An afternoon at the Pitti Palace has finally helped me to better comprehend a particular aesthetic vocabulary I have never before understood. It's the world of heavy embroidered curtains and trompe l'oeil frescoes. Of chubby cupid overload and marble inlaid in sixteen different colors. It's decorating an entire room all matchy-matchy in just one super-saturated red or green or mustard, and then doing the next room in yet another.
In its modern American incarnation, this is the style of wedding palaces and overfancy Italian restaurants. You find faux-Renaissance swirliques and fussy details echoed in marble showrooms in midtown Manhattan, and "fancy" hair salons in Bay Ridge. I had very little idea that it had its higher-culture roots in something real.
Protestant and New England to my core, I have always found this style icky, really -- deeply, stickily icky. But somehow, after my close encounter with Medici Glory today, I'm much more compelled.
Auntie Laura, connoisseur of all things Italian, described the Pitti Palace as "totally over the top." We would agree. The exterior is dreary, grey, and forbidding. The lighting in many of the rooms is awful, either too dark or too stark. But for sheer oil paint per square inch of wall space, it would be hard to beat. Essentially, the museum is room after room of down-at-the-heels super-fancy baroque room design hung with as many famous and quasi-famous Renaissance Era paintings as could be scraped together by several ruling families over several hundred years.
Many of the paintings are enormous. There is a famous gargantuan Rubens painting of a naked, super-fleshy Venus pulling Mars away from the temptations of the Furies. Essentially, this is an allegory of the relationship between love and war. The girls were quite certain that Venus would win over the martial spirit, but Bill pointed out how strongly she (Love) was attracted to war. That Bill -- he's a smart one. In the enormous category, there are a number of allegorical paintings, many of them depicting various kinds of trauma, casualty, or danger. I can only assume that they were the PG-13 movies of their day.
There was lots of nudity, just as at the Uffizi the other day. Pondering all the butts and boobs and frontal nudity, Abigail had a further comment on the difference between art and smut. According to her, "it's not inappropriate if everyone in the painting is naked."
However, speaking of inappropriate, many of the marble statues at the Pitti seem to have suffered the same horrible fate. If I were a mother of boys, I would think twice before bringing my kids into the palace, as statue after statue after statue seemed to have been relieved of its penis. Some of the other statues had lost a head, or some fingertips, or another jutting appendage to the ravages of time, but the ones missing their manhood struck me as particularly bereft. Hanging out in the halls of the Pitti too long could really give a little guy a complex.
Many of the smaller paintings are presumably faithful likenesses of remarkably unattractive people. If I were as ugly as many of the Medicis appear to have been, I would have thought twice about having my visage memorialized and then hung forever. One particularly odd-looking (but presumably powerful) guy was carved out of a block of Maroon-colored marble. I can't imagine that the job of court portrait painter would have been an awfully pleasant assignment. If your painting was good, it would look bad. If it looked too good, you’d lose your job. And just imagine how an all-powerful ruling family would react if you made their famous family nose one whit bigger -- or smaller.
About half the rooms were hung with art. The other half were either entirely frescoed and tromp l'oeil-ed, or decorated as though the King were just out for the afternoon to have a drink in Fiesole, and would return right after all the tourists left. One room depicted the Jews, triumphant, bringing back the Arc of the Covenant. (If you ever go to the Pitti, you'll recognize this room right away -- it's the only one with no nudity, but with a prominent gold menorah.) The ceiling had been painted as though it were the inside of a richly embroidered fabric tent. On the walls, some skilled artisan hundreds of years ago had used some pretty fancy shading to make it seem as though the walls were made of carved marble. Given how much real marble was all over the place, it clearly wasn't a cost-saving measure. Instead, this style of painting seemed just to be for the sake of itself -- just to prove you could make a wall look like another sort of wall entirely.
It was in the palace rooms that I finally got a sense of what neo-Rococo or neoclassical contemporary interior design is trying to accomplish. Here were the heavy draperies, the enormous gilded chandeliers, the paintings of little naked angels covering the ceilings. It was as though somebody thought that the art and architecture of a grand public building -- like a church or a plaza or the Sistene Chapel -- should be applied to a bedroom. And I guess if you're a king, or wish to style yourself to be a King in your own home, why not? Michelangelo's David in a museum, surrounded by sleek white surfaces? That's beautiful. A small-scale plaster copy on a fake column in your living room, flanked by velveteen wallpaper and extra swirlique detailing on the moldings? Not so much.
Even the girls -- usually so easily swayed by things that are shiny and fancy and pretty -- weren't so enamored of these rooms. They had seen Napoleon's apartments at the Louvre, and seeing the rooms here -- even the bathroom so famously built for Napoleon himself -- they could see why he never showed up. They were both too much, and not enough. Not enough light, not enough scale, dogged by an overwhelming feeling of dingy.
Don't get me wrong. We loved it. We really, really loved it. Part of that love was loving to hate it, but that was fun too. In fact, we love everything about this beautifully faded city. We love the leather shops (especially the one where I found my cool new coat) and the little back alleys. We love the narrow streets, even when you nearly get run over by a bus now and then. We love the throngs of teenagers and all the weird kinds of meat at the central market (pig's head, anybody?) We love the required daily gelato, and the creative use of every kind of stone you could imagine.
Beauty is skin deep, the Puritans would warn us, by way of suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't spend so much time on our own vanity. However, there's another way to see that same truth, and it's the way beauty appears here in Florence. Florentines seem to understand that beauty is just skin deep, so you'd best pay damn close attention to the surfaces of things. Is your 40 year old skin starting to show signs of wear and tear? Well then, don't ignore it -- just get better tromp l'oeil.
The women seem widely inclined to do just as well with what they have been given as they possibly can. You don't see them schlumpfing around in sweat pants and tennis shoes, having given up on beauty whenever things started to go a little awry. They use plenty of make-up, and really do their hair. They add more detail (a scarf, a tight jacket, great shoes) rather than holding back. Since arriving here, I haven't left the villa without lipgloss and a little eyeliner -- and for those of you who know me well, you would understand how much of a departure from usual practice this would be.
And the men? Well, Italy distinguishes itself with the attention men seem to be willing to pay to their own appearances. An attractive young man here seems to spend at least as much time and energy making himself look rakishly unkempt as the old biddies take pulling themselves back into order. And they keep up the effort way into their older years -- fancy shoes, well-cut pants, a scarf poking out from a blazer cut just-so. Given all the attention they have paid to looking terrific, you'd think these men were, well, women -- if they didn't look so damn manly.
Here, everybody appears to be looking at the surface of things all the time. If rural France is a secular Garden of Eden (all those delicious vegetables, and carefully unspoiled vistas, and human-scale pleasures of the eye and the flesh) then Florence is a stage set for a beautiful costume drama. Everything, and everybody, feels as though it is on display all the time. The tourists are here to look at the surfaces of things, and Florence seems to understand itself to be a sort of theater set for their looking. Everything must be faded glory, all the time.
Even the famous gelato is often more beautiful than it is delicious, heaped up a foot high and decorated for the pleasure of being looked at. (The really delicious gelato, as I learned from my friend Nick and then tasted for myself, is often hidden down the backstreets, rather than sold where all the tourists are looking. And this gelato looks a lot more bland: the pistachio is a dull greenish-brown, rather than electric green.)
Here, the puffy pink clouds in the blue sky look as though they were painted as background for some cherubs. The landscapes of Tuscany look for all the world like they were painted to be sold by the street artists outside the Pitti Palace. Everything is so picturesque, so close to lovely faded decay, that it's awfully hard to know where the stage set of Italy ends, and the real beauty begins.
So far, all this looking at surfaces has only improved things for our family. At least on the surface. Bill has adopted an extremely attractive sort of Eurotrash aspect, never removing his camel coat or his sunglasses. The girls suddenly take extra time to brush their hair and match their clothes. (Yes: you read me right. They are brushing their own hair, without being asked.) And now that I have this terrific new leather coat, and am motivated by the attitude of the city to wear a little more makeup than usual, I'm going to fit right in as well. I liked this new me so much, I actually took my own portrait in a mirror, smiling just as wryly as I felt. At the same time, in the other room Grace was trying on pink eyeshadow and taking self-portraits with her DSI.
Don't worry; this descent into vanity won't last long. To the extent that the four of us even can manage it, our beauty is skin deep. But then again, so are all my wrinkles. Now is hardly the time for me to start caring in any permanent sort of way about the outsides of things.
Which is why I promise: the next time I get a chance to redecorate, I won't be hanging any Renaissance reproductions or velvet curtains.