Throw a wine bottle anywhere in Florence and it will hit a restaurant or a church.
I’ve been in more churches in the past month than the preceding fifty years. I have no religion, though I was raised in The Catholic Church; bad experiences and deep suspicion lingered long. I was about eight when I began having misgivings and I doubted that most of what they were spewing was true. The behavior of the hierarchy (hall monitors, class presidents, nuns, priests, bishops, the Pope) was generally despicable or stupid. Fifteen years ago, the last time we were in Florence, when Sally would go into a church I’d stay outside grumbling about believers and pederasts. The perfect traveling companion.
Some years have gone by and I’ve learned that I can spend short intervals in churches because they are empty, cool and quiet; it’s a chance for a break and after a few weeks in Florence, “empty, cool and quiet” is a welcome respite from the crowded, noisy confusion that is often punctuated by bad smells from an ancient sewage system. Old churches have the comforting aroma of wax and wet stone.
Many days and many churches: Santa Maria Novella, Santa Trinita, Santa Felicita, Ognissanti, Santo Spirito, Santa Croce, Santa Claus, Santa On Every Goddamn Corner and I am today able to walk into a cathedral and not be edgy; murmured prayers and flickering candles do not trigger memories of the wracking rattle of rapidly advancing rosary beads and an open handed slap to the back of the head. By voluntarily entering the sacred spaces I have created my own aversion therapy. I believe that religion is a dangerous, sexist, foul invention of some truly twisted men but if I got crazy-enraged every time I was exposed to a symbol of religious silliness or savagery I’d be on death row.
This morning I walked across town to see a fresco by Pontormo at Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence. The painting is a depiction of one of the more common themes which I’ve referenced previously: The Annunciation, the Big Moment when Archangel Gabriel informs The Virgin Mary that she is With Child and it is on of the more important episodes in the mythology of Christianity. Every one of the great Renaissance artists has a personal manner of illustrating how the Annunciation should appear.
I noticed, today, that something has happened to me. I’ve been exposed to enough of these paintings that when I look up at them I no longer feel as though I have ants crawling under my skin and my heart rate remains steady; I am calm. The account of The Annunciation by Jacopo Pontormo is stark and exquisite; his use of colors and posture and expression is so good that I never thought about the content, the fable. I don’t care about the “story” any more. By the time Pontormo made this painting (1528) the Florentine artists had learned from each other, had perfected their styles and were often in competition to overwhelm their rivals with new devices and techniques. Substance was becoming subservient to Form. I’m able, thanks to ecclesiastical over-exposure, to see the reality of creative expression that goes beyond the fable. Thank God.
Annunciations, Last Suppers, Crucifixions, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Holy Families, Pietas, Virgins coming out your ears.
These days, if I enter a church and observe a painting of The Crucifixion I say to myself (or aloud), “That is so damn cool. Look how he shows the open wounds, the richness of the blood, how it coagulates at the nail holes, see how the dirt is encrusted on Christ’s feet, oh, and the split toenails, notice the delicate beads of sweat glistening on his flayed, pale skin; behold the misery, the pain, the despair. Just beautiful.”
I have been so overcome by Renaissance art that I have at last developed the unruffled detachment where I can view the drapery, the tones, the shadows and texture, the shape of the eyes and the rhythmic interaction of the figures. It took decades but I have learned to look at religious art without focusing on the religious absurdities on which it is based. I have moved from angry to aesthetic.
I’m glad I’ve wandered through so many churches. They have no mystical vibration or substance; they are galleries for paintings that are some of the highest achievements of western civilization. I still hate religions and their idiotic manipulation of the ignorant, but I’m glad the Catholic Church and its wealthy, faithful, frightened donors had the immense wealth to commission, support and pay for all this great art here in Florence.
Otherwise there’d be nothing to do but eat.