How do we know this is David?
I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.
David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin. And what is he holding anyway? And why do we have to walk around him to find out?
Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.
I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea. And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Even looking like a tourist. Which I was.
Which I am.
Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo. To Piazza San Marco. Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio. Stringing us along with juicy bits of history. Linking them together, telling a linear story. Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.
It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question. Or at the very least, begins that way.
And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter. Days later. Weeks later, when I write this.
I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.
That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.
That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.
Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush. Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty. They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.
And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle. Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.
I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging. And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.
That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary. He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there. Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.
A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.
Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school. In college. Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.
About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.
I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.
On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone. Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria. That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.
I hear her. I believe her – that I am brave. I own it. And share the greatest lesson I have learned. That I am terrified too. Of getting lost. Of looking stupid. Of…insert fear du jour here.
That I am terrified…but do it anyway.