Just a glance at those paintings and you too would want to see yourself this way, you’d want to believe that you’re different from all others, a unique, special and particular human being
-Orhan Pamuk, “My Name Is Red”
I climbed to the top of Il Duomo in Firenze. Because my wife is Italian and because I’m a bit of a snob I refuse to call the city “Florence.” It is a staggering structure at 91m tall. It dominates the Florentine landscape. Roberto Longhi wrote of Il Duomo that it “climbs steeply to the skies, [and is] wide enough to cover the whole of the Tuscan people with its great shadow.”
I am afraid of heights. I constantly try to combat this fear, but I can’t deny that it is there. Over the years, my fear has escalated to such an extent that at times it is almost crippling. But I still try to push myself to do things like climb the 463 steps of Il Duomo.
I went by myself and slowly climbed, trapped behind a slow-moving German couple and in front of chatty American students who said “like” way too many times. On the climb, I constantly pondered how, and maybe more importantly why, the architect Brunelleschi had the whole thing built without scaffolding. No scaffolding! Incredible.
Firenze was the nucleus of the Italian Renaissance and stands today as ground zero for the appreciation of the Italian Renaissance. Without Firenze, there is no Renaissance; without the Renaissance, who cares about Firenze.
Il Duomo perfectly encapsulates the Renaissance’s humanistic emphasis on the grand abilities of man. To build a dome is impressive; to build a 91m tall dome is staggering; to build a 91m tall dome without scaffolding is brilliant and terrifying, adjectives we should reserve for God, but in this case we must appropriate to the makers of the building. I felt like I was climbing towards heaven as I climbed the dome. Maybe this Duomo was the Tower of Babel.
Renaissance art and architecture were almost entirely made for the Church because the Church was the only entity with enough money and clout to commission such massive endeavors. The result is that on the surface, Renaissance art is extremely religious. Il Duomo was built for the glory of God. But I think the true purpose of the art, consistent with the philosophy of humanism, is really the glory of man.
“We are special creatures!” so boasts Il Duomo as it draws the admiring gaze of any who see it. “We are the center of the world! We can create!” Michelangelo’s David proudly says that same thing as he stands there, perfectly formed, the paragon of human achievement. “We are spectacular.”
In the modern world we don’t waste the time pretending that we build to glorify God. We build to glorify individual achievement, and are fairly overt about it. (eg Trump Towers, Rockefeller Center, etc.) Renaissance artists had to be more crafty. They glorified human achievement but disguised it as religion, for example by subtly including portraits of their generous patrons into frescoes depicting the life of Jesus.
I shivered nervously at the top of Il Duomo and looked over the railing at the bustle of Firenze below. I spent most of my experience in silence, but couldn’t help but to tell the two Brazilian people next to me that I was terrified of heights, and I mean terrified, and I was really scared to be up here. They patted my hand and said, “Just try to enjoy the view.”
Two American students nearby discussed which was the best phrasing to use in their Facebook status to describe that they were at the top of Il Duomo. Blackberries in hand, they pondered how to publicly include themselves in the creation of Il Duomo. This was nothing new. The passageways up to the top are drenched with the graffiti of people who wanted their presence to be known. “Michael Was Here” and “I Love Tricia” can be found everywhere, even though there are plenty of signs that clearly prohibit writing on the walls. When Il Duomo was built, patrons had their names carved in marble. Over the last few decades, visitors have scribbled their names on the wall in haste. The 21st century equivalent has things even further simplified: we update Facebook.
I think the students went with something fairly bland and literal for their updates, like “I’m at the top of the Dome in Florence!” Status Updated. They were now a part of Il Duomo’s history.
In fact, updating Facebook is kind of like building a dome. Brunelleschi built his Duomo so that he could be remembered. We update facebook and I write on this blog so people will remember me, and admire my ideas and thoughts and smile at my pictures. Modern social media allows all of us to very proudly reiterate our existence, so, as the Pamuk quote states at the beginning of this, we can feel “unique, special, and particular.”
It’s worth considering what is so wrong with glorifying man in the first place? What is so wrong with tweeting our thoughts and forcing cathedrals into the sky and breathing underwater and doing things that we were never created to do? I don’t actually know what is wrong about it, but I know that at times I have a gut feeling that it’s wrong. I don’t know if we should believe that we are the be all and end all, as so much of our behavior suggests. But I have to admit that I’m attracted to the concept. We are in fact special. We do in fact create. We are in fact spectacular. We are worth fighting for, saving, and admiring. Right?
But we humans, us centers of the universe, are all impermanent, so says the Buddha. We will die, and even if we have gorgeous tombs in the walls of the Santa Croce, we will just be decomposing bodies under slowly wilting marble. Even the great Duomo will some day crumble, and the countless signatures scribbled onto the walls will be lost in the rubble. The Tuscan landscape will lose its Duomo, and its rolling green hills will also shift and change. Because all is impermanent.
Maybe that’s why we so frantically try to build and create. We fear our impermanence, and try to cope by doing everything possible to build ourselves to last. Did you know that the Library of Congress is archiving Twitter? I mean all of it. The mind-numbing, the brilliant, the sad, the humorous, all of it will be archived for as long as the archive can last. How strange, and yet how heroic.
Maybe, in a subtle twist of irony, all of these creations do in fact glorify God after all, as they were originally intended to do. Not deliberately, but they capture us as we attempt to mimic God and fight our impermanence. Il Duomo has lasted much longer than Brunelleschi has, and so we still admire him and speak his name. The Library of Congress will preserve my tweets.
But in truth, what we create is still ultimately fleeting, just with a more distant expiration date.
In short, our attempts to defy impermanence end up serving to further illuminate it.