Saturday, 26 November 2011

Love: 1 Corinthians 13

    As verger of St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown, I attended innumerable weddings. The Reverend Don Meadows and I made a good team.  While he welcomed, reassured, celebrated and preached, I parked cars, secured slipping veils, took flower-girls to the toilet, retied sashes, sorted out spats between mothers-in-law, distracted the odd drunk from disrupting the service, kept the neighbourhood kids quiet and played the carillon.

    Don had just one marriage sermon. He had refined it over the years and used it on every occasion, except when a member of his own congregation was getting married.  He preached it, at different degrees of complexity and with different inserted references to couples ranging from members of the law fraternity to a couple who met at a workshop for the intellectually disabled.  The sermon sought to encapsulate the Love of God in one easy and memorable lesson.

The personification of Charity and other Virtues
drew on the Classical tradition of the Muses.
    Of all the various wedding experiences that I had over the years, I most treasure an occasion when I heard the passage on Faith, Hope and Love from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, read superbly.  I was asked, before the service, to look out for the woman who was reading, because she was running rather late.  She was an actress, and they had asked her specially, because they were sure she would do it well. The Rector, I believe, had advised on a suitable passage of scripture.  

    The actress arrived in time, and when she stepped up to the lectern and smiled graciously, it was clear that something special was about to happen, but the impact of it upon the verger was unprecedented. This woman read St Paul's letter as if it was addressed to her personally, as if she had just received it from far away, opened it and was devouring it eagerly.  She read with growing excitement, with discernible joy, savouring each precious phrase of this, one of the best-known passages of the Bible, as if she was discovering it for the first time.    I was simply thrilled by the power of this actress, to convey all that, within the context of reading an epistle in church.  I told her so, after the service.
    The actress looked at me with a mixture of astonishment and delight. 
    "But, Dahling," she said "I was reading it for the first time! They left it till the last minute to ask me, and, as I don't own such a thing as a Bible, I had never read it before in my life!" 

Khalil Gibran and his spiritual poetry
    A later priest, under whom I served as verger, used often to include within the service a poetic reading by Khalil Gibran. I supposed I heard it almost as many times as I heard Don Meadow's sermon. But the sentiments, urging the married couple to stand apart like trees and let the wind blow through their love, never spoke to me of what I considered married love ought to be. I became convinced that, despite all the writing that he did on the subject, perhaps Khalil Gibran didn't understand love at all, and that some of his advice, taken in the context of marriage, may very well be seriously misconstrued.

    Gibran was born in the 19th century to a Maronite Christian family and migrated from Lebanon to the US. Much of Gibran's writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences : Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Hinduism and theosophy. His best known work is "The Prophet", 1923, and he is said to be the third most widely read poet in the world.

   Today I found a lengthy poem posted on another blog page.  Here is an excerpt:

When love beckons to you,  follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

    The poem rolls on, piling image upon image, sometimes mentioning God, sometimes appearing without explanation, to have jumped from spiritual love to carnal desire and back again.

    Various comments have been made in praise of the beauty and spirituality of this poem.  However, I have quite a few problems with it. While the language uses appealing and seemingly deeply meaningful images, taken as a whole, it means nothing whatsoever. It is as intellectually satisfying as a mouthful of fairy floss.

    The poem obviously draws in part upon 1 Corinthians 13, and like much of Kahlil Gibran's writing, assumes pseudo-Biblical language and phrasing (in much the same way as 19th century translators of the Quran worded it in antiquated King James Version English to give it a "scriptural" feeling.) The words and imagery roll on in a most enticing manner. The content, however, is as hollow as the proverbial sounding brass and as shallow as the clashing cymbal.

    What is actually being said? What sort of love is being referred to?  Is this the profound love of God?   Is it the love that Christians are encouraged to have for one another?  Is it an all encompassing love for humanity?   Is it romantic love?  All these aspects of love are hinted at in passing.
If this poem is about spiritual love, then it fails to inform, to encourage or to sustain. It doesn't tell us that we are loved. It doesn't tell us how we should love. 

God as Love 

      In Christianity "God is Love".  Love is a primary attribute of God.   God is love just as God is truth and God is life.  Moreover, the love of God is distinguished in the Greek by the use of the word "agape" meaning that it is selfless, all-encompassing and voluntary.

    I am drawn to compare Gibran's poem with Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven".  In this poem the writer is pursued by Love.  It becomes increasingly clear that the love which ceaselessly follows, despite all attempts to avoid, to hide, and to find satisfaction in other loves, is the Love of God. It is the selfless, enduring, forgiving love that is offered again and again, and eventually must be accepted.  
Love says:

Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, 
I am He Whom thou seekest! 
Thou drivest love from thee, who drivest Me.

Christian symbols for Love 

The Pelican.  A symbol of Christ's love, dependent on a
misunderstanding of the habits of Pelicans. 
      Within the context of the Christian Church, there are a number of symbolic images that stand for "Love".  One is the image of the crucified Christ which says to the Christian, in the most graphic terms: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life." 

     Another image of love, used since Medieval times, is that of the pelican with a nest full of young.   It was believed that the pelican so loved its young that it would pluck feathers from its own breast and feed the hatchlings on its blood.  The image of the pelican became the symbol of Christ's sacrificing love for the Church, and the pictorial motif is used particularly at churches with the dedication "Christ Church".

    The third image is that of Charity,  the "caritas" or caring love that evolved with the Latin translations of the Greek scriptures.  Charity, with her sister virtues of Faith and Hope, was to adorn many fresco, tomb and stained glass window, from the late Middle Ages through to the early 20th century.  All three, like other virtues, were given feminine persona.  Fide (or Faith) is depicted clinging to a large cross,  Spes (Hope) staunchly carries an anchor, while Caritas (Love) is a breast-feeding mother, often shown with twins.

Loving others

     In 1 Corinthians, chapter 13,  the message and its context are perfectly clear.  The context is not about what love can do to or for a person. The whole context of this passage is the necessity for a Christian person to have love for others.  Not a lustful love, not a one-on-one reciprocal love, but an enduring, selfless Christ-like love.     

    The Christian teaching does not make "love" an Eros-type persona, and talk about how it affects the one who yields to it.  In Christianity, the affect upon oneself is always down-played. The importance of love, and the reason why one needs to possess it, is entirely how it affects others.

    1 Corinthians 13 shows love to be a quality that a Christian person is fully obligated to possess, because if they do not, then all other gifts that they may have, are of little value.

"Love bears all things.....endures all things....
Love never ends." 
What are we told, in 1 Corinthians 13, are the characteristics of Love?

"Love is patient and kind; 
love is not jealous or boastful; 
it is not arrogant or rude. 
Love does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 
Love bears all things, believes all things, 
hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never ends..... 
So Faith, Hope and Love abide, these three; 
but the greatest of these is Love." 

The Crucifx of Archbishop Gero of Cologne, c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, is possibly the oldest extant large sculptured crucifix. The backing mandorla is modern.

The personifications of Faith, Hope, Charity, Truth, Justice, Temperance and other Biblical virtues or gifts of the spirit had a practical purpose. They were often publicly displayed, with their various attributes, such as the sword and scales of Justice, and the jugs of wine and water of Temperance, as statues around the exterior of public buildings and as decoration inside venues such as town halls, to remind both the public and those in power of their duty towards each other.

The pelican with its young formed part of the rich iconography of the Medieval Church and takes its place among the many and diverse small images that may be found as carvings in wood and stone within ancient church buildings. However, where one may find foxes, cats, bears, and wolves in all sorts of odd places, the pelican is nearly always displayed in an elevated position, having direct association with both the sacrificial nature of Christ's love, and with the Church itself.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Wandering Monarchs

Life in Newtown,  No. 1 

I lived with my small son in a little two-storey Newtown terrace house with a cheerful yellow kitchen where the low winter sun poured in through the window and across the table on frosty mornings.  I had a little yard where roses and lavender and white daisies grew, as well as an enormous pumpkin vine that fed us all the winter.
Into my garden fell a little seed, blown on the wind.  It grew into a scraggy ugly plant.  But somehow I did not have the heart to pull it out, with the other weeds.  At last, at the ends of its stems formed some little red buds. In the Spring they grew into clusters of little red and yellow flowers. Not large, not decorative. It was not a very attractive garden plant. 

Then one day, when I was hanging out the washing, I noticed a butterfly hovering over that plant. It was a black and orange Monarch, some of which flew across the Pacific from California in about 1870 and now breed prolifically in Australia.  As I watched, it flew and sat, flew and sat over my scraggy little bush.  It was laying eggs.  Now, I didn't care about that bush very much.  I had no interest in protecting it from insects and soon it was covered with twenty-five munching, crawling, black and yellow striped caterpillars.  They did not spread to the other plants.  They only ate the bush they were born on.  As they chewed and munched from leaf to leaf the plant bled white sap like milk. They stripped the leaves off one by one and made piles of green droppings.  They ate the flowers for dessert and made piles of red droppings. Then they started eating the smaller branches. The plant  looked so ugly and untidy.  But the greedy caterpillars were fat and as ravenous as wolves.
One day I went out and found only twenty-two fat caterpillars.  The others had turned into chrysalides and were hanging in a row under the bar of the fence.  The chrysalides were so beautiful!  I was afraid that a bird might eat them.  I found a little branch which I put into a blue bottle on my table, in the morning sun.  I carefully pulled away the white silk that held the chrysalides onto the fence and wound it onto the twigs of the branch.  Soon there were twenty-five chrysalides hanging from the branch. It looked like a rare tree with the most exquisite buds or decorations hanging from it! 

Each chrysalis was the colour and transparency of pale green jade and was shaped like an exotic helmet.  Around the edge of each tiny helmet was a band of purest gold decorated with raised knobs like shiny black lacquer.  They were like magic things, like birds in eggs and babies in the womb.  How did those fat waddling hungry caterpillars turn into these beautiful things, and how would the developing creature inside break out?
With joy and agony we watched these two things happen.  If you have never seen a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis, you cannot imagine the process or the struggle.  The grub must pull itself up, contract its body and burst out of its stripy, caterpillar skin.  This can take hours of pain like birth.  What at last comes forth is a helpless soft pale green wriggling thing which must go on contracting and changing its shape, pulling itself slowly together until at last it hardens into the beautiful jade helmet.
There on the twig they hung for days and weeks.  When we looked against the light we could see the dark shapes of the creatures that were growing inside.  Then one day, when I came home with the shopping, I saw that three of the chrysalides were empty dry plastic shells, no longer beautiful. And there, on the curtain, on the cupboard and on the tea canister were three Monarch butterflies.  When I opened the door they flew out into the sunlight! 

           But how did they turn into butterflies? My son and I watched the process of transformation.  Through the transparent shells we could see the green interior becoming dark and growing folded bits.  As with the splitting of the skin to bring out the chrysalis, so did each butterfly have to break from the beautiful case that sheltered it and in which it could find its new being.  Once it had emerged from its case the butterfly was once again a vulnerable thing.   It could not fly; it could only crawl slowly away from its shell.  Its wings were crumpled and its body was swollen like an ugly grub.   Bit by bit the wings unfolded as the nourishment taken from the milk weed and preserved through all those weeks in the shell was slowly pumped into them from the swollen abdomen.  At last the butterfly attained its true proportions and its full beauty.
Suddenly the transformation ceased. The change was complete. The butterfly walked strongly forward and sat, gently fanning its wings until they were completely dry. At last it flew joyfully out the door and onwards to its life of fulfilment .  

There is another part to this story. Butterflies have a very strong sense of smell. They are guided by this sense to other butterflies and to flowers full of nectar and the plants that they need for survival.
           Now, some of these butterflies crept out of the chrysalis and onto my finger.  They hung there while they made their transformation.  I did not know it, but these beautiful creatures were becoming mysteriously imprinted with my scent.  For these butterflies, I became the life-giving milk-weed bush.
All that long summer, when I walked out into my little garden at night to look up at the stars, I would suddenly find myself in the company of butterflies.  They would flutter out of the night sky and sit on my hair, my hands and my shoulders and cling to my face, fanning their wings. It was a most strange and mystic sensation, my butterflies in the starlight. 

Copyright: Tamsyn Taylor, 2002
Pictures from Wikipedia Commons. LIcenses shown at links.  Acknowledgements: Korall, 2009; Antilived, 2006;  Greyson Orlando, 2007
Captain Tucker, 2008; Louise Docker, 2008.  Louise Docker's photo has been colour adjusted. 

Friday, 21 October 2011

Italian poem No 11.

The Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua

Pilgrimage to Padova

Do you remember Sant' Antonio's?
The domes and towers and pinnacles and sky;
two ancient nuns who, limping arm in arm,
each bore a portion of her sister's load,
pied against the orange bricks of noon,
a focus of intensity and eye? 
Gattemelata by Donatello
Do you recall the warrior on his steed,
so purposeful, yet humble, looking down
over the chasing children and the crowds
of tourists and of pilgrims and the town
that once he served and set him up on high?
And does your mind still hold
that vision of perfection-
dark and light,
the arches and the heavens and the gold,
the blazing star on blue mosaic night;
the tiny babe of bronze
with face so sweet
that sits within the Virgin Prophet's lap
as if still in the womb and raises up
his little hand to bless the majesty
of frankincense and gold,
the dripping candles and the thousand prayers
laid daily by the humble at his feet?  
Remember how we walked by the canal
as darkness fell that night,
and looking up,
we saw those minarets against the pink
and smoky blue of evening?
Swallows flew in pairs and suddenly
a bell rang out,
so clear and cold and high.
Ding-ding! Ding-ding! Ding-Ding!
Another answered lower
and another, slower, deeper still,
till one by one each bell was called to chime
until within the sweet cacophony
the last and largest spoke with solemn voice
that told of death and of disaster grim.
Dong! Dong! Dong!
Do you remember when
that dreadful man appeared
out of the darkness while I stood alone
upon the bridge? 
The moon over Sant'Antonio's
My flesh turned to stone:
I could not call for you or run away!
And suddenly you loomed against the sky
in that big jacket,
looking hugely broad and tall and fearsome!
How he shrank away
and vanished like a startled rat!
Remember then how smug you took my hand
and pulled it through your arm?
"Let's now wind up the day,
and go and find a place to eat!" you said.
We took our dinner in a small cafe.
Remember how the waiter made us laugh?
He walked like Charlie Chaplin with his tray
and scuffing feet
and dragging cuffs;
the same moustache:
it could have been his brother!
So the happy day
drew to a close
regaled by music of the concertina;
blissful sleepiness of food and wine,
of feet tired out with walking,
eyes with seeing,
mind with taking-in.
Do you remember still
the day we went to Sant' Antonio's?
I always will! 

© Tamsyn Taylor 

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Italian poem No 10.

The Millstream

I am fishing in the millstream
in the brown and frothing current;
foam a-swirling, leaves a-twirling
on the mountain's rushing torrent.
Our poor Gwen fell off the culvert
in the dark and stormy night,
soaked her clothes
bruised her knees,
spilt her handbag,
grazed her elbows,
gave us all a nasty fright!
Now I'm fishing in the millstream
for her wallet, purse and keys,
the gold compact that her husband
bought her once from overseas.
Let me see where they have fallen,
whereabouts the wallet's gone…
Has it drifted in the current
somewhere underneath a stone?
Yes! It's here!
Her cheques and passport
and her photo, quite forlorn!
Lay them in the sun and dry them!
Luckily there's nothing torn.

Now I'm wading in the millstream
on this grey and stormy day
while the sullen water eddies
round the branches in its way.
I am searching for Gwen's purse
which holds, along with all her money,
driver's license,
ring of keys,
book of stamps,
and credit cards
the loss of which is not so funny.
So I'm in the stream once more,
wallowing in drizzling rain,
trying to find her things before
the river rises once again.
A neighbour comes in waders
with a fishnet on a pole.
"I think the purse might float a bit,
then sink into that hole."
And here it is!
The missing purse,
A lump of sodden leather!
Put it by the fire to dry.
Luckily it held together! 

Here I'm paddling in the millstream 
on this bright and blowy morning. 
How the water winks and sparkles! 
Over pebbles it goes gurgling. 
I am looking for Gwen's compact, 
with the powder for her face. 
It's round 
and gold, 
and loved, 
and not so easy to replace. 
The sun shines down. A thing like that 
should gleam and glow and shimmer. 
But what Gwen didn't tell me was - 
it's in a black felt cover. 
My foot is resting on a stone 
that’s flat and square and slimy. 
"I saw a compact once before  
that's just like Gwen's. Oh, Blimey! 
Here it is,  
her precious gift - 
I've stood upon it all the while! 
Eureka! I have found Gwen's gold!" 
How glad I am to see her smile! 

© Tamsyn Taylor 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Italian Poem No 9.

Molino Revisited 

"Here's the place!" I say.
We stop the car 
and from the grassy verge
look just below us in the valley
where an aged limestone building squats,
an old beret of terracotta tiles
pulled on its head.
It has green shutters
at the upper window where,
so many years ago, I slept.
The millstream curves around
and though the wheel
is long since gone
some nights
you wake to hear
a rhythmic thundering
and a churning sound
as though
this building has a heart.
The millstream ripples by
and by that stream
tall poplars grow.
They are the spreading sort
and in the spring
the air is full of golden down
and by the stream
a swing is moving gently to and fro.
One can sit dreaming
in the dappled light
and hear the rippling tune of water
gliding over stones.
And through the open shutters
in the night
it plays continuo
while the nightingale
sings its sonata sweet
and softly to the darkness.
In the morning bright
the cuckoo calls
with joyful, childish repetition
of his two-note song
and round the ancient archway
to the kitchen door
wisteria climbs,
and in those blooms
are bumblebees
so large
that they could carry you away
if they had need to,
but they're busy.
In my mind I see
in dress of faded crimson
wading in meadow grass
and golden haze,
picking a sheaf of poppies
and some daisies
and some heads of wheat.
They're for the big blue jug
without a handle
on the breakfast table,
with the crusty loaf
and soft white cheese
and steaming milk
and fresh ground coffee.
How I love this place!
We turn away
and start the engine
for today
we must press on to Venice.

© Tamsyn Taylor,

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Italian poem No 8.

"The Funeral of Santa Fina", Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485 
NOTE: The story of the painting and the origins and iconography of the poem are to be found at  ".....favourite things....." in the blogs "Tea with Mussolini" and "Santa Fina and the violets"

Santa Fina

for Dame Judi Dench

Little maiden
with your flaxen hair
and forehead neatly plucked,
(bearer of pain and visions),
how long did we nurse you
upon your wooden pallet?
Death soft as sleep
enfolding like the petals of a rose
your virgin body
lying sweet
and winsome
while the gentle chorister
presses his sightless face
against your small cold feet.
The chapel blazes bright.
What healing power is come
from hand of one
no nurse’s care
or chaplain’s prayers
could heal?
Let Adam and Eve consume
the fruit of sin
and armies perish,
ravaging disease
corrupt the flesh,
cruel arrows
of intolerance
pierce the mind;
let humankind
mock goodness,
spit on mercy,
stand spectator by
the murder of the innocent
while dynasties decay
and Hell yawns wide.
Yet may you rest
till morning’s glorious light
and scent of violets
wake you
and the bridegroom’s
laughing voice
says “Girl, rise up
and dance with me
between the laden vines
above the shimmering fields,
past swaying towers
on paving gold
through gates of Paradise.”

        © Tamsyn Taylor    

Friday, 7 October 2011

Italian poem No 7.

                                                                                                                                                        Foto: Basilio Speciari

San Gimignano Red

"I want a glass of San Gimignano Red,"
I told my husband,
"And the only place to drink it
is in San Gimignano!
"Where is that?" he said.
It's four and twenty cramped and stifling hours
away from Mascot
and a Fiat hired in Florence
and the breezy countryside with rising larks
and startled pheasants.
"Look!" Upon the hill there looms a city
built of kiddy blocks
and up and up the thirteen towers go-
Just how high can they go
before they topple over?
We share our bottle of San Gimignano Red
with Osso Buco and some garlic beans
at a trattoria in the city wall.
It's not the finest plonk in all the world
but Oh, what fun it is
to drink it here in San Gimignano!

                       ©    Tamsyn Taylor 

Dante Aligheri, in Purgatorio Stanza XXIV describes the gluttonous Pope Martin IV dining on Bolsena eels pickled in vernaccia.  Vernaccia di San Gimignano is the region's best known wine and the only white wine of Tuscany that is registered as Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita.  However, the ancient Vernaccia grapes were harder to cultivate than modern varieties, and during the 20th century red wine varieties were planted.  "Rosso" and a "rosato" or rose wine was produced, the latter with a very distinctive character given by the Vernaccia grapes.  It was "rosato" rather than "rosso" that we drank that night in San Gimignano.  The proprietor had a gallery of portraits of himself drawn by visitors.  I rose to the challenge and contributed another portrait to the collection.  TT

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Italian poem No 6.


                                  Flowers for Larry

A boy kneels down before the Primavera-
Rome has passed him by:
a symphony of roaring cars and tooting horns
and rattle of a thousand motor bikes
punctuated by a policeman's whistle.
At the Trevi Fountain
spray was blown his way
and wet his face and jacket.
Catacombs smell damp and musty.
In Saint Peter's there are echoes
and the Sistine Chapel
is a maze
of shouting noise and shoving people
where it's difficult to find one's parents.
Florence has a tower with bells
and one enormous bell
that bursts upon your senses.
People laugh and talk in foreign language.
Horse and carriage clip-clop on the stones
and everywhere are pigeons.
One sat on his shoulder for a moment
and another past him at such speed
its wingtip grazed his cheek.

Now he's kneeling there before the Primavera,
with his eye so close the surface
that security is pacing
but a yard away unnoticed.
Above his stooping head is Venus
gazing out with gentle face.
He's oblivious to her beauty
and the graces of the maidens
simpering, diaphanous,
fingers linked in ceaseless dance.
He does not perceive the painting
like the connoisseur or tourist
He's a boy who never sees the bigger picture.
There exists for him
only the narrow compass of a little lens
that's hardly larger than a watch-face.
"Look at this!" he cries,
"No-one has ever painted flowers        
more beautiful than these!"
And there they are,
nestled in grass of darkest green-
flowers of the sweetest loveliness
that breathe the scent of Spring's perfection!
But has anyone
within five hundred years of seeing,
writing, rapture, contemplation, 
really looked at them before?
Down the years
I thank you, Sandro,
for your gift of minutiae!
While your Venus and her Graces
are for all the world to worship;
in your masterpiece you planted
tiny flowers
and made them grow
for Larry. 

©   Tamsyn Taylor  

Monday, 3 October 2011

Italian poem No 5.


The eyes of David,
the eternal vigilante,
warn the approaching tourist
from beneath their jutting brow.
Stone cold flesh
glows palely in the sunlight.
Herakles is pausing for a moment
before he murders Cacus
and not far away
Judith, the Queen of Israel,
slits the throat
of one Holofernes,
while on his almost-Nouveau pedestal
the hero Perseus
holds up the frightful head
of the Medusa.
Thus of old
did Florence put on show
intolerance of tyrants!
Rising up before me,
brick on brick
and crowned with battlements and mighty tower
stands the Palazzo Vecchio,
home of the republic.
I pan my camera up the building-
just beneath the cornice is a row of shields,
and on each shield, an emblem.
Holding still, I zoom the image
and I read the word
proclaimed in letters gold
against an azure field.

That night 
at Barbara's cosy pensione 
I play my movie back, 
and it is there! 
I hear it every time; 
the voices coincide 
just as if I wrote a script! 
Above the general noises of the square, 
so faint and far away and yet so clear 
I hear a man's voice shouting, fierce and free- 
it cries 
and then again, 
pale as an echo and more high and wild 
a woman's voice cries 

©Tamsyn Taylor 
 Picture: CC. Georges Jansoone, 2005, from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Italian poem No 4.

       The Watchman of the City

        The young man stands so seemingly relaxed,
        weight on one foot, 
        the other leg is forward, loose at the hip;
        his huge stonemason's hand
        is gently resting on his thigh.
        But look again!
        The head is turned to watch, the neck is taught,
        the eyes are fierce and brave.
        That nonchalance is only show-
        this man is dangerous!
        He knows just what they do with tyrants,
        here in Florence!
        All around this gay piazza
        there is murder, mayhem and revolt!
        So much of beauty has been made of death!
        This city that has always, at the heart,
        been a republic
        has a way to cut tall poppies
        and to lionise
        the ones like he
        who bring a giant's demise!

        ©     Tamsyn Taylor   

When Michelangelo, at the age of 25, was commissioned by the Overseers of Works for Florence Cathedral to sculpt a statue of David, he was presented with the challenge afforded by creating a work of enormous proportions out of a block of  second-grade marble that had already been worked on by two previous sculptors.  The figure was intended to be placed on the gable of Florence Cathedral, along with a number of other prophets, some of which had already been created, not in marble but in terracotta.   

The finished product was awe-inspiring, but threw the department of works into a panic.  It was obviously too large to be hoisted up to the gable.  Brunelleschi would have taken on the challenge, but he was dead and no-one else was prepared to attempt it.  A committee was formed (of course) to decide what to do with it.  They were split three ways.  The architect Giuliano da Sangallo, supported by Leonardo da Vinci, said the the marble was bound to deteriorate and that the safest place to display it was in the Loggia Lanza, a sort of permanent grandstand adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio.   The second group wanted it placed near the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was the seat of the Signoria, or city council, replacing a rather horrifying bronze by Donatello of Judith hacking Holoferne's head off.   Botticelli, a devout man, said it should be placed in the vicinity of the cathedral, where its magnificence would do honour to God,  as originally intended, as well as to the City.   The City prevailed, and David was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio, with his gaze turned threateningly towards Rome.  

Giuliano and Leonardo were right of course.  It should have been under cover.  In 1873 it was removed to the Accademia Gallery where it stands framed by a large niche and tall columns, as the focal point of a hall in which are also displayed the struggling giants intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II.   At its installation in the Accademia,  the statue was positioned with the same orientation that is found so often in drawings done by teenage boys i.e. the body is full-frontal, displaying the width of the shoulders and in this case the genitals, but the face is in profile.  Another male committee? The three -dimensional nature of the contraposto is minimised, and although one sees close-up photos of the face, full-on, it is very difficult to get a broad view of the statue from the  most appropriate angle.  One must rely on the many casts and copies.   In 1910 a replica was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio, and another overlooks the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo,  the favourite location for photographing the vista of Florence. 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Italian poem No 3.

The psychiatric unit of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence treats between ten and twenty people each year who are so overcome by certain supreme masterpieces that they suffer disorientation, palpitations and sometimes manic or depressive symptoms. Among the artworks that trigger this response are Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Michelangelo's David. The condition is known as Stendhal Syndrome, after the writer.  Sufferers are usually single middle-aged visitors. Italians appear to have a natural immunity.  This poem is for Anne and Delphie.

City of Enchantment

Ah, Florence, flower among cities!
Who could resist your charm?
How your admirers come
with starry eyes
to gaze upon your beauty!
How you entrance the mind
and hold the heart
and steal the soul
of those so blessed to know you!
There you stand
between the gliding Arno and the sky
like Venus born again for our delight -
with knowing eyes
that hold a promise in that look,
at once so secret, coy and warm -
you know the power of the enchantment
that will lie on us
once we are in your realm
and give our helpless senses
to your pure distilled intoxication.
Let us pause and look a little while    
before we venture in.

We see you standing there before us -
glowing flesh caressed by light of day
skin of transparent marble veined with grey, 
and your tress of orange tiles swept
over your shoulders like a sunbleached mane -
such thick, bright, fragile stuff to shield and hide
the precious cache of treasures you maintain.
Here we see your dress for everyday,
the fabric made of terracotta pink
bordered with formal ornament
and scattered with stylised flora;
here and there the golden edges glint
and catch the sun.
Now we feel
fresh breezes from the sea come up the valley
breathing the showers and flowers that give you life.

Florence, the Queen of Cities!
Mistress of many a mad infatuation!
Oh how we who are you suitors
long to be where your warm arms enfold us,
where your charms outspread
such a delightful feast of varied joys
that even the appetite of glutton
must at last be satiate.
What are your offerings?
Beauties too rich to purchase!
Thoughts too intense to dwell on!
Joys too divine to dream of!

Queen of the heart! 
You stand 
at once so warm and cool, 
so welcoming and shy 
folded in hills 
and robed in flowers  
between the drifting water 
and the pale sky. 

Botticelli's Birth of Venus is renowned for
provoking attacks of Stendhal Syndrome.

©   Tamsyn Taylor