This year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of the high Renaissance master Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino. In his honor, an exhibition that promised to be the most comprehensive show ever devoted to Raphael opened on the 5th of March in Rome at the Scuderia del Quirinale. More than 200 masterpieces, never before assembled in the same place until now. I had intended to travel from Florence to Rome for this artistic pilgrimage and to base this article on my experience, however, on March 9th the Italian government declared all museums in Italy closed to the public in an effort to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.
I left Italy two weeks ago to attend the opening of a group show at the Grenning Gallery in the Hamptons, New York. When I left, news of the Coronavirus in Italy was just breaking, and I assumed it was overhyped by the media and would quickly pass. At the airport, the sense of panic was already palpable, with a number of passengers wearing masks and looking horrified when anyone sneezed. After the opening, I headed to Vermont for a group painting trip, while continuously checking the news for Coronavirus updates.
Initially, the sound of a tourist-free Florence sounded like paradise, and I wished I was back there setting up a large canvas in the center of town, uninterrupted by crowds. Friends of mine reported back that everything in Italy was fine, that the sun was shining, and the city was quiet. Day by the day the situation worsened, and the mood in Florence changed. Panic set in and supermarkets were ransacked for toilet paper and canned foods. The region of Lombardy was declared a red zone and as the death toll rose day after day, soon the whole of Italy was quarantined. Florence became a ghost town, which would have been hard to imagine if not for the photos and videos from friends who now live in a surreal and unfamiliar city. The sun is still shining there, it is still beautiful, but it is desolate.
Whenever I leave Florence I start to miss it. My friend calls it the “mildest drug addiction in the world” because you don’t know you’re hooked until you try to leave. Florence has a presence, symbiotic energy personified. It is painful to know that Italy is suffering and will continue to. I feel that I should be there to ride out the storm and to stand in solidarity with it.
Florence is no stranger to suffering. It has survived wars, floods, and plagues of a biblical scale. As I’ve walked through the medieval streets of Florence, I’ve often wondered how a city with so much beauty can have such a brutal history. The black death was a pandemic that devastated the population of Florence in the 14th century, taking the lives of half the population. An unprecedented human tragedy that shook Italian society and transformed it, leading to the emergence of the Renaissance.
The plague was carried and spread by the fleas that lived on rats, brought to Italy on Genoese ships. The population of Italy was ill-prepared for the spread of the disease as there had been a series of famine and food shortages in the region, and the population was weak and vulnerable. As trade stagnated, businesses failed and unemployment rose, a complete social breakdown ensued in many areas. Initially, the Black Death led to a morbid fascination among many Italians. The Dance of Death was a popular motif in art and architecture at this time, and the general mood was one of pessimism. Alongside this fear of death was a desire to experience the pleasures of life and to seize any happiness that was on offer.
In Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘The Decameron’, a collection of novels from the 14th century, he describes people abandoning their occupations, ignoring the sick and living lives of wild excess as everyone expected to die. Boccaccio wrote in despair of the human condition, but also of the joys of life and the beauties of nature. The sense that life was fleeting led many Italians to seek solace in art and literature and was one of the factors that led to the emergence of the Renaissance. The elite were more eager to patronize the arts and there was a shift in the subjects of the artists towards more secular themes, especially from the classical world.
Art has the ability to transform tragedy, to offer solace and compassion and to elevate us above ourselves and to remind us that there is beauty in the world. That we are not alone in our suffering but that it is, and has always been, a part of the human condition. Florence, a city of art that has not only survived but has flourished in dark times.
If you have climbed to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, you will agree it is an unforgettable experience. A fascinating if not nerve-racking climb up spiral staircases, around the circumference of the dome, and finally a steep climb between the two shells that give the dome its strength, to reach the marble lantern adorning the top. The view is breath-taking and is allegedly where Leonardo Da Vinci was inspired to fly. As I’ve climbed the 463 steps to the top, I’ve needed to continuously remind myself that it’s been standing for over 500 years and has survived and is unlikely to fall down at that moment. As news of the Coronavirus attacks the city that I love, I am again reminding myself that the city is resilient. It was there long before I was born and it will remain long after I am gone.
When the museums reopen in Italy, and the country begins to heal, I hope to see the Raphael show in Rome. Until then, I leave you with the quote inscribed on his marble tomb –
“Here lies Raphael, by whom nature herself feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die.”