Friday, April 9, 2010

On Beauty. And Pizza.

We spent the morning in the Uffizi Galleries, which contain some of the world's most remarkable works of art. There, walking from a room full of the gold backgrounds and somber oval heads of Middle Ages alterpieces into the crowded hall of Botticelli masterworks, we watched the modern idea of beauty being born. The subject matter of the artwork changes, from nearly-identical set pieces of the Mother and Child being adored by various saints towards a wider variety of stories from classical antiquity. Suddenly artists start using math to build perspective, and then they gradually learn to use the gazes of their figures to draw you, the viewer, deeper into their canvases. Eventually they start to paint real people, to pearlize their paint (thanks to the Dutch), to carve marble like the Greeks, and to render perfectly accurate still-lifes and sweeping landscapes.

Grace saw all of this, right away. She has had a remarkably fine education in art history and the fine arts, taught by sensitive and extremely wise teachers. From them, she learned about gesture and perspective, about color and line and intention, as evoked in great art and expressed the things she has made herself. She's had a first-class arts education, but also she seems fully primed to take in the meaning and visceral beauty of any art she sees, at least for the first few hours in a museum, which is more than you can say for most adults.

The fact that we can spend so much time in so many museums is also a testament to Abigail's profound powers of endurance. Some of the paintings piqued her interest (particularly those with women with particularly fancy outfits.) However, the rest of them were boring, or made her feet hurt, as though there were a direct connection between the paintings, her eyes and her little tender pieds. Other paintings were simply "inappropriate."

I find the constant use of the term "inappropriate" by children to be hysterical. It's another thing they picked up at school, a somewhat less useful lesson than all that great art history, heavy-duty math, and amazing writing they did there. Kids these days typically use this awful, empty word to describe anything sexual, physical, or related to the potty. This means that Britney Spears videos, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, and Homer Simpson all go in the same broad category.

When we were kids, we had a wider spread of words to describe stuff we weren't supposed to be seeing and enjoying, but were: there was "caca," for potty stuff, "kissy-face," for sexual stuff (none of us seemed to know what else might lurk beyond a mere kiss) and "sleazy" for the kinds of outfits worn by the Solid Gold dancers on TV. We also had "scary," "icky" and "Democrats" to describe other things we had been taught carefully to avoid.

Sometimes I miss the old days, before the evils of the world all became so blandly "inappropriate."

In the case of the Uffizi, the most "inappropriate" painting, in Abigail's mind, involved the entire backside of a beautiful woman, rendered in exquisite and fleshy detail from head to buttocks. You could almost feel the softness of her skin. You could also see, facing her, a whole host of people observing her front side, including a leering goat-like male figure offering her a bunch of grapes. Abby also pointed out that many of the men depicted in the Uffizi Galleries are sporting "weenie sacks," (again, her term.) She did not, however, remark on all the flat-out frontal nudity in the Greek statues and the Renaissance-era painting. Apparently fleshy butts and nut-huggers are "inappropriate." Breasts and Roman-era male genitalia are just human.

Her terminology was awfully mild, but it's rather shocking that she had the guts to complain at all at the Uffizi. Because Bill started the morning with the most Over-The-Top Parental Guilt lecture I have ever heard. The night before, he had been frustrated with the girls and their constant desire to get dressed up in fancy clothes, and to visit carousels, souvenir shops and gelato stands rather than do anything he finds to be edifying. So, during breakfast, he decided to drop the High Art Guilt Bomb, with all the subtlety of the Germans strafing Florence during WWII.

"Girls, I want to tell you something," he started in, over our scrambled eggs.

"Your Auntie Laura and Auntie Kate really love Italy. You may also have noticed that they are both very fashionable, and they love to make art. These three facts are related."

Abigail saw this War-by-Lecture coming a mile away, and quickly mounted her defenses. "Grace makes great art too!" she insisted, in a totally uncharacteristic move, drawing a little positive attention to her frequently-loathed older sister.

"Yes, she certainly does. And so do you, Abigail. Which is why I thought perhaps you should know something important about Florence.

"I wasn't going to tell you this," Bill continued, "but a lot of people who are cool and fashionable artists, like Kate and Laura, learned a lot of what they know about art here in Italy. And, you know, you're totally entitled to decide that you really hate it, but most of the people who appreciate Renaissance art end up becoming really cool and making great art."

I could see just how evil his speech was becoming, as he secretly sought to link their affection for fashion to something more enduringly high culture, but I decided to let it unspool itself on the sweet little heads of my two impressionable girls. Anything to help us get to and from the Uffizi without a flat-out tantrum in the middle of the Boticelli room.

"Now, you could decide that you're one of those people who just simply doesn't appreciate Beauty," he continued, as though he really felt this equanimity towards folks who can't tell a kitten poster from a Roman marble bust. "But just in case you're one of those cool people who does, we're going today to one of the most important museums in the world."

Grace was nearly drooling at this point, as ready to rise to an occasion as I have ever seen her. She was lapping up Bill's lecture, totally ready to use her own reaction to the Uffizi to gauge her own degree of cool points where art is concerned.

She needn't have worried. She donned her little grey beret, walked uncomplainingly through hall after hall of paintings, and soaked it all in. Up until the point when nearly any museum-goer would have been over-saturated by all those Little Baby Jesuses, she gazed and compared and looked with all her might. She came, she saw, she appreciated.

Abigail did her level best, but after about two rooms she couldn't help but ask to go home. When I said no, that we'd be spending several hours here first, she acquiesced, tantrum-free. She accepted her own lack of interest without a lot of fuss, realizing that yet again, she and her sister are different in nearly every possible way.

But perhaps because of Bill's heavy-handed lecture, or perhaps because she knew how much Grace was appreciating it all, she slogged through the rest of the collection, looking now and again at the art, and now and again for little benches to rest her weary little bones. She leaned on me a lot, but she held it together long enough to get to the hot chocolate in the rooftop garden. Outside, she became much more animated, standing up to take photographs of the high tower of the museum and the Duomo across the way.

As we sat there drinking our little treats, I gave the girls the museum notebooks they have been keeping. Abigail drew a credible likeness of a robed figure. "It's God," she said, although He Himself had appeared in only a few times in the artwork -- most notably in a painting of a shamefaced Adam and Eve first learning the meaning of the word "inappropriate."

Grace started sketching, trying to work out to the best of her ability how to draw the proportions of a face. I tried to show her what little I remember myself: the counter-intuitive fact that the eyes go halfway down the head, and that the mouth isn't nearly as close to the chin as you might initially think. She stuck at it as though her life depended on figuring out how to draw a proper nose.

Later, on the way out through several additional halls of museum shop (including one filled with Ferragamo ties and handbags -- I'm not sure what relationship they bore to the artwork upstairs) we found a treasure-trove of kids' books in English about Florence, art history, and how to draw. While we're typically pretty miserly about shopping trips this year, we will almost always buy great books in English when we can find them. (That, and great food.) Abigail got a copy of Pinocchio, which she was eager to go home and read while wearing her new shiny mask. She got a sticker book of great artwork, and a kids' guide to the Pitti Palace. And Grace got -- in book form -- several new installments in her lifelong education in all things Beautiful.

We bought a few more subs on the way home, then took a long midday siesta. The weather has been incredible since we arrived, and we threw open all the windows while we snoozed, I wrote, and the girls poured over their new books. We have heard that Florence is unremittingly and intolerably hot in the summer. But this week, at least these last few days, it could not be more perfect.

In the afternoon, we hiked up a winding hill to the top of the Boboli Gardens. We wandered slowly back downhill through the park, settling ourselves down in the shade on a grassy terrace above a fountain and a pool full of murky green water. The park was full of little knots of people -- a group of American women in their suburban best, some Italian skatepunk kids laughing and hooting, tidy sixty-somethings pairs of couples speaking German or French as they passed.

The city also appears to be playing host to some sort of convention for Perfectly Adorable Young Priests. They were hordes of them in the Uffizi, and then again here in the Gardens, all dressed in identical, perfectly fitting black suits. Their behavior and their demeanor was perfectly appropriate, but aside from their white collars, they looked for all the world like clean cut young men dressed up as groomsmen for a friend's wedding. They laughed with each other and chatted with tourists. They posed in jokey ways in photographs. While I have never really thought of priests as particularly attractive as a group, these sixty or seventy white collared men of God were all super-cute, and extremely well coiffed. So much so that Bill thought that they might not have been real Priests at all, but rather an extremely effective stealth advertising campaign for Vidal Sassoon.

For dinner, we followed one of Auntie Kate's several choice recommendations, and ended up at Il Pizzaiolo, for the best pizza in town. Bill was skeptical that any pizza -- even real Florentine pizza -- could match up against the very best Brooklyn has to offer. But Kate was right (she often is.) As we bit into our pizzas, Bill and the girls dissected their various qualities, as though they were Pizza Restaurant Critics hired by The Times to cage match the best pizzas of the world.

The girls jumped right on Bill's bandwagon here -- we may differ in our feelings about art, fashion, hiking, souvenirs, and the parts of the human body, but we always agree about food. Bill established several categories (crust, toppings, sauce, cheese) and tried his darndest to argue Brooklyn pizza back into our consciousness. "Remember the crust at Lucali?" he asked, bringing us back to one particularly memorable pizza fest a few years ago in Cobble Hill with Stephanie and Jason. "Remember the cheese at Patsy's, when we get takeout in the playground with the big ship? Remember the toppings at Christiardi's? Those are your standards. This pizza has to stand up to all of them to win."

Bill has a food-ographic memory, and so in fact can bring these tastes and experiences directly to mind as though he were reliving them. I myself was having a little love affair with the mushy-sweet texture of the eggplant on the pizza right in front of me, and could speak of nothing else. Instead, I listened to the three of them babble on, in all earnestness. They parsed the sauce (neither too tangy nor too sweet, but perfectly fresh, just essence of tomato.) They loved the cheese (outstanding in its fancy form, on my pizza, but truly exceptional on the regular old plain pizza margarita the girls ordered.) My eggplant was an obvious win. But crust became a touchy subject. This one was the victor in terms of taste (full of flavor, just the right level of salty) and texture (chewy, but not pretzel-y), but lost the race on crispiness. In fact, these pizzas were nearly soggy in the middle.

Bill held out for awhile that the crust was the most important part, and thus Brooklyn's consistently great crusts should win the whole competition. This struck the girls as ridiculous, and so a victor was declared. Game, set, and match to Florence. To Il Pizzaiolo, with all of its extra vowels and terrific, better-than-Brooklyn level pizza.

Victory also to the city of Florence, at least on this most perfect spring day. Victory to Western Art, to huge gardens built by overwealthy families centuries ago. Victory, in fact, to our little family. And to Beauty itself.

1 comment:

  1. Victory for your family, indeed! Great description of the Uffizi. I loved that place, but it sounds like I needed your daughter for my museum guide. I think she picked up on far more than I did.

    The description of the priests is great too. Gotta love a sweet, young, well-coiffed man (of God) in uniform...