Postcard from Florence

For a tourist, Italy can seem as overexposed as a sunset; every view recognized in postcard after postcard. Writing seems as redundant as any visual document.  Others have described these narrow streets, these views, the moods, the weather, as well or better.  The Brownings lived here amongst others, but perhaps more familiar to me is E.M. Forster’s Room with a View. I feel sympathetic to Lucy Honeychurch, who, on seeing the Cockney Signora, the pensione dining room full of her countrymen and the painting of the Queen hung next to the schedule for the English church, wonders if she has, in fact, left England?  Where is the authentic experience in a place where one is buffeted and crowded by a waddling throng in waders and tennis shoes?  I am tempted to ask, as one old man asked me back in my restaurant days: “Where’s the flood?” when he noticed that my pants did not reach my ankles.  Multinational, but all sporting handbags smelling of new leather and guidebooks, they are shunted down the narrow streets, like herds of oxen on a market day. The tourists are driven from church to church, apse to apse, altar to altar like lifestock not worthy of sacrifice.  Huffing and puffing up steep streets or narrow stairs, suffering the seven stations of the cultural cross; beginning in the morning at the Uffizi, their travails continue throughout the day, so that by late afternoon they are dragging through San Marco and feel not a little bit martyred.  This sentiment is, I think, exemplified by one droll comment made by an American woman, who, when she lagged behind her husband was encouraged by him to look at yet another Fra Angelico painting: “they say the annunciation in this cell has a particularly beautiful angel,” to which she replied: “take a picture of it, I’ll look at it when we get home.”

All this sedentary despair is possibly because I have a cold in the head, or possibly it owes to the unforecasted rain or the chill that sets in when I hold still, here in this hotel room in a building formerly a convent.  Here faith feels cold and smells of the breath of stones.  It is the same cold in the churches, in winter faith must be numbing, it must see its own breath.

Sounds:  there is the rain I hear, and the songs of birds that also sound like running water.

[audio:|titles=Birdsong, Florence]

Other sounds:

A man whistling as he walks down the street, a woodwind sound as nuanced and subtle as the birds’ own song.  I hear it first behind me as he emerges into the street, and for a spell our paths align.  He whistles “Summertime”, and from its slow resonance, I know that he and I both hear the same languorous voice in our heads, the voice of Billy Holiday.  Through many turns the sound follows the percussion of my footsteps until, in some street or doorway, the man turns and the sound fades off in another direction.

The voice: a tortoise man tells anecdotes to a middle-aged New York couple, man and wife, as they all sit together finishing dinner at the corner table of the trattoria.  From her comments, and the way she pushes her food about on her plate I can tell that although physically she is in Italy she has not quite left New York.  She exudes dissatisfaction.  So it is mostly the tortoise who carries on the conversation, meanwhile her husband nods and she responds with the appropriate charming sounds (if perhaps sibilant through gritted teeth).  The voice – his voice, that of the tortoise man in his dark suit and ascot, a wilting tithonia, red as a wound, sagging from his buttonhole – the voice adds to their discomfort.  At first I felt the same fingernail on the blackboard chill, until my sense of the voice evolved, until it began to seem to me as something compelling and irresistible.  A voice like broken glass, a ravaged voice: deep, gritty and penetrating, a voice I could not help leaning in to listen to even when the meaning was lost in the general din.  Had I realized that his disappearance after the dessert was most to likely to go outside to have a cigarette, I might have pursued him.  But traveling puts me on uneven ground.  I do not feel my strengths, but am instead humbled by weaknesses and so such opportunities are lost.

Lost also was my chance to speak to the American woman with youthful face and old woman’s hands.  She would turn to smile at us from time to time from alongside the grey rock that was her Italian husband.  We would smile back, but that is as far as it went.

Some connections, though, are made, if but briefly: the guard/physical trainer at Santa Croce who told us where to find the Bronzino, which turned out to be his favorite as much for the painting as for reasons of physique.   There was also a man at S.S. Annunciata, who was terribly generous to me after I had walked through what, as David told me after, is “one of the holiest places in the Western Hemisphere”.   The church is named for the painting which had compelled my trespass.  It is said that the angels came to complete the visage of Mary in this, Fra Bartolomeo’s Annunciation.   She has a lovely face – though perhaps not so unlike other painted ladies of Bartolomeo’s.  Not so different that one might imagine the hand of god taking up his brush here and yet not elsewhere in the oeuvre, but I accept the evocation of the divine as I do know of, if perhaps I do not entirely understand, what is the miraculous in painting.

I wondered then if and why there were no saints amongst painters?  Yet it seems that one is on his way; since my last visit to Florence, Fra Angelico has become il Beato Angelico.  His services, so I see, are many and sublime, but it takes more than a life’s work to become a saint.  What else has he done, I wonder?  When looking at his paintings I feel the sense of them rising in me like water filling a jug, filling threatening to spill.  I could not tell you exactly why I feel this way – the color perhaps, the proportion more likely; the closer to symmetrical the paintings become the more yearning I feel.  And then there is in most of them a truth of sentiment: the artist not mimicking other representations of faith but instead redefining imagery from an empathic observation of life and an honest conviction in order to achieve a greater spiritual truth.  I sense him asking: What is this I feel?  How can I best serve to demonstrate my faith?  There is the sense that these saints were real men, akin to other men in their struggles and their sentiments.  There is an intense emotional honesty, a nakedness of expression: beneficence, forgiveness, wrenching sadness, devotion, surprise and bliss.  Human frailty serves to reinforce the miraculous as flesh serves to contrast with bone.  I wonder which is the more lasting?

The birds still sing their liquid songs but the rain has stopped and the sky is bluing.  Perhaps David will not get so drenched after all on his mission to climb the Duomo.  And, as you see, words came after all, in spite of me, in spite of others’ words.  I suppose one has the expectation that language is always, to some degree, redundant.  If it was not held so in common it would not serve communication.  Written, but spoken – every word I put down I must say aloud first.  Is it my ailment that makes it so words and breath must pass through lips as all other channels are stopped?  I smile at this.  The blue sky above is responsible for my sedentary bliss.  I am as variable as the weather.

Sereno (several cloudy days), May 2012, Via Romana, 34, Florence Italy

This film is compiled from sounds and images recorded from my window during my stay at the “Palazzo di Annalena”, the building where the composer Luigi Dallapiccola resided through the last years of his life and where he died in 1975.

The film begins and ends with selections from Dallapiccola’s ouevre: “Sereno”, the last of three arrangements taken from his ballet “Marsia”. The ballet draws from the legend of Marsyas: in Greek mythology, the satyr Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical duel. The terms of the contest stated that the winner could treat the defeated party any way he wanted. Perhaps because the contest was judged by the Muses, Marsyas lost and then was flayed alive in a cave near Celaenae for his hubris to challenge a god. Apollo then nailed Marsyas’ skin to a pine tree.

His brothers, nymphs, gods and goddesses mourned his death, and their tears, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, were the source of the river Marsyas in Phrygia, where Herodotus reported that the flayed skin of Marsyas was still to be seen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *