Just back from Florence, Tuscany and a half day to Venice.
I dreamt of going to Italy for a decade, but excuses always won.
Our daughter was too young, September 11th, the recession, the weak dollar, fear, finances and failure to launch. Whatever the stagnation, this year with my stepmother’s help, she, my husband, 12 year old daughter and I made it to the country, that with all my mental hype, could have been a big let down.
Expectations and romanticism can dilute the ecstacy of a new sensory experience. The real thing is never as good as the hoopla. This time, it was.
The movies, the photos, the tabletop books of Tuscany are all right. I felt that way in Paris in 1996 with my husband as I overlooked the Seine and Notre Damn in the Il St. Louis district. As I leaned over the bridge near our hotel the moonlight painted the water in bright, wavy lines. It was that beautiful and I felt that good, and so I cried.
When dreams meet reality there is nothing else to do by cry.
Minus jet lag in Italy that never lagged, and 4 days of lost baggage that sent me sobbing and yelling on day three because I was forced to spend precious minutes shopping at Italy’s version of TJ Maxx and CVS, the reality of Italy met Hollywood’s and my image.
The food was better than I imagined, fresher, brighter. Olive oil that I’ve ingested at hundreds of Italian restaurants and at home was richer, more intense and made me involuntarily utter “mmm” as I dipped my crusty bread. I had orgasmic responses to the food because in Italy your palate can’t help but feel enormous pleasure and involuntarily release gutteral noises.
Sensory joy is what humans are primed for, and Italy will gladly serve if you believe you deserve it.
The countryside, particularly displayed from the Boboli Gardens in Florence or from hilltop cities like Fiosele were as lush and painted in shades of green as I’d hoped. I found the Poplar trees particularly beautiful in their size, shape and dotted distribution across the hills. I was happiest outside, overlooking manicured or wild gardens, viewing elevated cities, gazing down at the towns and roofs, peering down narrow streets with glistening damp cobblestone and siena-colored walls, or petting dogs with the Italian owner smiling near by, our connection to our dog-love serving as language.
Porticos with light, narrow passages with angles. “Postcard” images lie in every cell of this country’s streets, landscape and buildings.
The doors of Florence stopped me, even in our mad dashes to the next camera moment. The doors, the doors, the doors. Wood inlay and brass lions. The Fleur de Lis which has captured me for decades for no apparent reason than it has, always caught my eye.
While my husband got tired of the doors; I never did. My daughter without being asked snapped some images the day my husband and I went alone to Fiosele. She understood without saying, the doors mattered.
The alley of Venice, water routes beautifully connected with bridges were sadly somewhat a blur in my short time and brain fog. But Venice settles in you because the flow and bones of the city hold foundational beauty everywhere you look. You have no choice but to gasp and exhale, even if you think you’re not.
The statue of David was as stunning as they said. The scale, the white marble, the detail. But I believe it was the turn of his head and hand that made him beautiful, to me, and to help me (almost) ignore the hordes of people bumping shoulders, indifferent to what they saw, only that they saw.
The art museums over and underwhelmed. The mass movement of people checklisting thousands of Renaissance masters felt somewhat forced, yet unavoidably necessary in my head. I am that obligatory check listing tourist, and annoyingly so. On this trip, I vowed not to be.
I took moments to enjoy and stare at some paintings, coaxed along by my patient and always impressive historian step-mother who can recite relevancy and facts down to the smallest details I never seem to retain.
When my brain went into overload I defaulted to visual scans to capture a sense of the time and my view of the artist’s intent. Room after room of gilded in gold, Frescoed, enormous images of martyrdom and agony, bliss and destruction, Greek myths and apocalyptic warnings, Christian passages and Biblical predictions.
I was captured by the faces in the paintings, sculptures and Venice masks. Faces evoke life, perhaps conveying the intent of the artist and the predilection of the observer. Artistic interpretation of faces may be a Rorschach test I think.
Cherubs look nearly macabre to me. I’m not sure naked, smirking fatties flitting around with an arrow ready to strike stimulates any thought besides a weird acid trip. While I’ve never HAD an acid trip if I did, naked smirking, flying cherubs would likely show up.
The babies held by Mary or angels appeared overfed and half adult,half infant, something out of a surreal dream of mismatched body parts. If the artists’ intent was to convey religious, peaceful abundance in the fleshy rolls and perfect roman facades, or to pierce my heart with the baby Jesus and cherub images, some missed the mark with their rendering.
But I never liked Baby Cha-Cha or blending the purity of baby Jesus, cherubs and angels with putrid images and hellish scenes. Even Jesus in agony on the cross doesn’t do it for me. Sacrificial damnation, that foreboding stuff feels counter to what grace, spiritual peace and compassion mean to me.
I also didn’t react too well to the painting of an old man breastfeeding on the chest of a young woman.
To add to my obviously Freudian hang up, after explaining my revulsion to my step mom Sally, she told me the man is a father who has been dying in jail for years. Upon seeing his daughter he accepts her milk of life so he won’t perish.
In theory I’m deeply moved by the portrayal of the sacrifice between a daughter and the primal acceptance of her breast by the dying father.
In reality? Eww.
I do not need to love the content or style to appreciate the importance of the Italian greats influenced by the Greeks and Romans. The visual history, the storytelling commissioned or conveyed by the artist, the masterful techniques, the dedication by the artist and in modern times by historians and museum curators to maintain centuries of vital artistic history for a consuming public, was an honor for me to take in, if not an overwhelming one.
That’s how I felt about my entire trip to Tuscany. It was an honor, and an overwhelming sensory one at that.
So now, when can I go back?