Tag Archives: Tuscany

Happy Festa della Toscana!!

000fraangelicobeheadsIn 1438 the painter and monk Fra Angelico imagined the execution of saints in the manner that criminals were in his day. That is, just outside of walls of Florence. With great fanfare the condemned were marched through the city, then out the gates, where they met their deaths.

In this picture the swordsman is tasked with the job. Dante described the execution of counterfeiters, who were lowered head first into holes. Executioners filled the holes with sand, leaving the spectacle of exposed legs and feet flaying. Hanging ended the life of the Bonfire of Vanities preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. That was in 1498, just before his public burning in the Piazza della Signoria, and subsequent scattering of the firebrand monk’s ashes in the Arno River.

Tuscany was absorbed in the unified Italy in 1861, which at the time had the death penalty. But then, in 1889, Italians banned capital punishment up and down the boot. Not surprisingly, the fascists practiced capital punishment during their reign from 1926-1947. In the end, Benito Mussolini would be one of the executed, not surprisingly.

Today Florentines and people of other Tuscan cities and towns are celebrating Festa della Toscana. On this day in 1786 the Duchy of Tuscany became the world’s first country to remove death penalty from their laws. In Florence they are proud of that. Tuscan’s don’t get the day off if the holiday falls on a workday, but every year they observe the day in one form of celebrating or another.

To my friends in Florence, a heartfelt Happy Festa della Toscana.

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Enough of those Penis Print Souvenirs

Authorities of several Tuscan cities are talking about putting a stop to the sale of naughty novelty souvenirs, including those boxer shorts and cooking aprons sporting a rendering of the penis from Michelangelo’s David statue.  It seems this is not how some folks want to see the Renaissance remain at play in contemporary culture.

Last month Florence’s Deputy Mayor, Dario Nardella, called for summit meeting with officials from five Tuscan towns: Florence, Pisa, San Gimignano, Pienza and Siena. They will meet sometime before the end of August.

Pisa has already begun to crack down on the sale of merchandise authorities think is too trashy, such as the boxer shorts decorated with an image of the leaning tower over the fly. The owners of five Pisan souvenir stalls have been fined 500 Euros ($705) for selling “merchandise offensive to public decorum.”

This is not the first time Michelangelo’s depiction of male anatomy became an issue.  In 1561 church ordered scores of penises painted over in the Sistine Chapel on the Last Judgement. Artist Daniele da Volterra received the commission and for that he has since been known as with the nickname “the Pants Maker”.

That madness and art thing

Madness is that low-hanging fruit in the Eden of our art and literary history.

I was going to save that line for the next in a series improvisational prose poems I want to do, but that will have to wait. The truth is that I’m not ready to do the poem today. Perhaps tomorrow. I have what we called in Journalism school, “more reporting to do” here. So, even if there is a poem in that, today I’m doing the non-fiction prose thing. Journalism. That is, reporting on Humanity’s long and sometimes misguided tradition of yoking madness with creative output.

Here goes: Van Gogh cut off his ear.

No, wait, everyone’s heard that story. Besides, the meme is problematical here. This narrative of madness-induced creativity reminds us that it sometimes ends with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The madness stopped Van Gogh’s paintings from coming. Hemingway never completed the short piece Jack Kennedy asked him to write for an inauguration reading. Old Robert Frost filled in with a reading of The Gift Outright. Same problem with Silvia Plath’s suicide, but not before she went to the trouble of letting us know that her affliction impeded her art, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time,” she said. “When I was crazy, that’s all I was.” So much for the crazy romanticizing.

Who else? Ezra Pound? He lived a long life, thanks in part to his madness having saved him from execution for treason. Some said it was feigned.

No, lets do this: There was a Florentine painter who claimed he could see a city or landscape in phlegm and blood stains. That’s crazy, no? He found these compositions on a wall that the sick and dying had coughed and spat upon. His neighbors talked, saying he lived more like a beast than a man. They could not help themselves from thinking that there was a connection with the half-human figures in the paintings.  Ever since then, men and women  have come and go talking about the madness of Piero di Cosimo, 1452-1521.

Novelist George Eliot was among those who talked. After living in Florence in the 1860s, Eliot could not resist writing a historical novel about Florence. Perfectly understandable, of course. While she was writing her Florence novel, Romola, she could not resist giving Piero di Cosimo a crazed speaking part, tossing into the game some colorful madman eccentricities. A girl comes to Piero’s door with a basket of boiled eggs. Piero got to where he would only eat boiled eggs. He was so afraid of fire, he never cooked. He made one exception to that rule. He had to boil glue to seal the oils on his paintings, so he braved the fire for that, and while doing so he set out another pot to boil fifty eggs at a time. I particularly like the toads in Eliot places in his living room, and also the rabbit and roosting pigeons.

Before saying more about Piero di Cosimo, lets dig a little deeper into the history of this tradition of linking this madness thing with art and creativity.

Socrates, proclaimed, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, and are utterly eclipsed by inspired madmen.” Is this like, if you’re normal, don’t even bother? Stick to sales or accounting.

Poe bragged about being so touched. “Men have called me mad,” he said. “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”

Freud was in the game. After observing the body language of Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture in Rome, the doctor diagnosed the sculptor as laboring under a repressed rage against his patron Pope Julius II. Freud saw all that in the positioning of Moses’ marble foot, along with the way Moses fingers his beard. That sounds like a stretch, but it did turn out that Michelangelo eventually unleashed that rage on Pope. He nearly brained Julius with scaffold planks that he tossed from his high perch in the Sistine Chapel.

Coincidence or not, Sigmund Freud published his analysis of Moses-Michelangelo shortly after reading Giorgio Vasari’s artist biographies. Vasari was commenting at length on the peculiarities of many of the artists’ personal behavior. That was in the Sixteenth Century. Freud was writing about Michelangelo’s rage in 1914.

More recently, there’s the case of Martin Ramirez too. After being confined for decades in a mental institution, Ramirez became the poster boy for  artistis mental illness.  In 2008 a New York times article declared  Ramirez  “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”  Ok, he is good. Got that.   Now get this, the Wikipedia article on Ramirez leads with a line that reads, “Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) was a self-taught artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California.” See, Ramirez here is not an artist who happens to be mad, but a madman who makes art.

"Courtyard" by Martin Ramirez

We also have the poets weighing in their verse. Like Freud, some of them look at the art, and then think they see something of the artist’s mind.

Jean Valentine’s 2009 chapbook , Lucy, includes a poem called “Outsider Art”, about  Ramirez  and his art. In this case, Valentine acknowledges a whole lot more of the artist who happens to be insane, and gives him a place in our shared humanity. In the context of the rest of the chapbook, the Ramirez poem is among other poems thematically linked to “Lucy” a protohuman hominoid who died three million years ago. If Lucy is one of us, so is Ramirez.

Poet John Stone brings us back once last time here to Piero di Cosimo with “Forest Fire”, a meditation on the Cosimo painting of the same name. Just by making the painting the object of a poet’s attention, we are lead to wonder if “Forest Fire” has anything to do with Piero’s pathalogical fear of fire, or the beast-like nature that Giorgio Vasari claimed had strayed increasingly to the feral side over the course of his life. We wonder what, if anything, in the picture came out of the Rorschach visions of phlegm stains on a sickroom wall?

"Forest Fire" by Piero di Cosimo.

Vasari said Piero lived more like a beast than a man. Beast?  These words have lead to speculation about the Painting, “Forest Fire.” How can you help that when the painting is filled with beasts, one of which includes a pig with a half-human face, and a person with deer-like features.

Look here. Stone walks us back to a beastly primal myth time when people and animals were more alike. Lucy’s time, perhaps. The stories and pictographs of Native Americans sometimes speak of a myth time “when people and animals were not so different.” Stone observes in the painting:

A human snout
floats in the face of a swine.
A bearded man-deer nudges his doe.

Stone says all of them are “being” and because of the fire these beings are “being” driven out as the fully-formed humans discover the uses of fire. This brings on end of Eden and it’s low-hanging fruit. And so, Stone’s poem concludes with the expulsion:

…like God, Di Cosimo
conjured up a reason
to take it away.

–RS

(Thanks to Stefano Sandano, of Romanguide.com for passing along his take on Freud’s Moses of Michelangelo)

This post is dedicated to all my writer and poet friends who I met in those crazy days at the “Writers Asylum”.

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.

Also:

…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.