Thursday, October 2, 2014

Florence: A Pilgrimage and an Awakening

We left our inn in the via Urbana at 6:45 a.m. and made our way to the taxi stand at the foot of Santa Maria Maggiore. We had flown to Rome from Athens the previous afternoon and were now setting out on a day trip to Florence. The taxi took us to Tiburtina train station where we boarded a fast train to Florence at 7:25. An hour and a half later, after zipping through the Italian countryside at speeds up to 250 kilometers per hour, we arrived at our destination.

I had wanted to return to Florence since the last time I was there - in the spring of 1982. My traveling companion and I had hoped to visit museums there, but we had arrived late on a Sunday afternoon and were leaving 24 hours later on an overnight train to Zurich. To our chagrin, we learned that all museums are closed on Monday. Thus, I missed my opportunity to see Michelangelo's colossal David.

Like viewing the Parthenon and the Acropolis, seeing the David was one of those things I had dreamed about for over 30 years but never expected to experience. Our recent trip provided the opportunity I had been hoping for.

Eliza and Mark

Our guide for the morning, Eliza, met us at the train station. She was a vivacious young woman, Romanian by birth, who is extremely knowledgeable and obviously passionate about art and her adopted city of Firenze (Florence). She was not the sort of guide who rattled over facts and figures, but her deep knowledge of art, history and literature informed everything she showed and told us.

Since the primary reason for our visit to Florence was to see the David, that was our first destination. We hadn't reserved tickets because we thought we'd probably go in the afternoon. Eliza thought the lines would be shorter in the morning, so we went and she was able to get us in fairly quickly.

My first glimpse of the David

When I turned the corner in the Accademia Museum and saw the statue at the end of the gallery, it took my breath away. It was difficult at first for me to listen to Eliza as she talked about Michelangelo and his unfinished "Prisoner" statues that sit on either side of the gallery as one approaches the David. Finally, I had to go take a picture of Michelangelo's masterpiece, then rejoin Eliza and Mark.

Among other things, Eliza spoke about Michelangelo's sexuality, i.e., the fact that he was a lover of men and the male form. I commented that many, many people are either ignorant of this or choose to explain it away or outright deny it. Eliza looked at me in mild astonishment. "But surely everyone knows he loved men. It is widely known and accepted as fact in the art world." Michelangelo was not, so to speak, the man presented in Irving Stone's best-selling novel of a couple of generations ago, The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Not for the first time on our trip, I was inspired to learn more about Michelangelo, about his private life and about his love for particular men in his life. Eliza recommended a book to us, then realized it is written in Italian. She then suggested another book which is currently winging its way to me from Amazon.

So much of what we know today about gay history has been buried under decades and centuries of shame, disgust and distaste. Michelangelo's family, for example, doctored many of his sonnets so that it appeared he had written them to women. Almost three centuries would go by before the sonnets were retranslated and their original intended recipients, men, became known to the world at large. Even then, however, many still argue that Michelangelo's love for and of men was platonic and not sexual.

Beyond this, to the extent that it is acknowledged that certain historical men engaged in sex with other men, it is still not generally perceived and appreciated that men loved other men, i.e., they were in love with other men. In other words, it wasn't and isn't all about sex. Even today, many cannot conceive that there is anything more to homosexual love than sex.

Of course, there is often no way to *prove* this for the simple reason that, with certain exceptions and for obvious reasons, prominent men did not leave behind evidence of their love for other men. But bits and pieces of surviving historical facts and evidence can, in the hands of a skilled and sensitive writer, be woven into a plausible story of the love that can and did exist between two men.

I was fortunate while we were in Rome touring the Vatican Museum to learn more about the love between the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover, Antinous. For any gay readers of this post, I would highly recommend a well-researched novel that I devoured while we on our cruise, The Hadrian Enigma, by George Gardiner. This book is both a historical whodunit and an exploration of the love between Hadrian and Antinous. While the historicity of Antinous and of Hadrian's love for him is well-established, Gardiner puts "flesh to the bones" of historical fact.

I just finished reading another exploration of the love that existed between men in ancient times. This book, Song of Achilles, an award-winning novel by Madeline Miller about the love between Achilles and Patroclus of Iliad fame. I highly recommend it. I freely admit that I came very close to tears during the climactic chapters and I was deeply impressed by the closing scenes, which were emblematic of what I've been writing about in this post.

Achilles and Patroclus both die outside the walls of Troy. This is well-known by anyone who has read the Iliad. In the novel, a huge monument is erected to Achilles by his young son, but there is no mention of Patroclus, even though their ashes are - at Achilles' request - buried in the same urn. The novelist - I won't say how - causes this to be rectified: eventually, Patroclus' name is inscribed beside that of the love of his life, Achilles.

So much of (gay) history is like that, i.e., the romantic love that existed between men is ignored, lost, buried. Works like the Song of Achilles restore that love to its proper place.

Our trip to Florence was a pilgrimage for me to stand in the presence of Michelangelo's masterpiece, which for me was far more than a work of art. Beyond the perfection of statue's proportions, beyond the vitality that even now after 500 years bursts forth out of the marble, beyond the exquisite beauty of David, beyond all of this and more is what the statue represents to me: the love of one man for another. (Remember that David loved Jonathan with his whole heart.)

This pilgrimage awakened something inside of me that had been stirring since seeing the statue of Antinous in the Vatican Library: a desire to read and write about books that bring to life a history that has been buried for centuries and even millennia, the stories of the love that existed between men.

(BTW: I took all of the pictures in this post except the one of Mark and me.)


  1. Beautiful! I can't believe you took pictures of the David! When I was there about 5 years ago, there were signs everywhere saying no photography. Of course, some people were still taking pictures; I just must have an issue about following (some) rules, arbitrary though they may be. That and my camera was too big and obvious to be subtle about it.

    In Florence, I loved the kitchy boxer shorts screen printed with the statue of David (at least the parts that would be covered by boxer shorts). I hope you didn't pass up the opportunity to get a pair. I did. It's just another in a long line of regrets of my life :).

    Love ya, Joseph. Thank you for bringing me along on your trip through your photography and writing. And thanks for the book recommendations. I'll have to check it out.

  2. Thanks, Hiker. They no longer have that rule, apparently. Everyone was taking pictures. Alas, I didn't get the boxer shorts, but I eyed an apron in Rome that featured an "anatomically enhanced" David. ;) Thanks for keeping in touch!

  3. So are you planning to swing by Switzerland?

  4. Geneva was our in and out point, but we didn't get any further east than that.

  5. So, you're already done with your trip?

  6. Yes, we got home two weeks ago. I had a lot of catching up to do on my blog because we didn't have good internet access while on our cruise in the Greek Islands.