Sunday, August 23, 2009

Under Brunelleschi's Dome


In the quattrocento, Lorenzo Ghiberti was awarded the commission to carve the gilded bronze panels decorating the north door of the Baptistery after winning the competition against the likes of Jacopo della Quercia and Filippo Brunelleschi. The outcome of this contest proved providential for Florence because Brunelleschi moved on to build the dome which crowns the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. Not since the Pantheon in Rome was constructed between AD118-28 has a dome of this scale been built.

The red-tiled Duomo is one of the most enduring symbols of Florence. White ribs contain its sides and a lantern of white marble with windows caps the dome, directing light into the cupola. There are 463 steps leading to the dome for a 360-degree view of the Tuscan countryside. From within the cathedral, one can marvel at the restored fresco of the Last Judgment which covers the cupola.

A walk along Via del Calzaiuoli reveals tempting shop windows, fun distractions as we crisscross our way to Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, one of the palaces of the Medici family. The Medicis' support of scholars and artists like Michaelangelo contributed to the flourishing of the arts, an essential factor defining the Renaissance. The Palazzo is currently behind scaffolding but its tower remains visible high above the rooftops of Firenze.

A band playing pop music is circling the square and the musicians are dancing to the beat. The light mood is infectious and many faces are smiling. We sit at an outdoor café to take it all in.

The Signoria has played host to many celebratory events and has witnessed as well the dark days of the "bonfire of the vanities" when untold numbers of books, works of art, tapestries, jewelry and articles deemed to foster "immorality" were burned in a colossal pile. Girolamo Savonarola, the monk who authored this affair, was himself hanged then burned at the stake here.

We move to the couryard of the Uffizi Gallery where statues of great artists and writers like Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Boccacio, Machiavelli and Dante Alighieri stand in timeless procession. We read off their names and recall their contributions and the influence their works have inspired in the arts and sciences. As dusk gently spreads its wings over the city, we enjoy the play of lights on the waters of the Arno River on our way to Ponte Vecchio.

Long gone are the days when the Ponte Vecchio was lined with butcher shops. Jewelry stores have replaced them and illuminate the bridge with its brilliant cache of expensive baubles. We mentally pick some things while window-shopping and pretend we can afford the beautiful gems on display. Happy with this thought, we walk to the Piazza della Repubblica just as merchants at the Mercato Nuovo fold up their shops for the evening. The Triumphal Arch provides a classical foil to the outdoor cafés that populate this square.

It's nearly impossible to walk for long in Florence without being reminded that Michaelangelo has trodden these very same cobblestone streets. In the San Lorenzo district, we relish the poignant contrast of Night and Day and Dawn and Dusk, tomb monuments sculpted by Michaelangelo for the Medici heirs. But as great as Lorenzo il Magnifico was, his tomb is just as humble. Adorned by an unfinished Madonna and Child, it is a far cry from the memorials built for less deserving Medicis.

Copies of Michaelangelo's David at the Piazza della Signoria and at Piazzale Michaelangelo in the hills above the city cannot prepare the visitor for the original 15-food statue carved from Carrara marble and which now resides in the Galleria dell'Accademia. It is a remarkable work for the way Michaelangelo has portrayed the young man, David, before he slays Goliath. With furrowed brow David awaits his opponent, slingshot over the left shoulder and clenching a piece of stone with this right hand. Veins protrude prominently on his large right hand as powerful muscles on his arms and legs reveal the strength of youth that will overpower the giant.

We find seats to observe David from various angles. With great difficulty we tear ourselves away to examine the Prisoners (or Slaves) more closely. These are unfinished works meant for the tomb of Pope Julius II. In this state, art historians have equated these figures bound by the slab of marble with the bondage of slavery. The Slaves provide insight into how Michaelangelo carved his figures by chiseling the midsection first.

When the patriarch of the Medici clan, Cosimo il Vecchio, wanted to get away from it all, he retreated to his cell in the Dominican convent of San Marco. Cosimo sought refuge here from the pressures and intrigues that hounded him daily. In the 15th century, Fra Angelico, a religious artist, painted scenes from the life of Christ on the walls of many cells. He is widely recognized for his depiction of the Annunciation. In the refectory is a painting of the Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio, at whose workshop Michaelangelo was once an apprentice. And there are mementos belonging to Savonarola who was the Prior of San Marco from 1491.

Going to church in Florence is like walking into a first-rate art museum. In the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is a painting by Masaccio called Trinita. What is noteworthy about this oeuvre is the application of single-point perspective, a new concept in painting during this period. Masaccio did not live long (he died at 27 years of age) but he left an indelible mark with his realistic portrayal of subjects so skillfully demonstrated in the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, something artists will emulate thereafter.

It's been quite a journey into the quattrocento (15th century). My feet are all the worse for wear and what's more, I've run out of Band-Aid to cover the blisters. But I'm not complaining. On the contrary, I feel fortunate to have wandered the streets under Brunelleschi's dome.

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First published in 2004; transferred from my Geocities blog
Photos by Charie

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