Tuesday, October 31, 2006

89% of 90% =

"Ninety percent of all the great art in the world is in Italy. And eighty-nine percent of that is in Florence." we were told by Laura, our Art Historian lecturer, on the first night of our Elderhostel in that city.

No one asked what percentage of the art currently in Florence fell into this category, and Laura didn't volunteer that information. But to my non-expert eye pretty much everything looked like it did - the Renaissance is after all, THE RENAISSANCE! . And it seemed to be present on very inch of every wall in every museum and every church that we went to every morning and every afternoon.

For several days I felt like I was walking inside the complete and definitive anthology of art history published as a life-sized pop-up book. Unfortunately there was so much of it that at times it merged into one enormous throbbing montage of biblical, mythological, and early Christian luminaries crushed together like a crowd of Maurice Sendak's child-grabbing monsters - all intertwined and pushing and shoving each other for position, and the viewer's attention. My art sensibilities needed some outside air.

So naturally when I spotted a piece of sculpture standing quietly by itself I was curious.

"What is this called?", I asked Laura as we walked at the head of our group across the Piazza Repubblica on our way to The Accademia and our appointment with Michelangelo's David.

"This" was a piece of apparently modern sculpture - four white abstract organic shapes on a black base. We had walked past it at least four other times on our excursions to and from the museums and churches of this city but up until today it hadn't really jumped out at me as being an objet d'art worthy of attention. It was the first, and to that point only, piece of clearly contemporary artwork that I had seen on our study-tour.

There was a statue of what appeared to be large animals fighting in the small square in front of the Weston Hotel near the Arno River that probably was also "modern", but its overall look was renaissance muscularity - something that in another time and place I would have rushed over to see and photograph. But not here and not now.

Today however the white, nonrepresentational piece definitely attracted my interest - much more than it would have in the real world. Maybe my aesthetic sense was becoming more eclectic. Or maybe I just was suffering from ROPMDD or Renaissance Overload Post Modern Deficit Disorder.

"I don't really know what this one is called." she answered. "They put them out for the tourists. What is this now, October? They'll be putting them away next month until around next May when the tourist season starts up again. I actually kind of like them - the juxtapositions...excuse me Jim, we need to cross the street here."

There is outdoor art in Florence - but you do kind of have to look for it. And compared to the indoor museum and church presentation the outside ones are mostly differences of degree rather than of kind.

In the nearby Piazza della Signoria, Florence's main civic square and home of the Palazzo Vecchio or town hall, in a small area known as Loggia dei Lanziis there are bronze statues of Perseus holding Medusa's severed head by Benvenuto Cellini, and Giambologna's The Rape of the Sabine Woman. In the center of the piazza is the equestrian statue of Cosimo I, next to Neptune's fountain.

In that same Piazza, in front of the town hall, is the copy of Michelangelo's David that replaced the original when it became apparent that the damaging effects of the alfresco environment outweighed the benefits of public accessibility. Apparently in an effort to prevent some of the same fate befalling the faux slayer of Goliath, electric wires were placed on the statue with the intention of shocking the pigeons off of the the artwork - presumably without scaring anything out of them. (Ken-Tuscan Fried Chicken?).

(photos of Living Statue and Sidewalk Art by Mars)
Next door to the piazza, in front of the adjacent Uffize Galleries, there were also several "living statues" posing for Euros - but from what I saw that was just about it in that immediate area. I actually like the sentient statuary - especially when you catch them on a smoke-break, or during the touching up of their makeup. They add a creepy humanity to the world of public art that somehow makes it both more accessible and more disturbing at the same time.

There certainly were other nonliving statues throughout the city (e.g. Dante Alighieri at Santa Croce) as well as a few of what Evelyn, our Architecture lecturer called "tabernacles" (small religious themed bas-relief looking pieces usually up above door level on the sides of buildings). And we did come across a couple of sidewalk chalk artworks in the process of being created.


But even these alfresco artifacts couldn't clear the renascence racket in my brain. So on our last day of the trip, in spite of the rainy weather, Mars, Sandy and I decided to go the the Boboli Gardens (click to see photos), a short walk across the Arno River and just up the street from the Ponte Vecchio and its statue of Cellini, in search of a place where the both the artworks and the viewers had a little more room to breathe.

On a cool, rainy day Boboli Gardens was all of that .

Created by Niccolo Pericoli (a.k.a Tribolo) under the auspices of the Medici family and completed in 1558 these gardens became the design model for virtually all of the great royal gardens of Europe, including Versailles. Due to the inclement weather the site was pretty much deserted. And perhaps because of the regimentation of the previous days, to which we willingly and gratefully submitted ourselves, the three of us decided to wander semi-aimlessly along the paths and trails and ultimately found ourselves at one side of a football field sized area with a couple of large sculptures along the sidelines.

Across from our entry point to the rectangular area was an incomplete human head, fifteen to twenty feet tall, with a surface that appeared to be dry, cracked clay. From our position it was impossible to tell if the object was solid or simply the facial portion of the head.

I was preparing to walk across the grass to take a closer look when from my right and on the same side as the head I spotted a man and woman in their twenties - she, long blonde haired and white booted, holding onto his arm and rocking playfully as she walked; he looking straight ahead with his multi-lensed camera poised for action in his right arm. His stance, even though he was moving and fully clothed, was almost identical to that of Michelangleo's David - eyes focused on the target, posture balanced and ready for action, and hands positioned for the task at hand and accordingly tense. (Clearly I am still at least somewhat still looking at the world through Renaissance eyes.)

Without any apparent conversation or signal the young woman broke away from her partner and ran towards the statue. Hesitating only to assess the situation she jumped up to place her hands on the base, lifted herself up onto the flat pedestal, and struck several lighthearted, girlish, supermodel poses while he, and I, pointed and clicked.


Suddenly the rain became heavier. And in her haste to remove herself from the puddle of water in which she now found herself standing, the object of our photo-attention accidentally touched one of the pigeon-preventing electrodes, thus completing the circuit and...

Just kidding!

Actually she placed herself in a couple more mock-mannequin positions and jumped back down. Then she and her boyfriend waved and bounced off into another part of the gardens.

Not surprisingly the city that contains, by my calculations, eighty percent of the planet's most outstanding pieces of art understands that in spite of their blatantly obvious sex appeal even the greatest sculptural works can still end up as pigeon perches, whereas other (shall we say) more cerebral ones just make really good chick magnets.

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