Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Real Dirt on Florence

 terra cotta (Italian: "baked earth")...a kind of object-e.g., vessel, figure, or structural form-made from fairly coarse, porous clay that when fired assumes a colour ranging from dull ochre to red and usually is left unglazed

adobe a heavy clay soil used to make sun-dried bricks. The term, Spanish-Moorish in origin, also denotes the bricks themselves.

Northern New Mexico is easily our very favorite place on earth and Mars was reminded of that area while we were standing in Florence Italy's Piazza Reppublica listening to our Elderhostel Art Historian tell us about the original "Bonfire of the Vanities".

Initiated by the newly self-empowered Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola to purge Florentines of all the "evil practices" that drew their hearts away from God, hundreds of works of art and books that were offensive to the Supreme Being (or at least to Savonarola) were burned and destroyed in a series of public conflagrations on February 7, 1497.

"At about the same time they were building the Taos Pueblo." Mars leaned towards me and whispered. Oddly enough something in Florence had me also thinking about northern New Mexico. In Mars' case it was the differences between the development patterns of the two cultures. For me it was the way they used their dirt.

As a gardener I like dirt a lot. And spend as much time in it as I can. And as an avocational potter I have some degree of understanding of what it feels like to transform that most basic of earth's substances into something generally considered higher on the aesthetic scale.

In the 1200's the municipality of Florence passed a law requiring all roofs to be made of terra cotta in order to reduce the spread of fires within the city. Apparently the Florentines are a very law abiding people because almost eight hundred years later whether you are looking up from a piazza at the dome of a church, or down from your room with a view at the housetops in your neighborhood, what you see is the same brownish-red earthenware - local mud on local roofs - possibly even the original 13th Century tiles.

As Mars had mentioned to me, at about the same historical time in northern New Mexico the Tiwa Indians were using their own sun-dried bricks of earth, water and straw to construct the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.

The gringos of that area were obviously as taken with the "pueblo" architectural style as the Florentines were with Terra Cotta for they have replicated it, carefully updated it, and (in Santa Fe for example) also legislated conformity with it - although for aesthetic rather than combustible reasons. Mars and I feel totally at home in the high desert geography, climate, and (maybe because this earth-based building material is so literally connected to the land) the housing.

Florence on the other hand, which we were visiting for a single purpose (Renaissance Art) and a short finite time (six days) was feeling a little more like a display case than a living, breathing place.

The churches and museums can be - no, make that ARE - intimidating in both their vastness and the sheer volume of masterpiece-level works of art within them. I felt a little like a visitor from Bangladesh whom we hosted several years ago and took to our local museum, the Wadsworth Athenaeum. Mr. Das was in his forties and had, we came to learn, a textbook familiarity with the artists on display even though the fundamentalist government of his country had destroyed and banned such works several years before. "These are copies?" he asked. "No", we told him, "they are originals." Mr. Das then literally ran through the museum trying to get as close as possible to as many works as possible in the short time that he knew he had.

Maybe because unlike the citizens of Florence in 1497 and Mr. Das I didn't have the experience of losing great art, my reaction to seeing Giotto's "Madonna and Child Enthroned", or Botticelli's "Birth of Venus", or Caravaggio's "Head of Medusa", or Michelangelo's "David" was closer to extreme confusion followed by relieved awe. In most instances I just didn't know where to look next because there was just so much to see. Thankfully our Art Historian or another lecturer guided us through the overwhelming maze of canvases, frescoes, and statuary without any serious injuries to our art-appreciating psyches.

Which didn't leave much time for the city of Florence itself - other than as the stage on which all this "stuff" was created and where it is exhibited today.

Except for the terra cotta roofs - which, like the adobe bricks of New Mexico, documented the intimate connection of the manmade edifices to their local natural infrastructure, and the repetitive acts of day-to-day human behavior that make life, and therefore art, possible.

And, at least for me, helped to bring this city on the Arno River down to earth.

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