I just watched Travels with Vasari, the first part of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s tour through The Lives of the Artists, probably the most influential work of art criticism ever written. Giorgio Vasari was a Florentine artist and architect of the High Renaissance, but was never as gifted as his unimpeachable heroes, such as his contemporary Michelangelo, whose David still for many symbolises the city of Vasari’s greatest triumphs, Florence.
Florence is also the city home to most of the greatest triumphs of the Renaissance itself. It is in many ways more a museum than a city, although unlike Venice it still operates properly as the latter. Yet every corner in Florence, every apparently modest building, might house a priceless work of art, or have some connection to a moment which changed Western art – and thought – forever. Vasari, as Graham-Dixon eloquently and accessibly argues, was instrumental to this understanding of the Renaissance (a name he invented) as the lynchpin of Western civilization, the moment we abandoned the sterile barbarity of the Middle Ages and embraced the high-minded brilliance of Classical forms.
It’s not that simple, of course – especially for a medievalist like me, Vasari’s distaste for the gothic borders on the heretical (Graham-Dixon is very good at highlighting how Donatello, one of the Renaissance masters – and one of my own personal favourites – actually fused Classical and Gothic, proving their complementary compatibility). It is undeniable, however, that Renaissance Florence gave birth to something new, and something very important to our modern society. I think at the heart of the Renaissance is the humanist desire to understand people not as figures in a cosmic, mystical scheme, but as beings who experience their own pains and joys. The Renaissance gave to art a pscyhology of the interior.
This is the source of the beauty – and the discomfort – we experience when looking at the best of Renaissance art. The title of this post comes from A Room With A View, a book which absurdly idealises Florence and Italy, but which is at least right to depict it as a place of undercurrents violent and sexual. Florence may well be my favourite place on earth, not because it is so beautiful – although it is – but because every part of it seems straining to an understanding of some sort. It is a momument to human ingenuity and curiosity: Brunelleschi’s impossible dome, sitting atop the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore; the cool rationality of the facade of the Ospedale degli Innocenti; Giotto’s towering bell tower. In its very buildings, Florence strives to understand. You never get tired of it.
However much Florence’s contribution to the world rested on the material wealth of its ruling family, the ruthless Medici, its legacy is something purer. This is why everyone should visit. At the very least, watch Graham-Dixon’s programme – it’s available to UK types until December 10th, and gives a wonderful taste of the place and its teeming intellectual energy.
P.S. Florence also has excellent ice cream.