Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

A Passion for Porphyry

The Vatican museum: hall after hall of ancient Rome.  Shelves crowd the corridors with busts of Caesar, of Cicero, of a hundred obscure Senators, of still more-obscure Romans, anonymous but vivid with two-thousand-year expressions of resolve or grit or whimsy crowded shelf on shelf.  Here sits Penelope still patient, Diana hunting, Bacchus laughing merry, while somewhere in the distance the Sistine Chapel lurks, complacent in its celebrity.  In the Hall of Animals, Roman hounds sniff at Roman horses, rabbits, crabs, crocodiles, camel heads with their enormous, gummy lips, all stone.  The Belvedere Courtyard stunned you with its circle of masterpieces every one of which transformed the history of sculpture: the Belvedere Apollo, the Belvedere Torso that so fascinated Michelangelo, and, as matchless when the Renaissance unearthed it as it was when Pliny called it the best of sculptures 1500 years before, the real Laocoön.  The walls and ceilings of the patchwork labyrinth-palace are such an ocean of gilded cornices and marble tracework that it becomes impossible to tell north from south or ground from upper floors, so all sense of grounded space is long gone as you turn the corner into a grand scarlet rotunda, floored with vivid Roman mosaics.  Statues of gods and emperors loom, more than twice life-height: grim-faced Athena, tired Claudius, the massive gilded Hercules; while the friend beside you stops dead and, slack-jawed, points at a big stone tub in the middle of the room: “Look at the size of that hunk of porphyry!”

Yes, it’s porphyry, a dark, reddish-purple speckly stone, and this room, for the many who enter and ooh and aah and glittering Hercules, is another moment of material illiteracy.  Just as a Catholic spots John the Baptist by his hairshirt, and a fashionista a Gucci handbag by whatever alien cues its curves contain, so from the Roman Republic to Napolean a European knew what porphyry implies: Wealth, Technology, Empire, Rome.

Porphyry has become a generic term for igneous rock containing large spots (crystals), but the source of the name is the Greek word for purple, and the purple form is the true original.  This is referred to as Red Porphry, Purple Porphyry, or, most aptly, Imperial Porphyry.


The Imperial Porphyry found in Italy came from a single mine in Egypt, the Mons Porphyrites.  It was imported by the Romans as a decorative accent stone, for use in tiled floors, as colored columns, or occasionally carved into a vase or sculpture.  Its color invokes Royal Purple, but is also very close to the color of the fabulously expensive shellfish-based purple dye which produced the purple stripe which marked the tunics and togas of the Senatorial class.  This also dyed the completely purple toga worn by those who occupied the rare and severely powerful office of Censor, a special official created only on occasions, whose task was to examine the state of the Senatorial families and judge which were still worthy of office and who should be removed or added to the roster of Rome’s leading citizens.

A Roman statue with a purple toga rendered in porphyry, from the Boboli gardens behind the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

Several Caesars held this special office, so purple, and porphyry, and as their palaces became more opulent it became increasingly an imperial symbol.  In Constantinople, once the capitol moved in the late empire, the imperial palace contained an entire room covered in porphyry, and this was traditionally where empresses gave birth, giving imperial princes and princesses the title Porphyrogenos, “born to the purple”.

Porphyry is extremely hard, also dense and heavy.  Even lifting a substantial hunk of porphyry is a great feat, let alone transporting it by ship from Egypt.  It is also so hard that it takes very strong, well-tempered steel to cut it, and even then, achieving any great degree of precision is very challenging.  The Romans had steel good enough, but it too was lost in the Middle Ages, making Roman porphyry artifacts not only symbols of the Caesars but of the impossible godlike skills of the ancients, which their weak successors could only marvel at.  It was physical, recognizable proof that the Romans could do the impossible.  In addition, the location of the mine in Egypt was lost around the fourth century AD, and not successfully rediscovered until 1823.

Imperial Porphyry has a cousin, green porphyry, or Lapis Lacedaemonius, commonly called Serpentine.  It is just as hard, coming from a mine near Sparta (or near the modern Greek town of Krokees).  It is speckled too though often with larger speckles, many somewhat rectangular or X-shaped.  The combination of rich green and purple, usually set in a white Italian marble background, was an extremely popular decorative element seen all over Rome, in the houses of Rome’s imitators, and especially in palaces and churches which re-used floor tiles looted from Roman sites.  Porphyry ornaments the floors of Rome’s greatest churches, with the size and density of porphyry among the framing stones increasing toward the altar.  The header at the top of this very blog shows a porphyry section from the floor of the Sala della Disputa, the frescoed room in the Vatican which hosts Raphael’s incomparable School of Athens, while the Sistine Chapel Floor (not a phrase you hear often enough) completes the opulence of the other decoration with a dense decoration more purple than white.

In the Middle Ages, then, porphyry meant Rome, specifically the lost power of the Caesars who could reach across oceans and achieve impossible feats.  Anywhere porphyry appeared it was a Roman relic, and anyone who had it could claim thereby to be an inheritor, in some small way, of that lost Imperium.  Porphyry also came, over the middle ages, to symbolize Christ (reddish purple = blood), but in the Middle Ages everything came to represent Christ, from griffins and unicorns to pelicans and pomegranates (no, it’s totally not a co-opted pagan symbol, why do you ask?), so what distinguished porphyry from the zillion other things that represented Christ was still its imperial connection and its technological unachievability.

Re-purposed porphyry in a Church floor, with remnants of its Roman inscription.

Thus everyone who’s everyone wanted porphyry, and if you wanted it, you had to steal it.  The only porphyry in Europe lay in things the Romans built, so every prince and republic and sculptor who wanted this symbol of Roman power had to steal it from the source.  Want to put in a nice porphyry floor for a Church?  Loot it from a Roman temple.  Want to advertise the imperial majesty of Mary Queen of Heaven?  Make the altar out of an old, repurposed porphyry sarcophagus.  If a pope wanted porphyry columns for his tomb, he had no better source than to go to some surviving Roman temple (say, the Pantheon…) and rip out the porphyry, perhaps if he’s polite substituting some less valuable stone to keep the looted edifice from falling down.

Some places already had porphyry brought there by the Romans, and in these cases it was proudly displayed as proof of the noble Roman origins of a town or province.  Even in Florence, on the baptistery which is the literal heart and center of the city, the gilded Gates of Paradise are still flanked by two old, cracked and mended, asymmetrical dark reddish columns, built into green and white facade despite a complete chromatic mismatch.  So old and dull are they that many don’t even notice them upon first or even third visit, but these are porphyry, relics of the Roman-era Church of Santa Reparata, or its predecessor, preserved and re-used here as proud proof of Florence’s Roman roots.

The Uffizi “lupa” i.e. she-wolf

Porphyry sculpture was even more impressive than a tile or column, since working such an adamantine substance into complex shapes required immense time and skill.  Diamond was rare and valuable and not a practical tool for trying to make a large chisel to work large stone, but short of diamond the only means to shape porphyry was to rub it against another piece of porphyry for a very long time, grinding both down, a clumsy, labor-intensive and imprecise technique.  Many, especially the Medici family, poured funds and efforts into researching ways to make a metal sharp enough to carve porphyry, or a solvent capable of weakening it, in hopes of adding this to their list of resurrected Roman achievements.  Even before they succeeded, however, possessing a Roman porphyry sculpture was an even grander boast than possessing simple tiles, and at last now we can understand why, in the Uffizi Gallery, where the great Roman sculpture treasures of the Medici are still housed, one comes around the corner to the very center of the U-shaped gallery, expecting to see in the center some exceptional masterpiece, an Emperor or bold Athena, one sees instead the mangled, limbless torso of an animal.  Look again: those hips, those hanging teats.  This is the mangled, limbless torso of a porphyry she-wolf, the symbol of Rome herself.

A porphyry bust at Versailles.

Naturally, the greatest concentration of porphyry lay (and lies) in and around Rome itself.  The farther you are from Rome, the scarcer (and more impressive) porphyry becomes.  Florence had a couple columns and the odd basin, but for more porphyry they had to buy or steal from Rome, or elsewhere.  The Venetians carried off large pieces of porphyry from Constantinople when they looted it, and still display them proudly as pulpits on either side of the main alter in San Marco.  Porphyry in northern Italy is comparatively scarce, so a Venetian palace with a few roundels in its facade makes a real statement.  Even as far as France, when Louis was decorating Versailles, porphyry was scarce indeed, but what few busts and vases he got hold of went straight into the best places: the throne room, and the Hall of Mirrors where every visitor would see, and understand, Louis = Caesar.

The pope always wins the Who-Has-The-Most-Porphyry Competition, and the Vatican is its grand display case.  The staggeringly enormous porphyry basin in the round sculpture room in the Vatican palace is referred to as Nero’s bathtub, and is the largest piece of porphyry I have ever seen; I would not be surprised to discover it is the largest in the world.

The sarcophagus of St. Helen

One is generally still reeling from trying to imagine the staggering cost and difficulty of creating and moving such an object, when in the next room one encounters an even more impossible vision: two enormous solid porphyry sarcophagi, both taller than a standing person, and covered in deep relief carvings of horsemen, prisoners and acanthus leaves.  This is Rome indeed.  Specifically, these are the sarcophagi of the women of Constantine’s family, including the tomb of his mother, Helen, or more specifically Saint Helen, who traveled to the holy land and brought back the True Cross and the Lance of Longinus and… at least one other major relic, but I can’t right now remember whether it was a nail or part of the Crown of Thorns, or perhaps that piece of the Holy Sponge they have in Rome…  (Spot the Saint moment: Helen’s attribute in art is that she carries the cross.)  Regardless, the two tombs have no Christian imagery, just the most Roman of Roman decorations, horsemen leading vanquished prisoners for Helen, and for the other fertility images.  In deep, impossible relief.  In an era when it was a substantial feat to scrape two looted pieces of porphyry into sufficiently matching shapes to make them seem symmetrical in a floor pattern, there is no purer proof of the godlike power of the ancients.  After that, there is just too much, and every further encounter with porphyry in the Vatican labyrinth feels like one, two, three, five, ten too many.

That guy should be taking a photo of the porphyry!

St. Peter’s is just as much a showroom for porphyry, with columns, tiles, tombs.  Every purple object that, from a distance, makes you think “is that porphyry?” turns out to be the genuine article.  And it’s worth keeping in mind that, except for the most modern pieces, they’re all relocated chunks of what were Roman temples scattered around the city from the Caesars’ days.

One large porphyry round in the floor close to the entrance is supposed to be the stone from the original St. Peter’s on which Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor (and successor to the Caesars) on Christmas day, 800 AD.  It’s just inside the entrance in the exact center of the Church, sort of balancing the altar, secular power facing sacred.

Perhaps my favorite piece of papal porphyry, though, is this set of porphyry keys carved and set into other stonework in the threshold of the Church, so every visitor who enters walks across them.  Most ignore them, but in the pre-modern world one glance at heraldic papal keys in porphyry spells a very special kind of awe: not only does the pope have Porphyry but apparently he has the power to carve it into a Christian shape.  Clearly he is Rome’s successor.  With so many visiting feet for so many centuries, the papal threshold keys are also the best proof I know of the extreme hardness of porphyry, since the stone around them is worn down by more than a centimeter, while the keys stick up, unharmed by the tread of millions.  The Florentine Museum of the History of Science has examples of scientific instruments and grinding stones fashioned from porphyry, chosen for its rigidity and inelasticity as well as for its opulence.

It is not easy stopping traffic long enough to take this detail shot of the threshold of St. Peter’s
Note how much more detailed the carving on the marble chest is than the porphyry head on this bust of a late Medici.

The ability to carve porphyry was eventually recovered, and in the 18th century Roman relics were transformed into large numbers of sculptures, especially busts, of rather questionable taste and quality.  Porphyry remains hard to work with, so the very subtle curves and scratches necessary to make a really lifelike human portrait are simply impossible in it.  Its products are always a little too smooth and shiny, the edges of the eyes clumsily cut, the wrinkles a little too smooth, like waves rather than folds.  Also, purple with speckles is not the most flattering skin tone.

Fake porphyry was, naturally, an industry as well, and many of the most famous buildings in Europe contain not only real porphyry but painted fake porphyry, made of plaster or wood painted with the signature purple and speckles.  This was most often done for bases on which statues sat, or for trim around rooms, but the Villa Borghese in Rome contains whole tabletops of fake porphyry, with real porphyry busts nearby to make them plausible.  Porphyry was also a popular ingredient in painted scenes, especially paintings of imagined palaces, and of places intended to be ancient Rome.  And heaven, of course.  The halls of Heaven, where saints and angels pose for altarpieces, have plenty of porphyry.

Reverse of a decorative wooden platter, painted to look like porphyry

Bathroom Suspense

American friends who have traveled extensively in Italy, or some other regions of the Earth, smile with an instant, knowing understanding when I say “bathroom suspense.”  I grew up to expect going to the bathroom to be simple, relaxing, an almost unthinking break in which simple repetition and the brief suspension of work and interaction allows for a defragmenting mental breather.  In Italy, instead of relaxation, suspense: “How will this bathroom not work?”

The cause is simple: the buildings predate modern plumbing, so the bathrooms are tucked and tweaked in by force in often inconvenient and inhospitable architectural circumstances, but remembering the last time I had to replace a toilet in my own house, and browsed at Home Depot through the endless row of nearly-identical, “American Standard” toilets, I can’t help but think that the equivalent should be named, “Italian Chaos.”

Bathroom Suspense has two primary forms.

This seatless restaurant toilet presents only a brief challenge with its wall button

The first, and briefest, is hunting for the flush.  Many times a week when traveling one enters an unfamiliar bathroom, in a restaurant, hotel, train station, and there is very often an unsettling, sometimes extended hunt for the operating mechanism that commands the exodus.  Will it be a pull chain dangling from the ceiling?  A foot pedal?  A button on an extended wire somewhere random in the room?  A ceramic mechanism that looks like wall art, or alternately an enormous metal button that looks more like an emergency trigger than a flush, and won’t budge unless you lever your full bodyweight against it?  Even simple-seeming mechanisms, such as the common large plastic button on top of the tank, present complexities: which of two buttons is the right one?  Or, worse, sometimes there is only one button but it turns out to be a hinged panel which does different things when you push the left side or the right.  It generally only takes a few seconds’ experimentation to solve the mystery, but it is enough to turn calm into stress, much as if one were immersed in a novel only to discover that the last ten pages are glued together and need to be separated with a letter opener: annoyance destroys the moment.

This cartoon squirrel attempts to demonstrate a particularly intimidating automatic sink

I have also often had friends return from a public restroom with rather uncomfortable faces to confess that they gave up and couldn’t find the flush, or, more often, the sink controls: “Oh, that sink is controlled by a pair of color-coded foot petals behind the trash can.”  And it doesn’t help anglophones that caldo = hot and freddo = cold, therefore the hot tap is labeled “C”.

A large number of Italian toilets are also bizarre in other ways, with no seat, or a seat that pushes itself up automatically so you have to hold it down while trying to sit, or a seat that squirts itself with disinfectant at unpredictable moments.  Most infamous is the rare squat toilet subspecies, lurking patiently in the innocent-seeming stalls at museums and coffee bars.  Many are unaware that squat toilets exist in a civilization that had proper toilets more than two thousand years ago.  Even if one is aware, they are always still startling and awkward, as if one checked into a hotel room and went to throw one’s coat and backpack on the bed only to discover a hammock in its place: doable but weird, and not the kind of surprise you want mid-travel.

Shape adds another element to the complexity of the Italian public restroom, since these are, after all, crammed into awkward corners of Renaissance if not Medieval homes.  Many bathrooms are trapezoid, rhomboid, have strange beams or blocks of stone protruding into them, or deep former windows through foot-thick stone walls covered over with something as ephemeral as waxed paper.

An example of the common set-up with no head-height shower nozzle and no curtain, just a hand-held hose, and your own dexterity to prevent a flood

Pipes trail along the corners and bunch around rare openings, like tree roots desperate to claw their way through rock.  All this makes the brief moment of bathroom going a disruptive and memorable garnish to the museum trek or hotel night; simplicity is now adventure.

Hotel rooms have the extra resource of a shower to add surrealism to the moment.  I encountered an excellent example in Milan last summer.  It is not uncommon for an Italian bathroom to have no shower-height shower head, but instead to have only a low bathtub-height faucet, or more commonly a spray nozzle on the end of a hose, so one may sit or stand while holding it, and generally shower with reasonable success so long as one is careful to aim into the tub (which is often not guarded by any shower curtain).  Here, I discovered with some satisfaction that there was, in fact, a shower-height wall nozzle—jubilation!—if positioned a little oddly.  This shower had a formal bathtub positioned with one long side against the wall of the bathroom, and the nozzle was in that wall in the precise center of the tub’s length, so one stood, not at one end, but in the middle to be in the water’s course.

Of course, the venerable metropolis of Milan has treasures enough to compensate for any small inconveniences

This would have been excellent if not for two factors.  One: the nozzle didn’t point down, it pointed out, spraying the water completely past the tub toward the unguarded center of the room with a force sufficient to knock the shower curtain aside and drench the bathroom.  Okay, sure, this was surmountable if one took great care to position one’s self between the water jet and the room at all times, using one’s body to deflect the force.  However.  There was a lower nozzle, for filling the bath, flanked as many are by two taps, one cold one hot, so one could mix the water and achieve the desired temperature: good so far.  Yet, for the upper shower-height one, there was only one tap, hot.  Very hot.  Scaldingly hot, in fact, with no possibility of dimming its force with any cold.  So, to shower, one had to stand in the middle of the bathtub and, shielding the room with one’s body, take full brunt of a powerful jet of literally burning hot water.

But this is only the lesser form of Bathroom Suspense.  The true form comes in renting an apartment, and committing, sight unseen and from across the Atlantic, to six months with a bathroom which may well turn out to be another tier of Purgatory.

The view from my bathroom window. All residents of the dense and skyward-climbing termite colony that is the center of Florence share this problem, and are generally polite about moments of awkward eye-contact.

Before I turn to the outstanding examples, let me say that I love my current bathroom.  It is wonderful, by far the best I have had in any Italian apartment.  It’s bliss.  It is a peculiarly long thin space, narrow enough that one must take care stepping around the fixtures, and one must move sideways through it at all times, as well as entering sideways, since the tiny bathroom door is four inches narrower than my shoulders.  There is a window above the toilet looking out on the beautiful skyline and Giotto’s bell tower, which for me is at eye height when I’m sitting on the toilet, has no frosting, shutter or curtain, and an excellent view of several other nearby apartment windows, often occupied.  The shower follows a common trend and has no actual shower bed or rim, it is simply a nozzle that squirts hot water into the bathroom and a drain in the slanted tile floor to which the water, after adventuring across the bathroom, returns and exits.  There is a shower curtain (wonderful!) and a fine sink.  Oh, and the toilet requires my full bodyweight to flush, and the button has to be pressed so it actually recedes into the wall, so I have to throw my full weight against my thumb, not my palm, to activate it.  The water is gas heated, rather than electric, a great energy savings, but it does mean one has to turn the gas on before (and off after) every shower, and the activation mechanism is clear on the opposite side of the apartment by the front door, requiring either foresight or a quick dash in a bathrobe if one forgets.  It only takes about a minute and a half for the water to get hot, though, which is excellent.  My landlady warned me that the water pressure was low, since we are, after all, at the top of a medieval tower, and she even installed an electric pump to increase the flow, but I don’t use it, finding the water pressure perfectly sufficient and comparable to American Low Flow (Low Flow is a concept which will, I suspect, never penetrate a country whose towns are filled with lovely free-flowing public fountains pouring gallons of drinkable water down the drain every second).  Please don’t read any sarcasm into this description.  This is the best bathroom I have had in an Italian apartment, and I am absolutely delighted.

For those skeptical, let me now describe the worst bathroom I have endured in an Italian apartment.  The title does not go to the Roman apartment which offered precisely 1 minute 43 seconds of hot water followed by ice shock, nor to the Florentine apartment with the bathtub in the middle of the room and no curtain, requiring the most delicate aim with the hand-held nozzle.  Another Florentine place where the gas was actually inside the shower so you had to keep an eye on the fire while showering, was also more a case of character than discomfort.  No, the winner is a little place in Florence’s Oltrarno district, which used to belong to the Machiavelli family, whom I do not blame.

Wikipedia will happily educate the uninformed about the history and function of the bidet

Let me first highlight the important fact that, through all this chaos of chain-operated levers and incomprehensible knobs, and in most women’s public restrooms as well, there is always, inevitably, identically, beautifully and functionally, a bidet.  I’m certain that for those who grew up using a bidet its absence in American restrooms must be annoying if not disgusting, but coming from a bidet-free culture (and often having to explain to guests what that “little low sink thing” is next to the toilet) I can stay with confidence that a bidet is not necessary for the bathroom process.  Convenient, comfortable for those accustomed, but you can totally succeed in the whole bathroom experience without one.  (For those unfamiliar: you wash your bottom with it.)  So will someone tell me why, with so many barely-functional showers and sinks that require you to pump a priming handle, the least necessary component of the bathroom is the most reliable?

In the Machiavelli bathroom, the bidet was perfect.  The toilet was reasonable, requiring minimal massage of the mechanism to coax a flush out of it, but the shower nozzle was positioned almost directly above it, so while showering one had to either literally straddle the toilet or teeter in the narrow space between toilet and bidet.  There was again no rim around the shower area, it simply flowed freely into the bathroom, which had a drain in the middle of the floor, but while the very excellent bathroom I am currently enjoying has well-sloped tile to direct the water efficiently to the exit, in this one the water flowed merrily all around the bathroom, completely flooding it.  And this bathroom had no lintel.  So the water flowed merrily out of the bathroom to the space outside.  Did I mention this bathroom was situated on a landing half-way down a flight of solid stone steps between my bedroom and the outer door?  And that said stone stairwell was completely unheated?  Thus if the water made it out the door in winter, sheets of ice were instantly produced, coating the landing and glittering merrily down the steps from bathroom to street.  To prevent this, a squeegee on a long pole was provided, and while showering one had to periodically pause and squeegee the water away from the doorway back to the drain, an exercise rather like raking leaves, only when naked and wet.  And cold.

December in Florence offers bright lights, holiday treats, and an acute awareness that they hadn't invented insulation in 1500

Cold was the true centerpiece of this bathroom.  Italian stone architecture is brilliant in summer at using the natural cave-like coolness of stone and shade to create cool spaces without air conditioning, but the winter converse is not fun when the bathroom is just about as unheated as the stone stairwell outside.  It was freezing—sometimes literally—inside that bathroom, and rather than fog there would be lovely frost patterns on the mirror after a shower.  Returning through the sub-zero stairwell from bathroom to bedroom with wet hair required a deal of moral fiber as well.  Did I mention that this apartment was so cold that, in winter, I slept in my clothes, and my wool coat, and my super-thick camping socks, and my winter boots?  Getting out of my wintry bundle to strip off in a freezing bathroom was… character building.  Fine, good, we can deal with this, the cold should make the shower even more blissful, because the treasured immersion in streaming hot water is the one daily opportunity to be truly warm.  Right?  No, reader, I will not leave you with so predictable a punch line as to say there was no hot water, or that the water ran out after a few moments, or took forever to get warm.  Such mediocrities are unworthy of a property which might have at some point maybe belonged to Machiavelli’s uncle.

Italy, of course, still has treasures enough to make all these inconveniences more than worthwhile

The shower had a simple nozzle.  Half the holes produced completely frigid, barely-above-freezing cold water.  The other half produced blistering burn-yourself-from-touching-it you-could-make-tea-with-this hot water.  With no mixing.  Thus, the full shower experience involved stripping off cuddly warm winter wear in freezing temperatures, then straddling the toilet only to stand with my teeth chattering as freezing water cascaded over part of me, while other areas of skin are burned red by the scalding heat.  While periodically stopping to squeegee.  Comfy as covers are, never before or since has getting out of bed in the morning literally been torture.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is a true Italian bathroom, and I would not trade my current gas-activated heat and oddly-positioned window for all the treasures of the Medici.  Well, maybe for their Botticellis.

Fake Centurions II

I have returned from a jaunt to Rome, and with great stealth and industry obtained this footage of the rare beast in its natural habitat.

The most common species inhabits the blocks around the Colosseum, but this specimen I sighted outside the Pantheon.  Here he is at the end of his pattern, acquiring a tip from the two ladies he had just snapped some shots with. The armor may be plastic but even from a medium distance the effect of the un-tapered draped cloak and the full-feathered crest is quite complete.

For all that the news reports about extortion around the margins of the occupation are certainly true, they do add an air of classical enthusiasm to the ancient sites.  Watching the endless repetitions of friends and families eagerly snapping badly-framed and back-lit or overexposed vacation snaps in front of one world landmark or another, I can’t help feeling that the sort of person who enjoys that kind of photo is precisely the sort of person who would enjoy it more with a burly recreationist perfecting the fantasy.  It isn’t worth 30 euros or the loss of a camera, but it is a public service of a kind, or a world service perhaps.

The fake tiaras on the other hand, there I don’t know what they’re thinking.

There is, of course, also a lighter (and for once well-organized) side to the Italian historical reenactment scene.  Here Duke Cosimo I de Medici deigns to oversee a field trip for a group of students from a peripheral public school, who have come to the Palazzo Vecchio to learn about Florence’s history.  He demanded that the teacher explain why her wards were so inappropriately dressed, and what they hoped to gain from their visit.  He interviewed a few personally and commanded that they be industrious in their studies so as to be worthy successors to Florence’s intellectual tradition.  He was particularly impressed with the class president and her art studies, and encouraged her to seek service with his Republic when her studies were complete.  He then gave the class permission to sketch some of the decoration his man Vasari had recently finished.  I know I never had a field trip that made me feel so connected to something so important.  Fact is: they are.

The Feast of San Lorenzo

Drummers in livery, with the Florentine crest of a red Fleur de Lys on their white drums

Florence is always having festivals, partly because every day is some saint’s day by now, but also because when the Republic of Florence decrees in 1397 that thenceforth they will provide a feast for all the people in honor of San Lorenzo on his feast day of August the 10th, they mean it, and however many successive regimes may rule said republic, the custom remains.  These are what one might call real Renaissance festivals, and the banners and livery that many of us are used to seeing at reenactments have an infinitely more organic feel when, instead of play, the feeling is of habit and obligation, and that this tired old tunic has been dug out and brushed off every year since tunics were a new thing.

Of course such festivals do feed the tourist trade, so the pageant is in part display for outsiders, but as the city standard and guild banners are borne proudly past crowds who haven’t the foggiest sense of their significance, there is a distinct sense of reality and continuity which contrasts with the (however faithful) nostalgic feeling of a reenactment.

Each flag and crest represents some part of the old government, which is, of course, still there

There is no nostalgia in this pageant, since everything involved: the church, the people, the city officials with their boring speeches, the saint’s cult, and the promised feast, are still normal, no more nor less serious now than they were when a youthful Machiavelli waited in the same line for a free meal.

The official city standard makes a universal appearance at these things, proudly displaying the city’s crest.  The title Gonfaloniere di Giustizia or Standard-Bearer of Justice was the title of the most prestigious and important position in the Republic, and while one doesn’t picture politicians actually carrying the spear around, the procession of the standard, guarded by officers in white and red livery and floppy Renaissance hats, standing solemnly through the whole mass holding their charge, remains a thrilling sight.  As does the real live politician following it in, who holds the successor to that noble office.

The Great Standard of the Republic of Florence enters the basilica for the festival mass

The banner of the saint is not usually there above the door; it’s just for his festival week.

The Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence is a church I have visited many times and shall visit many more, in person and in my discussions.  While my usual focus in visiting is the excellence of its neoclassical architecture and the brilliant design of the various Medici tombs therein, on August 10th it must be instead its dedicatee.  San Lorenzo (Saint Laurence in the anglophone world) is a saint particularly relevant to many of us, and has the  enviable distinction of being the Patron Saint of both libraries and chefs.  The former office he acquired, along with being patron of archivists and notaries, because of his activities as one of the early administrative deacons who ran finances and record-keeping of the early Roman Church; the latter for being grilled alive at the order of Emperor Vespasian, August 10 259 AD.  He is one of the  earlier martyrs, and one with a short but excellent set of associated anecdotes.

In this detail from a Fra Angelico fresco in San Marco, Lorenzo with his grill is obligingly easy to recognize standing next to blood-smeared St. Peter Martyr.

Discovering Lorenzo and his office, Vespasian commanded him to hand over the treasures of this illegal cult.  Given three days to prepare, Lorenzo emptied the treasury, giving everything he had to the poor.  When summoned to present the treasures to Vespasian he instead brought a company of the poor, sick and crippled, declaring that these were the treasures of the Church.  He is supposed to have been good-natured about his execution, and is rumored to have said when he was being grilled alive something along the lines of, “Flip me over, Caesar, I’m done on this side.”

San Lorenzo has several churches in Rome, including the church of San Lorenzo in Miranda (better known to classicists as the church they built in the middle of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, where San Lorenzo was supposedly sentenced), and San Lorenzo in Panisperna which has the famous grill on which he was executed, which he also carries quite reliably in art, making him one of the easiest saints to recognize when one plays the never-ending art game, “Spot the Saint”.

San Lorenzo’s basilica in Florence might in fact be the oldest church in Florence – several fight for the title, excluding rivals by using various definitions of “Florence” based on different past locations of the city walls.

Seen from above, you can see the long roof, the octagonal dome in the back (added later), and the library extending off to the left.

The eleventh-century original was replaced over the course of the 1400s by a new Romanesque church, intended to be showpiece of the new architecture based on the recently-rediscovered Vitruvius and other glories of the lost Roman arts.  Originally it was to have been paid for by the city with one chapel financed by the Medici, but when the Medici contribution was nicely done and the rest still languishing almost untouched, the Medici (who totally didn’t rule the city honest we didn’t) offered to step in and pay for the whole thing.  Good publicity for the Medici all around, and it became the family’s traditional burial church.  The great Laurenziana Library, containing the former Medici collections and many other manuscripts, is still attached (and currently doing a feature exhibit on the oldest and most complete surviving ancient collection of Virgil).  The facade of the church, as you can tell, was never finished, due to some legal quarrels and artist deaths and Michelangelo having another row with the pope and all the usual, but the inside…

A slightly organized mob

…is not our concern today.  Today’s concern is that the city has promised to give a free feast to the populace this night every year forever, and they’re not about to fail in 2011.  Not quite.  You see, excellent as the parade part of the festival is, feeding 1,000 Florentines, and 1,000 attending tourists, requires a great deal of logistics and discipline, and was organized by…  well… Florentines.

Our goal for the night?  Distribute watermelon, yogurt cups and pasta to an enormous mob.

They erected metal barriers, like you do, to organize the line into two files, then had a series of tents in which the watermelon was sliced and the pasta heated by burly men, then women with trays to carry them to the people

A well-meaning watermelon booth

By carry them to the people, I mean wander confusedly toward the mob and hold out trays until hands grabbed things in a vast, crushing mass.  The immediate effect was that a lot of us got in lines, and then huge numbers of people streamed past the lines, going around the barriers to the middle, and shoving in, getting food from the confused women, and leaving again past the people still waiting in the line.

The consternation of those in line was matched only by the unblinking calm of the hundreds streaming to cut in line, who were either blissfully unaware of the situation or equally blissfully uncaring.  The whole stream just flowed past us, smiling and shoving, while we stood stock still, with an increasing number of complaints rising from the veterans who put up with this every year.

Poor St. Laurence watching these attempts to feed his people…

Watermelon was the first item to manifest, and here a new problem arose.  Those in the front of the mob were shoved up against the front rails by the booths, along which it was necessary to advance to reach the pasta.  Those with watermelon brought it, and we ate it, but had no way to escape the area even if we wanted to since there was an enormous mob behind us.  Thus the dozens who already had watermelon blocked the hundreds who had not, with no escape in sight.  There was also nowhere to put the peels, resulting in hundreds of people standing in a tight mob either holding our dripping and sticky watermelon rinds, or attempting to hurl them over the head of the crowd into large, distant dumpsters, with mixed success.  And soon there was no one left who wanted watermelon, at least not that could get near.

After 2 hours of holding watermelon rind, I finally advanced to the pasta stage and discovered the next brilliant plan.  There were only two men working the pasta booths, and it took about two full minutes for them to do each batch, which was about 6 bowls.  12 bowls every two minutes, 1,500 people give or take, so… a process which started at 10 PM was still well underway at midnight when I escaped with the hardest-earned bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten.

The fruits (or noodles) of victory!

It was a Tuscan specialty, ground meat with a little tomato, not much else.  But it will remain one of the most memorable pastas I’ve tasted, partly for the chaos of its acquisition, but more for the thought of so many previous Florentines (Michelangelo, Benvenuto Cellini, young Marsilio Ficino) fighting what I’m sure were equally-organized mobs.  You know, the tradition of handing out pasta at these things originated before the tradition of handing out silverware.  Yogurt, I hope, is modern.