Archive for the 'Art History' Category



The weekend before last was spent a short train ride north of Rome in the Tuscan city of Florence. It’s a quaint city with a medieval charm; thick towers and heavy ramparts, rickety shops and narrow streets. It’s Firenze. The city of Dante, the Duomo, and the David.

Many Davids, actually, the most notable being those sculpted by Donatello and Michaelangelo. These sculptures, particularly the latter, are in an artistic league of their own. Like the Mona Lisa and La Pieta, they’re the sorts of things that you just know about. You’re not really sure when or where you first heard of them, let alone what’s so special about them, but you know they’re important. You know they’re good. So good that they’ve been bastardized countless times by kitschy replicas and gimmicky souvenirs. So good that, in spite of the fact that you walk into the museum knowing you’re about to see something magnificent, you leave with a loss for words, relying on trite accolades like “awesome” and “amazing.”


My visit to the “Casa di Dante” was a bit of a disappointment. It’s a museum dedicated to the great Italian poet, located in what may or may not have been his house. I had read that a few early manuscripts of The Divine Comedy — probably my favorite piece of literature — were on display there, but, alas, nothing. Instead, the casa essentially amounted to a history lesson on Florence in the time of Dante; interesting, no doubt, but I could have gotten more or less the same experience on Wikipedia.

There was, however, one particularly memorable Dante-related experience that came from this. As it turns out, the remains of Beatrice Portinari are interred in a small church just down the street. For the Dante fans among us, you’ll understand the specialness of being able to visit her grave. For those unfamiliar, it’s hard to put into words what Beatrice was for Dante, and to do so is to run the risk of tainting the perfection with which the poet characterized her. Many will be quick to say that she was his “muse;” and she certainly was, but she was also so much more. Suffice to say, Dante was captivated by this beautiful Florentine, and when she died an untimely death Beatrice became for him the embodiment of the most virtuous, spiritual love. Indeed, it is Beatrice that intercedes for Dante in the Comedy, guiding him through Paradise and setting him back upon the straight path. It is Beatrice that Dante appealed to, through his poetry, when he “awoke in a dark wood” after being expelled from Florence. Thus, in a very real sense, Beatrice unites Dante, his poetry, and the city that, despite its rejection of him, he never stopped loving.


And then there’s the Duomo. First, let’s set the record straight: Duomo does not mean dome. It’s derived from the Latin domus Dei, “House of God.” Thus, it’s a church. Any church is a Duomo, though it tends to be reserved for Italian Cathedrals. Incidentally, the Duomo of Florence does have a massive (and architecturally innovative) dome on top of it, and for six euro, you can climb to the summit.

Emphasis on climb. I believe it was something like 463 steps to the top, up seemingly endless spiral staircases and through cramped passageways. These are, mind you, the original passageways used during the construction of the dome in the early 15th century. And when you reach the top…



…it’s worth it. Very worth it.


Beneath a City


Today is the last day of Carnevale, the last day before the six weeks of penance; Lent. The beginning of Lent is, of course, marked by the giving of ashes, a reminder that we came from dust, and to dust we will return. Ash Wednesday. Tomorrow.

But today is Tuesday, and the morning was spent several meters beneath Rome in the Catacombe di Priscilla; the Catacombs of Priscilla. 12 kilometers of tunnels on four different levels, constructed in the first half of the first millennium AD. Only a small portion of the catacombs are open to hoi polloi, but, lo! we are not the public, we are young academics under the tutelage of a professor of art history, a professor who has permission from the nuns to go wherever he pleases!

And it pleased him to go many places. You see, the catacombs are, in a sense, policed by the innate human fear of the unknown. They are dark and filled with dead bodies; only a small portion of it is wired with lights and, like moths in the summertime, people like to the stick to the light. Wander off into the darkness? No thanks. But Professor Pace, armed with a nerve wrackingly dull flashlight and a zeal for art history, had no qualms about darting down seemingly random, inky corridors.

The mood was set early on when the professor stopped at an intersection, glanced at the lighted path to the left, the darkened path to the right, and told us to wait right there. He then, of course, went right, lifting the rudimentary iron bar that reminds people to stay on the lighted path and disappeared around the corner into the darkness.

Rustling. Then a bit of silence. Then an arm darts out from around the corner, in its hand half of a decrepit jaw bone. Then a thickly accented voice: “I hope you all brushed your teeth this morning!” as he wiggles the mandible in his hand.


The parts of the catacombs open to the public or otherwise used for clerical purposes have all been cleaned and manicured. Skeletons have been removed, many by early Christians to be venerated in churches as martyrs for the faith (bear in mind, many of these early Christians lived and died before Christianity was legalized in AD 313). The skeletons that were left were dealt with appropriately, with the end result being a clean, well-kept appearance.

But wander down the path less taken and there are bones and dilapidated skeletons everywhere, lying in recessed niches lining countless cavernous hallways, floor to ceiling, as far as the eye can see. It was, in a word, otherworldly. How else can it be described? Like Aeneas with the Sibyl, and Odysseus before him we wandered amongst the dead. At one point, the professor actually grabbed a loose femur, proclaiming himself to be like Hercules, with his club, and attempted to playfully knock me on the head with it — which I expertly parried with my umbrella. And in between all this madness, we were treated to some of the most pithy art I’d ever seen. Early Christian art, from a time when professing your faith meant a certain, gruesome death, here tucked away beneath the city; a bit of spiritual solace from the craziness of the world above.

And tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent. From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust.

(Special thanks to Brittany S. for the pictures.)