Beauty

Yesterday I climbed to the top of the Duomo, Florence's cathedral and the tallest building in town. As a piece of architecture it is impressive both for its size and for its ornamentation. It was built because in the 14th Century the wool merchants decided that Florence needed a new cathedtral, and that,of course, it had to be bigger than anybody else's. It also needed to have the biggest dome that anyone had ever seen and the dome had to stay up unsupported by things like flying buttresses which were the vulgar cheat devices of the Germans, the (pah!)French and the(even worse) Milanese. A design was fixed on but unfortunately there was one little snag. No one knew how to build it. For over a century they erected walls and got on with the easy bits in the vague hope that someone would find a way to erect the dome.

The problem wasn't really the dome as such. Although it was problematic it was easy enough to envisage ways of building it. The problem was the supporting structure that would be needed to hold the thing in place while the glue dried. The usual way was to build a wooden scaffolding on which the dome would sit. The trouble was, a) no-one had that much wood and b) even if the wood could be found, no one could build a wooden structure to hold that much weight for the year of more needed. At this point a goldsmith called Brunelleschi came up with an interesting idea. He had thought of a way to build a dome without using any sort of supporting structure at all. Which, to cut a long story short, he did. Two domes, in fact, one inside the other like Russian dolls, with a gap between them that people like me can climb through to take a squiz at all those brown tile roofs.Beautiful. Astonishing. One of the truly great feats of human ingenuity.

The Duomo is built to glorify Almighty God, and even as I say this, the Tui poster drifts into mind. We all know that it was built to glorify Florence and the Florentine wool merchant's club and to give Milan a good old poke in the eye. Well, yes, I suppose, to glorify almighty God, also. The motives were impossibly mixed, but now, looking at this wonderful piece of architecture, who cares? Our motives are always mixed. That's what being human is about. Making something worthwhile out of the grubby bits of us is what redemption is all about. And all around me in Florence are the beautiful artifacts of redeemed humanity, icons and paintings with their slowly developing knowledge of perspective; statues which show an increasing understanding of both the human form and the human psyche; buildings which show an ever more assured grasp of space and form and the engineering needed to show them off. These are the consituent parts of the Rennaisance, and therefore, ultimately of this odd, complex artefact we call Western Civilisation.

Florence is an odd place. I didn't like it much to tell you the truth: too bold, too harsh, too brash, too big and dirty. But it is the cradle of the West, and holds in its vaults many of our most beautiful cradle toys.And it is the redemption of precisely those things I didn't like which has enabled so much beauty to flourish.

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