Escape to Pisa II

We’ve spent most of the week revisiting places.  The archdiocese sells a convenient ticket that allows visitors to see the wonders of the so-called Piazza dei Miracoli over a number of days.  The duomo is regarded as the first piece of large-scale church  construction  in Italy after the collapse of the Western Empire.  The churches in Ravenna are a partial exception that proves the rule, since they were commissioned by Eastern Emperors and largely built by Greeks.

There is  much to be said about the duomo and has been written, but this is no place for it.  The pulpit by Giovanni son of Nicola Pisano  is a mature masterpiece that, incorporating what he had seen of Roman ruins, institutes a new age in Western sculpture, and certain other pieces in local museums—single figures—allows us to see the genius of father and son and also of the later unrelated Pisano  clan, the family of Andrea and Nino and Tommaso.  I am pleased that we are staying on the Via Tommaso Pisano.

One of the first Italian paintings by which I was smitten is the "St Agnes and the Lamb” painted by Andrea del Sarto.  It hangs on the choir wall on the right side and can only be seen from an angle if you know where to look for it.

We went to mass in the duomo on Sunday.  With my poor hearing, aggravated by congestion, I could not follow the homily, but the choir and organist were very good, and the cathedral canons were all dignified and sober.  No grins.

The only jarring note is provided by the pseudo-primitive sculptures that now disfigure the front of the sanctuary.  Our daughter pointed out they seemed to be echoing or mocking the sculptures on the pulpit.   There is not much of such depravity in Pisa, though San Francesco still has a presepio with a zany string of lights that masks the crucifix.

My wife today wondered why Subway has sent out an embassy of bad taste to Pisa.  If there is one thing it is easy to find in Italy it is the rich variations on the sandwich.  The most primitive bar has edible pieces of bread, prosciutto, and cheese, while our old favorite, right on the Arno—Il Crudo— turns out an amazing variety of masterpieces involving the usual ingredients plus fresh greens and amazing sauces.

At Il Crudo my wife, daughter, and I split two panini that we could barely finish with our Morellino di Scansano.   Two days later we lunched outside again at I Porci Comodi (the comfortable pigs) and ate porchetta.  Mine was plain, while the ladies had exotic additions like  

olive tapenade and tomato.  All excellent.

Subway must hope to make it on the strength of Americans who follow websites telling you how to do Pisa in a day or even an hour.  Why not?   For these people marriages last a few year and the family home,is traded in every five.  What they mean by doing Pisa is climbing the tower and then doing the pose—pretending to hold up the falling building.  The same trip advisors also suggest a fast run through the Campo Santo.

The American habit of rushing through their pleasures without savoring or understanding them reminds me of someone I hired to be an executive.  Discussing conferences in arose or Charleston, he would say, “I visited Rome for two days on my honeymoon” or “I’ve been to Charleston.”  It was the beginning of my realization that I had agreed to hire what Bugs Bunny esq. would have called “a maroon.”

I used to blame this attitude on American education, but I may have been putting the cart before the horse.  What if the ease with which Americans accepted the revolution in schooling reflects  a weak and compliant character?

Showing the ladies around Pisa has occupied a good deal of pleasant time, leaving little time for these posts.  That will change.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina