Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

13 September 2009

Florence, dog shit and Donatello

Distance, of course, lends enchantment. There was never a truer saying - especially about big cities. Florence is one of the cities I like least. Its atmosphere is clogged with traffic fumes eating inexorably into crumbling masonry. The pavements are traps of dog shit. The crowds press, bug-eyed and weary. The shopkeepers and restaurateurs fleece like skin-nicking shearers. The centro storico is so old and tired that it’s impossible to get a whole shot of most of the notable buildings because they’re in constant states of repair, clothed like seaweedy rocks with green mesh netting or corseted by scaffolding, some of which looks as if it’s been in situ longer than the buildings themselves.

By rights I should like cities. I should be in awe of them: repositories of great art and architecture. But the potential joy is destroyed by the numbing wait in serpentine queues that lie in tight folds outside the galleries. It’s simply not worth that pain to see Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, or Michelangelo’s ‘David’. (I wonder about David - his hands are too big). My indifference to cities comes from being a Londoner, growing up in a metropolis that one wears like an old overcoat - no awe, no fear - total familiarity. The flip side of the country boy who’s dumbfounded by the city, I am forever astounded by the country.

Not that I care nothing for great art. One of my most memorable confrontations was in Florence, at the Museum of the Fabric of Santa Maria del Fiore, the ‘Opera del Duomo’, where I gazed, disturbed, at the 1450-ish ‘The Magdalen in Penitence’ by Donatello, a free-standing, life-sized wooden figure of a woman in rags - enduringly poignant. But oddly, for some sort of an artist myself, it’s art in engineering that impresses me most: especially that marvellous dome of Brunelleschi’s which was finished in 1463. Double-skinned, the substantial inside supporting the shell of the outside, it was built without steel scaffolding, high-rise cranes, electrical hoists, reinforced concrete, chemical solvents or adhesives, or computer-aided design: just art, experience and inspiration. Timeless.

No, not timeless, nothing lasts for ever, as Osymandius’s statue discovered, and in a country where earthquakes (terremoto) are common and many national treasures have been pulverised into history, the dome of the duomo could topple any time (as could the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I wonder how many cameras will capture that event? Perhaps it’ll happen at night. It will happen. I can’t think of any other country in the world where the Leaning Tower would have stayed upright for 650 years; only in Italy…)

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


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By Don Donovan