Face to Face With Michaelangelo

ON the face of it, there was nothing recognizable about the Piazza San Lorenzo. But why should there have been? Though I had been in Florence for three days, I had spent most of the time indoors at a conference. The city, and its legendary splendors, lay around me in a kind of haze. I knew it was there. Its presence was almost palpable. But until now I had not really seen it. That morning, however, I found myself wandering alone through its mazes. My guidebook lectured me on the Grand and Notable Sights. But as Florentines pointedly refuse to put signs on their Grand and Notable Sights, the book left it to the imagination to determine, by patching together an assortment of clues, which Grand and Notable Sight was actually in view.

Nor did the book prepare the unwary for the context into which a particular Sight was set. It failed to note, for instance, that the Piazza San Lorenzo is all but obscured by scores of vendors' wagons, their canvas tops fluttering in the sun and their owners hawking every imaginable species of belt, vest, jacket, T-shirt, chess set, statuette, basket, purse, pot, boot, sandal, and scarf. It failed to note that would-be vendors too impoverished to afford carts - in this case, a handful of you ng men from Senegal - balanced trays on upended suitcases and sold sunglasses, violently colored cigarette lighters, and embroidered caps.

All that, to the authors of the guidebook, was but background noise - irrelevant, beneath notice, with no bearing whatever on the vast architectural conversation of the ages. Perhaps I wasn't listening hard enough. The book had mumbled something about Michelangelo and a Sacristy, so I headed for a door in the imposing church that loomed above the square. Inside, the signs were all in Italian, a language whose cousin, Latin, I once met but never really got to know. Meandering around an inner courtyard, I reflected that, while it was pleasant enough, it didn't seem quite the place for the promised Michelangelo.

Out in the sunlight, the Senegalese nodded as I passed. Rounding into the gauntlet of vendors, I emerged unscathed a few minutes later at a more official-looking door on the backside of the edifice. Inside was the familiar ticket booth, and signs in several languages - a more fitting entourage, I thought, for that most royal of artists.

Yet even then I was unprepared for what was about to happen. I suppose I was distracted. Funny how the mind, in the presence of greatness, swings like a compass to the magnet of some small, irrelevant detail and hangs there for moments on end. In this case, it was a bevy of Japanese tourists, uttering a kind of low, guttural ``bwhaaoo!'' with every new sight - and a clutch of Brits, reddish of hair and sensible of shoe, talking so animatedly about a certain Aunt Veronica that they passed, without even a glance, some of the greatest works of art known to man.

By then I was at the heart of the church. And frankly I was (as a friend once observed about a mutual acquaintance) underwhelmed. Here was a lofty space indeed, a circular sanctuary all set about with inlaid patterns and glowering statuary, but heavy with dark-hued marble and the bleak, somber light from a few far panes. Opposite the entry was the altar, beset by such an agony of intricate detail that I grew tired just looking at it. All in all, as churches go, it was not a particularly large space, tho ugh in its chill hollowness it seemed immense.

I turned to go. But as I did so, my eye caught a small sign. This way, it appeared to whisper, to the Medici Chapel. I obeyed, and presently, having washed along the narrow sluice of a corridor with the Brits and the Japanese, I cascaded down a few small steps and bubbled into a room.

And drew a sharp breath. Not of shock, and certainly not of fear, but more of recognition - or rather, of d'eja` vu, of seeing something unquestionably new that somehow, defying all reason, you know you have seen already. Never before had I been to Florence. Never had I stood in this room. Yet I knew it the way one knows the visitor's chair in one's own study - not by having sat in it, nor even by consciously having focused the mind on it, but simply by virtue of having lived it into familia rity. This, strange as it seemed, was my room.

By now the Japanese were milling about, pointing appreciatively to the statuary and eagerly consulting their guidebook. The Brits, having dispatched Aunt Veronica, were huddled in a bunch, backs to the art, discussing lunch. I was free to wander.

And gradually, as I roved and stared, it began to come back to me. A darkened lecture hall. Slides projected. A professor lecturing. Michelangelo's statues atop the tombs of the Medici - ``Night'' and ``Day'' on one side, ``Evening'' and ``Dawn'' on the other. And the room itself: the cream-white walls, the dark gray pilasters and entablatures, the pediments above the high, clear windows. It was a fairly large area. Yet such was the genius of its designer that it felt compact, contained, eve n intimate. I had seen it again and again, studied it from a variety of angles. It was coming back more vividly now: an entire college course on Michelangelo, taught by a man who had written a fine book about him and knew his work intimately.

But that had happened nearly 30 years ago, in another country and (so it seemed, at least) to another person. Over the years, that entire body of knowledge had washed away, a long sweep of mental beach raked clean by a flood tide of current distractions. Had you asked me about Michelangelo three days before, I should have had little to say. Yet something had left its mark. True, the detail had vanished. But the feel, the tone, the mental heft of that room - that had remained. The more I strolled about t hat room, the more I felt altogether at home with it.

I THOUGHT of that experience the other day in the midst of the most mundane of experiences. I was paying bills - including one for our daughter's college fees. What was I buying? I asked myself. Surely not a lot of detail: If she's like me, she'll forget most of what she learns before the term is over. But that, I could see, is not the point.

What she'll learn - from art and literature, chemistry and history and all the rest - is not simply a listing of the dates of battles and the elements of the periodic table. It is that knowledge, like life, is more than the sum of its parts - that it's a set of intimations, a bevy of intuitions, a structure of insights rather than a catalog of things. In those insights lies the immortal act of recognition, dawning even as the detail passes away. And in recognition lies life itself.

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