Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Gypsy and The Monk

Mars and I just returned from an Elderhostel in Florence, Italy. As usual we took a lot of pictures, about three hundred in total, on our two digital cameras. Over the next couple of weeks we will be weeding through them and culling out the better ones for publication on our blogs (here and at www.viewmars.blogspot.com).

While we were waiting at Charles DeGaulle Airport on our return trip I reviewed my collection by holding down the "next image" button in playback mode and letting the snapshots cycle by at about one second intervals. That night as I tried to sleep off my long day's exhaustion my mind kept repeating these same pictures and other images from our vacation.

And I periodically thought about one photo that I failed to get - that of the Gypsy and the Franciscan monk.

We had been forewarned about the gypsies by our Art Historian lecturer/coordinator Laura - the same cautions that we had heard on our visit to Barcelona several years ago. And from the old Cher recording. In both cities we saw only the women. They were dressed in bandanas, peasant blouses, long flowing multilayered skirts, horizontally striped tights and ballet-like slippers - sometimes with brightly clashing colors, normally in black and white.

They were always, in some manner, begging for money. However the real danger, we were told, was in their ability to suddenly turn an apparent act of individual charity into a collective opportunity for pick-pocketing and purse-grabbing. We were warned to keep these Romany rovers at a safe distance.

We also knew quite a bit about The Franciscans, not of course as potential threats, but rather as a religious order of mendicant monks founded by Saint Francis of Assisi who called himself "God's beggar" and relied totally on the kindness of strangers for all of his minimal worldly needs.

In Florence their principal church is the Basilica of Santa Croce. This building is the home of several of the city's best and most famous works of art, but perhaps is better known as the city's Pantheon - the burial place of Florence's most illustrious citizens, among them the classical composer Rossini, the scientist Galileo Galilei (yeah, the same guy that was excommunicated from the church while he was being entombed here), the philosopher Machiavelli, and most famously Michelangelo.

We were told that this confluence of post-mortem greatness in one place was an incidental result of the habitation of all these individuals in the neighborhood serviced by this church - apparently a section of town that was as prestigious to live in as the basilica was to lay in perpetual rest at.

So we were walking as a group towards one of our museum or church visits and I was at the front of the line with Laura - a position that I like because it allows me to quickly stop and take photos without holding up the parade - when I spotted two sock-less, sandaled feet walking briskly along, with the hem of a gray robe bobbing in step. Then out of the other side of my peripheral vision I saw some black ballet slippers and green and white striped tights approaching towards the first pair of shoes. The two figures were just a little too far away from me for an in-place image, so I began to move towards them just as they separated without ever really getting together.

I grumbled to myself and complained to Laura that I had just missed what could have been the best of my vacation pictures. She seemed to agree. We walked a little further and I came upon the unlikely couple again - still too far out of range. I tried creeping up on them and just as I was about to raise my camera the monk raised his hands in a dismissive manner and the gypsy woman spun quickly away. This time she spotted me, reached out her hands (one of which I think held a begging cup), and moved quickly in my direction. I turned and retreated to the safety of the group.

But THAT would have been the picture - the Franciscan monk with his neatly trimmed beard and nicely cleaned and pressed robe shooing away the wild haired, ill-clad vagabond. Even better with the outer walls of the Basilica of Santa Croce in the background.

The image would have been perfect in so many ways - not the least of which is that, like so many other perfect images, it proves to the viewer (or photographer) that, whatever his beliefs about the subject matter are, they are absolutely, irrevocably, one-hundred percent correct.


Anonymous said...

Jim, am looking forward to the pictures from your recent trip. I enjoy your blog and look forward to the updates. Monica and Bram deserve kudos for getting you started on this, your words, humor and insight were meant to be shared
Sherry Gardner

Jim said...



Seriously, I really appreciate your readership and kind words - and the opportunity that M & B have given me.