Monday, June 23, 2014

Days of discovery

Some of the most satisfying discoveries are those you make without trying.

We are down to our last week in Florence and have toured all of the key tourist magnets. Now what we do is wander the city and duck into interesting looking places. Along the way, you never know what you will find:
Antarctic map

Genoa's Christopher Columbus may have made it to the New World first, but Florence home-town boy Amerigo Vespucci got his name on the continents. Why? Florentines make maps.  Really great maps.

The map room in the Palazzo Vecchio is filled wall-to-wall with stunning maps. Less than 70 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Florentine cartographers mapped the Gulf of Mexico so well Texans today can locate their spreads. But I was surprised to see maps of the arctic north of Greenland. Then I was floored by a set of maps not only showing the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America, but interior details of Antarctica.  It's one thing to sail past the icebergs, but quite another to plot the lines drainage from the interior glaciers.

The other Florentine that deserves homage is Leonardo da Vinci. But the public museums were pretty thin on Leo's work,  leaving the curious to two private "museums."

We avoided this until now because our previous experience with cheesy road-side private museums has been pretty disappointing. But our trip to Le macchine di Leonardo da Vinci was both fun and enlightening.

Masterpieces of exploration
Leonardo (di Vinci was his birthplace, not his name) was famous as a painter, but known in his day as a fabulous engineer.  This museum is packed with wooden models based on his staggering set of notebooks. Some of his notes were just reminders to pick up the laundry or shopping lists, but along the way he designed a tank, came up with an automated pipe drilling machine and made an exercise machine that would look right in most gyms.  Being a little boy at heart, I liked the fact that the museum let you play with the models. While I was on the exercise machine, Cecile read in the notecards that Leonardo didn't really pump sandbags.  He used the machine to test muscle response to different weights and leverages.

The other great discovery linked Columbia,  MO, to Michelangelo via Jackson Pollock.

Pollock sketch
A special exhibition at the Palazzo Vecchio displays some of American painter Jackson Pollock's early work. All were sketches based on the famous artwork of Michelangelo on the other masters. An interactive display let Pollock's sketches morph into the Sistine Chapel with eery accuracy.

But the surprise is that Pollock made the sketches at the insistence of his art teacher -- Missouri's own Thomas Hart Benton.  The exhibition literature said the Benton insisted that Pollock learn the details of Renaissance paintings to learn the fundamentals of composition and design.

Me and my bud Antonio
Last night at dinner I made an fun and calorie-free discovery at dinner.  It was the opening of a new restaurant on our block and the owner was excitedly pointing out his relatives and friends at tables.  One was Antonio Castiglia, one of the field captains for the San Giovanni Greens in that crazy Florence sport, Calcio Storico Fiorentino. Here was a graying guy not much younger than me but buff as an Olympian.  His tattoos alone would give an opponent pause.

I couldn't help going over and introducing myself as one who had watched the game. He was a bit confused until I showed him my green University of Oregon ring.  Then I was one of the family.  He gave me a worn keyring from his pocket and his daughter or maybe daughter-in-law translated that the would try to send me a T-shirt.

(When we got home, we found that the new mayor of Florence had
cancelled the final in the Calcio tournament because the teams were refusing to play by the rules. Castiglia's Greens took much of the blame when they lost their semi-final by default because a fouled-out player simply refused to leave the field.)

There are more discoveries every day -- a great gelato, "the" gift for relatives, a hidden view of the Duomo. But the best recurring discovery is of the grace, courtesy and gentle humor of the Florentines.

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