Last call

Taking a lingering look at Florence

Vanessa Hall-Smith
March 10, 2011

 It must have been half way through January when I woke up to the fact that February was to be my last full month in Italy. True, the move back to the UK had been a major preoccupation since the summer, but I had managed to construct a Chinese wall in my head so that the rientro a Londra had become a separate event and nothing to do with my actually leaving Florence.

 

 

 

When the penny finally dropped on that grey January day, I began to count the places I had been meaning to visit. It didn't take long to realise that seeing them all would be impossible, so I turned to Rosalynd Pio, my friend and registered Florentine guide, to help me decide.

 

 ‘Well, if you want to whittle down your list to five, it will have to be the Certosa, the Cenacolo at San Salvi, the Giotto cruficix at Ognissanti, the cloister at Santa Maria Novella and San Miniato.' I had been to San Miniato many times, but this was apparently irrelevant. ‘You haven't been there with me and I will show you things you have never seen before,' came the firm reply. With Rosalynd's niece Eleonora and physicist Rick Demers in tow, we set off on a beautiful sunny morning for our first stop, Santa Maria Novella. Rick had been working on an adaptive optic system in the astrophysical observatory in Arcetri, and we could not have had a better companion to explain the armillary sphere and quadrant on the façade of the church.

 

Buoyed by my newly acquired knowledge of the observation of the equinoxes, I followed Rosalynd into the first set of cloisters, known as the Chiostro Verde. The name comes from the green pigment used in the fresco cycle executed by Paolo Uccello and his workshop. The lower section of this cycle was badly damaged by the 1966 flood, but the upper section takes the viewer on a journey through the Old Testament, beginning with the creation of the animals and Adam and Eve.

 

As we entered the Chapterhouse, better known as the Spanish Chapel because it was used by Eleonora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, and subsequently given to the Spanish colony in Florence in 1566, Rosalynd explained that she believed the frescoes to have been painted by the workshop of the Sienese artist Simone Martini, not by Andrea di Bonaiuto, to whom they are attributed.

She told us how Simone Martini had met Petrarch at the papal court in Avignon, where they shared disenchantment with the corruption of the Church. They would both have been aware of the centuries-old legend in the South of France that Mary Magdalen had fled there with her children, fathered by Jesus, to escape persecution by the Romans.

 

‘Look at those children on the left hand side of Christ as he bears the cross to Calvary,' she said, ‘and then look at the woman beside them. Can you see the children anywhere else?' Indeed we could. There they were at the base of the crucifix. And maybe there they were again to the right of the crucifix, tucked in beside a man yawning on a grey horse.

 

‘Now look again at the woman with the children. Can you see how her arm is protecting them, how she is looking at Christ and he is looking back at her?' Yes, we could see that, too, as Rosalynd's identification of the woman as Mary Magdalen opened up the possibility of attaching a different layer of meaning to the fresco.

 

After visiting the restored Giotto crucifix at Ognissanti, where we marveled at the dazzling lapis lazuli background, we made our way across the city to the ex-convent of San Salvi to see Andrea del Sarto's beautiful Last Supper, mercifully spared by the troops of Charles V, who did so much damage elsewhere during the siege of 1529-30.

 

We then took the road up the hill to San Miniato. I was curious to know what Rosalynd would show us that I had not seen before. As we entered, she began to talk about the Mithras cult and the theory advanced by an American scholar that the church was built over a Mithraic temple. The cult, believed to have originated in Persia, was practised widely by Roman soldiers all over the Empire.

 

In the crypt, Rosalynd pointed out seven aisles in the Roman-built undercroft, which corresponded to the seven degrees of Mithraic initiation. Little is known about Mithraic practices, but there are many depictions of Mithras slaying a bull, and, with Rosalynd's expert guidance, we were able to see that the bull in the early thirteenth-century zodiac on the floor was aligned with the Cardinal of Portugal's tomb, carved by Rossellini. On the far side of the tomb, invisible to anyone viewing the chapel from within the church, we learned that there is a carved Mithras killing a bull, which suggests that Rossellini had been aware of the Mithraic connection. We concluded the visit by paying our respects to Rosalynd's nineteenth-century forebears, the Pii of Savoia, whose tombstones lie on the floor at the back of the church.

 

Our final destination was the Certosa del Galluzzo, the Carthusian monastery founded in 1341 that dominates the hill lining the road leading south from Florence. I had understood that it is usually empty, so it was something of a surprise to find ourselves joining a group of about 50 who had travelled to Florence from the Naples area just to visit the monastery.

 

Our tour was led by the jolliest of monks with eyebrows reaching for the heavens and a pullover bearing the legend ‘Ginger Tree 1-125000'.  By now so steeped was I in the mysteries of Mithras and the coded messages of Petrarch and Simone Martini, that I began to fantasise about the significance of the name. A simple Google search when I got home quickly revealed the existence of a Ginger Tree outlet store in Melbourne,  Australia.

 

Our large and noisy group proceeded up the stairs into the first gallery, and there, on the left-hand side of the wall, were the five magnificent Pontormo frescoes that I had so looked forward to seeing. Thinking I would wait until the group had moved on, I hung back, but my hopes of a few quiet moments with these great works were soon to be dashed. The lights were turned off and I was herded on with my fellow visitors.

 

Indeed, there was to be no lingering. We moved quickly from one space to the next, with a sense of going deeper and deeper into a forbidden city. When we reached the great cloister, we entered one of the 18 cells comprising a suite of rooms, simply furnished, where meals were brought to a hatch so the single occupant could eat in silence. The Carthusians no longer live in the Certosa del Galluzzo. Since 1958, it has been in the care of the Cistercian monks who prune the olives, distil the liqueurs and prepare the herbal remedies and cosmetics, all of which are on sale in the gift shop. Our ebullient guide told us he was one of four extremely hardworking Cistercians presently looking after the enormous complex.

 

It was time to go home.  On the way back, the conversation turned to the observatory at Arcetri. Rosalynd recounted how she had approached the director there some years ago as part of an international campaign to protest against the placing of a telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona because it threatened the wildlife and indigenous Indian tombs. There was a silence at the back of the car. ‘I worked on that telescope,' said Rick, ‘and it did go ahead.'

 

As I listened to the ensuing discussion about conservation versus scientific advance, I realised that it represented one of the things I would miss most when I leave Florence. Who would have thought, as we set out, that two members of the party, strangers until meeting at Santa Maria Novella eight hours earlier, would find that their pasts had already been linked years before, thousands of miles away?

 

The history, the art and the British Institute will always be here, and I hope that my Florentine friends and colleagues will be, too. The city attracts a diverse range of people from all over the world creating a vibrant community with a pulse that never fails to stimulate or surprise. Being a part of this community has been one of the unexpected pleasures of my life here, and it is with great sadness that I say goodbye.

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