Walking through the cobbled, dark, dilapidated streets of Florence — literally ‘the flourishing’ — it’s hard to believe that it was once the capital of the Renaissance, an artistic movement whose graceful wings would harbour the finest contemporary artists, the fluttering of which is still felt today. Undeniably beautiful, in its own rustic way, Firenze today is one of the most attractive and charming cities in the world but… what would it have looked like 500 years ago at the peak of its opulence, at the zenith of the Medici family’s power? What would it have looked like before ‘faithful reconstructions’ and centuries of war-torn damage?
It’s a feeling that haunts me whenever I explore ancient sites and cities, a nagging itch that I just can’t shake: how did it look in its hey-day, before tourism and smogged industry? I’ll never know — we’ll never know. In Ephesus, Turkey, that realisation was hammered home: I could be walking around the greatest and most beautiful city that has ever graced this world, but it would forever just be an image in my mind and nothing more. I can run my hands over fallen columns, their reliefs painstakingly chipped and carved to a level of manual craftsmanship that we’ll never see again, imagining what Ephesus might’ve looked like, felt like, but it won’t bring the city back to life. There its remains will lie, feeding imaginations of adventurous tourists until the end of time.
Back in Florence, at least there haven’t been any earthquakes (the most common cause of destruction in ancient Turkey was earthquakes, and the small fact of building accidentally on marsh land). Much of what you see today, picking your way over the ankle-turning cobbles of doom is authentic, aged, well-preserved. But it’s not really the buildings I’m here to see, it’s what’s inside: the finest collections of Gottis and Donatellos in the world, housed under wonders such as Brunelleschi’s dome, the Duomo, a construction of 4 million bricks that is still the largest masonry dome in the world.
But who am I kidding? The Raphaels are beautiful and the Da Vincis spectacular but the Michelangelos…
Passing through security, I turn to my right. There he stands, in plainly flaunted view, at the end of a long, vaulted avenue. Lined with other priceless sculptures that receive scarcely more than a fleeting glance, the avenue serves just one purpose: to heighten and hone my senses, to zoom in on what I’ve come to see: David. Lit perfectly and elevated, his head and gaze are level and contemplative. I wonder if there isn’t some small measure of irony in the monstrous size of Michelangelo’s finest masterpiece. Surely he anticipated, as he chipped away at a eighteen-foot block of flawless marble that his creation would be imposing. Maybe he was allured by the nickname the local authorities had given the raw block of marble: The Giant; perhaps Michelangelo felt that he was simply carving out the rock’s destiny. But who cares: David is huge. David dwarfs you and absorbs the entire room, sucking in your attention like a miniature black hole. Dare to meet his gaze and he defies you, just as he defies the world with the wordless challenge issued by his engraved face and form.
Aged just 26, Michelangelo would spend two years chipping away at a brave new portrayal of the Biblical figure King David. Most artists had presented David after his battle with Goliath, victorious; Michelangelo created a more ambiguous work, a piece so rich in detail that there are many possible interpretations: does that look of contemplation come from his decision to fight the giant, or is he looking up serenely having just vanquished his foe?
Only one person knows for sure and I hope he took the secret to his grave — where would the fun be if there was only one possible reading? The creation of art is only part of the process; admiration and interpretation are both required to make it complete, to make the work whole. The purpose of art, after all, is to create an effect.
Walking through the streets and museums of Florence, as tired and ancient that they may be, the art still roused within me vibrant and vicious images of life during the Rennaiscence. 600 years have passed and yet the art still stirs visitors such as me to stop and think and admire these great masterpieces. I wonder if any of our contemporary creations will be still be considered art six centuries from now.