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Ogne parlar sarebbe poco

Uffizi, partial view of the tribuna (sculture corridor),
taken when the fascist guards' backs were turned.
Corn' io divenni allor gelato e fioco,
nol dimandar, lettor, ch'i' non lo scrivo,
pero ch'ogne parlar sarebbe poco.
How weak I now became, how faded, dry --
reader, don't ask, I shall not write it down --
for anything I said would fall far short.
Dante, Inferno, Canto 34
I read these lines in the Inferno late yesterday evening, after a day that included my first visit to the Uffizi art museum, and they struck me as appropriate to the cumulative effect of seeing so much familiar art for the first time.

We are fortunate to have been given an apartment that is a five minute walk from the Uffizi, though we didn't set off until after midday, on a Saturday afternoon, in July. Possible forecast: raining human beings, take immediate shelter elsewhere. Big surprise: once again, the Amici card permits you to go in through a reserved door, and once again we were climbing the stairs to see the art mere minutes after arriving. I don't think this luck can hold, but I'm enjoying it so far. The museum is pretty small compared to London's National Gallery, New York's Met, or Chicago's Art Institute. It's a U-shape, with most of the painting in galleries along one leg of the U, and most of the sculpture in galleries along the other leg. Currently more than half of the galleries are closed, due to the Nuovo Uffizi project (updating, reorganising, adding space to display more art from storage) which is still very much in progress. Some of the paintings that were in the upper galleries have been moved to a half-finished space in the basement, but ... anyway, there's still plenty to see.

My plan was to do some reccy for the students, and not to get too close to any one painting - just a moderate walk-through, stopping at the highlights. But I couldn't resist getting out my sketchbook and pencil, and doing some drawing here and there. Following on from what I noticed about the Fra Angelico paintings the other day, and also as a way to look without being overwhelmed, I decided to draw just noses, starting with early Renaissance honkers by Cimabue:


A couple of galleries later, I arrived at Piero's double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, a surprisingly small work. But very big nose on the Duke:

His nose was broken either in a fall or a fight (similarly, the reason he's showing us his left profile is that his right eye went missing after a jousting contest, something you rarely read about these days). Pollaiolo's subject is just a giant hooter (English sense) resulting from centuries of inbreeding. Great shape, though. I'm picturing it on a twenty foot high canvas by someone like Gary Hume.

Another major surprise (only because I haven't read the guidebooks thoroughly, I suppose): the Botticelli room really does have a lot of paintings, large and small, by Botticelli. He's one of those painters, like Renoir, who has suffered as a result of over-reproduction of his most famous paintings, with the hoi polloi and art snobs like me alike mistaking his calm, reasoned emotion for mere sweetness.

Looking at La Primavera, I started with a nose again -- the figure of Winter in the top right, from whom one of Spring's handmaidens is running away into the centre of the painting to escape the cold wind that he's blowing in her direction:

And after I finished, and moved to the other side of the picture to look closely at those V-shaped waves, and the bulrushes sticking up from the lower-left of the frame, the strangest thing happened: I felt myself rather overcome, and tears came to my eyes so quickly that I was unable to choke all of them back, and had to let some moisture escape. Now this hardly ever happens with paintings, much as I love them. Music, yes, all the time. Writing, fairly often, too. Painting, and other forms of art, give me strong emotional responses, but they are almost always much more internal, more dispersed, more aesthetic, I suppose, than emetic. I don't think I'm alone in this. It took me unawares, and I'm still trying to work out why it happened. Perhaps I'm already experiencing the 'art dizziness' that Stendhal talked about when he spent time in Florence, though it seems a little early for that. I think it's 'Botticelli dizziness', due to the realisation that he isn't only a painter for the illustrated lids of chocolate boxes. His conceptions are lovely in the truest sense of the word: they are about love, they express love, they are painted lovingly, they invite love, they are worthy of love. His way of elongating the figures is a mannerism that invites longer looking (I also noticed how green the paintings are, tonally). The longer you look, the more you feel captivated by his view of the universe. You have entered a world of emotional thinking that, unlike Dante's ferocious Christian moralism, is purely positive. He says 'yes' to life.

Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation was hardly the painting to calm me down, but I manfully kept back the tears long enough to do this drawing, starting with the nose once more, but eventually getting absorbed by the rest of the profile:

I could have gone on a lot longer with this one, but I was getting a crowd who were watching me more than the painting, which I felt was not right, somehow, so I stopped (for now).

It's banal to say that the paintings of 1400s to early 1500s are beautiful, or that they express perfection, or at least the idea of perfection. These are all terms that we assent to, but which contain all manner of meanings once we start to investigate them. I don't per se think that da Vinci's art is more 'beautiful' in an aesthetic sense than Anselm Kiefer's. But I do hope, with the students' help, to start reconsidering why it is that these Florentine paintings have so much that makes us return to them.

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