Art and Wine

Leonardo's Anunciation (on my hotel room wall)

Leonardo's Anunciation (on my hotel room wall)

A gloriously beautiful and sunny, if also chilly, day in Florence.   We climbed the Duomo to the top of the dome.   That itself is an adventure, it’s like climbing 35 stories, at times in between the inner and outer dome.  It was the largest dome structure in the world until the late 20th century; when Brunelleschi first planned to build it, he didn’t know how he’d pull it off.   Part of the climb includes a walk on the inside of the church, hundreds of feet above the people below, next to the giant ceiling frescoe (one of the largest in the world) depicting the last judgment of Christ.  The detail close up is amazing, and the view of Florence and the Tuscan countryside is superb.   Today was so clear one could see snow covered mountains in the distance.

Then the Uffizi, Florence’s grand museum with a renaissance collection surpassed by no one.  Officially opened in 1765, the gallery has been around since the mid 16th century and could be viewed by request.  The Medici family designed a palace here, with administrative offices (hence the term Uffizi) in a building with two long corridors.   In that sense it was the first modern museum, systematically collecting artwork for public viewing.   In summer there are long lines, sometimes waits of well over an hour.  In February, you walk right in.

One sees the development of renaissance art as well, starting with Giotto and late medieval/early renaissance painting, moving away from the flat, lifeless abstract images towards dimension, emotion and what we call humanism.   A favorite of everyones is, of course, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus,  though it’s likely this is really the arrival of Venus to Cyprus, being pushed by the winds Zephyrus and Aura.  To me this captures the 15th century ideal that faith and reason, or spirit and matter, can be reconciled, there is a balance that is truly inspirational.  I examined that painting for well over 15 minutes.

In the next room was one I liked even better, and looked at just as long, by Leonardo di Vinci, “Annunciation.”   I walked back and forth between rooms to compare the two, and marvel at these timeless works of art.    Da Vinci’s intrigued me.   The Angel telling Mary that she would have a child from God is facing slightly down, but her eyes are looking up, straight into Mary’s.  Mary looks serene, as if she understands and accepts her role.   She’s reading something, the letters look vaguely Greek.  In the background there are boats, a city, and mountains.  The angel is sitting on grass and flowers, dark as if a mix of typical ground plants.    Mary is on a floor, with some kind of trunk or dresser box in front of her.  Behind her you can see her bedroom at the edge of the painting. 

Back at the hotel I found out that Andrea M., also on the trip, had also focused on the same painting.   She started pointing out aspects of it by pointing to the copy of the painting in my room on the wall next to my bed, as another student used my computer to send messages home.   In other words, I have been in this room almost two days, was intrigued by that painting at the Uffizi, and until Andrea pointed it out I didn’t realize it was right here in my room.   Those who know me are nodding knowingly now — I tend not to notice details!   The picture above is of the painting in my room — the copy is partially cut off so you can’t  see Mary’s bed at the edge.  I still can’t believe I didn’t notice it until someone pointed it out to me. 

I lack knowledge about art (though Sarah’s mini-lectures help a lot) and after awhile I felt overwhelmed by the museum.   I did notice that all the paintings seemed to be either sponsored by or at some point acquired by someone in the Medici family.  That makes sense, given the origin of the museum, but also shows just how active the Medicis were in supporting the arts.   This also clearly shows that the arts aren’t just a luxury — political, social and cultural progress begin with art.   Be it painting, music, literature, theater or some other form of expression, without creativity there is stagnation.   That’s one reason fascism and communism could not last, they attacked  the creative spirit of individuals and tried to replace it with a forced collectivism.

Another topic of conversation today was wine.   In Italy you need not be 21 to drink, if you’re over 16 it’s no problem to order wine or beer with your meal, or even at a snack bar (all of which serve alcohol and are ubiquitious on the streets).   Yet it seems to be the Americans who overindulge.  The joke Steve Pane tells is that the American who shakes his head at the Italian drinking wine at lunch is the same American the Italian has to help home after he overindulges at night.  In part, the US law makes no sense — we send people who are 18 to kill and die in war, we allow them to vote, they can get married, but they dare not order a glass of wine with their meal.  That’s utter absurdity.

More importantly, though, this weird message sent that “alcohol is bad” only reinforces and magnifies negative aspects of alcohol use.  Yeah, there are people that overindulge everywhere, but in Europe people tend to learn that alcohol is to be used in moderation as a part of a larger social activity, the idea of going out to “get drunk” is uncool.  In the US, because alcohol gets this status as the “forbidden fruit,” college kids abuse it and don’t learn effective and responsible drinking.  The result is the anti-alcohol messages lead to the very thing they wish to avoid.   Its like how when parents overshelter their children in high school, they’re more likely to be unable to exercise their freedom responsibly when they go off to college.  You have to learn that life is not a series of rules to follow or break, but judgments to be made considering the consequences of actions taken.  In our culture, we don’t deal with alcohol well on those terms, and hence people  see it as a recreational drug rather than a compliment to social activity.

Americans like to think they are more free than Europeans because our taxes are lower; however, in many ways there seems to be a greater sense of freedom and personal responsibility in Europe.  People aren’t as litigious so they don’t sue each other over little accidents.   For instance, some of the towers one claims have stairways hat are rather dangerous, and would be closed down in the US out of fear of a law suit.   Here they’re OK with the idea that it’s up to the person visiting the site to decide if they want to risk the climb.   You also don’t have to make everything handicap accessible, that’s ridiculous.  Do as well as you can and help as much as possible, but handicaps are handicaps, people deal with them.    The US has gotten caught up in a culture of rules and laws, and has forgotten common sense.  Our laws on drinking show just how absurd, and how counter-productive such efforts are.

These two topics — art at the Uffizi, and alcohol consumption by young people — seem very disconnected.  Yet this trip fosters learning both by looking at the past, and comparing cultures and behaviors in the present.  We’ve also talked about health care (Americans are pretty clueless about European health care, thanks to scare tactics from US insurance companies), political thought, and the impact of Obama’s election on Italian perspectives on Americans.   The beauty of a course like this is that every conversation is meaningful (though sometimes we’re just being silly — we laugh a lot here), and we have a chance to explore both the past and comparisons between cultures in the present.    And we avoid any temptation for students to go out and overindulge by keeping them so active that by the end of the night they are too tired to go out! 

Tomorrow is Pisa for at least part of the day, with lots of info on Galileo (and probably a visit to the Science museum on Friday).   One way we keep students from overindulging is to keep them so active they’re too tired at the end of the day to go out.   And I’m tired too!  Buona Notte!

  1. #1 by henitsirk on February 19, 2009 - 04:19

    I’ve always kind of sneered at the American laws that you mentioned that tell our children it’s OK to vote for president or die for your country, but not drink a beer. It is ridiculous — we tend to keep our young people babyish in many ways while bombarding them with hypersexualized and violent images.

    You can find a nice image of da Vinci’s Annunciation here:
    (a wonderful web gallery, particularly for Renaissance art!)

    What struck me about that painting was how Mary’s half is very cold and linear — all made of stone, including the mountains in the distance. Gabriel’s side is full of life, from the veritable carpet of flowers to the trees in the middle distance. Perhaps an image of Gabriel’s announcement of new life to be born? And of course there is the single-point perspective, as you mentioned the other day.

  2. #2 by Josh on February 19, 2009 - 19:48

    I can understand why many would argue to lower the drinking age. At the same time, there are many people who believe the law is appropriate, and I’m sure folks on both sides of the issue could give evidence to back up their arguments.

    I have heard from many world travelers who tell me Europeans drink more responsibly, but several other travelers tell me just the opposite. In addition, I have known of parents who ended up allowing their older teenagers to drink and have parties at home (with the parents present). These teens, however, DID NOT drink in moderation. So, the law is there to discourage the behavior.

    Both Italy and America, I’m sure, are doing their best to eliminate irresponsible behavior. They just have different approaches.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip!

  3. #3 by henitsirk on February 19, 2009 - 20:54

    I forgot to mention in my comment that I have heard the British have had increasing trouble with binge drinking, so that they have changed the laws about the allowable hours of operation for pubs.

    I’ve always thought that a better solution to drinking (and drug) problems would be to find out why people feel the need to escape reality, and work on that! Seems like we are legislating something that (ideally) would be taught in the home, as a part of family culture — responsibility, moderation, etc.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2009 - 21:43

    I agree completely that the best solution goes to the problem, not the symptom. I also don’t know why laws are the best way to go (though the US seems to be very legalistic). And if we aren’t going to allow people to drink until they are 21, then let’s not let them join the military until that age — that requires a lot more responsibility than having some wine at dinner!

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