Tag Archives: history

A Renaissance tale makes Pulitzer list

Among yesterday’s announced Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephan Greenblatt’s, The Swerve–How the World Became Modern. This is the story of the 15th Century Florentine book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who rescued and recopied long-forgotten ancient texts he found stashed in the scriptoriums of remote German monasteries.

The lead story of the Pulitzer announcements was that they found no works of fiction worthy of the fiction prize. I’m sure they hunted around, so it’s interesting that a non-fiction prize would go to a book about a man who made difficult journeys to hard-to-get-to places in search of great books.

Unlike the Pulitzer folks, Poggio found great books. He found some lost oratories of Cicero, Commentaries on Virgil. He would copy them in his own hand in the monasteries, and then bring his copies back to Florence.

The most significant find, according to Greenblatt, was a previously unknown Roman poet. That would be Lucretius, whose “On the Nature of Things,” supercharged the secular humanism of the Italian Renaissance. After Poggio copied the book in his own handwriting, a script we now know as Italic, the Roman poem became widely read in the circles that included, Galileo, The Medicis, Machiavelli, and later Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Freud and Einstein.

Greenblatt is the founder of a school of literary analysis called, “New Historicism,” which views history something that has properties of a all-at-onceness, rather than linear. With its subtitle, “How the World Became Modern”, Greenblatt’s book stands as a testament that events of the Italian Renaissance remain in play in our own era. I think one way to look at this is that our mindsets operate as part of a collective consciousness with past mindsets.


More Renaissance Slam:

Passing this along because it demonstrates so perfectly

Thanks to Sue Miller for bringing it to our attention.

Inspiration from the Tuscan Farm:

This is my Flesh

Normally, I don’t eat meat.

I’d be lying if I said I never do.

When I work on the farm in Tuscany

they have me build fences

to keep Apennine Wolves

from the lambs, cows, pigs and sheep.

The animals seem happy.

I am only the hired hand at the table.

So, I eat the food they offer.

So, anything they’ve killed.

I sleep and work there,
to travel on,
and travel
on the cheap.

The house dates
to the lifetimes of Renaissance men,
and women.
In the celler there is red wine,
and salami hung among hams
with cloven hooves attached.

This is my flesh.

Something wicked on this bridge came

So much for the romance of Florence’s bridges, so much for strolling honeymooning couples after destination weddings, and so much for lovers attaching locks and tossing away the keys. We’ve done that. That was the other day.

Something different now. Bridges have a dark side. We’ve heard the diabolical histories of trolls, suicides, executions and assassinations. Take for example, Ponte alla Carraia. This bridge spans Florence’s Arno River two bridges downstream form the more famously picturesque Ponte Vecchio.

It’s the year 1304, May Day. Dante has been exiled from Florence for the past two years, so he has nothing directly to do with this story, except he would have heard the news of the disastrous outcome. Perhaps it’s at this point Dante begins thinking up some lines from the forthcoming Inferno If so, he would could be thinking about them as he wanders a dark Tuscan woods. He imagines coming across those gates of Hell, and he composes the first a of the lines.

Midway through the journey of life, I found myself ln a dark forest, lost to the straight path

Meanwhile, word goes out on the narrow and cobbled streets of Florence that the Devil can be met at the Ponte alla Carraia. The “Carriage Bridge”. The streets on each side of the bridge become tributaries to the human stream flowing toward the river. Creative works and performance art depicting Hell and the Devil’s rule over his realm seems to be in vogue on these days.

…and after it came so long a stream of people…”

What they discover is that players have floated a barge toward the bridge. This is the stage, complete with elaborate scenery and scaffolding depicting the different levels for that City of Woe, as Dante called it. He made them rings.  Far from abandoning hope, this a festive affair for the Florentine spectators looking for a good time.

Still, this bridge’s dark history would not be lost on the audience.

There was a medieval belief that the Devil expected his due once a bridge was completed. The expectation was that the Devil would take the first soul to cross the completed bridge. The sly Florentines devised a plan for tricking the Devil. The plan entailed running a goat across the bridge. The plan worked.  Everyone said so. There were no reports of missing human souls.

It was not as simple as that. According to accounts collected by 19th Century folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland in Legends of Florence, on many nights an apparition in the form of a goat appeared on the bridge, running and casting flames in its wake, running and then inexplicably vanishing in a flash of fire.

Back to the May Day performance.

A significant portion of the city’s 30,000 population must have joined that human stream flowing toward the river and the Ponte alla Carraia. They way it turns out is not good. So many people came to see the Devil and his woeful souls  that the bridge collapses under the weight of the spectators. Hundreds drown, maybe more than that. News of the disaster would spread throughout Tuscany, and surely make it to an exiled poet.

…I never would have believed that Death so many would have undone… Dante Alighieri, Inferno.


…A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many… T.S. Elliot, The Waste Land

The Romance of those bridges.

The signs of romance are everywhere on Florence’s bridges. Lovers and honeymooners photograph themselves on the bridges. And when no one is looking, they might attach a lock to some portion of the railing, and toss the key into the Arno. The ritual serves as their testament to their hearts being forever locked to each other, supposedly It is a little naughty, like the ever-popular car sex in the hills above the town. It’s also illegal. There’s fines, but they do it anyway. Sometimes they write their names on the locks with a marker.

The English painter William Turner visited Italy in 1819, and he seems to have had Romantic take on at least one of Florences bridges, The Ponte alla Carria. Lovely, is it not?

Another English painter’s Pre-Raphaelite take gives us a romantic depiction of a Florentine bridge. What could be more romantic than Dante’s chance meeting of Beatrice at the foot of Ponte Santa Trinita? There’s a view of the Ponte Vecchio in the background further down river. So, here’s that work of Henry Holiday, 1883.

Now, there’s a dark side the bridges. Really Dark. Next time: upon these bridges the Devil gets his due

remembering san sepolcro, part 2

At the end of a February afternoon of fading light, there was one last bus to take down the mountain from San Sepolcro. It was a good day.

The Piero fresco did not just move me, but moved with me. I can’t say if a shape-shifting illusion was something Piero Della Francesca deliberately conjured in the  wet plaster, now dry and fixed to the wall these past 550 years.  There was, however, some trick of the eye in the light and shadow upon the sleeping Roman soldiers in  The Resurrection.

What I thought I saw was something that played out in the span of time it takes for a person to walk inside from the daylight, and then sit on the viewing bench,  and wait  for the eyes to adjust to  indoor light,  while slowly picking the details from the shadows.  If  I didn’t think it would sound so crazy,  I’d swear I the head of a Roman soldier turned in a blink.

I’ve been living with that mystery for some time now.

For the rest of the day, I took my time in streets,  carrying a pack full of camera gear.  I had several lenses for seeing near and far and wide; a  fancy flash to cast different kinds of light;  plus chargers, power cords,  and the iPod that I use for picture and data storage.  I made some those usual pictures of windows with laundry, and windows with flower boxes.

The bus was waiting outside the old walls along Viale Vittrio Veneto. That is  the road down to the Arno Valley, but here in town the lanes are divided by a small park. More of the nieghborhood’s shops lie beyond that.  It is good little sitting park with its gravel paths,  benches, shade trees, japonica and dwarf laurel.  Although inviting, the bus was filling with the people who took seats with  lunch packs and vacuum bottles in their laps.

The driver  spread his palms apologetically. He could not take  my money.  I needed a ticket. But where?

The driver pointed to the bar and tobacco shop beyond the two lanes of busy traffic and park. This last bus was nearly full. It was time to go. These workers had homes with children and wives and husbands who would be expecting them.  The driver gestured again toward the shop, this time in a rolling and encouraging motion.  “Vai. Vai. Aspettooooo.”

He would wait.

I  dodged a scooter and a van in the first lane, jogged across the park, dodged passing cars in the second lane,  and then dashed through door of the Bar Tobacco shop. I dropped a handful of coins on the counter,  huffing “biglietto per Arezzo per favore.”  The woman picked out the coins, and handed me the ticket. With that in hand I ran back: across one lane, across the park, across the next lane.

Someone was honking when I reached the bus. I glanced over my shoulder,  Traffic had halted on both of those lanes. A trail of my gear  lead back through the park.   My pack felt disturbingly light.  Two men from the far lane  opened the doors of their Fiats and Alfas, climbed out and  began picking up lenses from in front of their tires. Once in their hands, they turned them over, examining these objects for either quality or damage.

Drivers of two cars in the near lane did the same.  The bus driver  and some passengers  stepped  out and crossed over to the park. They too began gathering stuff: the iPod,  a couple chargers, power cords,  and the flash. This is where we all converged, with some of them handing me back my stuff, some of them  still looking under the benches to see what else might have tumbled out.

Still, I did not dare believe I had it all when I was seated on the bus as it rolled out of the town.   I  unpacked and repacked my bag.  Okay, I have most of it.   Good,  but what did I loose?  The bus rounded a curve.  Must be something. No, wait, it’s all there.

I had all of it,  and something more.

Thank you, San Sepolcro. Thank you.