In a band concert last year at my university, I recited a portion of a speech by Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain during a piece inspired by his words. “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger,” Chamberlain said, speaking of the Gettysburg battlefield. As I stood on stage reciting the passage, I experienced the visceral power of his sentiment: I’ve been to that battlefield and felt those lingering spirits. Standing in a historical hotspot with knowledge of the deeds that occurred there makes all the difference when thinking about that place and reading about it later.
Earlier this year, my wife and I lived for four-and-a-half months in Arezzo, Italy, and made frequent trips to Florence. I left awestruck at the world-changing creativity that took place in those two cities over the course of six centuries, from 1025 to 1625. Was it the water? The air? The Tuscan sun? Simply the local gene pool? During those six-hundred years, people from these two cities brought the world musical notation, the idea of a history with a discernible pattern, the idea of a Renaissance, literary poetry in modern languages, the return of earthly realism and human emotion to painting, double-entry bookkeeping, the idea of a history and progression in art, the astonishing creativity of Leonardo and Michelangelo, the invention of opera, and the invaluable contributions to science and the scientific method of Galileo. Living there is not the same as visiting there. Walking the streets not to sight-see but to go to work, eating at a restaurant not to try out the place you’ve read about in a guide book but because it’s lunchtime, seeing Etruscan art and medieval walls as part of a daily routine – living in Tuscany is not the same as visiting.
So what a wonderful coincidence it was to open up Will Durant’s Story of Civilization last week to discover that this year’s reading covers the Florentine Renaissance! What’s more, Durant begins the story with Boccaccio, and last Thursday I started – according to the plan I drew up unwittingly a year ago – Day Six of Boccacio’s Decameron. In one of Boccacio’s stories, a character walks past Orto San Michele. Well six months ago I visited Or San Michele (as it is usually known today). So it’s not just that I can picture that character’s motions; I can actually remember what his path is like, because I’ve walked in his footsteps. Durant mentions that Cosimo de’ Medici left half of his books to San Marco and had a cell at that monastery where he sometimes went to pray. Last winter I went to Convento San Marco twice, and I stood where Cosimo prayed. Later, in a passage about Fra Angelico, Durant mentions the frescoes that that Dominican brother added to San Marco’s cells. I’ve visited those cells, and I’ve seen with my own eyes the devout brother’s paintings, each depicting a scene from the life of Christ. One of the paintings Angelico put in Cosimo’s two-room cell shows the Magi offering gifts to the infant Jesus. Now when I read about Cosimo, I imagine him contemplating that picture and remembering that he should lay his own treasures – which were extensive – at the feet of Christ. I read today about Donatello’s statues of David and St. George; in April, I visited the Bargello and saw these trend-setting sculptures. And I read about Masaccio’s use of perspective (among history’s first) in his fresco of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella; and again, I stood in that church in March and marveled at the symmetrical effect. I could go on and on, but I’ll stop giving examples and just say that Durant’s history has never seemed more alive to me, because I was there for several months: my own lungs breathed the inspiring air of the birthplace of the Renaissance.
My assignment in Durant this year actually began with the last few pages at the end of the medieval volume, where I read about Giotto and his magnificent series of frescoes in Assisi depicting the life of St. Francis. I visited that church, too, and took a long time marveling at, “reading,” and being inspired by those paintings. The last coincidence: last Thursday, the day I started Boccaccio, was the feast day of St. Francis, and the gentle preacher never seemed more real to me: I’ve been to his church, I’ve seen his life as envisioned by the father of Renaissance painting, and I’ve prayed at his tomb.