The child rises. The friars kneel. The woman weeps. The crowd gathers. The saint hovers. The street darkens. And half-hidden by the crowd, yet still boldly recognizable, a young man stares out of the painting.
His name is Domenico Ghirlandaio, and among his many achievements, he is the man responsible for the dimly lit fresco before me. His hands rest confidently on his hips, and he wears a blue tunic and a red scarf. There is nothing discreet about his identity. Such audacity at first strikes me as strange, but the longer I stare the more I see the look of confidence in his eyes. Half-hidden by the crowd, yet unmistakably visible, this self-portrait is merely his signature.
I leave the church. The street before me looks no different than that in the fresco: the bridge of Santa Trinita, the Ferragamo Palace, the Arno river. This is the essence that Ghirlandaio saw in some damp plaster more than five hundred years ago. Something like nostalgia, or perhaps just hunger, tugs at my stomach. I cross the road, narrowly missed by a speeding moped.
The streets are made of heavy blocks, black and smooth from hundreds of years of use. I can’t help but wonder who laid them, but there is no self-portrait, no signature, carved in to tell me who it was.
Eventually the narrow road opens into the square leading to the city’s cathedral, the Duomo. Scores of tourists prowl the piazza, eagerly snapping pictures that have been painted or photographed thousands of times already.
Inside the cathedral it is quieter but no less crowded as craned necks guide aimless bodies throughout the church. The walls are lined with nameless faces that peer out from dusty frames.
Along the left wall hangs a painting of Dante Alighieri. Renouncing traditional Latin verse, Dante wrote his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in the common vernacular of his era. Although he was consequentially expelled from Florence for such impudence, centuries later it is that very brazenness for which he is still celebrated. Even in the fading picture his confidence remains unmistakable.
At the end of the wide nave, the ceiling opens up into Brunelleschi’s dome, a structure considered at the time of its construction to be the greatest feat of engineering since antiquity. The interior is covered in frescoes and two narrow walkways cling to the circumference inviting closer examination. It is little wonder that this structure was also once the world’s highest dome. I almost fall over from leaning backwards to stare up at it.
Outside again I walk toward the river. Sculls and rowboats slide along the water effortlessly as the pale yellow houses that line the banks watch in silence. Past the Ponte Vecchio, I turn left toward the entrance to the Uffizi. The most famous work of Ghirlandaio’s most famous student becomes visible as I approach the museum. An imposing replica of Michelangelo’s “David” marks the corner of Florence’s vast Piazza di Signori where the original once stood. Although nude statues are no longer unique to the square, Michelangelo’s work was the first of its kind to appear in a public area. From the way that he is standing, however, “David” is clearly not concerned with modesty.
The main corridor of the Uffizi is attended by an endless procession of anonymous busts and statues, which are surrounded by art students fervently copying their pallid forms. The ceiling is frescoed and lined by what appears as a type of “Who’s Who in the Renaissance” array of portraits. Unfortunately I have no idea just who any of them were.
Entering Botticelli’s room I am quickly overwhelmed by his artistic power. The feigned modesty of the Venus, the sallow cheeks of an old man lost in a background, the mere presence of “The Allegory for Spring,” and a daring suggestion of the Virgin Mary pushing away the angel Gabriel, all capture the essence of a man who was not afraid to paint as he willed.
Walking farther through the galleries, I am confronted by Bronzino, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio who greet me without acknowledgment. I see Michelangelo’s “Sacra Famiglia,” a painting that resembles a sculpture more than it does reality. He painted the way that he sculpted, depicting muscular limbs and well studied nudes. Even the figures in the painting have that half-frozen movement that sculpted forms so often suggest.
I finally leave the museum and make my way back into the heat. The Piazza di Signori is more crowded than it was earlier so I head toward the narrow side streets to avoid the crowds.
Eventually I come to a small piazza where a banner advertises the Istituto degli Innocenti. Although far more discreet than his dome, yet no less important, Brunelleschi’s modest Istituto is considered to be the first Renaissance building. Once the city’s orphanage and now home to a small museum, the tall columns and unabashed arches of the building’s exterior inimitably display his innovation.
At the top of the stairs I enter the museum only to look up and see a familiar face watching me. Ghirlandaio’s eyes are bold as he irreverently stares out from a crowd of pious adorers and heralding angels in a painting at the end of the corridor. His look of confidence is unmistakable, but now staring back I understand his conviction. At times audacious, and always boldly recognizable, the city of Florence is, after all, the very signature of its artists.
Born and raised in Northern California, Chelsea Bauch now lives in New York City where she is a student at NYU and continues her writing. She is interested in studying human migration, from pilgrims to immigrants, to better understand her own itchy feet.