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Florence begs a question: What has our generation done for the world?

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

Two days in Florence, birthplace of the so-called Renaissance, and an extra day in Rome visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, led to some excellent questions from my wife and partner in travel.

“Who are our Medicis?” she asked. “Who is our Michelangelo? What will we be remembered for?”

It's sobering, especially when the first thing that comes to mind is global warming. But hey, now that I think of it, maybe there will be no one to remember us.

These are the kind of thoughts you have after you first look at something as beautiful as Michelangelo’s David, which I truly was not ready for. I'd slotted it into the “check mark” category – something you have to see but you aren’t sure why. It’s a bloody statue that we’ve all seen pictures of. How great could it be?

It took my breath away. That’s how great. I’d say it was the perfect human form, but it isn’t quite perfect. The head is a little too big because it was originally planned for the top of The Duomo, hundreds of feet off the ground.

Maybe it is the tension – the rock in one hand and the sling in the other, the stance relaxed but on the verge of action, ready to slay the giant. (David killing the giant with a sling-shot was my favorite bible story as a boy.)

At the end of the day, David does what great art does. It commands your attention. You walk around it as if looking for flaws. But you are really just looking to see how perfect it is. The act of looking at it gives you pleasure.

The effect is heightened by the presence of five unfinished statues in the hall leading up to David. Known as “The Prisoners,” they are all in different stages of emerging from the stone. You think about Michelangelo saying that he did not create the statues, he revealed what was inside the rock. You look at them and it makes you appreciate the craft, the patience, the endless chiseling and polishing. You think: “Even these unfinished things are amazing.”

Then you once again look toward the end of the hall, at David, and you catch your breath and think: “But that …”

A quick word about Florence: We loved it. If Rome is Italy’s capital city, Florence is its capital town, with a city center that is much more manageable in size. While the Tiber River in Rome is not an especially integral part of the cityscape - it is sunken below street level, bordered by steep, high walls - the Arno in Florence is lovely to walk along, especially at night.

Although the city attracts many tourists, we found ourselves less surrounded by them in restaurants, perhaps because we took the advice of our concierge, who sent us to more authentic local spots. At one restaurant, I was pleasantly distracted by the lively, gesticulating conversation of three central-casting older Italian guys at the table next to us. One of them looked very much like the late, Italian-born father of my college roommate, and I mentioned this as best I could when we were getting up to leave. They happily sat me down while Mary took a picture.

And what can you say about Italian high speed rail? We got from downtown Rome to downtown Florence, a distance of about 160 miles, in 90 minutes, sitting in roomy, comfortable seats. On the way back to Rome, we were door-to-door from hotel to our Airbnb in less than two hours. Think about that next time you are sitting in traffic in a cab to any airport, where you will arrive at least an hour before your flight departs, and then fold yourself in for a flight to another edge-of-town airport followed by another stop-and-go cab ride.

Allow me to join the chorus of people pointing out that it is criminal we do not have a high speed rail network in the United States. They have had it in Europe for decades.

Back in Rome, we visited the Vatican, which carries a lot of baggage for a Catholic school lifer like me. At 60, I’ve drifted away from the church, mostly because of the things that have been done by the people running it. But I’ve always found some solace in the act of being in church, probably because it makes me think of so many people I love and miss, starting with my parents. They were both devout liberals and devout Catholics – a paradox many people don’t understand, though I do. (Hint: Be like Jesus.)

Earlier in our travels I learned that the Vatican didn’t become what it is today – an independent country in the middle of the Italian capital – until 1929. Before 1870, Popes acted as governors for various parts of Italy known as the Papal States. When the country of Italy emerged, the Popes hid out in the Vatican, unable to come to any agreement with the new leaders. Then came Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator. Apparently he was the guy the Popes could deal with, so a treaty was signed and the Vatican as we know it came to be - just in time for the Vatican to remain strictly neutral during World War II.

“Seems about right,” I thought, after a guide explained this chain of events.

St. Peter’s Basilica, as all Catholics know, is on the very spot where St. Peter was crucified by the Romans. Peter is considered the first Pope, and an earlier church was on the spot until the 1500s, when Catholics built the much flashier St. Peter’s.

It is breathtaking, like the David, but in a different way. The most overwhelming thing is the size, with every available spot filled with magnificent, larger-than-life art.

Not surprisingly, the most stunning works are from Michelangelo. The first is the magnificent dome, modeled after the Pantheon a few miles away. (Hat tip to the Romans, who build theirs 1,500 years earlier.)

And there is the Pieta, Michelangelo's statue of the crucified Jesus in the arms of his mother, Mary. A mother’s pain and sorrow are somehow communicated perfectly in chiseled stone. You look at it and you can feel his dead weight, and her sadness.

Whatever I may think about the sins of the leaders of the Catholic church, there is no doubt that they knew how to make lasting, beautiful things. Which takes us back to the original question posed by Mary. (My wife, Mary. Not Jesus’ mom.) What is our generation creating? Who are the people making the things we will be remembered for?"

“I hate to say it,” she said. “But it’s probably the tech people.”

I shook my head in disgust, thinking of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.

As will happen after 27 years of marriage and a month together on the road, she seemed to know what I was thinking.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. After them it’s just a bunch of fucking babies.”

(Author's note: When Mary read this draft, she asked if I was going use "that exact word" at the end. I said I was, and prepared to defend myself. "Good," she said.)

(Author's second note: For those of you wondering about the slightly snarky use of the term "so-called" before Renaissance, I am merely being mindful of our next stop - Istanbul - and my Western European-centric view of the world, which I hope to work on.)

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1 Comment

Nov 19, 2022

Agreed! Rome is NYC; Florence is Chicago. All the culture, but just more manageable and accessible.

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