The Torre (tower) del Mangia, in the Piazza Del Campo
It was inspiring, ludicrous, dizzying - it was 400 stone spiral steps in a space only as wide as your shoulders. Up.
It was like this too in the Duomo in Florence. They let you know before you enter, it's 400+ steps. 400 steps in a spiral stone tower built for small medieval bodies, 500 years ago. People were smaller, and comfort was not paramount. These truths conflict with everything about modern American expectations. Fortunately, Bear and I are not very big, but we can get claustrophobic. As we neared the top of the Duomo, and the stairs got hilariously steep, we likened ourselves to Ren and Stimpy getting the "Space Madness."
One of the comforting features in both the Duomo in Florence and the tower in Siena,was the presence of wall writing, or to be more plain, graffiiti. When you enter the stairwell, the first thing you see is a sign reading "No Writing On The Walls" in 5 different languages - and in little more than 5 steps up, the novel of graffiti begins, in all 5 languages. Not so much in Seina, but in Florence, the wall words are endless, a continuum of dialogue overwriting, and overwriting, and overwriting itself for centuries, like the inner monologue of the place itself. The breath of the building, captured in scrawl.
The path of the steps curves along the dome, and tiny words fade right with it. (inside the Duomo, Florence)
The tower in Siena, however, was more plain. There may have been several centuries of faded graffiti, people never change, but the stairwell itself was much much tighter. My dad, at 6'3" could not have fit. I'm not sure anyone over 5'9" could've made it without some serious Space Madness.
There was a mid-point, which was inspiring enough - we could've stopped here...
(The dome and tower of the basillica of Siena)
But we spiraled, breathed, stopped, panted, we burned in the thighs and the calves, and we collapsed at the landing under a gray-green bell.
At first we didn't want to stand up. Then we did, and all was open sky, and tumbling country.
... and brown roofs, and rounded avenues, but I thought the greatest sight could only be heard - the floating levity of human life below. Rising in little whisps, blustering veils of chatter from stories down, the cutting ring of a shriek, tides of talking bells rising on the warm currents with the pigeons, and spiriting away like the ghost of frankincense on the breath of prayers.
Our world was below us. We were somewhere else.
Some places lay beyond the veil. If you don't know what I mean, go to Venice. We were there four days, but I hadn't been able to write about it. I had no idea where I was, and I still don't.
We arrived by train in the evening. Out the window, the land smoothed to water so quickly it seemed like an illusion. Lighting posts in the water. A train station. Seemed like any other train station.
Weary, we crack-a-lacked our baggage through the station, to the exit, where I expected we'd get a taxi to our hotel. Faintly, through the exit I saw a bus go by, I asked if we should take a bus instead, Bear said, "that's not a bus."
I don't think I've stood with my mouth agape, so shamelessly...ever. I really hadn't understood. The are NO ROADS in Venice. I thought there we some, but...no. No cars, no roads, all water. I heard myself laughing, this can't exist. But there it was, business as usual with boat busses, boat taxis, personal boats, police boats, and of course the iconic Gondolas. Oh my God, this is not Disneyland, this is what Disneyland is based on.
It was freezing and windy when we caught the boat to out hotel. Our stop was San Zaccharia, right near the famous San Marco square, and there were several stops before ours. We got to the port weather-beaten, worn and frozen. At San Zaccharia, we asked two strolling policemen where we could find our hotel, Locanda Vivaldi (our thematic hotel choice). They gave us our first taste of Venetian style directions "it's two bridges from here, to the left." Two bridges. The address didn't matter, just count bridges. Also, funny that they bothered to mention it was on the left...off the right was the Ocean.
We pressed and pulled our big American bags up and down the two bridges - clunking over centuries-old marble, with all the grace of dung beetles (and far less skill).
Locanda Vivaldi, has two glass doors with treble clef handles. I might've been cheesed out if I weren't so frozen and tired, however, after I acclimated to the main room, I was charmed. The lobby had a scent, like a smokey floral spirit, and the walls were dressed in satin and lace.
The walls outside our room were decked with Carnivale masks, and mirrors, and the floor was color blocked marble, with confetti-like borders.
Our room was waiting with complimentary champagne, glass chandeliers, and more beautiful wall dressing. We were excited about our new digs...at first. Then we starting the business of trying to live in our new digs. There was no hot water that night. Then, the toilets were not working. Then we discovered the internet would only work if you sat out in the hall. With the door closed. This is Venice in a nutshell. More magical than you can possibly imagine, and slowly falling apart.
I woke up to what my mind told me was a growling garbage truck, but what was actually a utility boat, grundling past my window. We shared a breakfast room with a group of Germans on holiday, then set off to walk ourselves around the strange and exotic planet of Venice.
You have to start at Saint Marco's Basilica. I have never seen such a fusion of devotion and whimsy. It's like The Church Of Neverland. I don't mean any insult by this, quite the contrary, it's incredible, but it struck me as a stone and marble interpretation of something which was originally built of sand, shells, and construction paper cutouts from a child's hanging mobile. It's playful, and it's shameless. Unbridaled reverence.
The Grand Canal...
From the Rialto Bridge...
Bear has some tea at a random shop...looking cheeky and euro.
We have more tea at Florian...
the oldest tea shop in Venice...
Waking off the beaten tourist path is not hard. It's very easy and very obvious. You just turn away from the herd. The streets of Venice are so thin and so circuitous, they're like canyons cut with rivers of tourists. Smaller veins branch from these, and when you pull off into one of these lanes, the din fades surprisingly fast. But then where are you? You'd expect to see locals, going about their local business, but you see no one. You hear no one.
Back to the labyrinth of consumerism.
Like salmon in a maze flipping tongues instead of tails in different languages. Schooling through these small intestines, a thousand years in the making , a thousand years since an Adriatic marsh became a Mecca of lux, and power, and art, and exploration, and vanity, and sex. A thousand years of legs and feet and timber, conquering slush and wind and salt, to a thousand iPhones and eye-straining spring breakers, shouting off the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal.
And your private avenues are silent.
Venezia, where are you? I came to see you.
Empty waterways, and a faceless Madonna. She's on the Grand Canal, and there are usually fresh flowers near her.
I ate exquisite sea bass, served to me by a man who insisted I try the second of the sauces he brought to me - he had made the second. I don't like lemon with fish, but I tried it for him, and it was wonderful. But I didn't taste your essence.
I bought strings of gold beads made out of Venetian glass, and walked around my room wearing nothing but those, treating myself to the fantasy of a courtesan. But I didn't feel your gaze.
I ate strawberry and lemon sorbet at your oldest tea room. I drank rose tea. Something blossomed within me, but it was an echo of a scent, or a color. Venezia, I came to see you.
I laid my head down on your soft white pillow, and I had a dream of someone else's pain. The screaming went on all night, and she shook and she tossed and she cried until I woke within the dream myself to beg God for mercy on her, until I woke in my own bed, and pulled the covers close, wondering what you had pulled out of me. I Laid my head on your pillow, Venezia.
I looked into your masks for the soul of Carnivale. I smiled at your tiny glass harlequins, with their wicked lanky thighs and pin prick nipples. I looked down the noses of the devil masks, and through the masquerade lace, for nothing more than a wink. I was looking for your eyes, Venezia.
I looked up at the man who was rowing our gondola when he told us that many of the houses were abandoned. These grand old choppers, like ancient gold teeth in the mouth of the bay, timeless stone, grinning forever as the biggest gangster on the seas - beautiful, timeless, elegant....cavities.
I laid my hands on your walls in St. Marco's Basilica. I read the mandalas on your glittering golden ceiling, and walked around the griffins and pagan creatures frescoed on your marble floor. I laid my hands on your walls, Venezia. And I held them there.
Venezia, where are you? I came to see you. I came to reach into your heart, and found a hand full of salt.
4/7/13 Goodbye Firenze.
I'm on a train from Firenze (Florence) to Venezia (Venice). I was looking forward to a relaxing ride, with my head back, enjoying the passing countryside...didn't realize this was a high speed train which spends most of the trip in tunnels. Nada much to see so far...so I'll talk about somehting else for a second.
Ok other things.
Well, the sun was out in Florence today, so we sat by the river, in sight of the Ponte Vecchio.
Ya know, just hangin' out lookin' at the Ponte Vecchio (that bridge over there). No big deal, whatever.
I also bought myself some Florentine fleur de lis pins to mark my trip.
Now we're leaving the station after our first stop, a suburb of Florence I guess, I missed the name. It's the other side of the tracks literally. Tall, monochromatic, cement monoliths, with laundry lines, and graffiti, splashed on every stone surface. Industrial. Not Da Vinci's World anymore.
It's been 20 minutes, now we're in the countryside. Or it cold be a greener version of Spain, or it could be Bakersfield, but then there's something about the farm houses, the particular mode of overgrowth. Now passing a small town, half old world, half ticky- tack, long dry fields, getting greener. Ducks. Really could be Bakersfield for long stretches, but for the murmur all around us of flipped 'r' sounds and "ciao" popping out after cell phone chimes.
Now entering Ferrara! Still looks like Bakersfield.
Now there are some awesome "villa" kind of textures going on. There were more on the road from Rome to Florence but I assume we'll see that when we get to Rome later. Just a giant sky now, and haphazard squares in browns and yellows and some pinks. Every residence could be the cover of a Restoration catalogue. Hard to tell which structures are in use and which are abandoned. Train going too fast to get pictures.
- Dude - the train just made some kind of horn, or alarm sound, and it was a minor seventh, back and forth. Very unexpected! Way to keep it hip, Italy.
Now have Steely Dan song "Josie" in my head, because the arrangement begins with a minor 7th interval.
Ah, Bear says we're nearing Venice, just entered another tunnel......
...out of tunnel....houses getting much more dense. I think we're doing another stop. A place called Padova. Even out here, I notice the station snack shop is translated into English: "coffee, chips, tea"
Now we've shoved off, and the town reminds me of towns we passed in Germany when we took a train from Berlin to Dusseldorf. Towns with old buildings like hulking sculls of brick and stone, mostly churches, lapped on all sides by new constructions from various decades. Or maybe all one decade, but I couldn't say which one.
There are a bunch of trees here, then small houses, then an old brick grandfather of a relic, then, I shit you not, a diagonal tilted office building. Looks like it has comb teeth coming out of all sides. Like it was once a very tall pyramid, and then it saw something over to the right, and it leaned over to look, and stayed. And all the rest of the architecture around it pretended like nothing happened.
...hold on, whats happening..
...wait, where did all the land just go..?
...to be continued...
My day at the Ufizzi Gallery, or:
The Ufizzi Gallery in Florence is an endurance test.
I mean, it's a museum, with some of the world's masterworks by the likes of Bottecelli, Da Vinci, and Michalangelo...but it will wear your ass down.
By the end of your time in those priceless halls, under the beautifully grotesque painted ceilings, you will find yourself looking at the amputee Roman sculptures with their blank marble eyeballs, saying, "yeah man, I feel ya."
That said, go. Just go, when you can.
The vibrations of human perception, inspiration, and interpretation have energized these works for hundreds of years, and it bounces right back at you. I saw Botticelli's Venus, which I've seen a million times on fridge magnets, t-shirts, you name it, but to see the full sized work in context with his other work, in context with other contemporary art, is to understand why the guy was popular. Subject matter in those days, was not a free for all. Botticelli could not paint a picture of his bandaged ear or splatter paint on a canvas, it was all religion, or politics (commissioned portraits etc.) or mythology, so your distinction was all style. Botticelli is, basically (and I am clearly not an art scholar) nice to look at. Beautiful. There's a hell of a lot more going on with him, but that was the biggest impact for me - lyrical, flowing, feminine lines (in my opinion) gorgeous. In contrast, the Michelangelo I saw brought out a bright, colorful, three-dimensionality, which seemed eerily 20th century. Have to check him out some more, I have no context for this observation.
Photography is not allowed in the Ufizzi, so in case you are unfamiliar with the work, I submit my rendering of Botticelli's Venus from memory.
But truly, one of the last pieces I saw will stay with me forever.
Da Vinci's version of The Annunciation. Remember last post when we talked about that? The angel who came to tell The Virgin Mary that her baby was gonna be dope? That scene.
I was trying to explain to Bear the way this painting made me feel. I told him when a painting really moves me, I hear it. Not like music, but a certain type of stillness, almost like a charge in the air. Each detail in the distance comes to me like deep reverberation, like something which happened a long time ago, but happens again, and again, each time your eyes behold it. Everyone's hip to the supposed "sacred geometry" or hidden messages so popular to fling around in Da Vinci inspired pop culture, but the sense of perfection...the sense that this painting is a readable text, is undeniable.
The word "perfect" keeps coming to mind, but that really doesn't cover it. When I stood in front of the work, I felt a sense of balance from the razor tip of my subconscious. Without measurement, without mathematical accuracy, I knew everything was in its place for this precise expression.
Oddly, the Virgin in this portrait is not very enthused by the angelic visit. In earlier depictions of this scene, dating back to pre-Renaissance versions, the Virgin displays various reactions spanning from abject fear, to raptured bliss.
Da Vinci's Mary is composed. Almost like she was expecting it.
Photography is not allowed in the Ufizzi, so in case you are unfamiliar with the work, I submit my rendering of Da Vinci's Annunciation from memory.
SO, WE WENT TO YOUR MOM'S HOUSE
Two days ago, Wednesday night, when we were out at dinner at the Hobbit house restaurant, remember? a couple posts ago...look it up, I'll wait...
Ok. So on that night, Tom Riley (Da Vinci himself), mentioned an "a-maz-ing" lunch the cast had gone to, at a little B&B villa in the little town of Vinci, outside Florence. Rumor is, that little villa is the historic residence of none other than Leonardo Da Vinci's mother. The story goes (very, very, roughly), that Da Vinci's mother re-married after Da Vinci was grown, moved out of Florence, and opened this B&B which still stands today (FYI this story has nothing to to with the narrative of the TV show, just local legend). So the Da Vinci cast went there, and had such a great time that Tom invited everyone to go back there on Friday , to celebrate Tom's birthday a second time. At Leonardo Da Vinci's mom's house. Sweet.
7pm-ish, Florence, Italy. Two vans worth of boisterous Da Vinci inspired Americans and Brits, bumped out of the city and into the Tuscan countryside. The cast said they remembered the ride taking around 30 minutes, but 30 minutes in, it was dark, and we had already passed two signs which read "Vinci" over a big arrow. Conversations began to involve the words "lost" and "driver" with an upward inflection indicating concern.
Laughter...then more words like "kidnapping" and "dark outside."
Finally, the drivers pulled over and turned around. Ether we'd been bad children and they were taking us home, or they were heading back to one of those signs we'd passed which said "Vinci." With an arrow.
Vinci with an arrow. Ok. Headlights swiped the reflective word, and we were back on track.
In less than 10 minutes, a small, lantern lit villa came into view. A healthy sized fluff of a tabby cat trotted out of the way, and up a hill beside the house. The room could only accommodate about three large parties. The other diners eyed us as we passed to our table near the large brick fireplace. We were clearly not locals.
The chef entered the main room. The actors, and an effervescent Fox rep named Chrystal (hey girl) greeted her warmly. "Mama!" I never got her real name, because everyone called her Mama, which was completely fitting. She looked like the mama of all of Italy. Mama was a lovely, round, aproned, matriarch of ruddy cheeks, hearth, and spice smells. The air in the room was not dense, but cooking scents were so ingrained, the whole room whispered a permanent smoke of comfort. "Mama" did not speak any English, but it didn't matter, she was taking care of us tonight.
We sorted ourselves out, and sat down at our long table. A large orange tabby framed himself in the far left window over Tom. Wine arrived immediately, bread in baskets, and a dish involving artichokes and oil - kind of a tart and bitter taste to it. Then meat slices arrived with oil, three different kinds of prosciutto, one with lemon, a cheese plate, and finally a first course: baked pasta with cheese. It looked and smelled like a dream, but of course I couldn't have any. I enjoyed the scent.
Then the meat course. Oh my. As a West Los Angeles native, who eats vegan 90% of the time, seeing this type of meat display was otherworldly. I felt like I was a guest at a Klingon feast (ask your nerd friend). Everyone was blown away. It was veal. Like a whole little cow, in a square, sliced. It was too astounding for moral objection. We took pictures.
The night was babbling, and imbibing, and storytelling, and overwhelming, and Mama was a goddess of plenty, rosey and creaseless...until someone asked for mustard. I'm not sure who it was, but it was communicated to a server (who happened to be her husband) that someone desired mustard. He froze. Mama froze as well - she hadn't heard the request, but she registered something was amiss. The man struggled to find words, finally he said he could not translate the request, not because he didn't understand - but because he simply couldn't. By this time Mama understood. For the first time in the evening she was not smiling. She wasn't angry, wasn't sad, it was something beyond shock - like a spiritual earthquake. Someone would desire to change the flavor of her cooking? This isn't done. The two servers and Mama went back to the kitchen after that, and we didn't see them again for about 15 minutes.
We felt like we'd pissed in the holy water.
But nature will intervene and bring back the buoyancy. And so it did, when it rounded the end of the table in the form of a ball of orange fur, and jumped up on one of our laps. The orange cat who had been peering in on us from the window over Tom's head, had come into the room and parked on Christine's lap. He would not get up.
This is an ample amount of well fed, Tuscan, orange tabby.
Finally, Tom went to rescue the lap, and then he himself was inhabited...
Kitty got comfy with Da Vinci. Very fast.
Da Vinci cat made the rounds of all the cast member laps, and when Mama's husband saw this, he said it was unusual - that the cat is not generally friendly - well, this was the friendliest hunk of cat I've come across in a long time.
Da Vinci cat making bridge from Tom to Chrystal...cat with Laura Haddock...Cat with Lara Pulver
The evening closed with yet another birthday cake and gifts, (we gave Tom a Leonardo Da Vinci coloring book and crayons. We hope it inspires him) champagne and dessert, and all was fine with Mama again.
On the way home, we were in a van with Lara and Tom. Tom, surfing on his iPhone, found an "unauthorized" book about the making of Da Vinci's Demons, the TV show. Huh? Remember, the show was 2 weeks from airing at this point. What could they possibly be talking about? Was the cat a spy? We dissected the possible contents of this book, for as long as we could, which wasn't very long, because Mama's baked pasta was still with us, soothing us into calorie trances. So we let it go.
The mysteries of Leonardo never cease, they just get weirder, darker, more serpentine... and furrier.