The class we’re taking here is on the art of the Renaissance, so we see a lot of oil paintings and cathedrals. On any given day, we see between two and five churches and it’s hard to keep them straight for several reasons. First: clear signage was not a top priority of the brilliant architects who constructed these buildings. Second: with a few exceptions, like the church we saw completed decorated with bones, they all look the same. We protect what can be salvaged of our modesty by covering our shoulders (with scarves, with jackets, with loose-leaf sheets of notebook paper), we use the reverse camera on our iPhones to take illegal pictures, and we gaze upon a dozens portraits of Madonna and Child. The cathedrals, though each magnificent in their own right, are still not exempt from the Law of Diminishing Returns. The more masterpieces we see, the less impressed we are with the next fresco of a saint being pulled apart between two wheels. We’ve seen so many altarpieces and Last Suppers that the fourteen of us have starting sitting on only one side of the table when we eat.
The stagnant air of those cloisters has poisoned our minds. This is never more glaringly evident than when we try to give each other directions. Because the names of particular places or restaurants are not clear, we have to distinguish their location the best way we know how. ‘Turn left at the church where we saw the Madonna and Child.’ ‘The piazza in front of the first cathedral I almost cried in.’ ‘Take a right at the fountain that looks like Poseidon doing a spit take.’ ‘We’re right beside the guy aggressively peddling splat toys.’ ‘If you’ve passed the priest on a unicycle, you’ve gone too far.’ ‘Meet us in front of where Callie had that salmon pasta the week we got here.’ No matter what landmark we’re trying to describe, it ends up being just vague enough to apply to anything. We don’t meet up much.
Our renaissance education is starting to seep into our social lives in a dangerous way. Yesterday, in Florence, a huge crowd had gathered on the street. It was in the heat of the day and taxis were blasting their horns behind us, nudging pedestrians out of the way with their bumper. Everyone in the crowd was packed tight together, all craning their necks to see something in the glass storefront of the building. I wondered what it was that this mass of people couldn’t wait to see. I tapped the girl in front of me on the shoulder and asked her what was happening. “We’re trying to see Madonna!” The first logical thought in my head should have been the arrival of international superstar Madonna, who’s concert posters I’d been seeing plastered on every wall since I got there. But the long hours of staring up at faded frescos and old oil paintings had already taken their toll on me. So, instead, my response to the mob that had gathered just to get a glimpse of Madonna was: “By Cimabue or Giotto?”