“The goal of life is rapture. Art is the way we experience it. Art is the transforming experience.” —Joseph Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living
What is it about Florence that makes us feel exhilarated, alive and connected to something beyond ourselves? The late Joseph Campbell, renowned American author on mythology and professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, might as well have been talking about the art of Tuscany. In Florence, surrounded by so much art, we indeed feel enraptured. Great art invokes wonder, awe and a heightened feeling of spirituality, not necessarily in the religious sense, but in the sense of becoming connected to a reality greater than ourselves and a transcendent understanding of life. Even the most casual observer is awestruck by the Duomo and Brunelleschi’s dome. We are stunned by the intricacy of the Gates of Paradise doors that took Ghiberti 30 years to complete, on display in the Museo del Opera del Duomo. We are as entranced by the dreamlike beauty and modesty of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as we are seduced into a meditation on female sensuality portrayed in Titian’s Venus of Urbino while exploring the Uffizi. Tuning into the art of Florence induces a state of timeless reverie.
The art of the Renaissance especially encapsulates two intersecting ideals that underlie why we are affected so deeply: that art is divinely inspired and that it is enacted through virtuosic human skills that are nearly incomprehensible to ordinary people. That Michelangelo’s David was created from a block of marble using chisels and mallets is inconceivable to most of us. Yet, while the Renaissance embraced the dictum of the Ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things”, to Michelangelo, “Only God creates. The rest of us just copy”, and to Leonardo, “We, by our arts, may be called the grandsons of God”. These ideals were not only held by Renaissance artists. The late nineteenth/early twentieth century composer from Lucca, Giacomo Puccini, said of his opera Madama Butterfly, “The music of this opera was dictated to me by God; I was merely instrumental in putting it on paper and communicating it to the public.” Besides the overwhelming aesthetic beauty, our intuition that the hands of God, whatever your religious beliefs, and the hands of humans worked conjointly to create these and other masterpieces can be spiritually transportive.
The idea that art can be spiritually transportive is nothing new. From its earliest forms, the arts have always served as channels to transcendent states, whether through organized religion or other communal spiritual practices. Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, well known not only for his creation of abstract art, but also for his understanding of the relationship between art and spirituality, remarked, “When religion, science and morality are shaken…and when outer supports threaten to fall, man withdraws his gaze from externals and turns it inwards. Literature, music and art are the most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt” (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912). Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who spent much of his career studying the relationship between art and psychological states, noted, “What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak to the spirit and heart of the poet as man to the spirit and heart of mankind.” (Man in Search of a Soul, 1931). In his book The Psychology of Spirituality (2011), English psychiatrist Larry Culliford says that to achieve higher states of spirituality, people should, in addition to meditation and prayer, engage in the practice and appreciation of the arts: “All art forms contribute to our spiritual wealth and development.
The transcendence that we experience from great art may be felt nowhere more acutely and consistently than in Florence. Without question, Paris, New York, Rome and London are centers of some of the most awe-inspiring and resplendent art in existence. However, the small size and configuration of Florence and the ubiquity of art not only in museums, but also in churches and public buildings, results in an artistic density unknown almost anywhere else in the world. This may be why many of us wander through Florence in a near meditative state. Our psychological communion with others who feel the same way as we do enhances and reifies our transcendent experience. Whether we are immersed in reverence at the Benozzo Gozzoli and Magi Chapel exhibition at Palazzo Medici Riccardi, astonished by Jeff Koons’ transformation of steel into seemingly balloon-like creations in Shine at Palazzo Strozzi, engrossed by the intensity of the gaze of Caravaggio’s Medusa or invigorated by Botticelli’s Primavera, emotionally captivated by operatic performances at St. Mark’s English Church, or transported from despair to exaltation through Dante’s Divine Comedy, our connection to a reality that transcends our everyday life as humans is enriched.
If, as Joseph Campbell says, the goal of life is rapture, immersing ourselves in the art of Florence fulfills that goal.