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All Saints Day

I’ve been in a lot of churches. If you study architecture, they ladle their floor plans on you like gravy, so you get familiar with all sorts of churches from around the world. I’ve never been in a church that could compare with the chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti in Florence, Italy. All Saints.

It’s got a lot of competition in Florence. Some of the most notable churches ever built, really. The big draw in the city is Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flower), i.e. the Florence Cathedral:

The exterior of this cathedral looks like a giant wedding cake made out of marble. It’s staggering to look at, and really brightly colored. It’s more famous for its duomo than anything else, though, and for good reason:

Photo credit

If you’re wondering about the scale of that thing, if you look closely you can see people standing on an observation ledge up near the top. We stood there ourselves. It was fun unless you thought too hard about the railing, that was no doubt installed by the low bidder in the middle ages. You get up there by climbing a narrow stone staircase between the inner and the outer dome. You can’t stand up, really, and have to lean your hand on the inner wall to steady yourself the whole way.

It’s still the largest dome in the world made out of bricks. They worked on the building for more than a century with no idea how to build the dome on top of it. Brunelleschi, one of the smartest ginks I’ve ever heard of, said he could do it, and he could do it without the usual timber form work and scaffolding to hold it up during construction. Oh, yes, he also invented linear perspective. That’s like saying you invented fire or the wheel or something.

But the interior of the church is sorta drab in comparison with the exterior. There’s a big mural on the underside of the dome that depicts people who put premium gas into rental cars ascending to heaven, and the seven circles of call waiting, and other biblical scenes. It’s ugly and hamfisted compared to the interior of Ognissanti.

Ognissanti is on an out-of-the-way street. I knew in my heart I would only have one trip to Florence, or anywhere else for that matter, and I used to roam around the city very early in the morning while my wife and our traveling companions slumbered. I happened upon it completely by accident. I remember it had a strip painted about chest high on the exterior wall by the door that marked the high water line of some flood or another they suffered in Florence. Like Mark Twain before me, I couldn’t picture the Arno causing a big flood like that. Like Sam said, it would be a passable river, if they pumped some water into it. But then again, he was used to the Mississippi.

There was a Mass of some sort going on in Ognissanti. A few dozen people were in attendance. It was held in Italian, which I learned for the trip, and it was so close to the Latin from my childhood that it brought a tear of remembrance to my eye. A Catholic Church Mass used to be a serious business. They’re competing with Unitarians, now, I gather.

I sat there in that church and it blasted my eyes out. I’ve never seen painting like that in my life. The trompe l’oeil on the ceiling and the walls was mesmerizing. It’s all just painted plaster and oil paintings.

But look who painted the stuff: Giotto, Domenico and David Ghirlandaio, and Sandro Botticelli. The church had been rather plain inside, too, but the locals liked the religious order who ran it, the Humiliati, and started delivering works of art and relics to the place, and remodeled it to a version of Baroque grandeur. They’ve got St. Francis of Assisi’s scratchy bathrobe, for instance. There are a series of chapels that fan out from the main altar you see in the picture, and each one is more astonishing than the last.

Boticelli is buried there, and so is Amerigo Vespucci. They named our country after him, so I thought I should drop by his bier and asked him, sotto voce, if he’d like to take his name off it, out of embarrassment. He was cagey on the point. Amerigo’s cousin Simonetta is buried there, too, near Botticelli who used her for a model for a lot of his paintings.  So did Piero di Cosimo:

That’s probably her rising out of the waves on a clamshell, too.

It was maybe twenty five years ago when we went. I assume the church is an Arby’s or something now, because that’s the way of the world. But for a brief moment, sitting on a bench in the back, alone but not lonely, with the Italian words washing over me, it made me remember that architecture wasn’t always a contest to see how ugly you can make something. And it has always been fun to be afraid you’d be struck dead by lightning if you turned around in church during the service, because the nuns told you so. Nuns wouldn’t lie, would they?

Quick, Hide the Hide Glue. Sippican Is Coming

Man, I love hard work. I could watch it all day.

I’ve actually been to Firenze, many years back. We wandered all over the place, and met all sorts of people, including long-lost relatives who were likely happy to remain lost, and are probably still counting their spoons. The museums are ridiculous. There are finer objets displayed in the lobby of the restroom than in any museum in America. There was no room for it in the regular parts of the museum, jammed with Michelangelos and DaVincis and Titians and that gang.

There are a lot of craftsmen in Florence, of many different kinds. There’s a whole neighborhood filled with guys making stone inlay tables that cost more than space shuttles. Mark Twain extolled their wonders in The Innocents Abroad, the funniest book I ever read. You should get a copy of that book before they bowdlerize it. I assume it’s no longer allowed to call Italians fumigating, macaroni-stuffing organ grinders, so I assume they’ll “fix” it, and the covers of the book will be very close together indeed.

I learned to speak Italian passably well before I went. I listened to Pimsleur tapes while driving, and at the time, I’m sure I looked crazy to other drivers, yelling Italian in an empty car. Of course everyone talks endlessly in empty cars now, worshipping at the temple of the God of Apple, and looking just about as crazy, but you don’t notice it so much.

Speaking the local lingo made lots of bonus points with the denizens of Florence. They’d treat the average tourist as a cash machine, but if you at least parloed with them haltingly they’d treat you like a friend. I met a group of woodworkers, in a barroom, of course, and they wanted to know how we did it in America, so they picked my brain, and I pestered them in return. I managed to tell a joke in Italian, a prodigious effort I can tell you, and everyone laughed, and they damn near adopted me. They all had next to no machinery or tools of any kind, and every man-jack of them was a better woodworker than anyone I’ve ever known. For shiggles they used to make gigantic wooden bolts and nuts. The nuts turned on the threads like they were steel, and made in a factory. They made them with hand tools. If you locked me in a prison cell with a baulk of wood and their tools, and told me I would be released when I managed to make one half as good as theirs, I would immediately make a wooden knife and slash my wrists, to save time.

So I visited (translation: drank grappa) with guys who made picture frames worthy of anything in the Uffizi, and leather goods, and gold jewelry, and every other thing under the sun that no one seems to know how to make anymore outside a factory.

I missed the whole luthier scene though. Maybe they were on the wagon.

The Sippican Cottage Musical Test dell’Acidità

Everyone likes what they like. They don’t know why they like it. They assemble reasons to explain their affection after the fact. It’s a weird form of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Because things happened in sequence, the first caused the second. With pop music, it’s a sequence of one thing. I like it. Fire up the confirmation bias furnace. Unroll your cart-building plans after the horse steps on your foot. He couldn’t do that if he had a cart in front of him.

I mentioned pop music, but music is no different than any other topic in this regard. Everyone works backwards. It goes something like this:

  • I like it
  • If I like it, it’s good. No way I could like something bad
  • If I like it, there must be a good reason
  • I am wise, so the entity that produced the thing I like must be important
  • Liking important things makes me more important
  • If you do not like what I like, it’s because you’re a philistine

I have never successfully convinced another human that it’s perfectly OK to like dreck. I have pointed out many things that are dreck to persons who liked them, but did not think they were dreck. This always led to one of two reactions, either of which resulted in enmity towards me, not the thing itself:

  •  You’re right, it is dreck. I can’t like dreck, so I can’t like it any more. I hate you for ruining my fun
  • It’s not dreck. [Insert name of person with no talent here] is a genius, and [insert name of magazine here] says so.

The whole mindset leads to 50 year old men telling you that Motorhead is Mozart, and Camille Paglia telling you that Madonna is Moliere.

So, to make things easier, I’ve invented the Sippican Cottage Musical Acid Test:

If you’re from Liverpool, and your composition is played Santuario-di-Madonna-di-San-Luca-skiffle style by five Bolognese men a half a century after you wrote it, you’re on to something with your approach to songwriting. That’s as far as I’ll go.

Tag: Italy

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