Frescos and Phalluses in Florence

We have basked in the golden hour of the Italian sunshine while admiring the gilding of gold leaf in famous Renaissance paintings. Our days have been full but we’ve also taken purposeful time to rest as we reflect on this trip and what we’ve learned from these experiences. Florence, a city which has historically housed creative (and restless—‘cough cough’ Percy Shelley) thinkers, seems like the appropriate space for this type of reflective approach.

Our time in Florence can be broken into basically two categories: museums and churches (though not necessarily mutually exclusive). Churches such as the Duomo, the chapel of Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo, and Santa Croce have amazed and delighted with their high ceilings and immaculate stone work. The attention to detail in these spaces has truly showcased the craftsmanship central to Florentine identity. We found the “Chapel of the Princes” to be especially memorable as a testament to the Medici dynasty and political power in Florence. Our conversations regarding the Medicis circulated around the topics of legacy, reputation, and wealth. How do great leaders display their power? How is power sustained across generations? We read excerpts from Machiavelli’s Prince for insight into Florentine cultural identity and also, more generally, Italian politics.

As far as museums go, Florence has much to offer; we’ve visited both the Accademia as well as the Uffizi Gallery. Here we have encountered famous works such as Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and Michelangelo’s “David.” Seeing these iconic pieces in real life has been emotionally moving and thought-provoking to say the least. The sheer abundance of Greek and Roman sculpture in this city is overwhelming. We’ve also seen more frescos in the last few days than most of us have likely seen in our lives. We learned about fresco restoration specifically due to the aftermath of the devastating 1966 flood of the Arno river in which buildings filled with up to 5-meters of water.

While Florence has brought us incredible joy, it represents a sad time in the lives of Mary and Percy Shelley. After the death of a child, they visited Florence attempting to cope and make sense of their loss. Therefore, many of our conversations have considered the nature of grief and also the potential for new life. As I stood today at Piazzale Michelangelo and looked down over the entirety of the city, I was reminded of Percy Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” in which he clings to the promise of spring and longs for a rebirth of the natural world (I know those of you braving the Iowa winter can relate). As the warm sun shone on my face and the blue sky rose above me, I knew that more days like this one are sure to come as we complete our journey in Rome.

The group on the Ponte Vecchio.
In front of Michelangelo’s “David.” Hence the phallus reference.
The view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.