The Uffizi and What Makes Western Civilization Special.

This weekend, with any luck, younger daughter will get to visit the Uffizi Gallery. She is on a semester in Rome trip from Thomas More College, and this weekend is going to Florence, her one shot to visit, since all other weekends are booked through the end of the semester. (The poor dear will have to make do with visits to Assisi, Prague,  and other magnificent yet lesser beauties before heading off to Paris, Lourdes, Ireland and England before wending homeward. Kids these days.)

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Taken most likely from atop Giotto’s bell tower, looking west over the Baptistry.

She only has a day or two, which is roughly 6 months, 5 years or a lifetime too little to have spent in Florence, depending on how you want to figure it. I’ve gotten to spend roughly 6 weeks of my life in Italy, 2 weeks in Florence – which is pretty crazy for a sheet metal guy’s son from Whittier. I’m not complaining. Those 6 weeks blew my mind and impressed upon me that 6 weeks is hardly enough, laughably so.

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Facing the Uffizi from the Piazza della Signoria, a five-minute walk from the Baptistry in the picture above.

The Italians, when they weren’t too tied up scheming or actively killing each other, took time out to produce about 1/2 of the truly great art mankind has ever produced, a vastly disproportionate share of which lives in Florence. The last Medici Grand Duke, a complete degenerate but semi-decent Grand Duke named Gian Gastone de’ Medici, managed to separate out the artwork from the rest of the wealth of Florence before he died, and leave it to his sister, Anna Maria Luisa. For the previous 300 years, the Medici family made no distinction between the wealth of Florence and their personal family fortune – there was little practical difference. But once it became clear to Gianni that he was the end of the Medici line as far as Grand Dukes went (the Great Powers of the time weren’t interested in letting his sister Anna Maria rule as Grand Duchess, and there were no male potential heirs)  he very wisely decided that the art the family had collected over the centuries should be considered the family’s, left to his sister – and left in Florence. I don’t how likely it was that Francis of Lorraine – Gianni’s successor as Grand Duke – would have hauled off the good stuff to his palaces as Holy Roman Emperor, but I’d guess that over the years stuff would get reallocated by Frank or his successors after the manner of people’s stuff always and everywhere. Anna Maria left the collection to the city of Florence, with the restriction that it stay there.

Thus, thanks to Gianni and his sister Anna Maria, the greatest collection of great art in the world – The Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and other bits and pieces elsewhere in Florence – stayed put in Florence, where we can see and enjoy it to this day. (Although it would have been small loss if Frank had grabbed a bunch of Sustermans on his way out of Dodge. Just saying.)

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Botticelli, La primavera, 1482. This photo makes the painting look perhaps saccharine and stiff; in person, it is jaw-dropping beautiful. No reproduction I’ve ever seen remotely does it justice.

It was years ago that that I heard it stated as a truism that 1/2 of all the great art that exists exists in Italy. I have no reason to doubt it. Here is a thought experiment: Take any great work of art from anywhere outside of Italy. Then set aside a comparable masterpiece from Italy. Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted one supply or the other. Well? Do you think you’d run out of Italian masterpieces well before the ‘all other’ masterpieces? Seems unlikely to me.

To the title of this little brain dump: How does this thought experiment work if you run it Western Art versus All Other? I can admire the vigor of a polynesian mask or the intricacies of a Persian rug as much as anyone, but neither compares to the beauty and sophistication of even fairly minor works of Western Art. (Western Art for our purposes here excludes the vast bulk of post-Bouguereau works. Once the conscious decision to be both stupid and proud of it took over the art world, Western Art effectively ended except for the occasional throwback. There are signs of life, however. Let us hope.)

Why is this so? Certainly, the Italians and Christendom in general were no more wealthy and peaceful nor technically accomplished nor blessed with resources nor victorious in war than, say, the Chinese or Turks, for all but at most a couple of centuries over the last 2,000 years. During much of that time, from 634 to 1492, Christendom was for the most part shrinking, getting conquered and displaced by Islam across all of north Africa, all the Levant and Turkey, and most of the former Yugoslavia and some of adjoining Slavic lands. If you are looking to military might, it was a one-way street from East to West – until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571! Then it was a draw for a few centuries. Then, finally, in the 19th century, Western military might was generally better than that of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1917.

A huge portion of the greatest Italian art comes from periods of great internal and external unrest, the 13th to 16th centuries (and, frankly, unrest in the form of wars and invasions was the order of the day during almost all of its post-Roman Empire history from 410 – the Visigoth sacking of Rome – until the last 70 years). Contra what Jared Diamond may think, the comparative glory of Italian and Western art is not the result of Guns, Germs and Steel. For comparatively little of its history has the West had the best military, the healthiest people or the best technology. On the tech side, and subsequently on the military and health side, things began to change in the early Middle Ages, but didn’t become decisive for many centuries. Only in the last 150 to 200 years would it have not been foolish to bet on the West in a war with anyone else based on technology alone.

I suggest that there is one area where the West did far outstrip the rest of the world over the last 2 millennia (except, in an ironic reversal, the last 2-3 centuries): Philosophy. We thought about things better, deeper and with more understanding than anywhere else in the world. Science, it may be said, is the ghost of medieval philosophy animating a shell of math and gadgets. But it’s the persistent conviction that the world is understandable and that we are capable of understanding it that has driven technological and scientific advances.

But much more than that, the Christian-infused Aristotelianism that is the Perennial Philosophy of the west provides both motivation and inspiration for Great Art. The explosion of Great Art in the west – and its subsequent recent decline – is the result of how well we understand, accept and act on that philosophy.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “The Uffizi and What Makes Western Civilization Special.”

  1. Alas, thanks to the joyous nature of the New Italians + the old tourists, The Primavera will no longer knock you flat with an overdose of sheer beauty. Oh, it’s still surprising, but the last time I was there, it was behind a piece of dirty, yellowish bullet-proof plastic. Boticelli’s colours literally glowed, bits of silver, lapis, gold and other gems, gleaming through the layer upon layer of translucent oil glazes. That was, sadly, true for most of the great pieces.

    On a happier note, it was also a while ago, so maybe the Italians have come up with a more art-friendly solution.

    Also – there’s a mask shop on the Via Faenza 72/r that’s worth visiting, even if one cannot afford (my first go-round in Florence when I was your daughter’s age, studying at the Centre Intensif de F. in Montpellier) I don’t know if the Maestro is still working, but his daughter apprenticed to him and she seemed to be keeping up the tradition. I hope your daughter gets a chance to see them for herself.

    Nice post, and nice conclusion (as you were leading up to it, I surmised: I know! The West thought about things better, as soon as you asked “Why is this so?” but yours is much more felicitous conclusion.

    1. Ugh. I should really proof my comments before hitting “send.” There should be a bit that reads, “Formerly, Boticelli’s colours” and then “At my most recent visit, that was, sadly…” etc.

      Mi dispiace!

    2. Thanks. Too bad! I went in 1985-ish and again in 1998-ish, and, even back then, they’d put up more barriers and plastic between the two visits. I can only imagine how it has gotten over another 20 years!

      I’ll let my daughter know about the mask shop. I’ve already given her a foot-long list of ‘must sees’, then whittled it back, then added some more, so…. One can hope. And one can hope to go back!

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