Handsome, isn't he? I'm afraid that this is going to be one of those long, ponderous, no-naked-or-half-naked-men posts that you've all come to dread, so I'm tossing you a bit of eye candy to start with. The guy in that picture is climbing the Spanish Steps. With his wife. Nobody's perfect.
Speaking of sweet things, I know you're all wondering, so I'll tell you: yes, I did consume my fair share of gelatto while in Italy. For reasons that are unclear to me, the gelatto is cheaper in Venice, but it's not expensive anywhere, and it's everywhere good. I always ordered a piccolo, which is like a single scoop, but lest you think I don't enjoy two scoops, consider this picture taken at the Fontana di Trevi:
He was cute from the front, too, but I've given you the picture with his best side.
Anyway, on to the boring, no-naked-men crap. If, like me, you happen to be blessed (that's the official line) with the sort of life partner/traveling companion who would happily spend six hours of every day of your vacation in a museum, then you have to develop certain coping strategies. Getting separated and lost works in the short term, but ultimately it's counterproductive. It's better to come to an agreement as to a certain amount of time to spend together in the museums, a certain amount of time to spend doing your own thing while he does his, and another (hopefully much larger) block of time to be set aside for drinking wine and ogling the locals. (Our happiness increased significantly when we went from sharing a half-liter of wine in the early afternoon and another half-liter with dinner to sharing a liter on each occasion. Oddly enough, the locals also got handsomer.) Still, if, like me, you're just not all that visually oriented, you need coping skills for the time that you're spending in the museum. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of pretty pictures that you forget as soon as you leave. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that.
In Italy, one good way to make the museums more interesting is to remember to look down as well as up and across. Obviously, you'll look at the walls and the sculptures, and someone will often point out the ceilings to you, but the floors are often works of art in their own right.
That particular floor is from the Vatican museums, but there are equally good examples all over the place. Especially in the Duomo in Florence: there's a floor in there that's almost enough to make a deist out of you. Not out of me, you understand, but presumably you are not as strong in your skepticism as I am in mine.
Anyway, another way -- and the most successful way for me -- to keep the museum experience interesting is to follow a common theme or subject through its treatments by many different artists. And as I mentioned earlier, I saw a whole lot of Annunciations, in a number of different locations. As background, here's the official version of the story, from the King James Version of The Gospel According to Luke:
And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
Now I do have some philosophical problems with the whole story. I'm not, obviously, a Christian, and I would argue that the virgin birth is a harmful notion, though not so harmful as the notion of original sin, which makes the virgin birth necessary. The idea that we're inherently sinful and that our inherent sin is propagated through sex is anathema to me. My religion is not big on the notion of sin generally, and we're particularly dismissive of the notion of original sin. But even members of a cafeteria-style religion like mine recognize the beauty of a story about the redemptive power of a child. We're willing to look at the story as a metaphor and see the larger meaning.
I'm not sure, though, what larger meaning most of the artists I saw in Italy found in this story. My knowledge of Biblical history is scanty in the extreme, so maybe they were going from a different version of the story. Certainly many of these paintings were done before the KJV Bible existed, but given the Latin writing in the earliest of these paintings, I'm guessing their versions weren't significantly different.
So there's the Biblical Mary: troubled, amazed, and -- finally -- accepting of the will of God. And then here's the fourteenth century version by Simone Martini (at the Uffizi, in Florence):
Mary looks pissed. And Gabriel doesn't look all that happy either. I'm guessing the conversation goes something like this:
Gabriel: Hail, thou art full of grace. God is with you.
Mary: Who the fuck are you? And what are you doing in my room?
Gabriel: I am Gabriel. I'm on a mission from God, and you might want to clean up your language.
Mary: Whatever. Say what you have to say and let me get back to my sudoku.
Gabriel: Fine. You're going to have a baby, and he will save the world.
Mary: Wrong! I am not getting knocked up. I have been very careful not to let Joseph get past second base, and it hasn't been easy: you know how carpenters are.
Gabriel: God is your babydaddy. And that's the closest to intercourse you're ever going to get. You might want to brush up on your oral skills.
Mary: Oh Jesus Christ.
Pissed off, while it seems to have no scriptural basis, is at least a reasonable reaction. A couple of the renaissance masters (both at the Uffizi) go so far as to have a Mary who seems to be trying to wiggle out of the deal. First, Botticelli:
Mary looks both composed and dismissive, and Gabriel looks nonplussed:
Gabriel: Blessed art thou among women.
Mary: I beg your pardon?
Gabriel: Thou hast found favor with God, Mary. Thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
Mary: I'm afraid you're mistaken. I never use all caps.
Gabriel: He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.
Mary: Listen, that's very sweet of you, but I have other plans, and a baby would really impede my modern dance career. You know, Mary's a very common name around here. Try two doors down: there's another Mary there. She's very devout, and, well, she says she's a virgin.
Gabriel: But I brought along this beautiful lily.
Mary: Yes, and I'm sure Mary will love it. Run along now.
In the Leonardo version, by contrast, Gabriel seems very determined, and Mary seems very composed.
It looks rather more like a negotiation:
Gabriel: Hail, Mary. Blessed art thou among women.
Mary: Well, yes, I am fortunate. How many young women of Nazareth get to live in such a nice Tuscan villa?
Gabriel: Let me bottom line it for you. You're going to have a baby. God's baby. And he's going to be a big deal. You'll be famous, too.
Mary: Frankly, I had other plans. And I'm not sure how Joseph will feel about bedding used goods.
Gabriel: Actually, you're going to have to remain a virgin indefinitely. Just leave Joseph to me.
Mary: Indefinite virginity is especially not what I had in mind. A woman has needs, Gabriel.
Gabriel: Listen. You know that big hammer Joseph carries around? He's compensating. And, well, he's not that bright. I understand the brutish appeal, but you're looking at thirty seconds, six times a week for the first year. After that, he'll come to bed drunk every night, and you'll be lucky if little Joseph stands at attention twice a year. You're better off meeting your needs without the carpenter. You only have to remain a technical virgin. I can fix you up with some state-of-the-art vibrators.
Mary: The idea has merit. Can you throw in a lifetime supply of batteries?
Gabriel: Not a problem.
Mary: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.
Gabriel: Pleasure doing business with you.
The Annunciation that amused me most was Lorenzo di Credi's version, also in the Uffizi. I wasn't able to find a good picture of it online, but here's the best I could do:
When you see this in person, Mary looks downright coquettish, and Gabriel looks like a lovesick schoolboy:
Gabriel: Ave Maria, gratia plena, dominus tecum.
Mary: I bet you say that to all the virgins, Gabriel.
Gabriel: Ti amo, Maria.
Mary: Now don't be a bad boy.
Gabriel: Ti amo, Maria.
Mary: Gabriel. You're sweet, but you know I'm taken.
Gabriel: Ti amo, Maria.
Mary: Dude. I'm taken. By your boss!
I relayed that dialog -- in substantially those same words -- to b&c while we were at the Uffizi. I guess I spoke a little more loudly than I'd meant to because a young woman who was looking at the painting began to laugh. I was afraid that I'd been rude, or at least indelicate, so I began to apologize, but she stopped me, saying, "No, I think you've got the gist of it."
My favorite Annunciation was hanging in the modern art section of the Vatican museums. My knowledge of art history is severely limited, so I was surprised to see that Dali had even done one. Fortunately, the Vatican museums only prohibit photography in the Sistine Chapel, so I was able to take a picture of it. It's tough to find one on the Net.
Even without faces, Gabriel's meaning is clear, and Mary's reaction is just right. Dali even manages to make her look more like a normal person than most of his forebears did.
I'm not, mind you, ready to jump on the Mary bandwagon. In addition to a score or so of Annunciations, I saw any number of paintings representing Mary's coronation in heaven. Where most of the Annunciations failed to represent an intimate moment, the coronations mostly failed to impress. Red and blue angels, forty-two saints, whatever: Mary never looked happy. I understand that the worship of Mary was a necessary replacement for the extensive and multi-faceted goddess worship that existed among the pagan masses, but she's a pale imitation, a criticism that can be leveled at Christianity in general. Most of the pagan goddesses had no particular interest in virginity. I'm more than willing to leave Mary to her place in heaven. Let the rest of us get busy down in the earth at the fires of Beltane. Less purity, more joy.