Isn’t that something? That is the view from inside the Duomo in Florence, looking up at Vasari’s frescoes inside the dome. We went to vespers there tonight. Sung prayers in Italian and Latin. It was heavenly. There were only about 30 people there in the side chapel; the cathedral only let people in who wanted to pray. I prayed before the relics of St. Zenobius (337-417), the first bishop of Florence, and again in front of the famed painting of Dante presenting the Commedia to Florence (it is much, much darker than the usual depictions). We ambled out into the piazza afterward as the sun was setting and the bells in Giotto’s campanile were sounding. My cup runneth over, I thought.
Earlier in the day we had been to mass. Casella and James C. are Catholic traditionalists. I couldn’t find an Orthodox liturgy around town, so I accompanied them. It was a beautiful mass, but it really made me feel how deeply Orthodox I have become liturgically. After a while, I began to feel a little dizzy, and had to step out for air. I walked around the block, looking to buy a bottle of water. I found one, then returned to the church and sat on the steps reading the Purgatorio, Canto 10. It’s about the sin of pride, and begins with three examples of pride in action. Later in the canto, Dante meets the shade of Oderisi, a famous painter from Florence, whose fame has been eclipsed by others. Oderisi reflects on the emptiness of worldly fame, and taking pride in one’s respect in this mortal life. Sitting in Florence, which was once arguably the greatest city in the world, reflecting on how it has become a vast museum, is to understand what Dante meant. All things pass.
We had lunch after mass, then gelato — fig and ricotta, black sesame, and pistachio for me — then picked up our tickets for the Uffizi. The luminous genius of Botticelli and Michelangelo, in particular, defy my ability to describe. Eventually I just stopped trying to articulate to myself why these paintings were so great, and tried to allow myself to experience them directly. There were some paintings, the figures in which touched me deeply (but not so deeply that I recorded the names of the artists, mind you). Take this detail of St. Joseph admiring the Christ child:
When I first saw it, I thought, “I remember looking at my newborn children in just the same way.” The sense of recognition. Or take this image of the Virgin cradling Jesus and John the Baptist:
Here is St. Anthony of Egypt, the Desert Father. Look at those eyes:
Eventually it’s too much. All that light and beauty is overwhelming. We were grateful but exhausted after the end of the exhibits. I’m glad we were able to ease into the evening with vespers after all that richness.
All this beauty did not make the people of Florence good back in its day. And yet, if goodness doesn’t produce beauty, does it have dimension? I find it hard to imagine practicing as a Christian outside of beauty. At the same time, if I were a part of a church or religious community that worshiped beauty and had no particular care for goodness, that would be hollow too. I know I’m going to be thinking about the relationship among truth, beauty, and goodness after I leave Florence, but it’s too much to think about tonight, after a day like today and days like I have had since arriving here.
Tonight James, Casella and I finished with dinner in our apartment. We ate good Italian food and drank good Italian wine and listened to Sidney Bechet, and then Louis Armstrong, and talked about God and Dante and Florence. Stepping into the kitchen to get more water for the table, I thought that this is the kind of moment I dreamed of when I was younger — a night like this, filled with friendship, music, food, and conversation about ideas. Like I said, my cup runneth over. I do not deserve any of this. I do not deserve to have friends like this, or a God so merciful, or the gift of poetry that restored me, or the privilege of being in a city of such devastating beauty. But here I am, and I receive it like a beggar. After walking out of the Duomo at sunset, I put some coins in the cup of the old gypsy woman begging near the doorway. After having received a gift like that at vespers, how could I pass her by?
Tomorrow: saying goodbye to James, who returns to England; seeing Santa Croce; packing and getting ready to head out Tuesday morning for Ravenna.
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