- Paperback: 252 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (November 4, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0156027631
- ISBN-13: 978-0156027632
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 37 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,486 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Stones of Florence 1st Edition
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By the time one arrives at the end of Chapter One--similar again to the climb to San Mineato, one is out of breath and wondering if the trip was worth the trouble, and not perhaps as impressed by the lovely surroundings as our erstwhile guide might have intended.
Of course there are other ways of getting to San Mineato (do go, dear traveler and take the bus, please, it is cheap and effective, sit in the nave in late afternoon to hear the monks sing vespers and then watch the sun set as you have dinner at the quaint terrace restaurant just to the left of the Piazzale Michelangelo, where you will find great pasta and refreshing drinks of granita... Surprisingly low, good prices and great views of the entire city, before retuning to the old city). And there are other, better ways of reading about Florence than this book which should have been subtitled, "Only I Know Florence So The Rest of You Bums Ought to Stay Away". Nanny nanny boo boo.
For it is only at page twenty-six (chapter two) that McCarthy finally launches into her Ms Know-It-All tone about the city's history. By then the reader is so enervated he or she cares but little about what one will see, or who was who, and either too frustrated or too exhausted or both to pay her much attention. The reader continues reading only because supposed experts have said that this is a book worth considering. Well, what do they know?
It is all too much like having Mummy and Daddy insist "Eat Your Vegetables!" or having your grumpiest crone of an aunt plunk you down in front of a mediocre painting and prod with her cane and insist an appreciative response from you because she is doing it "for your own good". Dreadful.
Maybe Mary was having a bad day, or week, or life, I don't know; but by the time one is done with this dreary work one wonders why Mary wrote the book at all. Maybe she needed the money, badly. One wonders even more why any publisher accepted it. It is rather inconceivable that any editor thought this book worth the time, bother, paper and ink.
Oh, well, yes, there are a few smatterings of truth to all that she says. Florence can be too hot. The last time I was in Florence it was July and the heat was of the record-breaking variety. All the more reason to stroll over to Vivoli's and have a gelato, or two. The traffic was hectic, but then, all the more reason to duck into a shop and come out with something new in gorgeous Florentine leather. The sidewalks are narrow, all the more reason to slow down, and drink in the details of this marvelous, indescribably fascinating city that has surprises for the first time or returning visitor at every turn. One could spend a month just enjoying the vast variety of door knockers on the ancient palaces, or for that matter, sampling the byways that offer relief from the tourist trail. But then, why pretend one is not a tourist--there is nothing wrong with visiting a place to experience it, with all of its surprises and wonders. And as for the people--yes there are street vendors who ought not be there, but on the whole we find the Florentines to be welcoming and pleasant, as we find all of the Italians--who respond to Americans as if their long lost cousin has just stopped in for a visit.
A visitor to any city could produce a long list of dislikes and turn them into a "Ten Things I Hate About You". Mary McCarthy's approach has no sense whatsoever that she loves or even likes the famous center of the Italian Renaissance. What a contrast it is to R W B Lewis' fabulous, thoroughly enjoyable, readable book on the same subject--filled with history and art that is more than facts and travel that takes one where the natives go, which I recommend highly to one and all and without qualification as the best single volume about Florence written in modern times. McCarthy is the reader's adversary. Lewis is the reader's friend; you can find it here...
The City of Florence: Historical Vistas and Personal Sightings, by R W B Lewis - don't miss it!
The title of Mistress Mary's book is, of course, a play on dear old Johnny Ruskin and his writings about Venice, but this is NOT a masterpiece of English literature. Far from it. It is a disappointment from start to finish, especially when read in comparison to the Lewis book.
If you find this review helpful you might want to read some of my other reviews, including those on subjects ranging from biography to architecture, as well as religion and fiction.
McCarthy explains that during the renaissance, the fields of engineering, architecture, sculptor, and painter all overlapped and the great geniuses such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Brother Lippi, Botticelli, and Brunelleschi excelled in all these fields. The power of Michelangelo's David and Sistine Chapel may cloud our understanding of Michelangelo as outstanding architect. McCarthy would have us understand that the outstanding talents and minds of the Renaissance knew few bounds as they applied their talents and innovations. Brunelleschi's architectural masterpieces of the Duomo, San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito, and the Pazzi Chapel would ensure his place in history but he also developed the concept of the vanishing point in pictorial 2-dimensional space which was a innovation of considerable power and which influenced every serious artist since. As the technical aspects of the vanishing point are learned, Masaccio paints the painting of the Trinity, showing the power of this technique, a technique that spread quickly within the artistic community of Europe.
Tales of the Duomo are peppered throughout the book since the competition to design and build this dome are legendary. McCarthy tells the essential facts which are given in more detail in Ross King's Brunelleschi's dome. She is unkind to Vasari, the favorite of Cosimo I, who designed the Uffizi and painted the frescoes within the Duomo. She is also unkind to the Mannerists that follow the giants of the late Renaissance.
McCarthy is rightfully critical of aspects of Florence. The Uffizi is damp with body heat and wet breath of the crowds that are so dense that it is difficult to see the art and McCarthy invites the reader to enjoy other art treasures in other collections such as the Bargello museum and the Pitti Palace. She invites the reader to stroll in the Boboli and Bardini gardens.
McCarthy has a keen understanding of human conflict and the story of Florence is also the story of rivalry, grudge, crime, retribution, violence, power, faction, alliance, and betrayal. The names of the great families such as Medici, Strozzi, Pazzi, and Brancacci begin to make sense as McCarthy weaves the ancient conflicts and rivalries into stories that illustrate how such rivalries and competition could be both destructive and also could inspire innovation and unintended developments. The conflicts were not just between the great families, they were also between the great families and the dictatorship of the Medici family. The conflicts were often between different factions of Christianity such as the Patarenes and Albigensians that challenged the dogma of the Catholic Church. The rise and fall of the evangelical monk Savonarola is often mentioned in her descriptions of the conflicting forces within Florence.
McCarthy makes the point that these innovative people strove for both the ideal religion and the ideal state since every form of government was tried in Florence. McCarthy casts Machiavelli as the brilliant political scientist that he was. His cool objectivity about how power is gained and retained remains vibrant reading to this day. Machiavelli explains the attributes of a mercenary army compared to a citizen army but unfortunately it is 300 years later before these lessons take root in democratic Europe.
Florence is often at the mercy of the Arno and I was amazed at the number of times over the last 700 years that the Arno floods destroyed bridges and sometimes buildings and art treasures.
The Italian language derives from the dialect spoken in Florence and it is Dante's Divine Comedy that helped establish this particular dialect as the primary dialect.
Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. This re-birth or re-discovery of the philosophers, political models, sculptors and architects of antiquity turned the God-centered world of the Middle Ages on its head and opened the door for the conceptions of modernity. McCarthy captures this transitional process in single geographic place with exceptional story telling skills.