Reflections by an American Poet in Florence
Standing atop the Florence’s famous cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, looking out over the wide expanse of terracotta rooftops and narrow streets and contemplating what this city and especially this marvelous dome meant for the future of Western civilization and humanity's struggle for freedom and discovery that ultimately created the American republic, the feeling of having come home, a spiritual home, was inescapable.
Everything in Florence is a reminder of the great intellectual revolution that was the Florentine Renaissance, from the Duomo itself, the work of the genius of Brunelleschi who laid the foundation for the scientific breakthroughs of succeeding generations, to the glorious works of Rafael and Leonardo da Vinci which for the first time married the ideas of the discovery of scientific principles with artistic beauty.
As one walks through the rooms of the Uffizi Gallery, ordered chronologically, one actually experiences this awakening of the human spirit visually and powerfully. Among the sumptuous, gold leaf adorned altarpieces of the late medieval period which are impressive for their color and decorative quality, one is suddenly struck by the masterpieces of Giotto, whose depiction of the human face for the first time liberates the character and emotions, conveying the idea that these are real people, not just distant objects of veneration. As you proceed through the succeeding rooms, this quality becomes even more pronounced, along with a growing concern with the human form and what is expressed in its motion and subjects which are more frequently from classical mythology as well as religious. With Botticelli, whose “Birth of Venus” suddenly confronts you as you enter one room, this celebration of physical beauty as a reflection of the spiritual, is in full bloom. Although this idea is not original with the Renaissance, as it was explored by the Greeks to a level of perhaps even greater perfection, when it is combined with the Christian concept of divine love and its manifestation in the person of Jesus Christ, his mother, the Virgin Mary and the apostles and saints associated with them, it takes on a power that is uplifting and deeply moving.
Although there are many outstanding works of the painters and sculptors of the high Renaissance displayed in the Uffizi, including those of Michelangelo which are striking in an almost imposing way, it was really the few, but exquisite pieces by Rafael and Leonardo which were, for this writer at least, the crowning glory of the experience. The portraits of Rafael, famous for their honesty in depicting all of the physical imperfections of their subjects, nevertheless convey a deep appreciation for their human qualities. His Madonna and Child is the very image of divine love mediated through the love of mother for child and his John the Baptist as a boy is a powerful visual irony contrasting the darkness of his physical destiny with the light of the coming salvation for mankind that his life would presage. Leonardo’s Annunciation is a masterpiece of visual irony in that one has to literally stand to the right of the painting, as if in the room with Mary to experience the wondrous event, for the perspective employed to make sense. His unfinished painting of the Adoration is a fascinating study in not only perspective, but in the vortices of motion radiating from, and pointing toward the central subject that he brought to full fruition in the Last Supper.
Emerging from the Uffizi into the magnificent piazza flanked by the Medici palace and the large classical statues which surround it, the further irony of this powerful oligarchical family sponsoring these beautiful works of art which inspired the age of scientific discovery and exploration that led to the birth of the American republic, is palpable. Indeed, the portico of the Uffizi is adorned with statues of Florence’s most famous sons, among whom are Dante, Leonardo, Brunelleschi and Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America was named.
As one visits the beautiful Tuscan cities of Lucca, Pisa and Siena, all of which have architectural and artistic wonders that are stupendous in their individual way, there is always the reminder, in the form of the walls, towers and battlements that they all inevitably have, of the incessant warfare that characterized the whole period of the Middle Ages up until the Renaissance and beyond that humanity is still struggling to free itself from today. Perhaps the essence of the spirit of this remarkable epoch in mankind’s history can inspire a commitment to finally bring about a society worthy of the great minds who gave birth to our civilization.
Daniel Leach is a poet living in Houston, Texas. He has spent much of his life fighting for the ideals of classical culture and poetry. His first volume of poetry, compiling over 20 years of composition, is entitled Voices on the Wind. His second volume is entitled Places the Soul Goes.