Saturday, August 8, 2009

Florence, a city whose size is comparable to the Princeton campus, home to the Medici family, center stage for players such as Michelangelo and Machiavelli, and Galileo and Savonarola, and the birthplace of the Renaissance itself; that is where I headed after Paris.

If Paris is an architectural museum, Florence is a tomb. If the streets of Paris are congested, those of Florence seem suffocating. If it weren't for the colorful facades and intricate window blinds, it would resemble very much a slum. It is saturated with tourists carrying maps and reminds me of Disneyland. I love the shop windows. They are super-modern/contemporary.

In Florence, I had the most divine pasta. It was garnished with the perfect mix of subtle and strong flavours. I also had some really rich chocolate ice cream, which I loved.

The streets are all curved and narrow, "to prevent wind tunnels."
I took the bus to the Carthusian Monasteries at Galluzzo (or Val d'Ema), and took a tour there guided by a monk. Le Corbusier might have taken the same tour several decades ago. I was the only non-Italian in the tour group and though I didn't understand a single word of it, the experience was transcendent.

All the time I was there, I kept thinking that there was some puzzle here that I was supposed to be solving, deciphering, unraveling. Why did Le Corbusier come and spend time here? I began to notice the harmony in the architcture -- a sort of complex simplicity. It was built in 1341 and its age itself gives it a mysterious quality. Individual chambers enclosed monks who vowed not to speak except for 10 minutes each week. Their apartments were all they had around them and in them they meditated. Each chamber has an interior garden with windows opening onto amazing views over the countryside below. Each is furnished only with furniture that is essential and functional, but whose elegance reminds me of the Bauhaus and Victor Horta.

The ceilings are low and the passages intimate, contrasting with the more open courtyard. Was I just imaginging the parallels between this and the Villa Savoye?. Also, going through these chambers, the galleries and the churches, all of which are linked together, you lose your sense of orientation. The experience of navigating through the rooms and courtyards is one of discovery and full of surprises and the architecture subtly guides the visitor around. It is a kind of architecture devoid of overt ostentatious ornamentation and pomp, yet rich in a temprered understated quality of spatial experience in the promenade it creates.

Below: Galileo's house
Yet, despite all this, for my architecture drawing project in Florence, I have mostly sketches of sculptures to show so far. I spent most of my time looking at the sculpture. While architectural styles come and go, and are dependent on the materials, ideas and processes of their age, the beauty of the human body is eternal. Biomimicry has always opened up avenues of inspiration for avant-garde architecture. There are other things such as form, composition, movement and scale that link architecrture very closely with the arts.

It was almost convenient that Italian museums did not allow photography, and that later on my camera refused to function. It gave me an opportunity to slow down and spend time with my sketchbook in the various museums and the outdoor sculpture piazzas.

Below: Three sketches of Perseus (1554) by Cellini, drawn from the sketch version in the Bargello Museum, and the full-size version in the Piazza della Signoria.

Below: Michelangelo's David, in the Galleria dell' Academia.

Below: Brunelleschi, in the Galleria dell' Academia.
Below: Machiavelli, the great evil political theorist, in the Galleria dell' Academia. Seeing this transported me back to Professor Viroli's lectures during sophomore year.
Below: Cyparissus in the Galleria dell' Academia, who Apollo "loved because of his beauty" and who was so heartbroken when he accidentally killed his deer that the cyprus tree was created and named after him.
Below: Three sketches of the The Rape of the Sabine Women (1583) by Giambologna, drawn from the versions in the Galleria dell' Academia and the outdoor Piazza della Signoria. It consists of three figures in frozen in at a moment of vigorous motion. It challenges the idea that sculpture has only one best vantage point, because presents exquisite and exciting compositions in all directions. One could learn more about architecture from this sculpture than many buildings.

Below: Fisherboy, but I forget whom, in the Bargello Museum.

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