Monthly Archives: August 2012

The art of Florence: religion, death, and… love

My absence from the blogosphere for a few days is down to a great little break in Florence. I am ashamed to say that I had never been to Italy before and so I decided to take my partner on a surprise break to the Tuscan city.

It is the most beautiful city I have ever seen.

The artwork and architecture of Florence are world famous. Florence was the beating heart of the Renaissance; during our stay we saw works by the megastars of Renaissance art including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello, and (just so you don’t think I am naming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) Boticelli amongst many others.

Most of the great works are housed in museums where photography is prohibited, but I wanted to share the following sights that I found interesting…

The Duomo

The Cathedral of Florence is rightly world famous. Fully named, “Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore” or Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, it is literally breathtaking: the sheer size – the dome remains the largest brick dome in the world; the fact the entire building is clad in stunning white, green, and pink marble; and the incredible carvings and artwork especially on the façade.

The interior is also impressive – especially the 16th century fresco on the inside of the dome by Vasari and Zuccaro. However, this is not what I want to show you. Next to the the  Duomo is a much smaller and older building, the Baptistry of St John. Built between 1059 (seven years before William the Conqueror became King of England!) and 1128, it has a golden mosaic ceiling which is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen (some detail below).

Begun in 1225, the mosaic probably took nearly 100 years to complete and probably included contributions from artistic genius such as Cimabue. I focused above on the enormous and majestic heavenly Christ, but just look to the right of my shot about parallel with Christ’s knee and partially cut out – a demon eating petrified naked people just before the Last Judgement. A young Dante (see below), baptised in this building, would have grown up looking at this ceiling and I cannot believe it wouldn’t have influenced his depictions of hell in the Divine Comedy.

Since we are on a religious theme, have a look at the image of God the Father below in stained glass…

In Catholic art we get loads of images of God the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost (normally depicted by a dove descending or ascending from/to heaven), but I always get excited when the final part of the Holy Trinity is depicted: God the Father.

Digression alert: putting aside the fact that I am an atheist, I have always had an intellectual problem with the concept of the Holy Trinity. The last words of Christ on the Cross do not seem to me to be the words of someone who is supposedly ‘at one’ and seamless with the Father and the Ghost:

  • “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” – why ask God to forgive the people killing you if you are God? Should it not be “I forgive you, for you know not what you do”?
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – this is a powerful and heart rending plea shouted to God, but why would Christ have doubts or fears if he was God – he wouldn’t forsake himself?
  • “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” – these very final words before he ‘gave up the Ghost’ again do not appear to be the words of a man who IS God.

So, I like seeing images of God the Father (complete with big white beard and looking all Old Testamenty), but I also love the fact he is holding a book with those two big Greek letters on the pages: Alpha and Omega (effectively ‘a’ and ‘z’). The book of revelation has Christ saying, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last”, but I prefer them – as above – connected with God the Father: the Creator and Finisher of all things (but then I suppose this is an argument in favour of the Holy Trinity as a concept).

If it wasn’t for the minor hiccup that I am an atheist, I would love to be a theologian. So, bear with me, I want to stick with religion for one more photo before I move on to the juicier topics of murder and love.

I took the photo of the painting above in another great church, Santa Croce (see below). It is Bronzino’s incredible depiction of the descent of Christ into Limbo. What a great image, what a fascinating concept: Christ visiting the poor lost souls floating around in the shadowy nothingness that is ‘Limbo’. They are guilty of nothing more than the fact that they were never introduced to Christianity (the Catholic philosophical construction to avoid the unpleasant idea that babies who die before being baptised could potentially go to hell). One would like to hope that all that foot-kissing and love would earn the poor things a place in heaven – presumably the Last Judgement would take care of that.

On the frame at the bottom of the image, you can see the Latin inscription, “Populus qui sedebat in tenebris vidit lucem magnam” – The people who sat in darkness beheld a great light.

“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence” – Picasso

The painting above and the following few sculptures were all found in the wonderful Church of Santa Croce…

Inside, the monument to the Italian Polymath, Leon Battista Alberti, by Lorenzo Bartolini is stunning and situated in exactly the right place to capture natural sunlight in a way which can almost be described as heavenly…

The church also holds the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, and  – everyone’s favourite baddie – Machiavelli. However, Florence’s most famous poet, Dante, only has a cenotaph as his body is buried elsewhere as he died in exile.

Dante sits on top of his monument not looking overly happy about the fact that he is dead. The personification of Italy hails him with a hand gesture whilst the personification of poetry is grief stricken to the right.

I am a fan of Dante – not a man to mince his words (hence his banishment from Florence), and love the fact that paintings and sculptures of him capture a face that is so utterly grand and statesmanlike, as with the huge sculpture of him just outside the church…

The master goldsmith

The photo below is the bust of Benvenuto Cellini on Ponte Vecchio with a view down the river Arno.

Cellini was another serial overachiever. He was a painter, goldsmith, sculptor, soldier, writer and musician. He was responsible for this statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s head:

As well as being a polymath, Cellini was also a bit of a rock ‘n roll bad boy. He was banished from the city as a young man for getting into fights and causing trouble although was later welcomed back after displaying heroism in battle (he reportedly had a knack of killing big-wigs on the battlefield). Unfortunately, he didn’t restrict his violence to war-time. His brother was killed whilst attacking another man. Despite this death being self defence, the hot-headed Italian, Cellini, killed his brother’s killer. He is also believed to have murdered a  rival goldsmith following an argument, but he escaped the death penalty as he was just such a good artist.

The bust of the greatest goldsmith now sits on the ancient bridge filled with jewellery shops, Ponte Vecchio:

I bought a ring from one of these shops as I used this holiday to propose to my girlfriend whilst watching the sun set over the Arno. To my delight, she accepted:

So, Florence will forever be a special place for me now.

The nose of the wild boar I am rubbing below is supposed to ensure that anyone who touches it will return to Florence one day…

… I certainly hope so!

The Elixir of Long Life

What should one drink on a hot and sticky Saturday night?

How about Chartreuse and tonic…

I used one part Chartreuse to nine parts tonic with lots of ice. For some reason I fancied it in a large wine bowl glass.

If you were to get the ratios the wrong way around -nine parts Chartreuse to one part tonic – then, at 55%, you could be in a little bit of trouble…

As far as liqueurs go, I am not sure that many can match the history of Chartreuse. The Chartreuse monks in France held an ancient manuscript with the wonder-drug known as the ‘Elixir of Long Life’. The complicated instructions from a long-dead apothecary were translated in 1737 and Chartreuse was born.

Apparently the monks risked the wrath of the most powerful man on earth when they refused to give the secret recipe to Napoleon following a direct order. They continue to distil Chartreuse to this day.

Photos taken on iPhone 4 with Hipstamatic

A rather long walk in the park: Olympic men’s 50km walk

I am writing this blog post with a sore throat having been shouting so loudly at the television watching Mo Farah become a double gold medallist.

Overall, today has been a great Olympic day for me.

Despite bidding unsuccessfully for loads of tickets for major events at London 2012, I have managed to see three sports live over the past couple of weeks: Beach Volleyball (see my previous post); the women’s freestyle wrestling final; and, today, the men’s 50km walk (which I did not need tickets for).

I could probably write on a postage stamp what I knew about the three sports combined before the Olympics, but I have thoroughly enjoyed all three experiences.

The 2km course (to be circuited 25 times!) could not really be more iconic: the men wiggled their way up and down the Mall and Constitution Hill by Green Park with Buckingham Palace and the golden Victoria Memorial (above) right in the middle.

Before today I wouldn’t have been able to name a single race walker, but here are some shots and comments about some of the notable individuals:

Gold medal – Sergey Kirdyapkin, Russia

I didn’t get a great shot of the winner of the race, but that is largely because I didn’t know he was going to win the race.

Kirdyapkin, seen here (above) to the right of two of his compatriots, walked an incredibly clever and great race. He pushed ahead at just the right time and was rewarded with a gold medal and a new Olympic Record under his belt. Despite being 177cm (5’10”) – only slightly shorter than me – this athlete only weighs 54kg (119 pounds or 8.5 stone) – which is very much more than ‘slightly’ lighter than me!

Silver medal – Jared Tallent, Australia

Tallent got silver again to match his medal from Beijing four years ago.

Bronze medal – Si Tianfeng, China

Si was leading for much of the race, but if you look behind him, you can just see the blurred figure of Kirdyapkin with him firmly in his sights.

Fourth place – Rob Heffernan, Ireland

I have stepped down off the podium to include the fourth placed race walker as that is always the hardest of positions to finish – just missing out on a medal. I also wanted to include Rob Herffernan as there was incredible Irish support out lining the route today.

An honourable last place – Dominic King, Great Britain

Up and down the course, there was tremendous support for the local lad, Dominic King. Unfortunately, Dominic was nowhere near the leaders and was not going to get a good time. But, then, something special happened. No… he didn’t break the rules and start running. Instead he used his last lap to to thank all of his supporters. He spent his last lap high-fiving and enjoying the Olympic experience in his own capital city. He finished 51 out of 51 finishers, but he had a fantastic time and so did the crowd.

Footnote – on what not to wear

This chap is Igors Kazakevics from Latvia. He finished in 45th place. Now, I may be old fashioned, but I am afraid I see absolutely no excuse for a man to a wear a crop top.

Olympic Beach Volleyball

Yesterday was the greatest day for British Olympians at London 2012. We won an incredible six gold medals and one silver. Unfortunately, I didn’t have tickets to see any of the golds won live, but I did get to share in the atmosphere at the amazing Horse Guards Parade stadium watching the Beach Volleyball.

It was a good evening for Team USA on the sand. The stadium had the atmosphere of a giant beach party as Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor for the US beat Marleen van Iersel and Sanne Keizer for the Netherlands. In the men’s, Jacob Gibb and Sean Rosenthal for the US beat the enormous Konstantin Semenov (all 6’11” of him) and Sergey Prokopiev of Russia in a really thrilling match.

Here is what we saw:

The game





The success… and failure





The others