Early every morning, high above the piazza where we're staying, there is a ritual that takes place in Florence: the slow procession of street cleaning vehicles, doing their business, trying their best to keep up with pigeons and humans and dogs and all that gets left behind from the day before.
Keeping a city clean has got to be a dance with the devil. Firenze is just under half a million, not huge by urban standards. But her grid and many of her buildings are more than centuries old. And while many things have changed in the last hundred years – most notably, the multiplication and pervasive presence of motorized vehicles – an old city must have a very hard time trying to preserve its gleam in the face of the exhaustion of modern life (and I do mean "exhaust" in both senses of the word!).
Where this came home to us, both practically and visually, was during a walking tour of the Duomo – Firenze's Cathedral. At one point, I mused to Michele, "I wonder what's up with these stained glass windows?" For the first two pairs at either side of the entrance were utterly black; not one hint of color, sainthood, or inspiration was entering into the church. "Maybe they're boarded up, or they've got scaffolding set up outside," Michele commented.
Then we came upon a huge display in the church, explaining the process of cleaning, preserving, and re-leading all the windows of the Duomo. It was a staggering project, the kind of thing that takes decades of meticulous work to complete.
For the reality facing the Duomo was this: after decades and decades of air pollution, these luminous testaments of illustrated faith were simple encrusted in carbon emissions. Even the lead casing was compromised. Each window needed to be carefully deconstructed, cleaned, re-leaded and assembled again. You can see, next to this commentary, the dedicated work of many artists when a window is brought back to its medieval splendor.
We stumbled into the Duomo when the project was about three-quarters complete. Because of the enormous expense, they can only proceed with the refurbishing a little at a time. But it's a constant battle: given the narrowness of Florentine streets, the preferred mode of transportation, bar none, is that demon of air pollution, the motor scooter (more on that later). And those two-wheeled denizens of urban mayhem are not going away any time in the near future.
One has to give credit to the stewards of this Cathedral, who are attempting, panel by panel, to continue the noble task of illustrating the faith for generations yet to come. Explaining the task before them, a panel in the restoration exhibit quoted the lines from the Book of Genesis: "Fiat lux! Let there be light!" Even now, long since the dawn of Creation, it still comes down to a face-off between the Darkness and the Light, as our own inventions block out light and convulse the air. When challenged by modern conveniences that supposedly elevate our standard of living, we do well to preserve the colors of ages past.
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