Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Reality of Venice

Now, I am going to describe Venice to you.

It is like... Well... You see there are.... I mean, as you walk around you... There are no cars so... It is shaped like a fish and... The chances of getting lost are high because... Have you ever had a dream that seemed so real but... Gondola... Glass... Seafood...

You know what? Scratch that. Too difficult. Let me back up a bit. A year ago, my wife and I went to an "Antique Treasure Hunt" on the Old Northside of Indianapolis surrounding the Indiana Landmarks Center. Actually, the morning of my writing this was the same event this year. This time we took our little buddy Stanley the Samoyed. He did great and was kind of a big deal. But I digress. Last year, one of the treasures I came away with was a book called Venice: Its History, Art, Industries, and Modern Life, copyright 1896, written by Charles Yriarte. I remember paying more for it than I normally do for rare and used books, and my justification was that someday we would go there and I would be glad I had it. At that time our Italy trip was hardly even an idea in our minds. Now, this old treasure gives me some great words to explain the unexplainable.

For this post I am going to intermingle quotes from this book with pictures, and then at the end tell you in my own words about a few things I think you should know.

"Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, is distinguished, not only by the glory of her arts, the strangeness of her position, the romance of her origin, but by the great historical memories of her days of power. These throw an interest over a city which survives its own glories, and even its own life, like the scenery in some great theatre after the play is done and all the actors are withdrawn. A pleasurable melancholy grows upon the traveler who wanders among the churches or glides along the canals of Venice."

"Although misfortune has overcast the city with a pall of sadness, it still preserves the indefinable grace of all things Italian. Its old magnificence imposes on the mind, while the charm of its present melancholy creeps about the heart. And even on the brightest day, when the unconquerable sun looks down most broadly on the glittering city of St. Mark, silence and melancholy still hold their court on the canals; and the most unsentimental spirit yields to the elegiac influence."

"At Venice, he who is happy, he for whom silence has no charms and who loves the tumult of the world, soon finds his footsteps dogged by limping dullness. But those who have known the sorrows of life return gladly thither; the place is "catching" - every corner or open square recommends itself to the affections. The lightness of the heavens, the even purity of the air, the steely shine of the lagoon, the roseate reflections of the walls, the nights as clear as day, the softness of the Venetian dialect, the trustfulness and placability of the people, their tolerance for all men's humors, and their gentle intercourse, - out of all these results that unseizable and seductive quality which is indeed Venice, which sings at a man's heart, and so possesses and subdues him that he shall feel far from home whenever he is far from the Piazzetta."

"Travel where you will, neither Rome nor Jerusalem, neither Granada, Toledo, nor the Golden Horn will offer you the spectacle of such another enchanted approach. It is a dream that has taken shape; a vision of fairyland turned into reality by human hands. The order of nature is suspended; the lagoon is the like the heavens, the heavens are like the sea; these rosy islets carrying temples are like barks sailing in the sky; and away upon the horizon, towards Malamocco, the clouds and the green islands lie mingled as baffingly as shapes in the mirage of the desert." 

"The very buildings have an air of dreamland; solids hang suspended over voids; and ponderous halls and palaces stand paradoxically supported on the stone lace-work of medieval sculptors. All the principles of art are violated, and out of their violation springs a new art, borrowed from the East but stamped with the mark of Venice; in a while this is transformed and becomes, in the hands of Lombardi, the Leopardi, and the Sansovino, the glory and the adornment of the city."


If all that was not enough, you should know about the hotel where we stayed. It is called the Danieli, and because of its connection to Starwood, we were able to get a deal with Katie's mom's points. By a deal I mean we were able to stay for two nights what it would cost to stay an entire week in a normal place. Venice is not a normal place. Naturally, this place used to be a palace.

Upon checking in, we were told that we have "the balcony". Not "a balcony". That is say, the only balcony in the hotel, which also is on the corner. God is so abundantly gracious to us when we travel.


You should also know that Venice is home of the world's most beautiful bookshop. I like bookshops.

This one had books piled in gondolas:

Book steps (that is, steps made from books) to give you a view of the canal:

Its own dock for entry via gondola:

And a small outdoor reading room:

It was grossly disorganized and wonderful. Found me a used Bible in Italian.


You should also know that in Venice, inside the famous St. Mark's Cathedral, are the bones of Mark himself, the author of the second book of the New Testament. Or so the legend goes. If I could, I'd like to take a minute to highlight something I came to realize after returning. There were many early Christians who went to great lengths to either recover relics related to the original apostles, or pretend that they did and then allow history to be built around them. Perhaps more so in Rome, at places were we did not visit (but would have had I known!), there are these examples; such as the chains that bound St. Peter or (my personal favorite) the index finger of St. Thomas that touched the post-resurrection wounds of Jesus. Whether these types of relics are truly what they say they are is suspect. In Venice's case, St. Mark was claimed as their much-needed patron saint once his bones were successfully recovered (stolen) from Alexandria. Now, those remains are said to reside directly beneath the altar of St. Mark's Basilica.

Historically, it is actually unlikely that the bones of the author of the second book of the New Testament are in Venice, because it is unlikely that the bones that were stolen were his in the first place. It is possible that no one knows or can know what the real truth is. Theories abound; even those as random as that the remains under the altar really belong to Alexander the Great (just ask the internet). It is all very fascinating. One thing is for sure - the physical remains of those who personally knew and saw the incarnate Christ are far less important than the work they did and words they preserved for us.  


And finally, you should know that when in Venice you eat seafood. Really, really good, fresh, and unique seafood. 

Venetians like to eat several small samplings of meals, especially in the evening. They call this "cicheti", which is basically tapas, or small plates. Don't overthink it - order what they tell you to. Our meals in Venice blur together a little because we did so much of this. We had more than three meals a day I think.

Still, we had some incredible meals the normal way. Calamari Gnocchi, Grilled Swordfish, Sea Bass Cerviche, Seafood Lasagna. Oh my!


Sadly, that brings this Italy recap to an end. I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it. As I close, I'll offer a thought for your consideration. While in Italy, our church was in the middle of a sermon series on Heaven. My wife and I talk and dream about heaven together often, specifically the New Heavens and the New Earth. I couldn't help but wonder, when I consider the fact that history will end in a city, what kind of city that will be. Perhaps Rome, with its breadth, depth, and splendor? Or maybe Florence, an all around wonderful and beautiful place to be? You know, I think it might be more like Venice; its pleasurable melancholy and simplistic yet robust culture. A dream turned into a reality. I wonder.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Moments in Florence

One thing I am greatly looking forward to in heaven is moments that aren’t fleeting. Right now great moments don’t last. They can be great, which is only by the grace of God, but not great for long because they don’t last for long. The Bible has much to say about this. “What is your life?” says the Apostle James. “For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Or, the Psalmist: “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” This does not mean that our lives lack value or meaning, but only that they are short. Very short. We all know this.

If this is true of our entire earthly life, how much more so with our moments! N.D. Wilson says, “No matter how many pictures we take, no matter how many scrapbooks we make, no matter how many moments we invade with a rolling camera, we will die. We will vanish. We cannot grab and take hold.” So what are we to do? Enjoy the moment, they say. Wilson continues, “Don’t resent the moments simply because they cannot be frozen. Taste them. Savor them. Give thanks for that daily bread. Manna doesn’t keep overnight. More will come in the morning.” Amen to that!

It is usually during travel when I most wrestle with the concept of savoring moments. Why can’t they last a little longer? And after the moment has passed, I often wonder, did I do everything possible to savor that? What could I have done differently? Did I take enough pictures? Did I take the right picture? It is also during travel, especially to someplace like Italy, where I redirect that energy into profound longing for eternity, where I believe the most memorable moments will last. They won’t flame out. Can you imagine? The “manna” that Wilson and the Bible refers to will come in eternal and lasting supply. We will not need to save or wait for more. It will be a constant stream, and moments will last because they won’t be moments. They will be the way of things. In the presence of Jesus there is fullness of joy!

In Florence, we had some incredibly special moments; some a few minutes, others several hours, but all of which are now past. For this portion of my Italy recap (you might have to read in multiple parts) I will simply mention some and explain them. Along the way you can bet my yearning for the eternal versions of them will continue to increase. In chronological order:


When you get to Florence, what better than to head to the central market: 

try something new (Bolognese Rice Ball):

relax with vino and homemade ravioli:

and then if you have skills play the open piano for all to enjoy (and if you don't just enjoy those who do). 


We had heard about this Piazza Michelangelo that sits above the city on the other side of the Arno River and offers spectacular views of the main part of Florence. So on our first afternoon there, after milling about quite a bit, we stopped at a local grocery store, picked up some speck (an Italian meat), brie, focaccia, and our free bottle of wine from the night before (given as a result of the carbonara episode), and started to climb. 

The views were amazing (see top picture in this post), and the piazza itself was delightful. There was a replica of the David in the middle of the square. Replica is an understatement, though if it was the only one it would have been pretty impressive. But there weren't any quiet, romantic, and grassy spots readily available for our perfect picnic. When in this situation, climb higher. Eventually, we found a perfect bench and wall in between a winding road and another structure higher up the hill (we'll get there in a minute). Our view, while higher than the more crowded one, showcased more of residential Florence, which was arguably better. There we enjoyed our spread, spent some time journaling, and soaked in a series of moments that were mostly indescribable.

It was high enough that the breeze cooled us considerably, and eventually we had to reluctantly move on. Luckily, behind us up the hill was about to be a better view than either our picnic spot or the famous Piazza Michelangelo. The Basilica San Miniato Al Monte. There was a fairly modern cemetery just below the entrance. 

The only thing I know to compare this to is the Sacre Coeur in Paris. Fairly strenuous climb (depending on your approach), beautiful church, amazing views of an incomparable European city. Loved it.


We had four nights in Florence. For the first night and the last - day one and day four, which were our full days in Florence - we made reservations in advance. The middle two nights were after our day trips to Tuscany and Cinque Terre. We decided to wing it those two nights for dinner. What we found was, according to Katie, the best pizza ever. We ate it two nights in a row.

The "Elliotts Discover Burrata" could be a blog on its own (Katie I'm looking at you!). Similar to buffalo mozzarella, this soft cheese is actually more like ice cream. The whole pie was heavenly. And the restaurant was quite charming, and on the same street as our hotel. It is called Ciro & Sons, and as it turns our friendly waiter who married an American and spoke perfect English is one of the sons. Only in Italy.


The moment you turn the corner and see this masterpiece at the end of the hall is breathtaking. I don't care who you are. I don't care if you happen to be the type of person who despises art so much that you don't even appreciate a well-sculpted sand castle. Michelango's David is worth the hype. That is just the deal.

We had gone to the Accademia - which we came to find out is basically a museum built simply to house the David - the first day, but as tends to happen when you wing it in Europe, it was randomly closed. No matter. We prioritized it first on our last day, and got there before it opened and waited in a small line. While in line, we chatted with a very pleasant girl from Israel who was traveling solo and was in the middle of a very aggressive European trip. It is always fun to share travel stories and strategies. I pray that she finds Jesus (if she hasn't already!) and a worthy travel-loving husband.

The thing about the David is that its not just a statue. Do you understand that Michelangelo carved it out of a single piece of marble? In some ways, I am a sculptor. I cut foam into shapes from a single block. But no person or machine on the planet that I know of can create the kind of detail we are dealing with here. The eyes of David actually follow you as you walk around it. Maybe this is an optical illusion, but still. Look at his hair! The rib cage! How about the toenails! Sidenote: have you ever had ridiculous thoughts in public places, like what if I run up and tackle the guy singing the national anthem at the basketball game? No? Just me? Well, I had that thought about the David while we were there. Luckily, this thing is massive and to do that would have been awkward and unsuccessful. If you don't believe me, check out his toe; it was slightly repaired years back because of a deranged tourist who acted on those crazy thoughts. David prevailed.


One our favorite things to do in the entire world is post up a cafe in a famous city, allowing ourselves plenty of time to savor excellent coffee, fresh pastries and such, read, journal, talk, and enjoy the ever-popular activity of people watching. If you didn't know, in Italy most of the best coffee is found in cafes that are all business. You stand at the counter, order your espresso, cappuccino, or cafe americano (which is what I order and while it sounds sort of lame ordering anything "americano" in Europe, it's not - I promise), and then move on. There is not much sipping or savoring, although this pace is still very conducive to the relational culture of Italy. People just figure it out.

All that to say, most cafes did not allow for the experience I mentioned that is our favorite. Thankfully, some did. One of which was called Cafe Rivoire, a swanky spot right in the Piazza Della Signoria; the famous square that was, in the time of the Medicis, and still is today the hub of the political and cultural life of Florence. It is the site of the grand Palazzo Vecchio, the city's town hall. It is the original site of Michelangelo's David (another replica is there now), and it connects the main part of the city with the Uffizi Gallery and then Ponte Vecchio on the Arno River. For us this was the perfect spot to linger late morning on our last day in Florence. I took multiple pictures of the exact same view in a futile effort to freeze the moment. Sigh.


I can't get enough of spectacular churches. Many times churches are more spectacular because of the history preserved and displayed in the form of burial sites. It is a paradox in some ways to see the splendor of cathedrals and the solemn reality of death in the same context. Sometimes the burial sites are splendid in their own right, and sometimes they are humble, like in the catacombs and final resting places of the persecuted church.

Russell Moore in his recent book Onward, says, "If we only see the catacombs, we could valorize smallness and persecution as equivalent to holiness. And we could ignore our responsibility to build institutions and cultures to protect future generations from persecution. If we only see the cathedrals, whether of the ancient sort or the local suburban megachurch, we could identify godliness with bigness, and authority with so-called 'influence'". This is a helpful perspective as I reflect on the places we saw, and think about the wanting splendor of man-made churches in comparison to, for those of us in Christ, our destiny after death.

Santa Croce was memorable in this way because of its grandeur, its history, and its apparent relevance to Florentine culture.

Inside this church you find the tombs of Galileo (smart guy who knew enough to know that we aren't the center of the universe), Machiavelli (known as the father of political science but culturally known in my context for being a hero to Tupac Shakur), Michelangelo (prolific and brilliant artist who basically painted or sculpted all of Italy), and many others. Impressive monuments commemorate others such as Dante Alighieri (of Dante's Inferno, or more precisely author of the classic Divine Comedy). Here is Michelangelo:

To spend some time in the square around Santa Croce is to see and understand Florence. There are thousands of square feet of unoccupied space for people to stroll around, and steps to relax and play cards. This was fascinating to me.


I could on for awhile, but have to stop somewhere. Sadly, you'll have to ask me about the doors and dome of the Baptistry, having a real panini, or the Osso Buco at La Giostra. Just can't cover everything. But! One more is in order.

We combined three famous things in Florence (one more general to Italy) to make for the perfect afternoon: climbing the Duomo, taking a passegiata (leisurely evening stroll), and partaking in a Peroni.

You have heard me talk about the concept of Duomo. Siena and Pisa both have impressive cathedrals that are simply referred to as their "Duomo", which just means cathedral. In Florence their Duomo is the Duomo. There is just no comparison. We admired the outside numerous times as we passed by over the week, and entered in on our first day to see the inside fresco on the dome ceiling from ground level. Here the Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari is surreal. Overall, the entire Duomo situation is incredible from the first time it appears at the end of the street:

to the monstrous structure up close:

to the view of the Last Judgement from the balcony part ways up the climb:

to the view from the top (including a zoomed in view of our picnic spot from before!):

All of it. And for what its worth, Peroni is a delicious liquid to consume after such a climb and for such a stroll.

Thus ends the survey of Florence in moments. Which brings us lastly to the wonder of Venice. Oh Venice. We've been back for more than a month and I'm struggling to separate dream from reality.