Seeing, Craft and Doorways to Other Worlds.

We’ve just returned from Florence – as you’ve probably read in some of the previous blog posts.  It was a great weekend, highlighted by a workshop with Andrea Ponsi – a wonderful Florentine architect – in his studio/home.  Our few (too few) days in Florence were punctuated with visits to the Uffizi Gallery, to the Convent of San Marco, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, the Duomo (of course), San Lorenzo, the Accademia, Orsanmichele, the Boboli Gardens, Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Strozzi, Palazzo Davanzati, gelato and more gelato. And then a little more gelato.  We go to Florence in part because you can see the birth of the Renaissance here, but also to establish a little global continuity across history and historical narratives – from the Medici there to the Medici in Rome, from Michelangelo’s David there, to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Eternal City, from Beato Angelico’s frescos at San Marco to his grave at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, from the Palazzo Medici in Firenze to San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice (where Cosimo de Medici) spent a little time in exile – and where we’ll be visiting in a few weeks); from Venice and Saint Mark’s, and Marc Antonio Barbieri and Palladio’s Church of il Redentore to San Sophia in Constantinople and to the Selimiye mosque of Sinan in Edirne – where we’ll be traveling at the end of February.  There are lots of wonderful connections to make – through the people and spaces that make up the landscapes we’ll be immersing ourselves in over the next few months.

It was raining when we arrived in Florence and I took a long walk in the mist and drizzle up to the Piazzale Michelangelo – hoping perhaps that Fortune’s good graces would permit the sun to break through the clouds for that dazzling sunset over the Florentine skyline.  Alas, no luck that evening, but it was a lovely view – the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio and Santa Croce and Medici Chapel domes and towers wreathed in fog.  I got lost in the Oltrarno, walking along empty streets, with the occasional brightly lit window of a shop highlighting a bookbinding atelier, a leather workshop, a mechanic’s garage, an artist’s studio.  I was struck by how animated some of these interior spaces were, full of activity, sound, light – all set within darkening facades.  I was especially taken by how full these places were, how engaged they were – almost all of them were spaces of production, of making and creating, of people who were professionalizing their craft – something we talked abou in our first sketching review yesterday.  The surfaces of the buildings gave way to portals into other dimensions of space, the facades themselves becoming theatric screens between the urban quiet and interior vividness. I walked past these spaces, photographing the occasional one that was especially striking, including a jewelry store with an elaborate display of gold and silver.

Back to Andrea for a moment:

Andrea’s workshop was a great introduction into craft. He spend over an hour – just talking – to students about what it meant (for him) to draw, to represent, to craft an image as observation, as analysis, as analogue, as experience.  We listened to him surrounded by the works in his studio – his furniture, his copper pipe experiments, his architectural studies, his drawings (and what drawings!) as he helped us understand what it means to put lines on paper, how it is (and what is is) that he sees when he’s holding a pencil or a watercolor brush and standing in the Piazza della Signoria, of thinking about a memory itinerary of a street he wandered through in Venice.  He showed us (surrounded by his brushes and paints, a kneadable eraser…) and drew and painted a scene of Santa Maria in Trastevere, talking through how the lines frame, highlight, correct, distinguish; how color can be used to expand, to open up, to close, how in essence, a drawing can create a gateway to another experience, or can enrich the memory of an experience so profoundly.

I thought about our workshop with Andrea during our last day in Florence, as the students and I were out sketching, of craft and making, and of allowing that craft to be a vehicle or a gateway or a catalyst into reflection and new, reconsidered understandings. It turned out that our last day in Florence was also one of the best.  The sun was out and with a few short hours to kill before the train back to Termini, I went back to the Piazzale Michelangelo and saw an amazing sunset over Firenze and the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. I drew the skyline, surrounded by families and tourists, musicians and selfie-stick sellers.  I walked back along that same path that I took on the first nigh in Florence and I saw that same jewelry shop.  The door was ajar and so on impulse I walked in.  That door was a hyperdimensional portal into another dimension. It was like walking across some incredible threshold and into a giant Joseph Cornell box, a wünderkammer, a cabinet of curiosity, the mind of Athanasius Kircher or John Dee or Elias Ashmole or John Soane. This store was the atelier of Alessandro Dari – a master jeweller, pharmacist, musician, sculptor.  It was MORE than a store, it was a psychedelic  playhouse, an alchemical lab, a medieval apothecary, a Florentine museum of Jurassic Technology.

Dari is a recognized master artist and is self taught; he has never had formal training, and  is influenced by Etruscan, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance Art. He is on appointment in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Florence and he was quietly working on an elaborate clock in a tiny, cluttered workshop attached to this cabinet of wonder.  I was the only one inside and spent over an hour walking, looking, transported.  The museum/lab/alchemical workshop was breathtaking. There were sections of jewelry dedicated to art, music, alchemy, the sacred, castles and the Gothic. These works were framed in elaborate cases of glass, attached to working mechanisms that turned, clicked, sparked tiny arcs of electricity; a constant interplay between the static and the dynamic, the sublime and the eerie.  There were mandolins and guitars on the wall, vases and jars of ointments and tinctures, labels with elaborate names in Latin and French and Italian. I was almost late for the train back to Rome.

I went back outside to look more carefully at the two pieces framing the front door, both carved in gold, both rings to be worn by princes, by popes and by Sultans. On the left, Istanbul, and on the right Rome.

I went back inside and spoke (in terrible Italian) to him and asked him how much for those pieces?  Quanto costano?

And he said, calculating in his head, doing the conversion and translation: “———Euros each.”

And after a while, I walked back through that portal, to Santa Maria Novella Train Station and caught a train back to the Eternal City – but I was still back in Dari’s cabinet of wonder, in the Via San Nicolo in the City of Lilies, La Città Bella.

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