Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Saving Santo Spirito

Rosaria Frescobaldi called me up to ask me to write an article on the project to re-open the Basilica of Santo Spirito. It had been in the hands of two priests, and when one passed away, the other one said, even with a new priest, they were spending more time being security guards and janitors than priests. So 18 months ago, the church was shut down. Now it is only open on Sunday mornings for 2 early masses.
Rosaria, her husband Ferdinando, Agnese Massei and a few other 'neighbors' on the piazza decided they had to do something to take care of their church. They did a major study of what was needed, as far as security guards, maintainance, cleaning and caring of the church, and took it upon themselves to find the appropriate employees (they interviewed many!!) and to raise the necessary funds. The figure is 45,000 euro/year.
I went to visit Rosaria at the Frescobaldi home in via Santo Spirito. She took me down the hallway which leads to the family's private viewing 'box' that looks directly into the church. It was built 600 or 700 years ago (I have it in my notes) by the Frescobaldi family. She told me that up until the church closed, she would attend mass in her little chapel, while still in her nightgown. Yes, she still 'hears' it on Sunday mornings early, but she misses the daily life and sounds from the Church.

I love this Church. I love the simplicity of the facade and the harmony of Brunelleschi's interior. And although there is great artword inside, including a wooden crucifiction which is considered by some to have been done by Michelangelo, it always feels like it's a church of the people. The piazza of Santo Spirito was up until very recently (and still can be considered) a populare zone (working class). It was and still is where you find artisan workshops for wood, silver, gold and other metal crafts, binding, shoemakers, etc. In fact, although Rosara didn't mention this (but I learned it elsewhere), the reason the Frescobaldi, a noble family, built the chapel, was so that they wouldn't have to mingle with the 'common folk.'

But this same family, is raising money through 'amici di Santo Spirito' rather than by charging admission like a museum, because they want to keep the church open to the community to come and pray whenever they want.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Charmed Life, indeed!

From as long as I can remember, I have had a great relationship to time. I rarely feel like I have too much to do, and am committed to having the time to be with friends, family, and most of all the time to listen to people. I hate to use time as the reason for not doing something. I'm really grateful that I have this attitude, because without it, I probably would not have found the time to do and appreciate the last few weeks.

One of our 'interns' at the paper, is a law student at NYU and is taking a semester to study at EUI. He arranged an interview with one of his professors, Giuliano Amato, who was the Prime Minister of Italy (twice) and is now the Minister of Interior (similar to Homeland Security) but still makes time to teach (his first profession).
We met in his small office at the Institute, and I realized that I was sitting with a world leader, asking him what it was like to be a world leader, to wake up in the morning with the responsibility of keeping Italy safe from terrorism. The minister is a small man in size, (and is actually known for being small and thin), and he didn't 'exude' power or charisma. In fact, he seemed extraordinarily human. The first words I said to him, was that we were honored to be granted the interview, and his response was, 'it's no honor'. Not in a self-effacing way, but just in a normal, no big deal way.

We spent 30 minutes with Amato, I left a bit stunned and deeply moved. What impressed me was his thoughtfulness about each question we asked, his intelligence, honesty, and most of all the joy that emanated when he described his passion for teaching, of seeing the 'light turn on' in his students.

I left remembering a quote, I forgot who said it, about heroes not being extraordinary people, but ordinary people who have extraordinary commitments.

A few days earlier, I attended a dinner party where one of the guests was President Bush's uncle, Buck Bush (brother to George H. Bush). In the Italian language, there is the formal use of the word, 'you' and an informal usage. (Of course with the minister we used the formal.) And so, even though I have never been a Bush supporter, I found myself quite at odds talking to my seating companion, and addressing him by Buck.

The following week Alexandra (our managing editor) and myself were invited to a press conference for a new book about a different perspective regarding the iconography and meaning of the Sistine Chapel. The invitation said there would be a round table discussion followed by a private visit to the Chapel. Two years ago, I went with a private group (see posting, A Pristine Sistine), and I jumped at another opportunity.

The 'round table' ended up consisting of one long and tortuous speech after another, mostly from the publishers promoting the book rather than discussing it. Then a scholar went into an intricate and very difficult to follow (even for the Italians present) discourse on the information in the book. It's a pretty far-fetched and unproveable theory that Michelangelo was showing in the scenes from the Old Testament, that they were already forecasting the New Testament. It was 6PM, we were in a magnificent room inside the Vatican Museum near the Sistine Chapel, and there was a thunderstorm outside. In the middle of the room was a huge glass dome, so we could see the lightning through the dome, as well as the 'crashing' thunder. I leaned over to whisper to Alex, that God was telling us, 'forget all this analysis and symbolism, isn't it enough that it's a wonder of beauty? Just shuddup already, and let the people go into the Chapel.'

Before visiting the Vatican Museums, we had gone to the American Academy. For so many years, I had heard of the Rome Prize and of this 'haven' of creativity, and thought it would make a great article. We were blown away by the beauty and the atmosphere of this place on one of the most beautiful hills in Rome. How incredible to provide this sanctuary for artists and scholars, to have the time and space, their meals are prepared for them (menus are supervised by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse), the gardens are magnificent, a perfect atmosphere for reflection looking down about a city overflowing with inspiration. Aaron Copland once composed there, Ralph Ellison was the first black prize winner, and who knows what great works will come from the present residents.

Thursday, November 1 is All Saints' Day, which in Italy is a national holiday. When I have a free day like that, I like to hop a train to some place in Italy, I have not yet seen. With some friends visiting from the U.S., I went to Ferrara. It was a gorgeous day, and a great place to visit for the day. We went to the castle, had an amazing lunch, then a walk around town, with 1000's of other Italians who were taking their passegiata, then saw the Duomo. It was a great day, because it seemed like we were the only non-Italians in the whole town, just enjoying the holiday.

An interesting sight awaited us at the Ferrara train station on our way back. There were over a 100 police in SWAT gear, billy clubs, helmets and shields!! I asked one of them what was happening, and he told me it was because there was a soccer game that had just finished. So I figured that they were guarding the track to allow the opposing team to get on the train which was going to Bologna. We were on the next track and got into position to take pictures of the team entering the train. One of the police saw us and yelled not to take photos, and checked us out several times after the warning. (Our speculation about the photo issue was that the police didn't want to get caught on camera doing what they were about to do.)

Then the train pulled up, and we noticed that 3 train cars were empty and had signs all over them saying that they were closed. Then we heard a lot of people talking, but very civil and friendly, and the police formed a protection to allow.....a bunch of fans to board the train!' I was very confused, and so asked my friendly police man what was happening, and he said they were the fans from the opposing team, which had lost, and were very 'arrabiatissimi', angry, and to prevent any violence they are guarded to and from the stadium and kept separate at the games and on the train. The train left, the helmets and shields came off, and the police went home to spend the rest of the day with their families.

That was Thursday. On Friday, I worked all day and then went to be interviewed on a local Italian TV station for their 7 o'clock news about the newspaper. Because of all of my media experience from my books, it wasn't a big deal for me, only a little nervous because I had to do the interview in Italian.

Woke up the next am to go to Lucca for the weekend. My English friend who has an amazing villa on a nearby hilltop, gave his annual Guy Fawkes party. There was a wonderful,multinational and multi-age crowd there, over a hundred guests, Italians, British, New Zealanders, about 20 of his son's friends (20 year olds) from England, and only 2 or 3 Americans. I stayed at a nearby villa, who is owned by his friends. Villa Michaela is one of those places that gets rented out by movie stars and the very wealthy. It is fabulous, 13 bedrooms, each with enormous bathrooms, closets and views. There are 3 floors of bedrooms, sitting rooms, piano room, libraries, a dining table that sits about 30, 2 swimming pools, a church, all magnificently and tastefully furnished, gorgeous fabrics, paintings.
Several of the out of town guests were staying there, and we were up until 4AM, with the host and one of the guests at the piano singing opera. Was I dreaming?

The next morning (well early afternoon), we were all invited to visit the villa of Gil Cohen and Paul Gervais. They bought their place in Lucca 18 years ago, and passionately took on the gardens. Paul ended up writing the well-known book, 'A Garden in Lucca'. Now garden tours pay to come visit this unique property, where Paul has taken from everything he has studied and seen, used traditional, ancient and contemporary elements to design one spectacular garden after another.

The other guests were British and knew tons about plants and gardens, and they were amazed by every detail. I don't know anything about gardens, but even an idiot like me, had to be impressed by the beauty and serenity.

Back to Florence, back to normality? Until I go to the Ferragamo country house on Friday for a hunt weekend. Thank God, I have the time.