re going to be buried next to someone (and I’d rather just be hoisted to the top of some tree and left for the turkey vultures to take care of), I think it should be someone with whom you feel more intimate than cordial.
As we left the hotel the following morning I noticed with curiosity, not for the first time, the flocks of green birds that are very common in Rome. I made a note to myself to find out about them when I got home. And I did. So I have now learned that the ones we saw are some of the thousands of parakeets that are descended from a few that escaped their cages or were released by their owners into the city’s parks forty or fifty years ago. Originally from South America, they have adapted so well to the climate of Rome that their numbers have increased dramatically. Large flocks also occur in Madrid, which is now looking for ways to get rid of some of them.
We went to the hospital that had been recommended to us as a place to have the x ray done, but they couldn’t give us an appointment until the following day. We had a hotel reservation that night in Sorrento, with a planned stop at Pompeii en route, so we gave up on that idea and headed for Naples.
The bruising and my appearance got worse and worse for several days as gravity took part in moving the swelling down to my jawline, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable and the discolouration had pretty much faded by the time I got back to Canada. After a few weeks of continuing pressure headaches after I got home, however, I did go to see my own physician, and she sent me for an x ray. The diagnosis: a non-displaced fracture of the zygoma. This basically means that although there was a crack in my cheekbone/orbital area, the pieces had not shifted away from their original locations so no surgical intervention was necessary. Put another way, I was very lucky. The headaches are now gone.
The staff at Ospidale san Carlo di Nancy took my information, gave us a number, and asked Arnie to roll my wheelchair out of the way and park me against a wall to wait.
The only visible difference between this emergency care unit and those at home was that in Rome, several of the patients who’d been pushed up against walls to wait were on stretchers. One had even already been hooked up to an IV. In Canada in my experience, they store people on stretchers behind doors in the halls of the emergency care unit – where they aren’t visible (or audible) from the waiting area – until they have time to treat them. I am guessing that the halls in Rome are narrower than ours, which would make concealed-hall parking impossible.
We waited and we waited. Many other ill and injured people arrived at emergency and were triaged. Those who were in worse condition than the ones in the waiting room were taken away for treatment, and those who were in equal or better condition took a seat or were parked among us. After a few hours, by which time it was dark, I was feeling less wobbly and light-headed, and we were tired, hungry, and grumpy (and, to quote one of my own novels, “several other adverbs that might equally well have served as the names of Snow White’s dwarfs”). Arnie asked how much longer the wait might be. We were told that at that point we were fourth in line, which meant about an hour, although anyone in more acute need of care would, of course, be treated first. We calculated that at the rate we were going, it might be several more hours before we saw a doctor, so we called a cab and went back to the hotel.
When I looked in the mirror in the bathroom of our hotel room, I was almost as taken aback at my appearance as the cab driver and then the front-desk staff had seemed to be when we’d returned from the hospital. I was pretty sure that the ambulance attendant had not got all the dirt out of the scrapes on my face, so I set to work to scrub them as clean as I could before I lost my final bits of courage. In the meantime, Arnie set off to find ice that I could apply to my abrasions, and came back with a hotel employee bearing some rubbing alcohol and two ice packs of the kind you freeze and then put in coolers or chests to keep your beer and sandwiches cold – except that these ones weren’t frozen. Apparently there was no ice in the hotel at all, and no way of obtaining anything colder than what they’d given us. So after we’d eaten a meal from room service, I took a couple of Tylenol and wrapped one of the coolish-packs in a towel and applied it to my face (a wholly inefficient treatment). Then both Arnie and I sank into our own respective exhausted but somewhat fitful sleeps.
I looked even worse in the morning, of course, and had a monumental headache, but since I was not nauseous (a symptom of concussion), I assumed that the diagnosis of “no concussion” was correct. We had tickets to see the Colosseum at noon and after tracking down the address of an international health clinic near the centre of the city that we could go to later, off we went.
We took the bus through a serious downpour that rapidly turned sections of the streets of Rome into lakes, headed for the metro train that would take us to the Colosseum stop. Thanks to my black eye, I was quickly given a seat on the crowded bus. There followed a conversation involving a lot of hand signals with an Italian woman of about my own age who was sitting across from me; I finally managed to explain to her what had happened to my face. (It was a few days before I stopped noticing every time someone looked at me with concern and curiosity, but I did continue to feel sorry for Arnie. I wished I could have worn a sign pinned to my chest with an arrow pointing in his direction that said, “He didn’t do it.”)
The woman on the bus (who used her hands as much to actually speak Italian as I did trying to speak it) was delighted to learn that we were from Canada. She took out her phone so she could show us the photos from her trip to Niagara Falls. But she couldn’t get the photos to come up on her camera, and her frustration with the bus’s lack of wireless reception drew others into the conversation until five or six of us were involved in an extended discussion involving hand signals, words in English and Italian, and some Spanish that I thought was Italian.
After getting off the bus we found an ATM and then the metro station, and with only one or two wrong turns we arrived soon enough after the start time of our tour that we were able to catch up to our group.
I love that the Colosseum is so old that there are paintings from four centuries ago (such as the one to the left, by one of my most recent favourite artists) in which it looks almost the same as it does now. But even more I love how being in the Colosseum makes you think in earnest about the fact that soon after 80 AD, when construction was completed, great crowds of people were drawn to attend events on that very spot in the same way (and in the same numbers) as we are to professional sports events in cities around the world today.
(I did not love learning that the structure was probably paid for “by the opulent spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 CE led to the Siege of Jerusalem” (Wikipedia). The article continues, “It is often assumed that Jewish prisoners of war were brought back to Rome and contributed to the massive workforce needed for the construction of the amphitheater, but there is no ancient evidence for that; it would, nonetheless, be commensurate with Roman practice to add humiliation to the defeated population.”)
Tales about the Romans throwing the Jews (or Christians) to the lions at the Colosseum are — according to our guide –”fake news”: the games were intended as entertainment, he said, not carnage.
Gladiators were housed in barracks just outside the Colosseum. Most died young (by about 25 years of age), not from the battles themselves but from infections caused by cuts from the iron blades they used as weapons.”Deaths did occur in the arena,” our guide told us, “but they were accidental.” Those who managed to live long enough to retire (around 45) became managers (Sound familiar?).
The seating capacity of the Colosseum was 50,000 to 60,000, which is approximately the same capacity as the Blue Jays / Rogers Stadium in Toronto. The games that took place at the Colosseum were organized by members of the aristocracy, and (one big difference between then and now!) were free to the city’s citizens.
The Colosseum was built on a clay base but water drained into the area, which necessitated the construction of a complex system of underground canals. One of the reasons that there were so many stairways and exit arches – again very similar to most arenas where professional sports are played today – was to allow quick evacuation of the building in case of fire, earthquake, or other emergency.
There is a lot of reconstruction underway at the Colosseum at present, made necessary by the effects of pollution and the general deterioration of a free-standing structure that is nearly two thousand years old. Each component of the reconstruction is undertaken with great care under the auspices of historians and archaeologists – who would, I think, learn as much from the process as they contribute. What a cool job that would be.
After our tour, we walked a couple of blocks away from the Colosseum and found a restaurant where we had yet another delicious lunch. We already knew not to buy food near a heritage site, no matter how inviting the place might look, because of the inflated costs. We saved many many euros in Italy by walking away from tourist attractions before we stopped to eat.
After lunch we took the metro back to the centre of Rome, where we walked up the Spanish Steps and then down to the Trevi Fountain. The rainstorms were long gone and it was a perfect day for wandering about. It was our last full day in Rome so before we went to look for the medical clinic, I insisted that we take another stab at finding the Borghese Gallery: we had, after all, paid for those tickets in advance.