Friday, April 16, 2010

No Accounting for Taste

At the Pitti Palace, we saw some really old stuff: art that had been inexplicably preserved against innumerable threats for hundreds of years. The luminous paintings and delicate sculptures there survived two incredibly violent millennia. But perhaps most importantly -- they survived the nasty vicissitudes of artistic taste. Because, if somebody like me had been in charge, even for a dozen years or so, a lot of that Renaissance-era cupid nonsense might have been in the dustbin of art history.

We all (stupidly) imagine that our taste is impeccable. We believe that we appreciate the things worth our regard, and hate the things worth hating. We imagine this even as we routinely chuck things from the past that seem dull, and rush off to Target to buy a knockoff of the next big thing. As I write this, contractors are ripping out the guts of our house in Brooklyn, turning a parlor into a kitchen and turning windows into walls. Part of the redo is to make the house fit the shape of our family. Part of it is to keep the house from crumbling into itself. But part of it is that I got bored with what I loved so much -- what I had to have -- ten years ago.

But it's not just us average Josephines whose aesthetic opinions change with the weather. The folks in charge -- the tastemakers themselves -- keep changing their minds. This seems particularly true of those who are being paid to have the best taste -- those folks invariably get cranky about what was just current a few weeks/months/eras before. So the better one's taste, the more likely that it is railing against something that was quite recently in fashion.

Take the Rough Guide: Florence. Please. We bought it for this trip, believing that it would steer us right. But then, as we started to read it back in Aups, looking for the best tourist destinations and picturesque churches and museums worth the price of admission, we discovered that nearly everything in Florence was awful. The book contained all the usual info on when everything opened and closed. But it didn't contain that delightful spark that promises the joy of a new city opening up like Venus on the halfshell. Instead, it warned us against a whole lot of dingy disappointments.

The sweet little market near our rented apartment, where we buy buffalo mozzarella, fresh eggs, and asparagus -- and get nicely flirted with in the process? The Rough Guide calls it "small and tatty." The terrific place where we bought gelato the other day? "Touristy and artificial." Michaelangeo's David? Believe it or not, this book calls his masterpiece "lumpy." The smackdowns in this book are ruthless, pointless, gratuitous, relentless. If you bought this book before you bought your tickets, I can't imagine you'd ever actually get here. We almost cancelled ourselves.

But then we got here. And wow. Some of this city's beauty was lasting and remarkable, some of it proto-tacky in the worst possible ways. But aside from the one time we used the Rough Guide to find dinner, (our first night here) we've loved it all. So I've gotten suspicious -- not only of the judgment of the Rough Guide, but also -- and perhaps more usefully -- of my own kneejerks of taste.

Travel might make you smarter and savvier -- eventually enough so that you can get a job with the folks at Rough Guide, sneering at the things at which bumpkins can only marvel. But actually living outside of our comfort zone for such a long time seems to have made us a lot more humble. We no longer trust our first thoughts on things, even our deepest-held assumptions, as they keep being foiled. The world keeps spooling out ahead of us, and there is always so much more to learn.

Let us remain bumpkins, forever.

For there is more to discover than what we first thought. After discovering what it is about Italianesque design that makes us so cringe, we have also discovered several elements of Italian design that we L-O-V-E- love. Old things. Stone things. Things that were carved out by monks and craftsmen hundreds of years ago, and then resolutely left unchanged as the next several centuries rolled on and on.

A few days ago, we had our time at the Pitti, surveying all that heavy drapery and pitying those missing appendages. There I marveled at all of the things that can be done in the effort to make skin deep so damn lovely. It helped us see all the stuff back in America we had seen as gaudy as related (somehow) to the Renaissance. But I didn't really, truly love what I saw.

But then, these last two days, on our slow, child's pace travels in and around Florence, we found artwork that nobody in their right mind would ever jettison. This was the stuff that even the grouches on staff at the Rough Guide couldn't find a way to criticize.

(Or at least I tell myself this, eager to feel that my own sense of taste matches up with the wisdom of time. But since both of these places we loved have survived so long -- many hundreds of years longer than any institution I care about -- most notably the U.S. of A. -- I have reason to believe that I'm right to think they're pretty damn special.)

The Museum of San Marco was at the center of the Venn diagram of things that Auntie Laura, Auntie Kate, Grandma Linda and Grandpa Gus insisted that we see while we're here in Florence. It's a beautiful old monastery, structured in plain vanilla geometry, painted in creamy vanilla paint, and decorated with the masterworks of just one phenomenal artist, Fra Angelico.

Before I got here, I thought that Fra Angelico was something you drank after dinner out of a tiny glass. Now that I have seen his frescoes, (and looked him up online to count his masterworks) I see just how wrong I was. He was a prolific pre-Renaissance painter, focused entirely on rendering scenes from the life of Christ in jewel-tone blues, reds, and pinks. And he is also a bonafide, full-on beatified Saint.

The downstairs of the former monastery is his museum. There are astonishing works of late-medieval Christian art, including a series of about two dozen panels depicting the important scenes of the New Testament.

Abigail's favorite painting here was Fra Angelico's version of the moment in Revelations when the graves all open and God divides the people of the earth, sending the lucky ones to Heaven, and the evil ones to Hell. The iconography is incredibly gripping -- the folks in Heaven stand around some nice looking foliage in a small, select circle, holding hands; while the masses in hell get boiled alive, eaten by their fellow hell-dwellers, and ripped apart and thrown into the mouth of a crocodile. These folks, skinned alive, have no way of forgetting how shallow their earthly beauty was.

But even this unsettling imagery was beautiful, in this context. It wasn't all jumbled in with a lot of other stuff, or trivialized in juxtaposition with lots of secular frou-frou. The room in which it was hung was decorated with only one artist. The art was hung against a background of one color, (Background Beige) within halls formed by just two kinds of shapes: half-spheres and squares. The roofs rose high into steady, repeated, regular forms. There was no interest in ornamentation, just foursquare logic. It wasn't quite as simple as a Quaker meetinghouse, but could not have been much further from the flounce of the Pitti and the grandeur of the Uffizi.

We played our usual family art games in San Marco's monastery. First we all split off in different directions to find our favorite painting, and then we gathered back in the middle of the room to tell each other what we had found. Grace chose the panels that told her the story of Christ. Abigail chose the stark divide between torture and salvation. Bill and I each found some funny little background detail -- the way the gold paint resolved itself into fabric, or the strange swirly paint on a set of steps. We then counted all the paintings where one face faces out, while the rest stare at Jesus and Mary in the center.

We are a family so distractible that we can barely follow our own sentences to completion. Yet this room made is all more serene. Rather than pushing onwards, we wanted to stay put. We really only ever feel like this in two other situations: on a big broad lawn in the sunshine, or around a big broad table together. This beautiful place somehow brought us to the same peaceful state we only find in nature, or at home. The building's architecture did its duty; this dizzy, spazzy family was suddenly contemplative and focused.

Upstairs from the museum portion of the San Marco were the cells, where monks lived for centuries, contemplating eternity, sacrifice, and yet more Fra Angelico frescoes, different ones painted on each monk's wall, like so many rock band posters in college dorm rooms. The frescoes upstairs were heavy on the Crucifixions, but hit all the big subject matter a monk might most wish to gaze on every day and every night. Despite the stark accommodations ("Where did these poor guys sleep?" Grace asked. "On the floor?") several of us were ready to move in ourselves.

Not that peons like us would ever have been afforded the choice, (and three of us are girls, hardly monk material) but if we had the choice to live like the royalty at the Pitti or like the monks in San Marco, we probably would have chose isolation and silent contemplation, just to be in those rooms everyday.

All of us, except Abigail. When I asked her about it this morning, she gave the sensible answer of the modern American: "When I grow up, I want to live in a huge mansion. You know, like the Pitti Palace."

She looked at me, thoughtful and careful, then added the final detail: "Except my mansion is going to have a really big TV."


  1. I swear to god if that one shot is of a formal garden taken from a hotel room I have stayed there with my dad in Florence... the third picture...

  2. It could be the same one -- but we were in a house. Maybe we were looking at the same one you saw, but from a different angle. It also bordered a theater, and sometimes there were musicians playing in the room across from our kitchen.

  3. WOW ... what amazing descriptions!

    Did I read rightly that you *own* a house in Brooklyn?

  4. How could anyone criticize that magnificent David??? And the cells adorned by Fra Angelico had me considering a monastic life as well - but only if I got to pick my own room, eat gelato everyday, and still be able to flirt with handsome Italian monks every now and then... I guess I'm not really ready for a nunnery, after all.

    I too am impressed about the renovations going on back in Park Slope. Did you guys hit the lottery or what? A year in France AND you then you get to return to a newly renovated home? That hardly seems fair!!! Seriously, that is great for you and your family. You have worked a lot of years and are now enjoying the benefits of hard work and good pay. I can't wait to see it... someday.