Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dispatch From Italy

In keeping with the name of our blog, World Wide Webers, I am blogging from Florence, Italy, where Mary-Jo and I are on the second leg of our Italy tour--our first time in this country. We were in Rome for three days earlier and will be leaving for Venice on Saturday. A few random observations, which is about all I am capable of as I nurse my tired feet in our hotel room on a late afternoon.

1. By definition, every country in the world has exactly the same length of history as every other (depending of course on whether you count pre-human history as "history"--I guess technically it is not). But in Italy the history is much more in your face than it is in America or in any of the other foreign countries I've visited.

Every other corner seems to have an archeological excavation, a wall or column from Roman times, or the remnants of a medieval building which itself was built atop two or three layers of earlier structures. Every building you pass seems to have had a ridiculously interesting history: Originally a granary, then a prison, then a government office, then a chapel, then a jewelry factory, then the home of an aristocratic family, etc. etc.

If you come to Italy as a history buff determined to read all the plaques and markers, you find yourself in about a day and a half crying Uncle and feeling as though you can't possibly absorb another date, name, or event, and if you never hear another one it will be too soon.

2. The other thing that Rome and Florence have in absurd excess is art--paintings, facades, sculptures, fountains, monuments, chapels, stained-glass windows, frescoes, mosaics, etc. etc. There is so much art everywhere that even the guidebooks can't list it all. You quickly get to the point of feeling that a mere masterpiece isn't very impressive--only a work that has its own page in Janson's History of Art is worth crossing the street to see.

3. However, much of the art, especially in Rome, is not so much about beauty as it is about power, wealth, and position. After a few hours at the Vatican, in particular, you feel as though you've been beaten over the head with visions of artifacts whose primary purpose is to impress you with the might and majesty of the patrons who commissioned them or the rulers who plundered them--statues whose sheer size makes them intimidating, reliquaries each bearing a king's ransom in gold and jewels, etc. etc.

One ridiculous example: Our guide told us that sixty percent of the porphyry in the world is in the Vatican. Value: $20,000 per cubic inch, which at the current dollars/Euro exchange rate is almost as much as the cost of the scrambled eggs I had for breakfast at our hotel this morning.

I have no idea if that statistic is true--the one about the porphyry, not the one about my eggs--but either way it encapsulates the problem with the Vatican from an esthetic standpoint: The mindset behind a lot of the art there is not that of the art-lover but that of Scrooge McDuck ecstatically sliding down piles of gold coins in his vault.

Having said this, I must admit that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel remains pretty darned impressive.

And despite what I said about psychological overload, there is something rather amazing about seeing, in the church of Santa Croce, the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, and Michelangelo, all within a few yards of one another. I guess even an overstimulated history buff is still capable of a thrill or two.

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