Ben’s Column: Renaissance Man

Ben sets his sights on new frontiers of the navel — and sometimes beyond.

One professor of Renaissance art, visiting the Stanford Palazzo, presented on a project I found fascinating and disturbing. He was trying to use 3D room-scanning technology to “digitize” Renaissance-era buildings in Florence, and in the process restore the original art that would have hung there — Botticelli’s famous “Annunciation,” for example, would be scanned at the Uffizi and set back above the altar it was commissioned for at the church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. In this way, masterpieces of the Florentine Renaissance, now scattered across the global network of museums, could be restored to the churches and palazzos where they originally hung, to be navigated by computer or VR headset. So that someday, once everything is scanned, you could, in some way, visit Florence’s landmarks more completely from your bedroom than by actually going, though the professor resisted this conclusion. 

It may be true that all Italy’s old cities are virtually museums anyway. With Venice’s entrance fee, the city has finally broken down to admit that it is a place of the past, like Pompeii. But to present virtual reality with any pretense of “completion” offends us, because we like to imagine that art and space have some aura of memory related to their materials. The old idea that things are sacred because of what we know has happened to them. 

This is the strange notion of relics, with which Italy is filled. There are hands, femurs and whole dead nuns that are beneficial just to stand near, and a more serious blessing to touch. In Siena, they will try to tell you that the severed head of St. Catherine, behind bars in a silver reliquary, continues to prove her miracle by persisting in looking as beautiful as it did when she died in 1380. They paint her nicely, and keep her eyebrows stamped on, but regardless she has come to look over the centuries pretty over the whole thing. Still, I was sure I felt something there. The actual stuff, exchanging dust with our sterile century. 

I had a good habit of going alone to the Piazza Santo Spirito after class, a quieter spot downhill from grand Palazzo Pitti, separated from it by a block of bad osterias, and after that talk I did the same. I walked, first along the river, then down a narrow street with antique stores into the quieter square. 

The day of that lecture, it also happened that a friend of mine was texting me in a panic. He was worried about the job market, and consequently, about the future of the race. 

-That’s what the Symbolic Systems major is, u know, they’re trying to prove the brain is just a machine, something u can totally recreate with a computer.

He was trying to get me as spun up as he was. I looked around at the crowds while I was typing back.

-Its heathen behavior. U have to believe in a spark of consciousness that comes from somewhere. U just have to believe that.

-but you know what, we’re outnumbered in that. The death of the soul, of free will, mystery, that’s all old news. And people cheer on this shit — someone told them it’s going somewhere good. Someone showed me a “new” Da Vinci painted by an algorithm like it was a good thing. It was bad, but maybe they will get better, and then what? I said to that thank God we don’t have to worry about making art anymore. Now we can focus on Ubereats.

His question — Is it special to be alive and conscious? — correlated to a more personal fear, probably the one we had originally connected over — Can I try to be an artist? Who cares?

Santo Spirito was where the American college students and Ph.D.s were likelier to be. We were the ones visiting long enough that we could afford to sit in front of an ugly church with no facade. It is a narrow oval that crowds six or seven bars and cafes on top of one another, making for lively nightlife. I sat down at Osteria Santo Spirito just before it started to form a line.

They pack the patio tables close together, and always have a line by the afternoon, having achieved in recent months some degree of online fame for a malicious gnocchi dish with a pound of cheese and a slick of truffle oil. But everything else was pretty good. I liked to get a big bowl of ribollita so the main expenditure could be a “quarto” of wine. Today, a “mezzo.

I was already into my soup when I noticed the table next to me. On my side was a man about 40. Across from him was a woman, clearly his mother, with short white hair. It was only 1 o’clock, but both already seemed defeated by a day of travel. 

She couldn’t understand why he was so down on his life of trying to be a poet in New York City. He was explaining that it was harder than she realized, and also that his friends from high school weren’t actually as happy as she thought. She went to comfort him with a couple Midwestern truisms, which he kept rejecting. Both seemed to be regretting the trip. She pointed to the menu.

“Tripe — now what is that again?”

“That’s one of those mild whitefish.”

Tripe, the inner lining of a cow’s stomach, is a flavor that’s taken me a long time to try to acquire, and actually I’m still shaky on it. But when a mild whitefish sounded just right to her, I didn’t correct them. Weird, petty bitterness had surfaced, and I let it have its way. So she ordered her tripe in tomato sauce, and I kept eavesdropping while I worked at my carafe.

He tried to convince her that two friends of his, Todd and Ana, were not happy in their marriage. She was not willing to entertain this idea. He said yeah, and actually if they didn’t have a kid, they would probably be divorced. 

“Ah well, anyway … Somebody out there must be making it work. Things always get better.”

He listed off several bad dates he had recently been on. She hadn’t asked, but he seemed to have anticipated this turn was coming. He said every woman was in marketing, and didn’t read. And that they all treated him like an unserious oddity. 

“Well you never know … I’m not here trying to tell you how things are there. God knows it’s different from back home.” She was getting quiet and looking around the square. 

“It’s terrible out there. I met this guy who was selling five dollar poems in Central Park a few months ago. I was nice to him — he said he had just started writing and loved it. Then I saw him at a reading in Brooklyn, and he tried to give me writing tips. And here’s the worst part, I actually listened, in case somehow he was going to tell me the thing that was going to change my work.”

This was all distressing to imagine. In the odd way of projection, identifying had led me into deep private dislike. I was getting excited for the stomach to be served. Finally the waitress brought everything out on big yellow plates, and of course it was unmistakable — pure white tripe. The rippled honeycomb texture functions, in life, for separating large objects from small toward the beginning of a cow’s lengthy digestion.

“Weird,” he said, looking over at her plate. She cut a piece and started chewing. She was chewing for a long time. 

“How is it?”

“You know — it’s good. A bit weird, but a nice sauce. I think it’s one of those fish where you understand why we don’t eat it in America.”

“Right, right.”

When they had both finished their food, I decided it was time to say something. 

“What do you think?” I said, wiping my face. “I like this place.”

“You know, it was pretty good, it was good.” The mother said.

“Pretty brave of you to go for the tripe,” I said. “I mean I like it, but a lot of people would find that difficult.” 

“Oh, would they?” the son said. “Hmm, why?” 

“I think the idea of eating a stomach can be a bit odd.”

There was a small uproar. She smacked her lips and started telling him off, and he blamed her equally for not noticing. 

I flagged down the waitress. 

“Scusa,” I said, feeling uniquely fluent, “Limoncello — usually free — per favore?”

“Certo sir. Yes, coming.”

I felt like Hannibal Lecter. Victorious, I was no longer afraid of them, and now just silly and mean. 

The shot tasted like pine-sol that day. My neighbors turned back to me.

“Are you studying here?”

“Yeah, here from California.”

“What are you studying?”

“Well I’m an English major, but I’m more so trying to study art while I’m here.”

“Ahhhh,” they both laughed. 

“I was an English major!” He said. “Enjoy it. Those are the most amazing years. Downhill from there.” We all laughed while I signaled for the check.

The Pazzi Chapel was another one of my favorite spots. It’s one of those rare places where it’s possible to visualize a pivot in history as the event of an instant. In 1443, under the gangly tower and marching roofs of the Cathedral of Santa Croce, there would have suddenly appeared what looked like a little pagan temple, unified and gray.

In history the chapel is enormous and catastrophic, but it’s always extremely still inside. The interior is done in Brunelleschi’s typical palette of blue-gray sandstone columns and cornice, framing clean white plaster walls. His famous sandstone is called “pietra serena” — serene stone — sourced from Fiesole in the hills. It’s a peaceful building — hard to have a harsh thought inside. With bare walls and only structural elements for decoration, it feels more archetypal than real. I felt once that I was actually inside the gridded mind of the architect, a place where gray corinthian columns hold up the white ceiling of Limbo. 

Up marble stairs and across the Epistle-side porch, the vast interior of Santa Croce Cathedral is chaos by comparison — it contains frescos of every style since the 13th century, some peeling, some never completed, Giotto’s “Life of Saint Frances” under restoration behind scaffolding, monumental tombs lining the walls and more humble ones set into the marble of the floor. By a small side-exit, Donatello’s archangel flashes gold sleeves. 

I was there again sometime later that week, following an angsty and pensive string of walks. I was back at the legendary tombs. The church has Michelangelo’s tomb, Galileo’s, Macchiavelli’s and a false one for Dante, all massive stone monuments reaching a quarter way up the cathedral walls. I spent a while in front of Michelangelo’s, designed by Vasari as an elaborate marble altar to his mastery.

Thousands of people pay their respects every day. Even if you skip “Night” and “Day” at the Medici tombs, or never make it into the Accademia to see “David,” one has to lay eyes on the tomb of the master. He lived! Its centerpiece is a slightly ugly purple marble sarcophagus, and on top of that, a bust of his thick and serious face. At the feet of the sarcophagus, three marble women holding various tools represent his three crafts: architecture, painting and sculpture. They are all slightly twisted and pained, after his own famous manner, in which men and women alike are all afforded muscular souls with which to strain against non-existence.

Of course, these beautiful craftswomen lack that famous “terribilità” imposing terror — of a real Michelangelo marble. But you have to be in the room to feel that possibility — that after all these years, the statues might finally get up and crush us.