Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Which voices will carry across the centuries?

On my first visit to Florence, I walked into the empty, intimidating lobby of the Laurentian Library and stood, puzzled, for several moments.

All around me, blank walls rose in the pale, gloomy light to enclose an empty, two-story space. The walls display no art, no frescoes, no statuary. There are iconic pillars and arches, but they fame more nothingness, only emphasizing how vacant and slightly unfriendly the big space feels.

How could the genius Michelangelo, whose architecture might be his greatest achievement, have possibly designed this?

The stairs leading up to the reading room are themselevs a small treasure: an understated, elegant design that invites footfalls and encourages you upward. I put aside my doubts about the entry and climbed, where I found a long, beautiful room filled with sunlight from continuous windows on both sides. The reading benches (like everything here, also Michelangelo’s design) are clever and functional. The floor is an intricate masterpiece of repeating design that subtly echoes the ceiling.

After touring an exhibit tracing the development of the book — clay tablets, papyrus, scrolls, illuminated manuscripts — I wandered back to spend more time in the comfortable, inviting reading room itself.

There I encountered a young employee, a recent art history grad who was clearly excited to be there and happy to talk about the library. Eventually I mentioned how I’d felt in the entry lobby, and how puzzled I was.

She was delighted to hear that. “But that’s just what Michelangelo intended!” she exclaimed. The whole idea was for the experience of entering the library to reflect the human transition from darkness (ignorance) to light (knowledge). Michelangelo has set out almost 500 years ago to communicate that through his architecture, and it has spoken as plainly to me as if he was there explaining it himself.

Realization of that accomplishment captured me then, and lingers still. He spoke to me across 500 years, and his message carried no less meaning today than in those centuries past.

And I wondered: what is it we are saying, painting or building today that will be as eloquent 500 years from now?


Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Here is part of the answer: no Medici, no library. So what are our princes of the present day throwing their money at? To the extent that they throw it at themselves, they will be forgotten. But those like Paul Allen, who is underwriting the genetic atlas of the brain have a chance to leave lasting tracks.

Mike Eaton said...

We were there in April and were moved by the reverential simplicity of the treatment of the artifacts, and of course by the setting. I hope we'll hear more from you of Italy.

To your question: if we successfully turn the corner toward sustainable management of this planet and its resources, and if we make that transition in a manner that enables a continuity of culture for the next half-millenium, we'll have a two-faced distinction in history as the dark age of excess and the generation(s) that recognized planetary limits and successfully changed course. If there is memory, we may well be remembered not for what we did but for what we stopped short of doing - the oil and coal that we left in the ground, the carbon that we did not put in the atmosphere, the genetic diversity that we didn't trample, the topsoil we did not send into the Gulf of Mexico. It is tempting to think that it will be today's voices of restraint - those that honored a potential future - that ring through to that realized future.

Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...