Under Florence, “a submerged Rome”
I have lived and taught in Florence on and off for the past four years, negotiating trips (and teaching) during the pandemic. When I flew to Rome in August 2020, holding a folder of documents to show that I was not a tourist, I found the flight scary, but was pleased to see the world was still there. Now, with vaccines and boosters, traveling is a chance to connect, to hear art and history whispered directly to you as you experience places in person, or as the Italians say, “in presenza.”
Sensitive to art and history, McCarthy writes in “The Stones of Florence” that “beneath the surface of Florence lies a sunken Rome”, so to look beyond Renaissance recreations of antiquity and Going back to the city’s classical origins, I went with to San Miniato al Monte, a medieval basilica built in the 11th century on the highest point of a hill overlooking the city. The views over Florence and the Duomo are even more splendid than those from the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo, and in the church’s crypt, as McCarthy had promised, was a “petrified forest” of assorted Roman columns and capitals that had been incorporated into the church.
I let her take me to the church of Santa Maria Novella, to admire the facade, showing the scientific instruments embedded on each side, a gnomon and an astrolabe, and also another very important fresco by Masaccio. In the arrangement of figures and cross in this Trinity fresco, McCarthy finds “the great ordered plane of Nature embraced in a single design”, comparing the fresco to a proof in philosophy or mathematics: “an equilateral triangle is inscribed in an arc figure which is inscribed in a rectangle; and the center, the apex of the triangle and the apex of all things is the head of God the Father.
McCarthy’s pre-Florence project was the incisive “Memoirs of a Catholic Maiden,” in which she vindicates her position as a commentator on Catholicism, discussing how religion offered mystery and beauty during a complex childhood. and often harsh. I wish she could climb the scaffolding of the Brancacci chapel, where she was particularly moved by “the stocky body and gaping mouth of Eve as she is chased, screaming, from the Garden”, which made McCarthy reflect on “all the horror and deformity of the human condition.
Masaccio once again makes us reflect on the relationship between Renaissance art and sculpture; his major innovations included the heavy sculptural presence of the bodies he painted, as well as the first use of vanishing point perspective; literary historian Stephen Greenblatt in “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve”, writes: “Masaccio’s unforgettable characters depend…on their overwhelming sense of embodiment, an illusion of actuality evoked by perspective and reinforced by the shadows…”
McCarthy found redemption in the equally realistic details that Masaccio painted on other figures in the chapel, the healed cripple or the old woman receiving alms, a “universal truth which shows the whole expanse of the world, just and filthy”.