June 15, 2003:
Kish and I got up early today to do some laundry. We walked to a nearby laundromat, managed to decipher the signs, and then sat there watching the international version of MTV with equal amounts of astonishment and disgust. The female singers featured on MTV all seem to have taken dancing lessons from strippers, and there’s not much mystery about what the singers are thinking about. We were grateful when the drying cycle ended and we could pack up and leave.
When Kish and I got back to the hotel, the kids weren’t ready to go yet, so I ventured off on my own for another look at the “Gates of Paradise” at the Duomo and then a quick walk to some of the other sites. The “Gates of Paradise” are a remarkable work, in part because they deal with the familiar and disturbing stories of the Book of Genesis — the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Cain Slaying Abel, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, etc.
I then learned that one of the principal museums in Florence was closed (it closes on irregular Sundays, and this was one of them), so I walked to Santa Croce. It was only partially open — you could walk into the entrance area and look around, but that was about it. My brief visit was worth it, if only to see the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo. The church itself is a pretty affair with a large and ornate stained glass window at the opposite end. (Interestingly, I returned to Santa Croce later in the day for a closer look and couldn’t get in because I had no Euros and the church actually charged an entrance fee. This is the second or third church to charge an entrance fee, which I find astonishing. The kids think this is no big deal, but I am amazed that a house of worship would not be free and open to all.)
I then walked back to the Duomo, which also was closed due to Sunday services. However, you could go in through a side entrance to enjoy the service, which I did. I stayed for only a short listen to the service, because I needed to get back to Kish and the boys, but it was long enough to appreciate the effect of the Duomo dome on the music. The voices were clear as they were raised in song on the floor, but then rose in the air to become mixed and churned in a kind of musical melange. It was quite striking.
After my return to our hotel, Kish and the boys and I struck out for lunch and an afternoon of touring. We could not find many open restaurants, so we ate at a tourist trap next to the Duomo where we got gouged for a mediocre meal. There is no question but that our most expensive and least satisfying meals have been lunches at or near large tourist locations.
The Uffizi was a different story. After a relatively long wait (50 minutes or so) in sweltering heat, we finally entered the door of what must be one of the world’s greatest art galleries. Some of the rooms were closed, but we were able to see the Botticellis, da Vincis, a Michelangelo, Rembrandts, an El Greco, a de Goya, and countless other works. The effect is overwhelming, and the museum is well organized, so that you can follow the trend in art from religious icons to a broader perspective that includes classical imagery (like representations of stories from Greek mythology) and then finally to the broader world at large. The classical masterpieces are fine, although the constant repetition of themes gets a bit wearing. I much prefer the portraits, including the dozens of portraits of kings, Popes, explorers, sultans, and other notables that line the gallery walls. Kish and the boys don’t have much patience for this kind of museum visit, but I appreciated their perseverance on this occasion.
After we exited the Uffizi we headed to the Ponte Vecchio. It was again insufferably hot. We had some ice cream and granulata then headed back to the hotel. I left for a tour of piazzas near the Uffizi gallery, which feature all kinds of interesting sculpture, students sketching, sweaty tourists, and other people-watching opportunities. It was particularly interesting to see the statues of notable Italians in the Uffizi courtyard — including Dante, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Boccaccio, Galileo, and others. No one can deny Italy — in its ancient Roman days or its Renaissance incarnation — its rightful place in the pantheon of cultures that have made an enormous contribution to the betterment of the human condition and civilization in general.
This leads one to wonder about what happens to civilizations and nations — why they lose their leading role and then are consigned to living off their past glories. In ny view, Florence seems to be in that category — more concerned with preserving and marketing its past than with moving forward into the future. This has caused it to make decisions that seem kind of cheap and tawdry — like allowing a large, open-air market that sells t-shirts, leather jackets and other paraphernalia that appears to be a sop to the tourist trade. I enjoyed this visit to Florence, but I’m also looking forward to Venice.
Our dinner was very good on both nights in Florence, by the way. In acknowledging the contribution that Italy has made to the world, we can’t overlook Italian cuisine and Italian wine.