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Trip Report Two Busy Weeks in the Veneto Part III: Was it Worth It?

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Those of you who frequent this forum know that people are always asking questions like “Is the Mona Lisa worth it?” or “Is London worth it?”
If you read the first two installments of this trip report, you will know that I considered our stay at Palladio’s Villa Saraceno and our visits to many other Palladian villas to be more than Worth It. They were experiences of a lifetime. If you read Part I, you will also know that we got sick at the end of the trip and had to curtail our touring, spending our last two days in Italy in bed in a hotel. We continued to be sick, passing viruses back and forth between us, for almost two weeks after returning home. In spite of that, what else on the trip was clearly Worth It? That’s what follows. Not all of it was in the Veneto, but it was all nearby. Sort of.

Michelangelo’s David, the Accademia, Firenze
Okay, why would we, people who ordinarily spend our travel days riding buses and walking around neighborhoods visiting hardware stores and wallpaper vendors, face the hassles and the expense of joining everyone other tourist is Italy at the Accademia to see the David? Well, it is Worth It.

Clever curators control your reaction to a piece of art by the way they display it – location, lighting, colors, and by what else they display in the same area. The curators at the Accademia are very clever. They display the David brightly lighted at the end of a long gallery, under a dome, where it draws your eye and pulls you forward. And they display it in a gallery with several other Michelangelo statues, all unfinished.
This statue is about a number of things: it glorifies a Biblical hero and it has something to do with civic virtue, certainly, but it is also very much about the struggle between the artist and his material to express meaning. Sometimes the stone wins, as in the other statues in this gallery, and sometimes the artist wins.

If you stand directly in front of the statue for a while, you will notice that the center of gravity, the middle of the block from which it was cut, is not at the center of the center of the existing statue. The center of gravity is in a void, somewhere between the groin and the right foot (the viewer’s left). If making the sculpture was taking a block of stone and cutting away everything that didn’t look like David, Michelangelo did an awful lot of cutting on the side with the jutting hip and hanging hand and an awful lot of cutting on the side with the upraised hand and an awful lot of cutting between the legs.

What makes this statue great is not the details like the veins that all the tour guides seem to have been pointing out; the veins on Cellini’s Perseus in the Piazza della Signoria are better. It is the handling of forms and voids in space in a way that in frontal view makes us believe the stance and the posture. You don’t really realize what an achievement this was technically unless you recall his classical models, the kind of thing you see in the Uffizi and elsewhere, which have a lot of reinforcement built in. The David is less successful in side view, but this sculpture is Worth It because young Michelangelo, like young David, took big risks and won.
Note: While you are waiting for your reservation at the Accademia, I would urge a visit to the Convent of St Marco, just across the piazza at the far end of the Accademia. It has a peaceful cloister, wonderful easel paintings and frescos by Fra Angelico, and clean toilets. It was the home of Savanarola, a monk who overthrew the government and led the population in public burnings of art treasures. We are horrified by the Taliban destroying the statues at Bamiyan, but Savanarola, like the iconoclasts in northern Europe, reminds us that there is a puritan impulse in humanity that crosses both temporal and sectarian lines.

The Uffizi in Firenze
No surprise here. It is on the bucket list of every art lover who comes to Italy and on the must-see lists of thousands of harried tourists who don’t have any idea of why they must see it. Why is it Worth It?

We go to lots of museums. The great ones (the Louvre, the Met, the National Galleries in London and Washington) all have special areas of excellence but each tries to offer a somewhat comprehensive look at the history of art, sometimes with considerable geographic and cultural breadth. The Uffizi, on the other hand, isa great museum pretty largely devoted to Italian art and its precursors that only brings in other art (Flemish, for example) when it influences or illuminates Italian art.

This has advantages for the viewer. The curators make it very easy to see how artistic techniques and appropriate subjects changed over time: before Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Federigo de Montefeltro, for example, the galleries are heavily if not exclusively devoted to religious paintings of fairly conventional character. Thereafter, the curators intermingle strong and individual portraits of real, if often anonymous, people to reflect the humanism of the renaissance. They lead us into the revival of classical antiquity with a huge bang in the room full of Botticelli’s, well worth seeing in the brief intervals between tour groups, and paintings on classical subjects are hung with humanist portraits and religious paintings after that. These are cultural commonplaces, of course, but the curators illustrate or demonstrate them by the way they hang the collection rather than explaining them with labels and signs.

For a religious believer, particularly a Christian believer, there is much to be learned here about how Italian artists viewed Jesus Christ over time. Two things stood out for me: first is that in paintings of the Crucifixion and Deposition Jesus was really dead. People in the past died earlier and at home, and artists and their audiences knew what dead people looked like. In these pictures, Jesus died and was really dead in a way that is hard for moderns to accept. Second, many painters clearly understood and illustrated the difficult concept of God being outside Time. They could paint the Ascension above the Crucifixion above the Manger in Bethlehem all on the same canvas both as serial events occurring in and over time and as eternal events happening simultaneously and always, and they sometimes emphasized it by placing tiny figures of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the top, observing themselves participating in events that are always happening. Much food for thought here.

On a less serious note, our favorite single painting in the galleries was a Leda and the Swan – I can’t remember who painted it –in which a naked Leda indicates that her servant should take a duck out of the cage to cook for dinner, all the while fondling the swan’s neck, suggesting “I’ll just keep an eye on this swan here all by myself!” I also had a revelation seeing was how much better Parmigianino’s Madonna with the Long Neck is in reality than in reproduction.

I don’t think this is a museum I would try to do in successive days, and if you can do it all in one day, you are a better person than I, but going again and again on successive visits to Firenze would be Worth It.

San Zeno, Verona
Verona is one of our favorite places, but there is so much to see (especially Carlo Scarpa’s museum in the Civitavecchia Scaligieri Palace), so many wonderful streets for window shopping, and so much delicious gelato, that we had not made the short trek to San Zeno on our previous trip.

San Zeno is a very large Romanesque church dedicated to the patron saint of the city. It has famous bronze doors, crude compared to the Baptistery in Florence, but movingly evocative of the Christianity of 1200. Like the Michelangelos in the Accademia in Firenze, you see the struggle between the artist and his materials as figures press to be realized from the bronze. San Zeno also has many remaining fragments of the frescos that once covered all the interior walls. They are generally of very high quality and give one a sense of what it might have been like to worship here or elsewhere when churches were still feasts for the eye.

This is still a very active worship community, and we had to wait on Sunday until the end of Mass to see the building. Fortunately, there is a lovely, peaceful cloister and a square in front of the church where families meet on Sundays before and after Mass and a big lunch together. We watched naughty Jacopo get his ears boxed by his mother for not obeying and a brother and sister on bicycles vying for the attention of their grandparents and a dozen other scenes of real life outside a church more visited that morning by its parishioners than by tourists.

We loved the statue called the Laughing San Zeno, a grinning portrait of the Saint that reminded us of HoTei, the genial laughing avatar of the Buddha. It is treated in the guidebooks as an anomaly, but it is clearly in the same tradition as the grinning Cangrande della Scala statue in the Civitavecchia museum and related at some remove to all those coyly smiling French madonnas. We got caught in a thunderstorm and soaked on the way back to our hotel, but it was all Worth It to see a church preserving its past and contributing to the present.

The Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
The Scrovegni Chapel was built at the turn of the 14th century to honor and to provide for the salvation of the donor’s father, a banker. The frescos were done by Giotto, the first great painter of the Italian renaissance, who finished them around 1305.

The frescos record the life and death of Mary and Jesus in a complexly organized series of panels around the walls of the chapel. The end wall behind the altar has paintings of the Ascension; the door at the opposite end of the chapel is surrounded by a powerful representation of the Last Judgment. Interspersed among these story-telling panels are representations of the virtues and vices, and a small but to me significant Christ Pantocrator (the familiar Byzantine Christ as Ruler of the Universe) on the arch between the chapel nave and the altar. The ceiling is a stunning blue sky with golden stars.
The quality and condition of the painting is astonishing – the chapel is 700 years old and has led a tough life – and though the frescos have been retouched and restored, it is hard to imagine that the visual experience is significantly different than it would have been in its time. What is different is the viewer experience.

Because of the fragility of this treasure, the visit is highly structured. You generally need an appointment to visit. You are encouraged first to watch a presentation on the history of the building in the adjacent museum. Then you must wait for twenty minutes in a kind of airlock antechamber, where dust from your shoes and clothing is removed from the air, and the humidity is adjusted to match the level in the chapel. Only then, and then only for fifteen minutes, can your group enter the Chapel. You have been prepared for the visit, however, by the museum presentation and by an excellent video in the anteroom, so you don’t much have to waste time orienting yourself. It is just barely enough time, but it is enough.

Despite the restrictions, it is Worth It. You see here the time when stock medieval/Byzantine figures were first being portrayed as real people, real individuals. You see also a time when bankers were in danger of losing their immortal souls to eternal damnation for loaning money usuriously. Sadly, this is an idea we seem to have lost that might usefully be revived.
Note: Padua is a big city with lots of commuter traffic and poor signage. Allow lots of time to make your appointment. If you don’t have an appointment, try going about 1-1:30 when most Italians are at lunch or late in the afternoon when stores reopen. If you can’t find a sign pointing your way when trying to leave town, you should probably seek the intersession of St Anthony, a local boy and the patron saint of finding lost things. We didn’t, and it took forever to find our way.

The mosaics of Ravenna
Ravenna is an out of the way small city with heavily industrial outskirts. It is easy to get into (there is a good, cheap parking lot at San Vitale) but getting getting out of town through the one-way streets and restricted zones was the most miserable driving I have ever done, yes, worse than Padua, if only just. But it was all Worth It.

Ravenna is home to a small group of buildings that date back to the time of Justinian, about 500 AD. They were almost a thousand years old when Columbus discovered America; they are 800 years earlier than the Scrovegni Chapel. Some of them have been modified and “improved”, but their original integrity overwhelms what has been done to them since. They are decorated with mosaics that are not only great works of art in themselves but give us a fascinating window into how early Christians viewed the Church, the state, and the nature of Jesus Christ himself.

If the idea of mosaics makes you think of craft fairs, scented candles, and macramé, put the idea out of your head. These mosaics are sophisticated and beautiful, and when they illustrate real people like Justinian and Theodora, they are not just generic likenesses but real portraits of real people, whose personalities shine through. Even when the subject is something like 34 virgins or 36 martyrs, they are individualized and set in real places like Justinian’s palace or a real seaport. You are connected directly to a world that has not existed for 1600 years.

On a religious level, one thing was missing that I expected to find, and I found one thing that I absolutely did not expect. The mosaics look very Byzantine, for good reason, but this is Catholic not Eastern art. What was missing and made the difference was a representation of Christ Pantocrator, the serene Christ who looks down on and dominates Orthodox churches. So something I expected was missing. At the same time, both baptisteries, the Orthodox and the Arian, had mosaics of John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan, and, whatever the theological differences between the two groups, both of them portrayed Jesus with a penis, slightly obscured by water but not covered by any handy leaf drifting by or any coy diaphanous garment. This is an adult Jesus who is fully God and fully man, in a way that moderns have a hard time sorting out and that medieval and later art stepped back from. In historic terms, the creedal battles that defined Jesus’s nature were barely yesterday’s news. It was a breathtaking insight and a literally awe-inspiring experience. Worth It, in spades.

What next?
Probably back to horrible Florence, definitely off season, to look at sculpture and to visit the Pitti, a museum hung very differently to the Uffizi. But not until a couple of more trips to Paris and perhaps a train trip across Switzerland. I know from experience that the former is always Worth It, and I expect the latter to be.

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