I am writing now from inside the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella, which is located across the street from the train station. It is a large building, with flanking, enclosed courtyards, and a gigantic main room with several smaller rooms to the back and sides, most of them fully open to the central area.
The degree of detail is unbelievable. This building is filled, inside and out, with statuary, gardens, huge paintings, wood carvings, marble inlay, and stained glass. At the steps leading to one chamber there is an entire nativity scene, done in colored statues behind a wrought iron gate set into the stairway itself. There is so much detail that one cannot actually see all of it, like looking at the leaves of a tree, but seeing only one or two of the actual leaves. In the room that houses the massive altar – about ten feet high, eighteen feet wide, and five feet deep, carved from marble to appear as the House of God, with six or seven varieties of colored marble inlaid to give the impression of windows, dome, door; and the house itself has statues, in alcoves, carved from the marble of its sides, leading up to great angels with their hands folded in prayer – in this room alone, one of the panes of stained glass contains so many individual bits of brilliant color… even the hairs of the men’s beards are traced in fine lines. And that is only one square inch of a surface of murals and mosaic that would cover the flooring in most people’s houses. Each mural, and I count nearly twenty in the altar room alone, tells a different part of the story of Christianity. I can barely make out some of the finest details, the small trees and animals hidden in the background behind sweeping displays of man in righteous battle. The artist must have known no one would see that tiny creature with their heads bowed, seated in the pews fifty yards away, but if there is one thing true of this entire cathedral it is that no one spared a single detail. They say that ours is an age of over-specialization. I wonder with irony at how our specialization has rid the world of this kind of attention over the least little thing.
Among other changes, I’ve decided I would like to feel more physical activity, and so purchased a month’s time at a local gym (una palestra) where I go to reduce myself to a shambles of living pain before dinner. So far it does not take long. I watch my eyes in the mirror and think of that duel in the Princess Bride, “to the pain”. In ways it is a delicious fire, like an oil in the lamp of the body pressed from the fruit of the moment, and kindled to flame by the friction of the mind’s intent against unwilling flesh.
In reading news, just as there was a sentence in Atlas Shrugged that (in my mind) connected it directly to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I have found a similar sentence in Secrets of Divine Civilization connecting it to Atlas Shrugged. It’s as though Rand had written it herself, eighty years earlier:
They [the administrators of Persian government in the late 1800s] have not properly understood that man’s supreme honor and real happiness lie in self-respect, in high resolves and noble purposes, in integrity and moral quality, in immaculacy of mind.[^fn2]
A poem written for a mime on the streets next to the Uffizi:
After finishing Atlas Shrugged, I found an American bookstore and bought The Fountainhead, to further refine some of her ideas in my mind. This led to the essay below. And also this thought, which occurred to me after just a few pages of reading about the fearless hero, Howard Roark: “The ego wants the admiration of others; integrity wishes only to admire itself – with complete honesty.”
Her whole book, revolving around the life of two architects, seems to say:
You know, it’s the Parthenon, and it’s well done, but it’s just a building. We can admire the skill it represents, and that admiration should cause us to seek the reason for such skill – and how to find our way to the source from which great ideas come – but the building is only an arrangement of stone otherwise. It’s really long overdue to be replaced by something better.
A mark of greatness is seeing a building as just a building; it is greatness itself that deserves our admiration; it’s products are only the token. Or in other words, humility is to see a man as just a man; it is his spirit that deserves respect; the body and the form are only the vehicle.
This essay is based on Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. It will be difficult to make sense of without having read the first half of that book, which is entirely about defining the being of the In-itself and the For-itself.
A last poem, also prompted by The Fountainhead: