I suppose you could say that I started to prepare for this trip during the five weeks I spent in Florence back in November 2011. In fact, it's taken me all these months to realize that the Florence adventure was more than the expensive disappointment I thought it to be at the time. I still think my Italian studies did little to improve my conversation as I was in an intermediate class where everyone spoke Italian as faulty as mine and did so with German, Swiss, Australian, Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese, Polish, and Japanese accents. I also went to Florence believing that immersing myself in the birthplace of humanism would inspire my own personal rinascimento . . . renaissance. I expected to return home imbued with the creativity and inspiration that would enable me to write movingly about the need to restore the arts and humanities in our schools to their equal and rightful place alongside math, science, and technology. Instead I returned exhausted. My mind was blank; my spirit, flat. For months, I studied no Italian and my writing remained uninspired.
I understand now that I did experience a kind of rebirth. It just wasn’t what I expected. While immersed in a foreign culture with few language skills, I had no identity. I was stripped of that persona we create for ourselves by telling our stories. My past was reduced to very basic, uncomplicated events without any of the drama and nuances that may or may not be true through the filter of memory and point of view. As a result, I became reacquainted with my most basic and essential self.
Also by the time I left Florence, I was disturbed by the fact that so much of the art was paid for by the wealthy who wanted to immortalize their final resting places and, while alive, to impress others with their spiritual worthiness. By my fourth week in Florence, I would look at the Duomo and think not of artistic and spiritual grandeur but of the workmen slogging along day after day to build it, eating their lunches high on rafters overlooking the city. Walking home alone at night through the narrow back streets, I became one of those anonymous craftsmen lost in the grit and dust of time. It felt very lonely, and I wanted to go home.
In my final days in Florence, I spent the better part of a day at an exhibit called Denaro e Bellezza, Money and Beauty. As Florence grew to be a powerhouse of commerce, spiritual salvation and prestige of power became one as the mighty commissioned great art works to celebrate and redeem themselves. In the latter years of the fifteenth century, the mad monk Savonarola railed against the material excesses of the time. I stood on the spot in the Piazza della Signoria where in 1497, Savonarola’s followers ignited his Bonfire of the Vanities and burned to a crisp gaming tables, fine clothing, books, works of famed poets and artists. The following year, Savonarola himself was burned on this same spot for his fanatical defiance of those in power.
The excesses of wealth were real. Florence eventually deteriorated in large part due to the failure of the elite to care about anything but themselves. Savonarola had a point but also his own form of excess, as he gathered followers by claiming clairvoyance through prophecy and vision.
I left Florence, like one of Michelangelo's Prisoners: a form trapped in the stone from which it emerged through the hand of art. These marble figures begun for the tomb of Pope Julius were abandoned when the project was decommissioned or cancelled. The story isn't clear. It might have been that the artist left the figures unpolished and fighting their way out of the stone. Now they struggle in the long narrow room of The Accademia that opens into the space where the 17-foot David stands. It's thought that the glare in David's eyes represented the defiance of the city-state of Florence which was surrounded on all sides but threats to its independence. The irony, of course, is that in the end, the failure of self-absorbed leaders brought it all down.
When I think now of Florence, I enter a place of quiet like the cells of a Franciscan monastery in Fiesole, a town on a hill above Florence.
In each tiny cell, less than half the size of my small bedroom, was a wooden table and chair and a wooden slab for sleeping. In 1219, Francis made his way from Assisi to Egypt to confer with the Sultan with the hope of converting him and ending the brutality of the crusades. While the man who would become a saint did not succeed as he had hoped, this impoverished believer was received and welcomed by the Sultan who had a reputation for goodness and did not believe that war was ever an answer.
What an incredible act of imagination it was that led Francis to make that long trip with nothing. Nothing. And here I am with various piles of preparation surrounding my suitcase: clothes, iPad, iPhone, camera, guide book...and just how many of those little bottles of liquid will fit into my quart baggie...and will they let me on the plane with my gluten-free protein powder if it's not in its big and bulky original container....
Francis made his trip during the time of that fifth and really bloody crusade. How many crusades have we fought since 1219? How many are we still fighting?
Yesterday, I took all of my journals to the recycling center. While ripping the pages off the metal notebook spirals, I glanced over the entries, so many of which detail my own personal crusade against the failures of education reform in America. So many best sellers have been written on the subject, just as many educators have created successful alternatives to public education. But these books have done nothing to strengthen public education, which a free people should champion above all else. What answers might I find as I sift through the ruins of empire? And what will I learn about myself as a descendant of that empire?