Sunday, July 5, 2009

San Gimignano: Theme Park with Towers

I can hear the man behind me but I can't see him. I am quite certain he looks much like the man in front of me: bermudas, sandals (or sneakers with high white socks), a corny hat; he carries a map in one hand and a camera in the other. His backpack is stuffed with liter bottles of tepid water. His teenage daughter looks bored, Junior wants another gelato, and Mum is looking for cheap souvenirs in the shop windows.

Dad says, in fine British English, in a high moral tone as though setting Junior straight: "If it hadn't been for America I wouldn't have met Mummy and if I hadn't met Mummy you wouldn't be here." Junior, who has been dragged through three cities in as many days, looks like that mightn't be such a bad idea.

This could be a Theme Park. It is a Theme Park. Welcome to San Gimignano. The theme is Towers. Of the original 72, only dozen remain, but that's all it takes.

In the Piazza Duomo, the central square, people sit on the stone stairs of the Basilica. They are eating take-out sandwiches and taking pictures of each other. I stop in a bar for a wild boar salami sandwich with tomatoes and greens and chat with the waitress. I ask her how business is?

Terrible, she says. Nobody is buying anything except sandwiches and bottled water. The restaurants are empty. I tell her it is much the same in Venice, a larger theme park, but a theme park nonetheless, hit by the same downturn in tourism.

I ask her about walking to Certaldo, an even smaller town 11km away; not a bad walk, if it's not all su e giu, up and down. No, she says, it's all downhill, but, allora, uphill all the way back and the only bus is on Thursday. Besides, she says, it is too hot. Do that in April, she says. Not in the summer.

San Gimignano is barely three miles long and half as wide, a narrow swath of brick and stone atop a hill encircled by ancient walls. I had planned the walk to Certaldo the following afternoon. I wonder if there is enough of interest in San Gimignano for two full days?

San Gimignano was an Etruscan town in the 3rd C. BC, and history picks it up again in the 10th C. From its hilltop overlooking the Val d'Elsa it became key link on a major trade and pilgrimage route. The burghers of San Gimignano became rich, and as they became rich, each put up a tower until the town resembled a stone porcupine. The Duomo was consecrated in 1148; it is plain, forthright, unadorned; but inside, the high stone walls are covered with frescoes. The Old Testament Cycle on the left was painted by Bartolo di Fredi between 1356 and 1367. The New Testament Cycle was painted by Barna da Siena and Lippo Memmi.

Here you exit the Theme Park and enter the heart of the medieval imagination in full flower. I am slow, impatient and easily distracted. It sometimes takes a while for that transformation to sink in.

I quickly take the measure of the Duomo, scanning the nave frescoes and check out the Chapel of S. Fina. Frescoed by Ghirlandaio in 1478 the chapel is centered around a monumental gilt and marble altar/reliquary. (S. Fina, a local girl, died young, had visions, and was fast-tracked to sainthood so that San Gimignano could have one of their own.) The background of the fresco on the left is a grand Roman apse, open, in front of the towers of San GImignano. An angel hovers like a hummingbird near the belfry arches of the Torre Grossa, the big town hall tower which set the height limit and above which no private tower could go, looking then exactly as it looks now.

The chapel is pure renaissance, arranged like a theatrical event. The frescoes on the right and left walls flank the reliquary altar; polychrome stucco and marble curtains are swagged back like a proscenium to reveal the reliquary. In the center of the gilded marble is a small glass pane. Behind the glass is a lifelike painted wooden bust of a young girl; the saint's brain is supposed to be inside.

When I exit the chapel, the New Testment frescoes broadside me. I sit on a pew and stare in mute admiration. Admittedly most people have a low tolerance for these images, but I could look at them forever.

The first one that catches my eye is a panel depicting the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. It is a simple waterscape in greens, aquas and greys. In the panel below, Christ sits at its center like a deposed Byzantine emperor in a robe of gold silk lined in aqua over a garnet tunic. The vicious anger of his mockers dissolves in the calm and peaceful center of his blindfolded face. Next to that, the procession of the cross is a mad cacophony of jagged lines formed of crosses, spears and ladders, agitated, like lightning. This defies any stereotype of medieval art. It is a totally unique pictorial language, a dynamic medieval expressionism I have only seen here, par excellence, by Barna da Siena and Lippo Memmi, painted around 1330.

SPQR is embossed on the shields of the Roman foot soldiers while angels spin like pinwheels in the lurid crimson sky above the crucifixion. A haloed saint in imperial robes rides a horse whose hide is pink satin brocade. The silver designs on the soldiers' leather shields form spider webs around Christ being kissed by Judas. The prayer in the garden is visited by echoes of Rousseau and Rivera from the future. The last supper is a cubist arrangement of simple objects laid upon a white table surrounded by apostles.

By comparison, the Old Testament frescoes on the opposite side of the nave are more restrained and conventional, still fanciful and lovely in their approach to storytelling. But high up in the lunettes the story of Adam and Eve comprises a universe and a language all its own. It begins with a placid representation of Creation, almost abstract in its formal symbolism. Adam being given dominion over the beasts resembles a richly embroidered tapestry with lush and fantastic floral detail and a phalanx of animals -- a whole zoo -- massed behind him. Eve emerges from Adam's side whole, as from a womb.

The frescoes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are among the crown jewels of Italian art, running through Italy like a vein of pure gold. Taken as a body of work they are a wondrous fabric of art and imagination. They are festive and provocative, humble and exalted, profoundly touching and always fascinating to look at.

The Byzantine ideal was to reproduce endlessly the same perfect image, hence the extreme stylization; the style left little room for personality. In the renaissance, individuality gave way to idealized forms and classic beauty. In the medieval frescoes that ushered in the renaissance, personality prevails. The pathos of Jesus mocked is beyond words; it lives.


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