Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy

I had hopes of enjoying this book. As I flip through it now, it still looks interesting and erudite. I am glad to learn that dreams and visions were popular subjects of Florentine art, "where the great fresco cycles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries drew chiefly on the Golden Legend of Jacopo della Voragine and the life of Saint Francis." I am glad to know also that perspective in navigation and perspective in art are linked: "Toscanelli, who taught Brunelleschi, also advised Columbus and the king of Portugal. ... Many of the landscapes of the quattrocento, especially Baldovinetti's, have the character of aerial maps; the bare Tuscan hills ... are now shown furrowed by husbandry." Interesting. Maybe it would be best to flip through the book backward.

Read forward, properly, The Stones of Florence unfortunately becomes annoying in a hurry. The author begins with the obligatory chapter announcing what Florence is really like, circa 1963 -- hot, drab, and unwelcoming -- and insulting tourists essentially for not knowing what she knows. Why do intellectuals hate tourists? Is this a Western phenomenon, or do Japanese tourists, for example, also hate fellow Japanese tourists abroad, and write books about how dumb they look?

By page 49, I had reached this, after wading through a short discussion on the popularity of the classic Greek look in Renaissance sculpture -- "Naturally, in none of this statuary, which was once a la mode (nor in the graceful Cellini either), is there a grain of that local tender piety, religious or civic, that appears in its purest, most intense concentration in Donatello ...." And my brain now up and spoke of its own accord. Woman, it asked, who has told you all this? You are not a native Florentine, no more than the tourists. And what in blazes is "local tender piety"?

After that, I did a bit more skimming, forward, but then gave up. The book has no theme or story of any kind to tell, and the author herself seems to have no voice. If she was aiming for the cool detachment that the reviewers quoted on the back of the book praise her for, then I suggest she succeeded too well. She has many wonderful facts at her disposal, and I can vaguely tell that the chapters are meant to cover certain topics -- painting here, history there, at the end art restoration, and how wrong Ruskin was about the essential Giottos he thought he saw -- but reading the book only inspired me to ask that dread, necessary question which all writers should ask themselves, many times, and then forestall in others by the quality of their answering performance. So what? For me, and despite her obvious abilities, she had no answer.

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