An Italian Sojourn: On Making sense of an experience

tumblr_inline_o84qroHoMO1unug10_1280Uffizi Gallery, Florence


David by Michelangelo, Accademia Gallery, Florence


The Colosseum, Rome

Civilization really began when man could carve on caves, even before he could speak. These are the words that have resonated in my head ever since I have been to Italy. This and also these  – What is beauty? What is it supposed to make you feel?

Childhood and Italy

Philosophers, artists, scientists, poets, writers have pondered over the meaning of beauty. I went to Italy after having yearned for it for over 13 years and I do believe I have found a version of beauty. It’s intangible – a feeling, often indescribable.

For as long as I remember, the past has seemed more alive to me than the present.  A long time ago, I read this book. I was introduced to words and names  – familiar, yet alien, magical to ears. Medici. Michelangelo. Botticelli. Savonarola. Frescoes. Also, temptation. Faith. Morality. Florence.

Florence, the word seemed like breathing in the fragrance of something which was alive – moving, exotic. Induced such a painful yearning that have lasted through the years.  And I was sure I will never see this place. How could I? I thought I was either too trivial for Florence or that I would remain 15 and penniless forever. More significantly, it was the latter. And if you have been 15 (which presumably you have), you know what it’s like to have your future stretch to an endless nothingness. That is, if you were a ‘normal’ 15 year old of the brooding variety.


The Grave of John Keats, the 19th century English poet, Non-Catholic Cemetery, Rome


A view of the Roman Forum (a group of Govt. buildings, temples, palaces from the Roman empire – dating from 7th century BC to 1st century AD) from the Palatine Hill


And Renaissance had only existed in the staid textbooks of  school, until  I started exploring the subject on my own during teenage years.

The authenticity of seeing art


 Sleeping Ariadne (Arianna Addormentata), 3rd century AD,  with Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo in the background; Ufizzi Gallery, Florence


Venus of Urbino, Titian, Uffizi Gallery, Florence


The School of Athens, Raphael, Vatican Museums, Rome


St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome


Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, made when he was still a teenager; Casa Buanarroti, Florence


Palazzo Medici, the home to Cosimo and Lorenzo Medici, the place where Leonardo, Michelangelo and Botticelli are all said to have dined and visited


Ceiling of Lorenzo Medici room at Palazzo Vecchio, Florence: the painting depicts Lorenzo the Magnificent receiving ‘exotic’ gifts from dignitaries


I recently read a wonderful post by an art historian – it was on the authenticity of seeing art face to face. The premise being – the power of art is only apparent when you are there taking in the magnificence of it vs. admiring it from afar on your computer screen.

And she is right. What is the impact of seeing David’s aesthetic beauty on screen vs. the intensity of his furrowed brow or the tense muscles? What is Venus’s (in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus) innocence on the screen vs. beholding the small details – the motion of the shawl, the almost missed detail of the coming of spring on the island? Raphael’s ambitious School of Athens on screen vs. taking in its full scope – almost audacious in its conception. Seeing Titian’s Venus of Urbino on screen vs. seeing the actual portrait – thinking that you are intruding on a shockingly private scene?

Also, reading about and imagining the Medicis’ (15th century ‘Godfathers’) power vs . looking at the proofs of their legend. Feeling that, yes, in these rooms, genius and vision have existed. These rooms where a young, audacious  Leonardo; the contradictory,
moody  Botticelli; the 14 year old precociously talented Michelangelo have sat and dined with the visionary, Lorenzo Medici. Where also common, almost mundane things like birth and death, love and hate,  fear and jealousy have existed.

Or these ruins which where once the pinnacle of world civilization. In your imaginations, these ruins are not simply that – but the beginning of man’s potential in all its glory.

I like to call myself an atheist. And yet, after visiting over 10 churches, each more powerful in its beauty than the other, I understand the power of belief, when not taken to extremist views. The panels and the frescoes. The tombs. The chapels. Rooms where beauty exists because faith has existed.

Rome and Florence: A study in contrasts

When I think Rome, I think mythology and power. When I think Florence, I think transcendent beauty. Both evoked equally intense but very different emotional experiences – Rome induced awe, while Florence often brought me close to tears.

Being in Rome made me feel the triviality of some of the modern day achievements. It made me say – really, in the 21st century, yet another smarter version of a mobile phone is the pinnacle of human achievement? Rome will make you feel so very very small. At the same time, you feel privileged to be breathing the air where people have given birth to the Western civilization.


Santa Maria in Trastavere, Rome


Salvi’s Trevi Fountain, Rome


Rome is also a contrast within itself . It is about the many Caesars, but it’s also Constantine’s foundation of St Peter’s. It’s the romantic idea of Salvi’s Trevi fountain, but also the peace of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s the glories of Vatican museums, but also the melancholy of Keat’s final home.

Onto Florence now. If I could choose where to live and die, that’s Florence. Who wouldn’t want to die amongst beauty?

A previously insignificant city, rose from  one of the most devastating disasters to hit mankind – the black death that killed 60% of the Europe’s population in the 14th century – and brought an end to the period known as the Dark Ages in the early 15th century, to give birth to what modern men know as art, politics, architecture, music, publishing, science (albeit a part of it). I remember thinking – ‘Beauty was surely born here’.

Back in the 15th century Florence, men started to have ideas that kindled a movement called the Renaissance. It had its roots in ‘humanism’ – that humans are not powerless set of creatures plagued by superstitions, but had agency and could shape their own
futures.  People went back to the classical texts from the ancient Roman empire and they studied ancient sculptures. Humanism encompassed ideas of arts and sciences, and would later be called Humanities, excluding the sciences.


The Duomo or the Dome, designed by Brunelleschi and an inspiration for Michelangelo’s Dome for St. Peter’s.


Perseus with the head of Medusa, Cellini


Basilica of Santa Croce, the resting place of some of the Renaissance geniuses – Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo

What was Renaissance?

Poets and thinkers were aware that a  change was in the air, yet no one gave it a name until the Michelangelo-worshipping artist, Vasari, termed it in the mid 16th century – ‘Renaiscita’ – resurrection, rebirth, revival, Renaissance.

Renaissance was the realization of the humanity of people. That humans were vital, emotional beings and needed to be studied as such. So went away the staid lifeless depictions of Madonna of the dark ages and came the vital Madonna of the Renaissance – shockingly human in familiar Tuscan landscapes.

Understanding beauty

Being in Florence was an experience beyond thought. I remember being euphoric and sad as if what I saw here now will be taken from us any second. What I thought was about satisfying my dreams to see the art and architecture actually deepened my yearning.

Florence is where I have felt the most alive. I think I understood beauty, and I understood a line that I have come back to again and again.

“Beauty is terror. It’s rarely soft and conciliatory.”

Beauty isn’t supposed to make you comfortable, relaxed and peaceful. No. Beauty hits you with an intensity and a violence unexpected. It’s terrifying in its ability to grasp you and imprison you. ‘Emotionally fraught and imprisoned’ is how I will describe my experience of Florence.

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror

which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,

because it serenely disdains to destroy us.

Every angel is terrible.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

Having discovered where beauty lives, I shall go back.

What did I learn?

All ‘proper’ travel bloggers must describe what they learnt. So, here it goes. I learnt this: that beauty exists, that art can change the world, and that we the unfortunates of the 21st century have forgotten ‘beauty’.

I also learnt this: I need to be dissatisfied. Say no to the modern search for happiness and satisfaction. I shall search for dissatisfaction and  I shall yearn. Because satisfaction will end my search for beauty. So I shall yearn on.

Also, this practical thing: Don’t try to do Florence, while killing yourself, in 3 days. Calm down. Breathe. Florence will be here and you will be back.

I learnt this as well: That mysteries of art can never be decoded completely. Don’t try to. I went through Rome and Florence trying to decode and understand every single thing – yet, what do I know still? Can you fully decipher 2000 years of human history?

Keats talked about the the art of negative capability – the ability to live and breathe in uncertainties and mysteries, no looking out for fact and reason. So I shall convince myself of that. That Rome and Florence are mysteries that can never be unraveled.

That’s all for now. I am saying that’s all, though I have rambled on.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s