I saw them in Venice. When I went there for vacation last month, I came away convinced that the 16th century has the 21st century beat. Every view there was like a Canaletto painting. Every building was either a stunning palazzo or an artfully distressed church. And inside every building was a painting by Titian or Tintoretto, as if when you bought your ninth espresso, they gave you a free masterpiece. (“Whaddya want? An Assumption of the Virgin? Madonna and Child? How about Saint Sebastian? The kids love him.”)
Italy might be a mess politically and financially these days, but for a while they really had it going on, especially in Venice, that maritime powerhouse that, enriched by the wealth of Byzantium, became a center of culture and art. And all without cars, computers or Sleep Number Beds.
As I stood one morning in St. Mark’s Square, I read in a guidebook that the tall brick bell tower in front of me was where Galileo demonstrated his telescope to the doge, the leader of Venice. And I wondered: What would be the modern equivalent of that event? Mark Zuckerberg showing off a new Facebook app in the White House? Bill Gates demonstrating a spreadsheet to Mayor Bloomberg?
Everything I came up with was pathetic when compared with that image of one of history’s great thinkers showing off his instrument to the head of a powerful city-state.
And a beautiful city-state. You can’t take a step in Venice without bumping into a cherub or some putti, without hitting your head on a flower box overflowing with pretty blossoms, without encountering some vista that makes you think, “Gee, this looks like Disneyland.” No, Disneyland looks like this.
Now, I know there can be too much of a good thing. Some Venetian interiors make the décor in an Old West whorehouse look subdued. St. Mark’s Basilica looks like someone went overboard at the ice cream bar: You want jimmies with your sundae? And marshmallows? And chocolate chips? And Heath Bar crunches? And Gummi Bears? And slivered almonds?
Frankly, that gilded, winged, baby-headed ceiling — in a museum called the Gallerie dell’Accademia — was a tad creepy. But at least people were trying. I imagine a couple of architects sitting around brainstorming. “You know what would look cool up there?” one says. “Baby heads.”
“Seriously,” says the other. “Tons of plaster baby heads looking down. That’d be sick. And we should stick wings on them.”
“And gild them!”
What do we have today in Washington? Lackluster buildings that look like they’ve been popped out of an ice cube tray. Where is the spirit? Where is the energy? Where is the creativity?
I get that things weren’t perfect in the 16th century. There was poverty, inequality, ignorance. When you sprained your ankle, you went to the barber so he could cover you in leeches then bleed your lymph into a cup.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they created such beauty back then. Their lives were so uncomfortable — what with the leeches and the lice and the buboes — that they demanded the sublime wherever they could. Maybe we have it too easy. Why bother to create great art when you can veg in front of the flat-screen?
And maybe we have no Galileos today because we already had a Galileo yesterday. The big stuff has already been invented, the big mysteries already discovered. Or perhaps as Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” suggested, we are fated to pine for a time we can never really know but whose traces remain.
Let those traces be an inspiration.
Send a Kid to Camp
And I hope you’ll be inspired to join me in supporting Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids that’s nestled in the hills of Fauquier County.
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To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.