• John Diamond-Nigh

6 1/2 weeks in #Florence

Always April. Sometimes by train. Snaking into Florence by the grim, industrial conduit that drew us from the outlands to the exquisitely moderne, toffee-stoned train station, hardly a stone’s throw from the medieval, Renaissance and Baroque precinct that millions like ourselves had come to see.

Usually we arrived with 20 university students. Shepherding our academic clan into the quicksilver sunlight, I always, as privately as I could, knelt and kissed the sidewalk. A Buddhist monk recently told me how, upon arriving in Kyoto, the prospect of visiting a favorite shrine or garden the next day grips her almost like a paralysis.

What would we hasten to first? If the coin falls my way, #San Marco monastery with its linear beehive of #Fra Angelico frescos.

Someone observed, at a recent Christmas lunch, that the #artworld (that nebulous agglomeration so coined by the philosopher Arthur #Danto) was trapped right now between a Goliath of financial #gargantuanism (the art fairs, auctions and high society museums) and more modest, #remedial and #egalitarian objectives. We could, another guest piped up, be talking about Florence in the Renaissance, with art churning between the financial authoritarianism of the Medici family (plus the burn-your-jewels-and-lingerie fundamentalism of the Dominican monk, Savonarola) on one hand, and a city on the other that courageously strove to remain #“republican” (vurra different connotation than now) in the face of those two imperial powers. #Michelangelo’s renowned #“David” was meant to be a civic symbol of the city’s struggle against the aforementioned Goliaths of Medici and pope.

God, how I loved just roving. Watching the carvers, the masons at work. The gilders, the furniture makers, the art restorers high on scaffolds with their dental-precise instruments spread beside them. #Tools, tools, miraculous tools, most of which could be centuries old, handled with skills that were equally old. A wonderful artist, Alison #Woolley, taught our class how to gild, the tissues of gold flying off like butterflies on our breath.

Each year we took our class to the #Institute of Art #Restoration, the most élite art hospital on earth. Art from Florence and from all over the world comes here to be repaired. Lying prone like vast etherized patients, the #Rubens or #Rembrandt would be cleaned in hushed millimeters, tissue bandages applied and adhesives injected to stabilize loose flakes of paint, and finally flaws would be repainted with a microscopic precision one student compared to capturing fleas with tweezers. Before us lay a huge cruciform painting by #Giotto, cracked, warped, looking as if it had been dragged by a tractor through a river and down a gravel road (not far from the truth). The face of Christ was nearly gone. Impossible, I murmured. The remarkably young restorer (given the magnitude of her task) from Wichita laughed with invincible assurance. Coming back next year?

We did. The #crucifix was cleaned up, but still a foggy, tattered mess. But the year after that the job was done, the crucifix having been hung back in its place in the #Ognissanti church, not like new, but as luminous as the day Giotto finished it. I can’t quite believe it, I said to the brilliant young Giotto-doppelgänger from Kansas. “I remember that face, you didn’t believe me, did you?”

One evening, as Lynne and I left a Daniel Barenboim concert, we sensed a strange luster in the air and as we walked, a swelling musical human hum. No traffic anywhere, and as we got closer to the city center, the streets grew thick with roving, festive congeries of people. Over several bridges, allées of large potted trees had been installed, orchestras were playing, and couples were dancing above the moonlit Arno. Colored lanterns glittered along both shores. In the squares you might find a rock band or madrigal singers or a string quartet or an operatic soprano hard at work. By now it was halfway through the night. Restaurants were open and booths everywhere afforded pastries and drinks. Among the acrobats, the tethered panthers and other assorted exhibitionists, I found to be most touching the old, #old couples, teetering along, arm in arm, breathing in the #enchantment of the city where many, I came to suppose, had been born one fifth of the timeline back to #Leonardo. This in fact was the festival city whose mesmerizing fêtes, so long ago, Leonardo himself had done so much to invent and adorn.

Magical, minstrel night. Under a honey, Tuscan moon, I turned to my nonpareil wife: let’s dance.

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