Sunday, August 29, 2010

Concerts and a Mass

John has gone off to the Uffizi for an hour or so.  It's a glorious day, 77 forecast high.  We have settled on the strategy of opening up the apartment in the morning to the breezes and coolness, then closing it late in the day to prevent stealth mosquito attacks at night.  So far, so good!

Just under one hundred feet away from our door is Santo Stefano Al Ponte, a church started about 1100 and now used by arts organizations for performances.  Thursday and Saturday evenings we went to performances there, first by an oboist and pianist, then by a baritone and pianist.  Quite enjoyable!  In both cases they were fairly young musicians and the audiences numbered only 30 or so.  The acoustics for the baritone singing operatic arias were particularly effective! 

On Friday afternoon we took our first bus ride, up to Piazzale Michelangelo to get that view of the city again, and then walked up to the church of San Miniato Al Monte for their 5:30 mass with Gregorian chant.  Those participating in the service and communion actually sat in the lower level, called the crypt, in back of the altar, but we could hear well while sitting in the altar area.  The church and the service had a very spiritual feeling and we stayed for the entire mass, a very refreshing end to another hot day.

Friday, August 27, 2010


This is the place that is famous for Michelangelo's statue of David.  It is impressive, alright.  I don't think the hands look too big.

The hall leading to David has a large (huge) Annunciation on the wall.  The wall plaque describes how it shows the collected influences of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael.  It is very well painted, I must say.  This one shows God at the top, a lot of other characters, and the holy spirit sending a golden ray straight to Mary's head.  Gabriel looks like he is raising a finger in admonition to her.  She is pointing to herself with a coy gesture that says "Who, me?"  God's hair is standing on end.

I am reminded of two Annunciations at Santa Maria Novella.  In one of them she is holding up both hands in the kind of gesture of surprise you would expect from a really neat Christmas present.  In the other, she looks already 5 months pregnant.

In the picture gallery at the entrance to the Accademia, that most people hurry through, where the attendants spend most of their time yelling "No pictures!" there are a pair of paintings by Fillipino Lippi, that I got a fairly fuzzy picture of.

These are John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene.  Most of Filippino Lippi's pictures are fairly bright and cheerful, I think, although I will have to look at more of them in the Uffizi.  But these are definitely done in shades of brown, except for John's cloak.  They both look old, ragged, tired, and wondering what it was that happened earlier in their lives and what it all amounted to.  Maybe next time I can get the faces in better focus.

There is quite a collection of 13th century altarpieces, the ones with lots of gold background.  I particularly like this Madonna and Child, in which I think the artist has anticipated the cubist form about 650 years before Picasso.  The mother and especially the child look a lot happier than they do in most images of this era, when everyone looked deadly serious.

There is an upper floor to the Accademia where not many people go.  It is quite a climb, but all along the way are Greek icons.  I'll need to learn more about them.  They are very interesting, but not at all realistic, or I suppose if I knew more about art criticism I would say the style is not realism.  I read in the section of Vasari's work (Lives of the Artists, written in 1570 or so), in discussing the work of Cimabue, who started the rise of Florentine art -- that when Cimabue started, the government had brought in Greeks to restart art in Florence, but their style was just what they had learned from their masters, nothing new.  Apparently the urge toward realism grew as a reaction to that, and the more recent trend to abstraction grew as a reaction to that.  Anyway, I don't know whether these Greek icons are the style of 1200, or whether they are 20th century, or whether they evolved over the years.  Something else to find out about.

But up above, there are a couple of galleries of old things like this Annunciation, from 1260 or so.

Santa Maria Novella

This is the other place I mentioned at the start of the last entry.  It is a famous old church, with fresco cycles by Ghirlandaio, and his frescos are certainly more appealing to the modern eye than the older ones in most churches.  The thing is, to me, though they are interesting to look at, with marvelous detail and bright colors and all, I don't get much out of them.  Somehow I don't remember a lot of them after a few hours.  I guess that means they just aren't what I am after at this point.  The church is just a huge empty room, apparently not used for anything except charging tourists 3.5 Euros to look inside.  The first thing you see inside is the famous Trinity by Masaccio (1425-1427) that introduced perspective to Renaissance art.  If you stand in the right place, it really does look like another alcove is built into the wall with the subjects suspended in space in the middle.  It is the old style Trinity (the Academy has some going back to 1260 or so) with the Father standing above, the dove of the spirit just below (looking like a crooked white collar, maybe the spirit in this picture is really the inspiration of perspective?) and at chest level God is holding up the cross with Jesus hanging from it.  It is a supremely authoritarian God, who looks like he is showing off the crucifixion as a great accomplishment.  Which is to say, it is not the kind of religion I care for, myself.  And it is such a famous old fresco that it hasn't been restored at all, which means it is pretty faded.  I am working on getting used to faded and dark pictures, so that I can see what they are about rather than just their condition, and I am making progress, but I'm not there yet.

The perfume factory associated with Santa Maria Novella is more interesting to me, and free.  It started as a pharmacy, selling various perfumes and herbal concoctions to ward off the plague, which killed a third to half the population in 1348 and reappeared occasionally for another century or so.  Most impressive to me is a small room near the back, used as a library of books about herbs and perfumes.  The walls and ceiling are covered with old frescos.  The signs say no flash photography, so I rested my camera on some bookshelves and took some time exposures.  Look at this Resurrection

Also, while I am at it, I highly recommend the free program GNU Image Processor to fix up distorted and poorly exposed pictures.  The above picture was all rotated and distorted before I worked on it with GIMP2.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

San Marco

In the last two days we have visited two of the standard must-see sights that left quite different impressions on me.  (My current intention is to hit all the things that look to be interesting, skim over them to see what catches my attention, and then go back to revisit when I know what I am lookng for.)  First, we went to San Marco, or rather the museum, which is the attached cloister.  Fra Angelico pained frescoes all over the place and his other paintings were brought in from other places to make a collection  of his works.

On the way there, we passed through the Piazza della Signoria and stopped in to see the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient seat of government.  As we were leaving, I discovered that this is the view out the door.

Well, architects and sculptors have been working on the view for a few hundred years.

Proceeding north, we found one of the few parking areas in the city center, restricted to electric cars and motorcycles.

The San Marco museum contains many frescoes by fra Angelico, but the subject that appears most often is some variation on this.  The kneeling figure is St. Domenico, the founder of the Dominican order.

There are lots of other images, too, including a couple of very interesting Annunciations.  The Annunciation is when Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she is going to have a baby, she should name him Jesus, and so on.  (See Luke 1:26-38).

The Annunciation is one of the most frequent images.  It seems to me to represent the most direct confrontation between the human and the divine.  There is a lot of standard symbolism in the images, including always a large distance separating the two characters.  There is also a physical barrier (a post or wall) between them and/or a view out a doorway showing the whole world between them.

In the early altarpieces, the separation is often so great that the angel is in a small panel on the upper left corner and Mary is in a small panel on the upper right panel, with the whole of the altarpiece between. In the earlier works, the angel tends to be majestic and Mary terrified.  Later in the Renaissance the angel becomes more worshipful and Mary more composed.  By the end of the Renaissance, when painting was beginning to go to secular subjects, the angel is trying to get her attention and Mary looks bored.  I had to put that in now, because although it makes a nice story, as I see more variations the situation gets more complex.  There are variations in all kinds of directions, but I think it all shows the basic direction of the artists' views on spirituality.

Fra Angelico has one Annunciation at the head of the stairs as you approach the floor with the monk's cells, 
This is a standard pose, although the figures seem more respectful of each other than usual and the background is less cluttered.  It is justifiably famous.  But then, back in the private cells, where he painted a fresco for each room, there is the most remarkable Annunciation I have seen yet.

There is no boundary, no symbolism, no distracting decoration, just the direct confrontation.  With St. Dominico looking on.

Fra Angelico never retouched his paintings.  He said the way they turned out was God's will.  The Pope offered him the chance to be archbishop of Florence but he turned it down, because he did not feel capable of governing other people.

Location, location, location

John did a marvelous job of picking where we should live while in Florence. Our little loft apartment is a block from the Uffizi and a block from the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River. There is a modern supermarket just on the other side of the Ponte Vecchio. You reach our apartment (about 8 normal stories up) by summoning the elevator, opening 2 sets of doors, get in and close the doors, push 5 (which is what Europeans call what Americans would call 6), open and then be sure to close the two sets of doors, then walking up about 30 marble spiral steps at the top (the last half of those inside our apartment). The loft is compact but complete, with a combo oven/broiler/microwave unit, small fridge, 2 burner hot plate, and Italian style coffee pot(makes very strong coffee that I mix with half hot milk, great for dipping biscotti). The little front loader washing machine is in the bathroom and a drying rack outside. Our terrace, equal in size to the apartment itself, is as enjoyable as I pictured, and I love sitting out there after dark, as it catches the breezes and is perfect for watching the moon and listening for the sounds of the city all around.

As we knew from last time, the food is wonderful!. Haven't repeated a restaurant yet, but will no doubt return to several. Last night was the first time we "ate in" on the terrace. Bought a few prepared things at the fancy supermarket including the sparkling mineral water that is so refreshing with supper.

The only sad news is that we've had to close up the apartment because of mosquitoes. There are no screens in Italy, and both of us were becoming covered with little red spots. Some of them were itchy on John but not on me. It became a bit much yesterday when I woke up with a dozen red spots on my left temple, a big red one on my chin, and even on my eyelids, obviously done while we were asleep. As advised by the internet, I bought a Raid Insect Control System thingy at the supermarket before breakfast yesterday while buying milk. It worked beautifully last night, and we didn't have to cover up to sleep. But we miss having the breezes blow through and just walking out onto the terrace without having to open the door. And it will take quite a bit of A/C to keep the place at 80 degrees all day when it goes to 90 plus outside since we're perched on top of this building with windows on 3 sides of the loft.

Monday, August 23, 2010

First Gardens and Music

Sunday was in the low 90s and humid. Seeing the Pitti Palace and part of the gardens required quite a bit of hiking, always seeking the shady side of the street or path. The palace was first built in 1458, the Medicis moved in during the mid 1500s when Vasari built them a private overhead walkway to the government center half a mile away across the river, and it was Europe's cultural center for two centuries. It kept growing, and the facade is now more than two football fields long. The place is depressingly big when it is hot. We decided the palace is probably the height of ostentatious affluence until you get to modern America. Absolutely over the top in terms of size, filled with architectural flourishes, decorated ceilings, sculpture, and paintings from floor to ceiling in many rooms. They contain several famous Raphael and Titian paintings that I really like, once you are able to focus on them from among the 50 others in the same room!

From the third level of the palace you are able to exit into the Boboli Gardens, not very impressive in the section we saw yesterday, and not well maintained at the moment. But I'm hoping that the several sections called botanical gardens on the map will be more interesting when we have a cooler day to explore them.

Last evening (at 9 p.m. - the restaurants are still quite busy at 10 p.m.) we went to a free concert of sacred choral music at the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It was given by a group from Derby, England called the Voices Choir. There were 20 young female singers, joined by 4 males for certain pieces. They sang entirely a cappella, mostly without scores, and the sound inside that huge space was ethereal and amazing. I'll bring Amy T. a copy of their program. Also entertaining was the human side drama taking place between a priest and an older man off to the side. We certainly don't know the situation, but it involved the older man complaining about something; the excellent acoustics caused their conversation to interfere with the sound of the choir and caused the whole small audience to look at them. They eventually went into a side room just off the sanctuary with a couple of ladies from the audience. Interesting......

Sunday, August 22, 2010

First day

We started out by going to the Uffizi and picking up an annual pass.  It saves money for those intending to hit the most famous museums often, and saves standing in very long lines.  We took a first quick look at the Uffizi and later the Medici Museums at San Lorenzo.  My first impression is that all the famous old paintings I want to study look old, dirty gray, and poorly lighted.  There will be some serious hurdles to get over, and I'm glad I saw the book illustrations first.  On the other hand, it is true that you can see a lot in a painting several feet square that is not obvious in a print that fits a page in a book.  This is what I came to find out, and I have a month to work on it.

On the more touristy side, it is amazing to walk around Florence.  The streets are narrow and have strange angles where streets that were inside and outside the walls were connected when the walls were removed.  We are just a block outside the ancient Roman wall site, just inside the wall of 1175.  You can't see very far.  On our way back from San Lorenzo, we came to a corner and suddenly there was the cathedral!  This picture is the view that suddenly surprised me.

We came back to the apartment and took a nap.  The temperature was about 91 and we are in a little rooftop building, but there was a good breeze -- we have left the air-conditioning off and all the windows open.  It reminds us a lot of our time in Hawaii, with nice breezes blowing around in the apartment.

Later we went out to see some sights and get supper.  We stopped at the church of S. Apostoli (built in maybe 1100 or maybe 800, remodeled several times over the centuries, and after the 1966 floods restored to its 13th century appearance.)  A service was about to start so we sat through that with 6 other people.  Here is the inside of the church

The open space in front of the church is the Piazza del Limbo, named for the fact that it was used as a burial ground for unbaptised children, who went to limbo rather than heaven, hell, or purgatory.  High up on a wall is this ancient carving, now covered with glass for protection.

From here we went to S. Trinita for a quick look and then supper.  In this picture, S Trinita and the restaurant are just ahead around the curve (the curve of the 1175 wall) and S. Apostoli is just behind us.  All this is within a couple of blocks of our new home.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


We got here with no trouble but lack of sleep.  Here are some views from our apartment, looking in three directions from the terrace.

And here is the front door.

A couple of hundred yards away, the street passes under an archway into the central courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery.