Monday, July 25, 2016

Dolce / Language Regression, A Little Understanding of Michelangelo's Genius, and the Social Contract

Vei dei bardi (Street of the Poets), near Ponte Vecchio
I had good days and bad days in the classroom this week, and experienced a phenomenon known as language regression, something that I remember happened to me when I was in a Spanish immersion program. When you’re rapidly learning a new language as an adult, it is common to reach a point in which your struggle to take on board the new things you’re learning causes you to make mistakes in areas you’ve previously learned (and thought you’d mastered), giving you the impression that you’re actually getting worse, which is extremely frustrating. I caught myself thinking a couple of times this week, “Well, this is just a really bad day. I’m not speaking any more Italian in here today.” But within about thirty seconds I would tell myself, “Hey, dummy, if you don’t speak badly today then you’re just postponing your chance to get better.” And I dusted myself off and kept going.

We had a couple of afternoon classes on art this week, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more about Michelangelo. I want to tell you briefly a couple of things I’ve discovered about a couple of his most well-known works, La Pietà and David.
La Pietà - Michelangelo - 1497-1500
He did La Pietà early in his career, when he was about 25. When you see it, you’re struck by how lifelike it is. This is one of the many depictions in Renaissance religious art of “the deposition,” the moment when Christ was taken down from the cross. In la Pietà, Christ’s flesh and skin and muscles look so real you have to remind yourself that these are actually carved from marble. Michelangelo studied cadavers and had extensive knowledge about how the muscles, tendons, veins and skin really looked and he went for maximum realism in his work. But the longer you look at and study the beautiful work, you start to pick up some things that are not realistic. Mary appears to be impossibly young. Their heads are just about level with Jesus’ body arrayed across Mary’s lap, so she is actually much larger than Jesus and if they were both standing she would tower over him. Mary supports Jesus’ upper body with only her right hand, a very difficult feat given the angle of her upper body and the weight of the lifeless body of Christ. The nail wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet, as well as the spear wound in his side, are very small, minimal, and almost imperceptible. All these factors make Michelangelo more of an artist than a technician. He is intentional in these apparent lacks of realism. Mary’s youth reflects her purity and chastity and the minimization of Christ’s wounds are the result of a decision to deemphasize the brutality of the crucifixion in order to emphasize the calm, restful satisfaction in having completed the post painful part of the redemptive work.  
David - Michelangelo - 1501-1504
The David was originally commissioned to go on top of a building and that’s why it’s so large, over seventeen feet tall. It was deemed too good to go way on top of a building, so it is displayed at ground level. Even after you see the copy of the statue in the Piazza Signoria, the real David statue is incredibly impactful when you see it in person. The muscles and veins and symmetry of the body gives you the impression that he will load and fire his slingshot while you are watching. But upon careful examination you can tell that the right arm and hand are impossibly hyper-developed, conveying the empowerment of God in his battle against the Giant. A few other notable David statues had been done before Michelangelo’s, but they tended to show David posing with Goliath’s head after he had defeated and killed him. Michelangelo’s David is pre-battle, and David’s calm but determined focus in the moment before he kills the giant is, to me, a remarkable commentary on faith. Again, in the same way that the poet plays with the relationship between signifier and signified in language to establish her or his own rules of language (Juliet is not really the sun, but Shakespeare makes it so), Michelangelo bends the laws of physics in both the Pietà and the David for poetic effect.

Something that occurred to me today looking at the works is the fact that because Michelangelo’s ability to faithfully, breathtakingly depict the human form in marble is so perfect, you as the viewer accept the reality of the whole presentation: that Mary really looked that young at 47 or 48 years of age, that she could really support Christ’s lifeless body like that, that she could have the look of calm resignation on her face instead of abject sorrow, that David’s right arm and hand really looked like that, and that he was totally fearless as he loaded his slingshot. The technique strikes me as incredibly subtle, sophisticated and effective. The overwhelming truth of the accuracy of the depiction of the human form makes you excuse the parts of the work that are, well, only poetically true.

When classes ended on Friday I went and rented a bike again to go out and train and sightsee. The bike was really nice, a Colgnago c50 with smooth-shifting Campagnolo Chorus shifters and Mavic Cosmic Carbone wheels. The only problem was that it had a full-grown 53/39 crankset and an 11-25 freewheel cassette, definitely not good gearing for an old heavy guy (maybe not real good for anyone) on the hills around Tuscany. I spent a lot of time in my absolute easiest gear just grinding myself into muscle failure on the steepest hills on Friday and Saturday. On Sunday I looked for the flattest route I could find, which paralleled the Arno River for several miles until I turned inland and ground myself into oblivion going up one of the last hills toward Pontassieve. I only rode about half the miles I had intended, but I did wear myself out pretty well, had no accidents or flats, and saw some really beautiful countryside.
I took it really easy on the downhills, many of them so steep I feared for my ability to stop my bike. To have an accident back home where I can grab the cell and call a family member to come get me and go to a hospital where my insurance will work is one thing, but to have a serious accident here would be an unmitigated disaster, even though I’m sure the quality of medical care is probably every bit as good or better.

I sometimes feel safer riding a bike here than walking, especially when I have to cross the street. There are crosswalks here, but only about 30% of the cars will stop for you, even when you’re standing right in the crosswalk showing signs of wanting to cross. It’s like a game of chicken: "Does he see me? Does he not see me? Is he slowing down? Will he stop if I just step on out there?" And because not all the cars stop, some of the ones that do stop risk getting rear-ended by cars galloping up behind them with no intention of stopping for some poor sap in the crosswalk. As a pedestrian, since you don’t feel any real consistent protection in the crosswalk, you’ll cross anywhere it seems marginally and temporarily safe, which results in less predictability for drivers. There are rules here that seem to be universally ignored. I live near a traffic circle with cool little butcher shops, delicatessens, and pastry shops lining the street. People driving home will just pull their cars over at the edge of the traffic circle and get out and go buy what they need. Some afternoons cars will be illegally parked three deep so that drivers trying to exit the circle have to zig zag through an obstacle course. Of course, no traffic enforcement or police in sight.

Another disconnect between the ideal and the real: Firenze has a really advanced garbage disposal system where you’re encouraged (required, really) to sort out your recycling from your wet kitchen garbage (which I think is a great idea). At the corner there are containers to dispose of your glass, your paper, your plastic, your organic waste, and your wet trash that you can’t (or won’t) separate. The final category, the undifferentiated trash, is the only container with a lock on it. Every homeowner in the neighborhood is theoretically issued a key to the undifferentiated trash, which has a fairly small opening on it. There may be a limited number of uses per key, I don’t know, because I’ve been here nearly six weeks now and the owners haven’t given me a key to the trash. They tell me they’ve asked for it and it hasn’t been issued to them by the city government. So I sort the trash as best I can and lay my undifferentiated trash next to the locked dumpster, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. Well, I’m not the only one who does that, because there are typically dozens of bags of undifferentiated trash next to the container. So, in a nice neighborhood in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, next to a color-coded system of small dumpsters that probably cost millions of dollars city-wide, lie piles of trash for days on end because local government can’t or won’t issue the keys to the homeowners. The trash, like the three-deep illegal parking, like the drivers who won’t stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, are stark examples of breakdowns in the social contract, which I know happens in all countries to one degree or another. Shoot, there are very few crosswalks at all where I live, even in places that badly need them, and I’m pretty sure Bubba in his Dodge Ram will run you over there, too.  

Interestingly, the city of Firenze has taken a hard line in enforcing at least one law. To crack down on scofflaws who ride the city buses without paying, ticket checkers routinely board the bus and check to see if you have a validated bus ticket, which costs a little over one Euro (little more than a dollar) per trip. I generally get checked twice a week and I’ve even been checked by two different crews on the same trip. If they catch you riding the bus without a ticket, it’s a pretty serious fine: about 250 Euros (probably $270). I have no problem with the need to have a bus ticket. These are nice buses and they provide a valuable service and we who use them should pay for their operation. But who do they catch in these checks? Tourists, according to my unscientific observation. About 90% of the people they catch riding the bus without a validated ticket (that I've seen, anyway) are tourists who can’t figure out the system for buying a bus ticket (or don’t know there is a system) and just decide to climb on and hope for the best.

So that’s how it goes, even in the birthplace of the Renaissance: impunity for insiders and punishment for outsiders.