Looking Up

Last Judgement by Vasari.
Detail of the Duomo ceiling.

If you strip away the mounds of gelato and plethora of tourists, Florence may seem like any other city. The overpriced stores flash signs to draw in customers, while knock-off pizzerias sell reheated slices of “Italy’s Best.” The modern façade of such an ancient city distracts from the immense history it houses. Instead of looking in the windows of Gucci or Chanel, it is best to turn your head up. Focusing on the architecture of the buildings seems to magically transport you to another time. These landmarks I pass every day are featured in hundreds of paintings, novels, and photographs. They are both familiar and foreign; I see them every day but have yet to uncover all of their secrets.

Each building is unique, some composed of bright colors and others built from rough stone. From above, however, they all appear the same. Climbing to the top of the Campanile, a tower beside the famous Duomo, a maze of orange roofs is splayed out before me. But, even such a wonderful view pales in comparison to the paintings that these buildings house.

A large portion of Renaissance art focuses on religious themes, so it comes as no surprise that churches double as museums in Florence. All the surfaces are ornately decorated, from carefully mosaicked floors to extraordinarily detailed ceiling paintings. The Duomo’s interior masterfully depicts ascension into heaven and the terrors of hell. A soft, brilliant light emanates from the main focus, Jesus. The gruesome depiction of demons is a fascinating display of imagination. In one section, we see a winged dragon-like creature swallowing a man whole, as menacing horned creatures crawl below.

Another brilliant example of Renaissance ceiling art is in the Baptistery, directly across the street from the Duomo. Gold glitters throughout the small building, illuminated by only a few lights. The detailed fresco tells stories from the Bible, a useful tool during the time for church attendees who did not understand the sermon. The Baptistery was much less crowded than its famous brethren, yet I find it remains one of my favorite places in Florence. While the rest of the building is beautiful, it is the ceiling that I found most memorable.

One of the magnificent aspects of this city is that art is not limited to museums or churches. Sprawling frescoes line the walls of restaurants, chalk portraits brighten the sidewalks, and towering statues litter the city. “Florence” and “Art” are synonymous; neither would be the same without the influence of the other.

Prior to my arrival in Florence, I took multiple art history courses that covered artworks from Renaissance to the 20th century. Such classes have helped me understand art in a new way, and have influenced the way I experience art abroad. Art is more than just the image on canvas; it is the collision of artist, medium, symbolism, and inspiration. Without background knowledge, I would never fully appreciate the process of creating a fresco or the importance of ceiling paintings. I’ve found my experience abroad has been exponentially more enjoyable thanks to my previous coursework at Arcadia.

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