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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheri­dan

Trav­el­ling to Florence in search of beauty is a ven­er­a­ble pur­suit, much cel­e­brated in lit­er­a­ture, es­pe­cially Ed­war­dian nov­els and their film adap­ta­tions. Con­sider, most ob­vi­ously, EM Forster’s A Room with a View. I am late to this game, hav­ing spent most of my life con­cerned with Asia. Florence does not dis­ap­point for beauty.

And yet it is al­ways the hu­man de­tail that ar­rests at­ten­tion and stays in the mem­ory. On the way to Florence I stopped in a cafe not only to sus­tain the in­ner man but to take ad­van­tage of its Wi-Fi. In a booth I saw a young cou­ple, 30some­things, each stu­diously ab­sorbed in their sep­a­rate smart­phones. A daugh­ter, four or five, for­lornly craved their at­ten­tion. She did not look a gen­er­ally un­happy or ne­glected kid. She tried cradling her fa­ther’s head but he, catch­ing up with the vi­tal emails and texts that con­sume his life, would not look up from his de­vice.

She pe­ti­tioned her mother for at­ten­tion, try­ing to get her to sing along to a lit­tle rhyme or ditty, but equally to no ef­fect. She ended up sit­ting mute and glum, her head rest­ing on papa’s arm. I get it that even the most de­voted par­ent oc­ca­sion­ally gets sick of even the most adorable child. Even so …

I didn’t see that sort of thing in Florence, partly be­cause I didn’t see many kids there. It’s not a chil­dren’s kind of tourist des­ti­na­tion, of course. But you don’t see that many kids in Italy gen­er­ally. The home of the warm­est and most gen­er­ous fam­ily life in Western cul­ture is now, mainly for eco­nomic rea­sons, suf­fer­ing the low­est birthrate in Europe. That is a pity. The world needs more Ital­ians, not fewer.

Still, the beauty of Florence is rav­ish­ing. Stay­ing at the Plaza Luc­ch­esi Hotel, perched on a tiny ridge be­tween the River Arno on one side and the breath­tak­ing Santa Croce church and piazza on the other, you can un­der­stand the long se­duc­tive­ness of Italy, es­pe­cially for stuffy Brits of a cen­tury ago, brought up on emo­tional re­straint and in­di­rec­tion.

As read­ers of this col­umn may have guessed, I am a Catholic who was brought up sur­rounded by Catholic art and gothic churches, holy pic­tures and stat­ues. And yet I found a cer­tain sur­pris­ing am­biva­lence in my re­sponse to the beau­ties of Florence. There was some­thing just a lit­tle too volup­tuous about it all.

Santa Croce is cer­tainly one of the most gor­geous churches you could see. Yet I was a bit sur­prised to find the tombs of Michelan­gelo, Dante and Machi­avelli in­side, and great com­mem­o­ra­tions of them at side al­tars. These were all ge­niuses but they were not saints. Per­haps dis­play­ing my own sub­cul­tural my­opia, I don’t re­ally ap­prove of their ven­er­a­tion in a church. It would be like bury­ing Steven Spiel­berg in St Mary’s Cathe­dral. That’s noth­ing against Spiel­berg, but nor would it be the right pur­pose of a church. I felt a grudg­ing but real un­der­stand­ing of how the lead­ers of the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion might have re­acted to all this.

I love it that the most ex­quis­ite build­ings hu­man­ity has cre­ated are hun­dreds of years old and de­voted to the glory of God. But the glory of the lead­ers of the time is a dif­fer­ent mat­ter.

Then there is all this in­sis­tent naked­ness in the stat­u­ary of the Re­nais­sance. I un­der­stand that the Re­nais­sance cel­e­brated the hu­man form. But it seemed al­most grossly in­dul­gent and must have been ri­otously sen­su­ous at the time. Although most of­ten there is some no­tion­ally re­li­gious con­text to these stat­ues, again I can see how they con­trib­uted to the Re­for­ma­tion re­ac­tion. This is not to dis­par­age Florence at all. Ev­ery hu­man be­ing should want to see it at least once.

And when I en­tered the mu­seum de­voted en­tirely to the works of Michelan­gelo, par­tic­u­larly the fa­mous statue of David, all my doubts about the beauty of hu­man­ity dis­ap­peared in one mo­ment. A few me­tres from the fa­mous David, a tiny child, per­haps one year old, was sit­ting up, happy as Larry, on the floor. He was wav­ing to his nearby par­ents and laugh­ing, the sun­shine beam­ing from his face. As a cre­ator, Michelan­gelo couldn’t hold a can­dle to God. Greg Sheri­dan’s ac­com­mo­da­tion was as­sisted by the Florence Tourist Au­thor­ity.

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