We spent a few days in Florence last week, taking a break from Rome and its hectic urbanity; trading in palimpsest and monumental everything for a few days in Tuscany. We kicked things off with a desperate race to Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, but alas, it was “Closed until March. Come back then.” And “Closed unless you’re a scholar and need access to Mediciean manuscripts and ancient Florentine documents,” followed by, inevitably “Do you have the papers from the Director?” And “No.”
It was a few days of some fixed programming, with time in-between to experience Florence and to discover the city where the Renaissance began. Our students can fill in what they did, where they went, what they ate, what they bought, but our time together kicked off on Friday morning. We went to one of our most important meetings in Italy – a morning and afternoon with the Florentine architect Andrea Ponsi. Andrea is a wonderful architect and a generous host, and so we spent some time with him in his studio, learning about his ideas of drawing, of drawing as thinking, of drawing as rigor, and as a creative, interpretive, analytical, experiential and design practice. He talked us through some of his process, some of his work and some of his writings and we concluded, as we normally do, with a practical workshop on drawing. If Florence was (and still is) a city of artisans, Andrea is one of the greats. He is patient and thoughtful, purposeful and deliberate and he helped us expand our drawing field with his time and his generosity. He walked us through his studio, showing us a lifetime’s worth of drawings, paintings, sketches, designs, itineraries, some reading like scores of music, lyrical, full of expression, color, process. “I don’t call it drawing very often,” he said, “but I rather prefer the term line-works“.
Our next event together was a visit to the Uffizi gallery on Saturday, lingering in corridors and spaces, surrounded by art and sculpture, paintings and paintings and paintings (as Amy described in her blog post). It’s one of the great museums of the world, up there with the Met, The National Gallery, the Prado, the Hermitage, the Louvre and its halls stretch forever with art from around the world and from across time. The entrance to the Uffizi is directly across from the Piazza Della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, its courtyard lined with those who called Florence home, those who built Florence, who served as its patrons and benefactors, who took it as their muse, who took the Renaissance from Tuscany and brought it to the rest of the world. Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, Petrarch, Dante, Bocaccio, Ghirlandaio, Ghiberti, Fra Angelico – the personalities of Florence.
Back in the before time, many moons ago, I was completing my M.Arch thesis. I had opted for the “Theory and Culture” track of study and wanted to dig into some ideas about language, history and the sacred. I wound up tracing a metaphor across stories and narratives in the T’nakh, the New Testament and in the pages of the Qur’aan. This research lead to the study of a number of architectural things and looking across fair spans of time. I was in the desert with the Ark, at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, at Calvary and Golgotha, at Solomon’s Temple, but never in Rome and certainly never in Florence, at least until my first visit to the city of the Renaissance a few years ago with a group of 12 students in 2012. It was at the Uffizi that I saw some of the Annunciations that I had studied while studying so long ago – the Leonardo Annuncation with its long rectangular frame and composed, stately images; the Boticelli Annuncation with a collapsing, falling body. I fell in love (I confess) with Boticelli’s paintings – two of them – with Mary and the Pomegranate. In the Uffizi, in a temporary room for Boticelli while the original room is repaired, these flank the door you walk through. You miss them, almost, until the way way out because his Spring and Venus dominate the room. I can’t really describe Boticelli’s painting except to say that, while looking for architecture, I fell in love with some of these paintings, with the possible personalities of subject and artist. I had studied – as much as I could – these personalities and these paintings, and although this is not a religious writing, the Mary I had learned about over this research was characterized a little in these faces. These images – and these artists – came close (but never touching) that sense that was forming in my own mind about her. She is of course beyond these representations and these images, but there is a nearness to her in these works that speaks to my own imagining. She was in Davinci’s stately calm lady, she was there with Boticelli’s startled host, there in a far distant gaze, looking beyond the immediacy of whatever was around her. There was a little of her in Da Massina’s painting. She was perhaps in Rosetti’s frightened one, moving away in surprised concern (okay, so that one’s at the Tate in London).
My surprise – and delight – was at San Marco this year, where Fra Angelico painted (and wept while he painted) the seminary and retreat rooms of the monastery. I turned a corner, up a flight of stairs and there it was again, a painting I had studied (while looking for architecture) now over 15 years ago. Angelico’s Annuncation is breakthaking. The angel kneels to Mary, looking up. She regards him, looking innocent, serious. Their bodies and postures are small imitations of each other. The painting is beautiful, at the top of a flight of stairs in the beautifully restored monastery, with plastered walls, and terrazzo floors, wooden beams and – as it was on Sunday – rain echoing in from the windows around.
The space was empty and there was next to the painting, a digitally printed image of Fra Angelico’s work, all in white, with line-works and brushstrokes, space and architecture, growing into raised edges – forming a relief image of the Annunciation next to it. And on the table, next to it (and across from the library, I might add, a guard who said: “Please, go in.” ), an explanatory text. The model was designed and built as a way for the blind to interact with the art that they could not see. And next to the text, of course, Braille, in both English and Italian. I was captivated by the collapse of all this into this particular moment. The architecture, an older life and my own little history, the painting that I couldn’t touch (but could see) and the model and text that allows you to touch and feel and experience what some cannot see, all on a cool, rainy day in Florence. And I thought that this is the beauty of these spaces and these experiences; across the world to come back to the place we once were at to understand that world a little more, to see it – and to feel it – a little more clearly.