The Most Dantean Thing I Saw in Florence

… was not Dante’s house, although I admired that it was on Via Dante Aligheri, and appreciated that the quotations from the Commedia carved in stone and set into the nearby buildings.

Inside the Casa is a Museo that, at 4 euros for entrance, cost 4 euros too much. Mostly posters with ots of text in Italian about obscure matters. Some reproduced florins spilling out of a “leather” purse. 

Nor was the most Dantean thing the nearby church of Santa Margerita, “Dante’s Church,” where Dante married x, and first saw Beatrice. Maybe.   

 Inside, it’s probably the least church-like church in Florence: many contemporary paintings– bad ones– of Dante looking at Beatrice. Music was being piped in, and not historically appropriate music, such as Gregorian chant, or even particularly religious music, just some weird “beautiful” elevator music.   

There was a crypt that may or may not have contained Beatrice’s mortal remains. Certainly it belonged to the Portinari family. Above is a shrine to Mary, and in front many hand-written supplications, though  to which lafy it is not clear (I didn’t look at any).
The most famous image of Dante in Florence is the painting by Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491) in the western wall of Florence’s Duomo of Dante holding the Comedy to instruct Florence with Hell, Paradise, and Heaven represented. Now the picture below is NOT mine, as i did not go into the Duomo on this trip, on account of the lines.


What I did do at the Duomo, and the Piazza dei Signoria, and San Lorenzo, and everywhere else the guidebooks recommend you should go, is watch vast hordes of tourists being rushed from site to site by group leaders with flags, like the souls before the Gates of Hell.   


E io, che riguardai, vidi una ’nsegna

che girando correva tanto ratta,

che d’ogne posa mi parea indegna;
e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta

di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto

che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,

Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,

That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;
And after it there came so long a train

Of people, that I ne’er would have believed

That ever Death so many had undone.

And that was the most Dantean thing I saw in Florence.


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Through Transpadene Gaul by Rail

In anticipation of a train trip from Milan to Lausanne recently, i looked into the history and geography of the area the Rommans knews as Transpadene Gaul, the northern part of Cisalpine Gaul across the Po but south of the Alps. I didn’t know much about the area, nor did the Romans really, so I sort of boned up on the geography is be passing along on the train.

Leaving Milan isn’t too charming, and I promptly fell asleep for about half an hour.


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Some Gestures Observed

As everyone knows, Italians have a lively language of gesture. A few I observed, in context, during this recent trip:

1. Get Lost Hand Chop. I was on a train when a woman got on and systematically handed out pieces of paper to everyone except me. In Italian it said something slong the lines of I am poor, please give me money so i can feed my children, etc. After she covered a few train-cas, she came by to collect them and beg. One older guy let the piece of paper drop to the floor, and when he asked him for a contibution, he looked off into the middle distance, and did the “hand chop.” While articles on gestures describe this as an up-and-down motion of the right hand, his hand was cupped and it seemed more like he was rubbing a melon. She went away.

2. Eye Pull. I was in Milan buying a ticket to get into the Cathedral. When I got to the front of the line, inasked, “Do you take a card?” To which she replied, “Why wouldn’t we?” I told her I’d recently been in Naples, where plaves often didn’t take cards. “Ah, well they’re pooerer there–good people though, generous people. Still …” And she pulled down her lower right eyelid with her index finger to indicate, “but foxy, watch out for them.” I think she was ironically imitating a Southern mannerism with the gesture.

3. Chin Inquiry & Mezza Mezza. At a restaurant in Tivoli that specialized in grilling over a great big fire, the chef- owner had been sitting with some friends and letting the sous- chef do most of the work. Whenit came time to cook for this table, he went over to the grill himself, held up the steak with tongs for the male friend to see, and lifted his chin quickly. The friend made the mezza- mezza hand sign. I take it this exchange was, How do you want this cooked? With the reply, Medium.

4. Fist Push. On the train between Florence and Milan, I got into a conversation with a very nice guy and his Chinese wife and their adorable daughter. He’s from Milan, but works overseas, and was describing the work ethic of different countries. In the first class compartment, you’re supposed to get a free beverage, but the women pushing the cart breezed right past us. He looked at them leaving, then at me, and curled his hand into a fist which he then pushed away from his chest. “Fucking Italians, eh?” he said.

5. Patient Hand Clasp. I was at a trattoria in Rome and was asking the waitress to explain a few items. She leaned down slightly and clasped her hands in front of her, as if to say, You are vexatious with your many questions but I have infinite reserves of Stoic resolve.

Im sure others will occur to me.

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A Foot and a Finger in Milan

Finding myself with a few hours in Milan between trains, I made a bee-line for the famous cathedral. Out of the subway I came and… Ecce Duomo!   

 It’s an astounding place, it’s white marble exterior covered with sculpture, and its interior blazing with color from the enormous stained glass windows.   

  Love the guards’ cockaded hats, by the way. 
 One of the the main sights inside is Marco d’Agrate’s gruesome statue of St. Bartholomew, who was flayed in his martyrdom.   

Mark Twain had seen this statue in Innocents Abroad, and wrote, 

The guide showed us a coffee-colored piece of sculpture which he said was considered to have come from the hand of Phidias, since it was not possible that any other artist, of any epoch, could have copied nature with such faultless accuracy. The figure was that of a man without a skin; with every vein, artery, muscle, every fiber and tendon and tissue of the human frame represented in minute detail. It looked natural, because somehow it looked as if it were in pain. A skinned man would be likely to look that way unless his attention were occupied with some other matter. It was a hideous thing, and yet there was a fascination about it some where. I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now. I shall dream of it sometimes. I shall dream that it is resting its corded arms on the bed’s head and looking down on me with its dead eyes; I shall dream that it is stretched between the sheets with me and touching me with its exposed muscles and its stringy cold legs.

It is hard to forget repulsive things.

Twain is being a little over dramatic here, of course, for the real point of this St. Bartholomew is to call into questionable worldly things. Still, it is repulsive. The best I can do to express that is to show you his foot.   

The Duomo used to be the tallest building in Milan until it was outdone by the Pirelli skyscraper in the 50s and more recently the Unicredit Tower.  Banking, after Fashion, is Milan’s biggest business, and its home is the Borsa a few blocks away. 

Having done due diligence in seeing the Dupmo, I rushed on over to the Borsa to see Maurizio Cattelan’s L.O.V.E. (Liberté, Ofio, Vendetta, Eternità).I had written a post on this before, but had not seen it in the flesh, so to speak. An enormous hand recalls Constantine’s hand in Rome, of course–so an indictment of power–but also Adam Smith’s invisible hand–an indictment of the free market. People complain about the difficulty of modern art, but as a commentary of la crise in 2008, it could not be more clear. In its own way, it’s a caution against the things of this world.


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Traces of Galileo 

Inspired by the sight of the Belvedere fort from my window, I spent part of yesterday tracking down traces of Galileo. 

The museum dedicated to the great man in the Palazzo Castellani, where the history of Florentine science is traced broadly–there are lots of great big old globes, terrestrial and astral, as well as lots of devices intended for military calculation. 

In the room fronted by Galileo’s bust, we find the VERY telescopes he used to look at the moons of Jupiter. Also, his Jovilabe, microscope, and other things.   


But the oddest things are … his tooth, thumb, and finger. It’s a Catholic country, I guess, and relics are revered for saints and even revered ex-communicants as well.

The inscription on the finger-jar– the reliquary– reads,

which translates as,
Perhaps the best part of the Galileo museum was the hands-on part, in which various Galilean theories were put to practice. I hadn’t realized that Renaissance theories of parabolics was the basis of Angry Birds!

Later, I went over to Santa Croce, which seems to be something like Florence’s Westminster Abbey. Here are the memorials to Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and cenotaphs for Dante, Leonardo, and Marconi. Galileo,too, is numbered among the worthies. 

 He holds his globe in one hand, the telescope in the other. Not till later do I think to remember looking at his finger.

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Uh huh, Cellini’s Perseus

Me and Doctor Freud know what you’re up to with the position of that harpe, Benvenuto! 

    This sight of Medusa’s head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone. Observe that we have here once again the same origin from the castration complex and the same transformation of affect! For becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact. 

And it doesn’t improve from different angles, you Mannerist old pervert.


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Some Etruscan Urns in Florence

Florence’s Museo Archeologico has vast amounts of Etruscan material. It’s long on stuff, but short on explication. I walked into a room full of urns, none of them with any labels or anything! Still, I’m sure it’s possible to puzzle out the pictures over time, so I’m going to put some images up and hope for interpretive inspiration.





So these last two strike me as illustrating the death of Polites as described by Virgil in Aeneid 2. Not sure what the wheel is meant to represent.

Found online:

Around this room are many very interesting urns with reliefs of various legends, beginning from top to bottom, and again from the bottom upwards—a peculiar arrangement, in accordance with Greek tradition, as the ox draws the plough, which has here been adopted by Professor Milani. The small statues reclining on the urns, which probably contained the ashes of the dead, are in short proportions to fit the lid, and of a conventional type ; the reliefs below are generally in very superior art. The men wear garlands or coronals, and chains of a peculiar form round their necks, or twined in their head-dresses; they have rings on their fingers, and hold a Patera or sacrificial cup ; sometimes they have a tablet or diptych in their hands; the females are generally represented with a fan formed like a palm leaf, or with mirrors.
Turning to the left of the entrance, the reliefs are chiefly taken from the story of the Calydonian Boar ; Greek legend being introduced, as well as subjects which typify the journey of the soul to another world. No. 2 and No. 3 have the history of Theseus ; No. 4 and No. 5, Hippolytus, whose horses were terrified by a sea-monster sent by Poseidon, and as they ran away dragged him in his chariot till dead. From No. to to No. 18 are different representations of the story of Pelops and Hippodameia. Pelops bribed Myrtillus, the charioteer of his rival OEnomaus, to allow him to win the race for the hand of Hippodameia. In all these are typified the conflict, as well as the race or journey of life, towards a goal.
From No. 19 to No. 44 is the legend of Cadmus, who was commanded by the Oracle at Delphi to follow a cow, which led him to the spot where he built Thebes. He was about to sacrifice the cow to Athene, and went for water to a well be-longing to the god Ares, when he encountered a dragon, which he slew, and sowed its teeth in the ground, from which sprang up men who became the ancestors of the Thebans. His marriage was celebrated in the presence of the gods, and he presented his wife Harmonia with the famous Peplos, or veil. In the end Cadmus and Harmonia were changed into dragons. The story was symbolical of the migration of a race of warriors.
From No. 45 to No. 47 is the Theban legend of OEdipus, who was exposed at his birth and brought up by a shepherd, be-cause an oracle had informed his father Laius that he would perish by the hand of his child ; which oracle was fulfilled when OEdipus slew him in a fray without being aware who he was. When OEdipus became king of Thebes a series of calamities followed, which ended by his putting out his own eyes, and being expelled from the city.
From No. 48 to No. 67 the subjects are taken again from Thebes. The war in which the two sons of OEdipus, Eteocles and Polynices, quarrelled for their father’s kingdom is here represented. Polynices was supported by Adrastus, king of Argos, who was joined by five other heroes, forming the confederacy known as the Seven against Thebes. One of the most beautiful reliefs in this room is No. 64, in which Eteocles and Polynices have killed one another ; both sink to the ground, and the avenging Nemesis is seen above.
From No. 68 to No. 70 are incidents taken from the life of Paris of Troy ; No. 71 has the Rape of Helen ; and No. 72 to No. 75 the story of Telephus, the son of Hercules, who, when wounded by Achilles, was cured by the rust from his antagonist’s spear. From No. 76 to No. 78 is the story of the Sacrifice of Iphigenia ; and from No. 78 to No. 97 are other subjects relating to the Siege of Troy, such as Achilles pursuing Troilus, and the story of Patroclus ; on the relief, No. 86, he is carried to burial ; No. 82 to No. 86, Philoctetes is visited by Ulysses and Diomedes ; No. 87 and No. 88 represent the wooden horse by which Troy was taken. No. 89 has the story of Orestes ; No. 90 to No. 97 has scenes from the Odyssey : No. 97, Orestes and Iphigenia in Aulis, is one of the finest of the series. From No. 98 to No. 106 are all subjects of which the meaning has not yet been ascertained. The most peculiar is where the Orco, or Hobgoblin, in the shape of a Bear, is rising from a well.

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