This may not change your life but it couldn’t go unsaid.
We think we have advanced as a civilization because of the accumulation of knowledge and having the wool pulled over our eyes by scientific progress. In fact the exact opposite may be true if Florence has anything to say to us. We have regressed in so many ways. Walking the streets of Florence makes us realize that a sense of grandeur has been lost to us, a sense of artistic excellence has all but disappeared, and a sense of beauty has been rendered over. And we are much the poorer, cultural exiles, damned by our pragmatism and loss of heart.
As for grandeur we can’t afford it anymore – it takes too long and it costs too much. The Palazzo Pitti, for instance, has more marble in it than you can imagine and a look of sweeping elegance that we thought was the domain of ancient kings, and so it was. The ruling classes of Italy lived in surroundings that make the grandest hotels look garish by comparison. Even the religious rulers, known for their piety and poverty (?), lived in surroundings that can’t but help have given them a sense of the glories of heaven. No expense was spared in making houses for the holy. They were the pride of Europe- which may well have been half their problem, but nevertheless in their original intention what magnificence was heaped upon magnificence to show the glory of God. The Basilica of San Lorenzo is plain enough on the outside, even rough-hewn – somewhat like us – but inside is a vast temple of light, colour and beauty. If your jaw doesn’t drop then we have deserved our fast food outlets and malls, trinkets and plastic. What happened to us?
As for art, it was a declaration of the great themes of Christianity, plus some. It didn’t exist for its own sake but for the sake of someone. Sure they got a little confused at times making both Mary and the baby Jesus something they weren’t, but their confusion is surely better than our artlessness in God’s name. They unashamedly attempted to do for God what we hesitantly refuse to do. They made his name glorious, they made his fame spread through the land, through the earth. We on the other hand make his praise mundane and his name something to be avoided. Our doves, crosses and timidity would have made them shrink with shame. The Italians (at least those Italians) are robust, full-blooded people; we are at times a pasty replica, terrified of sensuality and our humanity.
Our celebration of humanity is clothed in embarrassment and abstinence. Good grief, how the mighty have been neutered. Christian art was the expression of art; today our art is sidelined due to its lack of authenticity and boldness. We must learn to celebrate with more than songs. We have something to say - the most important thing to say. How can we possibly not say it with gusto, panache, dedication and style? It was certainly once said like this. If you visit the Uffiza Gallery you’ll see what I mean. There are some things that must be seen to be understood – and even then?
As for beauty, it is the hallmark of most things Florentine - an enduring beauty that is reflective of an enduring and fiercely beautiful God. They specialized in beauty but today it is the domain of a few women and floral arrangements. Flowers are nice and women are beautiful but that’s not the point. More is beautiful than we have allowed. Beauty, in a thousand guises, attracts us. We want to be surrounded by it but we have quite forgotten what it looks like. And even though beauty is in the eye of the beholder we suffer from impaired vision, we have cataracts on our soul, stigmatisms on our desires.
So, how can a grey pragmatism, so popular in the church world, fill us with light and joy? How can a culture robbed of all that makes a culture be attractive to any but us? We have made duty the central virtue of a Christian’s world instead of life. We have regressed I fear, fallen from a height virtually beyond view today. Civilisation has become a shopping bonanza, with little time given to the soul and its need for grandeur, art and beauty, let alone truth, love and life. We may have progressed in achievement but not in the celebration of the soul and its intense desires.
Go to Florence and have a peek. You will be stunned. But whatever you do don’t forget to look up, as it is where half the attraction is. It would be so easy to think you were at another shopping mall (even the Italians) instead of one of the most attractive cities in the world - as far as art is concerned.
And then, when you think grandeur, art and beauty has an end you go to Siena. The Basilica of San Domenico, aside from the rather gruesome head of Saint Catherine, is filled with art treasures that made me emotional and not for religious reasons. What poverty of soul we allow, what greatness we have let slip. And then to add insult to injury the Cathedral of Siena leaves you short of breath. The floor alone took six centuries to complete. We get impatient if something takes longer than six months, but six centuries? The library in this cathedral is one of the most beautiful rooms you’ll ever have the privilege of seeing. The floor, walls, and ceiling are stunning testimonies to creative genius, filled with brilliant colour, design and daring.
I’m speechless (a rare occurrence) with wonder, speechless with how far we’ve plummeted. How the mighty have fallen.