(In)significant leaps

(In)significant leaps

A great friend of mine is famous among those who know him for taking photos of people jumping. Whenever the day is warm or light enough to go outside just for the sake of it, he will command you to go up to a high point and jump off, all

Thu 19 May 2011 12:00 AM

A great friend of mine is famous among those who know
him for taking photos of people jumping. Whenever the day is warm or light
enough to go outside just for the sake of it, he will command you to go up to a
high point and jump off, all for the camera. He is likewise interested in
photos of people diving into swimming pools. When I look back at these photos,
I forget that we were ever actually on the ground, that we were going somewhere
or other, and that the photograph is just a diversion from what actually happened
that day, raised to unexpected significance just because it happens to have
been recorded and put on Facebook.


History is full
of instances like this (though not always including Facebook). Florentine
history is no exception, and the small ‘leaps’ of now distant, lofty figures
provide us a window into who they really were. Take, for an example, Guido
Cavalcanti, poet friend of Dante and renowned in his day for philosophical
skill and his potential (at the time quite revolutionary) atheism. The facts of
his life are sketchy: he was born in about 1250, he married in either 1266 or
1267, and in about 1283 he replied to Dante’s first sonnet. He was part of the
White Guelf faction, and in about 1296 Guido was exiled for starting a
politically motivated brawl (attacking a so-called ‘Black’ Guelf) in a Florence


These are the events of his life. However, in Boccaccio’s mid-fourteenth
century work The Decameron, there is a
story about him that provides some rare detail: One day, Guido left the church
of Orsanmichele and walked along Corso degli Adimari, among great marble tombs.
There, he was accosted by a group of gentlemen on horseback, who asked, ‘Guido,
you refuse to be of our company; but when you have proved that there is no God,
what will you have accomplished?’ Guido, surrounded, replied: ‘Gentlemen, you
may say anything you wish to me in your own home.’ Then, resting his hand on
one of the great tombs and being very nimble, he leaped over it and rid himself
of them.


Cavalcanti’s reply is a brief statement that encompasses his philosophy.
Death (and its house) is beaten off and avoided by those who consider things
intellectually. Those who charge between parties on horseback bothering people
in graveyards do not, and are condemned to inhabit graveyards eternally. This
philosophy is all very well, but really, very long-winded. It took a modern
Italian writer, Italo Calvino (see TF 67), to point out: ‘What interests us
here is not so much the spirited reply attributed to Cavalcanti … What strikes
me most is the visual scene evoked by Boccaccio, of Cavalcanti freeing himself
with a leap “si come colui che leggerissimo era,” a man very
light in body.’


Personally, I think Calvino (and his lessons on the value of lightness
and the importance of subtracting weight, both in life and in literature) hits
the nail right on the head. What has survived Guido is not the
thirteenth-century ‘natural philosophy,’ or even any exact dates for the events
of his life. While Boccaccio tells the story for the quick riposte that
contains reams of arcane philosophy, Calvino is struck by a small accidental
detail, tangential to the real anecdote. It reminds me of my grandmother asking
some dignitary where he bought his tie from, or me asking a dolphin expert ‘how
many cents to a dime?’ It is not the quick-witted one-liner that defines Guido,
but the image of the light-bodied man, mid-vault, caught in a sudden burst of
energy that lets us know what he was about and what his beautiful thought
looked like.


Up the road a couple of hundred years later (1478), the host was raised
at mass in Santa Maria del Fiore and the Pazzi conspirators set upon Lorenzo
and Giuliano de’ Medici. Giuliano was killed straight away, receiving 19 stab
wounds from a member of the Pazzi family, while Lorenzo was set upon by another
Pazzi and the priest. Contemporary accounts tell us that Lorenzo escaped, that
he received a minor wound to the throat before managing to flee into the New
Sacristy, and that Florentines rose up against the planned Pazzi uprising,
throwing one from a window of Palazzo Vecchio and publicly stringing some of
the others up in the piazza.


In a guide to the Duomo, however, Frommer accidentally tells us
something more. It is the sort of detail that my grandmother and Calvino, who
don’t otherwise have much in common, would both like. In Frommer’s version,
Lorenzo ‘vaulted over the altar rail and sprinted for safety into the New
Sacristy, slamming the bronze doors behind him. Those doors were cast from 1446
to 1467 by Luca della Robbia, his only significant work in the medium…’


Another leap! Again, minor compared to the life lived, but it gives us a
beautiful and enduring image. Picture Lorenzo, Florence’s great ruler, escaping
from death by jumping over the rail dividing the crowd from the altar, the
congregation from the divine instruments. We forget the dark politics and
chaotic allegiances. We remember him, slamming the New Sacristy’s bronze gates
on such earthly matters, jumping over a rail and onto the pages of the
guidebooks with only a cut to his neck. Look at him, soaring over everything in
this way! That’s Lorenzo de’ Medici.


This vault is not the reason why what happened that day became the
‘Pazzi Conspiracy’ (capitals and quote-marks), or why Lorenzo de’ Medici has
always had a name for himself, but this insignificant leap enables a crucial
something, as did Cavalcanti’s. It gives us a feeling for these two spirits who
have become lighter than air. We think of them (one small leap each) and
picture them in these nearly accidental moments of action: the poet-philosopher
leaping over the grave, and the famous leader, patron of the arts, tentacles of
the Renaissance, in mid-vault over the altar rail beneath the dome of the glory
of his city.


Were they ever on the ground? Did they really use these streets? Well,
yes, they were as real as that Pazzi conspirator falling from a Palazzo Vecchio
window. They must have hit the ground, had places to go-ordinary places, where,
centuries later, a window display of leather gloves caught your eye or a
ceiling fresco’s fine details intrigued you, or you stopped to check the
photograph you just took of each other that will soon become the most important
moment you spent in piazza della Signoria. Maybe you’ll reconsider the next
time you choose not to vault over the chains at Piazza di San Giovanni towards
the station, becoming light for one instant, above the bottlenecks on either



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