Part Two

Lo Corpo mio gelato in su la foce

trovo l’Archian rubesto;e quel sospinse

nell’Arno, e sciolse al mio petto la croce

Ch’i’fe’ di me quando ‘l dolor mi vinse:

Voltommi per le ripe e per lo fondo,

poi di sua preda m coperse e cinse.

At its mouth the swollen Archiano

found my frozen body and swept it down

the Arno, and loosened the cross on my chest

that I’d made of myself when overcome

by the pain. It spun me past the banks and to the bottom

Then covered and buried me among its prey.


Death Mask of Dante Alighieri, 1965 (Photograph by David Lees)

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Here is where it begins.

A man cuts down a tree, a poplar. A second saws it into boards. The last man paints another man—or perhaps he thinks it is God he is painting—on the planks, bound together to form a cross, another kind of tree. And then comes the river, the deluge, and the end of the world.

How can this be explained? Who, except God himself, could know how everything touches every other thing, or even how just one thing touches another? Perhaps only by vision, which is itself a kind of art. So look for the river and perhaps you will find the art.

Here is where it begins.

Deep in the Casentine Forests, about twenty-five miles east of Florence, you walk steadily up the mountain from a place called Fonte dei Borbotto, “grumbling spring.” There’s a cross—there is always a cross—at the head of the trail and halfway along the ascent you reach a small lake called Gorga Nera, “black throat.” The story has it that the lake is bottomless and connects underground all the way to the Tyrrhenian Sea, beyond Pisa where the Arno ends. Thunderous sounds are supposed to issue from the Gorga Nera—explosive thundercracks, shudders, and rumbles audible one hundred miles distant—that signal or, it is said, cause earthquakes, landslides, and, not least, floods.

After a mile there’s a crossroads. The trail to the left goes up to the summit of Monte Falterona. In the winter there would be snow here, a glaze on the beech trees and escarpments of sandstone. And once, ten million years ago, all this was underwater. If you go straight there’s a slight descent of perhaps one hundred feet and, after three-quarters of a mile, a fall of rocks against a slope. Amid them a stream of water seeps out. This is the Capo d’Arno, the head of the Arno. A plaque set in the rocks tells you so.

Or rather, Dante tells you. The plaque doesn’t so much name this place as refer you to the poet. Like most everything regarding Florence and Tuscany, Dante is your guide, just as Virgil was his guide downward into Hell and upward toward Purgatory and Paradise. The plaque incorporates lines from the fourteenth canto of Purgatorio. Two spirits ask Dante where he’s from, but Dante is evasive: his home, he allows, is somewhere along a river that rises on Monte Falterona. One of the shades deduces it’s the Arno, and the other wonders why Dante should be hiding its name. No wonder, the first ghost responds: everyone who lives along that river is mired in vice and sin, “flee[ing] virtue like a snake.” It’s only right that the name of this “miserable valley” should perish. Upriver, he adds, dirty pigs and slinking dogs feed, and as it swells into Florence “the damned and accursed ditch” supports wolves and foxes, or rather, we’re given to understand, their human equivalents. Dante might indeed be reluctant to disclose this place as home. The river, like the city it sustains, is an object not of local pride but of shame. Dante has met these two ghosts on the level in Purgatory inhabited by those guilty of the sin of envy. As Florentines, they know whereof they speak.

In Dante’s poem the source of the Arno is scarcely less unsavory than the sewer it widens to downstream: the owners of the land it springs from, the Guidi family, are burning in Hell as Dante has already reported in his first volume, Inferno. Their particular crime—one that both virtuous and less virtuous Florentines could join together in decrying—was minting short-weighted gold florins, the international currency Florence gave the whole of Europe, the very essence of her glory, avarice, and greed.

Less disreputably, the monks of Camaldoli have owned much of the watershed to the east of here for almost a thousand years. Outside their hermitage they groomed the trees and cleared away the debris from the forest floor until the woods were less a wilderness than a cloister, light shafting down among the columns of beech. And in the fourteenth century the building and works department of the cathedral of Florence, the Opera del Duomo, would take over the Conti Guidi woods. They would harvest—some say strip—timber from the mountain and the Casentine Forests to build and maintain the architects Arnolfo di Cambio and Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo, the majestic and pitiful heart at the core of Florence.

All that aside, this place is dark and spectral, like the selva oscura, the dark wood, where Dante finds himself at the beginning of his poem. It’s cloudy and ash gray. Just beyond the Capo d’Arno is another gorga called Lago degli Idoli, where an enormous cache of Etruscan votive statues was found in 1830. Uncanny and weird in themselves, it was stranger still that they should be found so far from any known human habitation. Then, as now, mad pigs, wild boars with their tusks, prowled the ground. Vipers slithered up the oaks and beeches and fell on unsuspecting charcoal makers, hunters, and loggers. People have seen this happen, just as they’ve heard the Gorga Nera bellow and groan. It rains serpents here.

Here is where it begins.

A little southeast of Monte Falterona and the Capo d’Arno there is another mountain in the Casentine Forests called Monte Penna. On its flank, upslope from the Arno, is a forest pierced by rock outcroppings, fissures, and chasms called La Verna. Around 1220 its owner, Count Orlando of Chiusi, donated it as a retreat to the itinerant preacher and mystic Francis of Assisi. Head of a monastic order now numbering thousands and of a charismatic movement that was sweeping Europe, Francis needed to be alone merely to pray, to feel himself in the company of Lady Poverty, to become once more a holy fool, God’s juggler, his clown.

At the end of the summer of 1224, Francis ascended to La Verna for the last time. On the way up he and the handful of brothers accompanying him met a peasant with a donkey. The peasant thought he recognized him—the whole world had heard about Francis—and asked him if he was indeed Francis of Assisi. Francis admitted that he was, and the peasant told him, “Be as good as folk say you are that they may not be deceived—that’s my advice.”

The others were appalled at the peasant’s presumption, but Francis prostrated himself on the ground before him. Francis had seen—as he was always seeing—Christ in human faces, in the least of them. Then he began to pray, and because the peasant was thirsty, a spring welled up out of a rock. They all drank, the donkey included, and the water ran down to the Arno.

Francis spent a month at La Verna. He meditated in the forest and prayed in a cave. No one could find him here except God. At dawn on September 14, after spending the night at the bottom of a gorge, he had a vision, or rather, something befell Francis: an angel hovered overhead and rained down ecstasies upon him. Then Francis saw that the angel was crucified, was pinioned on the sky like a butterfly. He felt pain interleaved with joy, the sear of one shading into the other, and he looked down and saw wounds on his hands, his feet, and his side, the stigmata of the crucified Christ. Autumn came. The mists formed, the leaves fell, and the sky went gray. The beeches, spindly and bare, looked like lepers and cripples walking.

Two years later Francis was dead. From the day of his vision onward, he had declined. He weakened. The wounds throbbed and seeped. He’d swallowed suffering whole, drunk the Arno and all its cursed misery down. He’d given Christ a face people hadn’t seen before, a human face, the peasant’s face. Until then Christ had been the Redeemer as the judge and king of the universe: he was painted enthroned, stern and impassive. Now he was the Redeemer as the man of sorrows, the god who became human to the quick and the marrow in order to lay claim to human wretchedness.

All this and what happened over the next hundred years might have been called the Franciscan revolution, larger than anything since the Christianizing of the Roman Empire eight centuries before. Until now it had seemed that God had been up and man had been down. But now God, in the person of Christ, of Francis, of the poor, the hungry, and the afflicted, was down here. The foreground and the background, God and man, history and prophecy, were one horizontal flowing thing. Christ was most fully human in his suffering body; man was most fully Christ in Francis’s suffering body. You could not quite pry them apart. People would need to learn to see this, to see God in the wounds Francis had received above the river.


Here’s where we begin, the painter said. The apprentice boy stood nearby, across the expanse of the panel, about nine Florentine ells—fourteen feet—long and a little less broad, a chalk-white lowercase t. It had taken weeks to get this far: planing the planks smooth, laying down coat upon coat of size to attach the canvas to the wood, and then eight layers of gesso—gypsum from Volterra ground up and boiled—polished and rubbed to glassiness.

They were going to make a man, a Christ on a cross. It was a sculpture in the sense it was a crocifisso, a crucifix made of wood, but it was also a painting, the body rendered on the front-facing panels of the cross in two dimensions. The boy might eventually be made a painter: he could sketch rather well. In fact, the painter had found him sketching—so the story goes—while shepherding sheep and had been so impressed he’d persuaded the parents to let him take the boy to Florence as an apprentice. But they weren’t going to sketch, not yet. First they were going to mark the panel with chalk lines and compasses, inscribing circles, triangles, and arcs. The painter, Bencivieni di Pepo, had made a painted panel crucifix before for the church of San Domenico in Arezzo. He knew the rules. The square of the cross contained an equilateral triangle that could in turn be bound by a circle in which you could then interpose a perfectly proportioned spread-eagled human body, homo quadratus.

But of course this body wouldn’t be perfectly proportioned: it would be bent, distended, suffering in every limb, expression, and gesture, dead or near dead. So Bencivieni made three points in relation to the arms and foot of the cross and, as the boy watched, began to mark out other circles and then from these, segments of arcs. Those lines would determine the curve and leftward slump of the body, the sag of the arms, the collapse and tilt of the head and neck: the exact magnitude and measure of the suffering, the pity, and the horror.

When all that was in place, Bencivieni would draw a figure in willow charcoal and then go over it with a squirrel-hair brush dipped in a wash of ink. Afterward they would lay down gold leaf and burnish it. You are supposed to burnish gold on a damp winter day, so let us say it is February 1288, in a studio in Florence on the street called Borgo Allegri. This painted cross will hang over the high altar of the new Franciscan church on the east side of the city, which will itself be named after the cross, Santa Croce. So it will need to be especially beautiful and therefore gilded for the honor and glory of God. But it also needs gold because when you mix the ground colors—white lead, cinnabar, lapis—with egg (use yolks from town hens: they’re paler) to make tempera and brush them stroke by tiny stroke over the gold, something happens to them: the rivulets of blood catch fire; the pallid flesh seems always to be not quite cold, to be dying just now; the wounds refuse to close. The whole painting becomes luminous and palpable. It is not so much seen as seeing, pursuing and then laying hold of the viewer.

Bencivieni di Pepo knew all these things: his art consisted of his knowing them. It was not a matter of inspiration, never mind genius: a Christ was a Christ, a Madonna was a Madonna. The thing was to make them well. He’d made many. When he began this crucifix he was forty-seven years old. He’d worked in Rome, Bologna, and Pisa. He’d designed mosaics for the Florence Baptistry eight years earlier, and it was there—working in that most Byzantine of media—that his images became less eastern, his faces less hawklike and severe, the deep lines (almost carved like bas-relief ) replaced by a softer stroke, more rounded and modeled; bodies not set down on panels or tile but incarnated, pulled nascent and breathing from their ground.

The painted crucifix Bencivieni had painted for Arezzo fifteen years earlier was identical in almost every respect—size, composition, color—to the one he painted for Santa Croce, and yet the first was an icon and the second a presence: the Arezzo cross had a beautiful and grave power—we are moved to see a God brought so pitifully low—but the Santa Croce cross will, if you let it, make you weep; not just for Christ, but for anyone who has to suffer and die; for yourself; for everyone and anyone in particular.

Bencivieni had been laboring hard, even in middle age, and was now the most active and important painter in Florence. He’d also been given a nickname: “Cimabue,” or “bull head,” doubtless in recognition of his stubborn perfectionism. His colleague the sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio was just then building the very church Cimabue’s cross would occupy. He would follow that project with the massive Palazzo Vecchio and then in 1300 he ’d be made capomaestro—head architect and builder—of the new Duomo. But it was Arnolfo’s sculpture that excited the most interest among his fellow artists, not just other sculptors but painters too. His statues had the curves and chasms of real flesh, and even when he carved relief figures on a slab you felt you might walk around and see the people from the back. Cimabue and Arnolfo would have talked at length about their work and about the Santa Croce and Duomo projects. Some years later, Cimabue’s apprentice boy, now himself known as Giotto, would get the commission for the Duomo’s bell tower.

What Cimabue and Arnolfo were after was not something new or different but that same perennial image—human flesh and God’s embrace of it—made deeper, more vividly, more completely themselves. It was Francis of Assisi’s doing: grasping the God who had entered us, the one who—crazily, heedlessly in love with humankind—took the form of a decrepit, heartsick man. How did you render that in tempera or stone, extending the notion outward into the whole creation like the Dominican Thomas Aquinas had, saying “God is in all things deeply”? How could you put that into words? How could you put skin on the bones of the world?

There was another young man around Florence then, Durante degli’ Alighieri, or Dante for short. He knew everyone or at least knew about everyone in town. He was in that sense a natural-born politician, if not a deft one. He had good friends and even better enemies: their treachery and the exile it sent him into were his making as a poet. In an exquisite act of creative revenge he put them and practically every other Florentine in their place—in Hell, Purgatory, or Heaven—and wrote the greatest poem in history. Its subject was not gods or heroes but mere persons and Dante’s own befuddled, jerky passage among them. He’s lost his way in the world, or rather his longing had lost track of what it was it loved. He thought it was a person: Beatrice had died young and now he, middle-aged, had to seek her among the dead.

They’d met at the head of the Ponte Santa Trinità—or, rather, her presence, her living image, simply struck him, poured out and seized him, though she said not a word. The Arno and the city, the river and the world, rolled by, but it was only she that he saw. To find her, he has to visit every circle of the next world, to meet most everyone that he’s known in Florence or their kin, to learn every evil they’ve ever done. And of course everyone here too had lost what they love: life, which is love breathing, speaking, walking. I’ non averei creduto che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta, he wrote: “I could not believe death had undone so many.” It was this that Cimabue’s crucifix contained: the unnumbered dead in one human yet divine person who, in his affliction, was love. It is that love, more even than Beatrice, that Dante has lost and now learns to long for again.

The Ponte Santa Trinità had been built by the Frescobaldi, the ancient aristocratic family of the Oltrarno, the other bank of the Arno. Their son Dino was Dante’s collaborator in the group of young poets creating the dolce stil novo, “the sweet new style” of verse. The bridge had been erected in 1252, destroyed in the flood of 1269 when Dante was four years old, but reconstructed in 1290, just in time for him to meet Beatrice there. But on the northern end of the bridge in 1300, a street fight between rival Florentine political factions, the “White” and “Black” Guelphs, precipitated a power struggle in the city that ended two years later with the exile of Dante, among others. It was said that afterward Dino Frescobaldi recovered Dante’s notebooks for the Divine Comedy and had them sent to the poet in his hiding place, thus making possible its composition.

In that same year, 1302, Cimabue died. Giotto had continued as an apprentice and member of his studio for some years after the Santa Croce Crucifix was finished. In the early 1290s they’d gone to Assisi to paint frescoes in the new church dedicated to Saint Francis. It’s sometimes unclear exactly who painted which ones: some are attributed to both master and apprentice, some to Giotto alone (perhaps executed later in the decade when Giotto began to work independently), and some entirely to Cimabue.

Their names and careers were always entwined, albeit less and less to Cimabue’s advantage. The story of Cimabue’s discovery of the genius shepherd boy tending his flock became legendary in the telling of Lorenzo Ghiberti (creator of the Duomo’s baptistry doors) in his Commentariesand, later, in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists. In one of Vasari’s anecdotes Giotto tricks his master by painting a tiny fly on a panel so realistically that Cimabue tries to brush it away; elsewhere, the master is portrayed as a vain and prickly perfectionist who would rather burn a painting than let anyone criticize it. Giotto, by contrast, wears his talent lightly, has many friends, and is as devout as he is shrewd.

Dante knew how good Cimabue and Giotto were at their art, and—it goes without saying—how good he himself was: his great poem grapples with the problem of genius even as it manifests it. The ambitious new thing Dante created in the Commedia is classical—colossal, Roman, panoramic—in scope but Christian in scale: no more than tales, the intimate rendering of frail and embarrassed human persons from an overweening provincial town built on the insubstantial ruins of an outpost of a great empire. It was an epic of weak little men—“an ingrate, malign people . . . avaricious types, envious and proud”—who were nonetheless capable, like Cimabue, Giotto, and Dante, of making great things, human works of timeless consequence and beauty.

In the seventeenth canto of the Inferno, in the midst of describing himself in an extravagantly imagined flight over Hell, Dante reminds himself of Icarus, the headstrong son of the patient artificer Daedelus:

. . . quando Icaro misero le reni

sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,

gridando il padre a lui “Mala via tieni!”

. . . when poor Icarus felt his shoulders being

plucked through the warming wax,

his father crying to him, “You’re going down a bad road!”

One of the themes of the canto is the misuse of art and here the young artist Icarus (as opposed to his father, the artisan Daedelus), drunk on inspiration and egoism, flies too high and destroys himself. Dante and his fellows already sense the pitfalls of being a self-acknowledged artist, the vain, mad, and self-destructive character that will emerge in their city in the Renaissance and peak in the Romantic era.

Dante was acquainted with Cimabue and knew Giotto well enough to model for him, or so the story goes. In the poem he uses their respective careers as an example of the already apparent slipperiness of celebrity and reputation: “where once Cimabue held the field, now the talk’s of Giotto, such that the former’s fame is obscured.”

It doesn’t seem that Cimabue resented his pupil, or perhaps he simply died too soon to realize he’d been eclipsed. In any case he either left Giotto his house in Via Ricasoli or Giotto took it over. The following year Giotto began painting the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua and with those frescoes made his own reputation. In the 1320s he would return to the place his life as an artist had begun, Santa Croce, to paint the great cycle of frescoes of the life of St. Francis in the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels. Then Giotto would design the lofty escarpment of the Campanile. The base was faced by a frieze of twenty-one relief sculptures by Andrea Pisano, the creator of the south doors of the Baptistry. Among these exemplars of crafts and professions—plowman, farmer, shepherd, carpenter, blacksmith, and architect—the architect and his sculptor placed an incongruous image on the southeast corner: Icarus, a sly footnote that seems to say be careful of art, of towers, and of great heights.

Cimabue’s reputation, meanwhile, would increasingly be based on his having been his pupil’s master rather than on his own art, a lesser talent who recognized and nurtured a greater one. Thus began a process that one art historian later referred to as “the curse of Cimabue”: the decline in his historical and critical status, the damage to or deterioration of his existing works, and the removal of his name from important works once attributed to him. Except for a handful of “lesser” works, there would not be much left of Cimabue except his cross. But that, perhaps, was all there was anyway. Dante tried to tell Florence this: reputation turns to ruin, wealth to poverty, pride to disgrace, inspiration to despair. The cross, earthbound as Icarus’s plucked back, is a monument to those facts, the picture of Dante’s poem, the pierced flesh of Francis’s wounds, the river cleaving Falterona and scouring Florence away.

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By 1302 what Vasari would call “the rebirth of painting in Florence”—the abandonment of the eastern, iconic tradition by Cimabue and the creation of a native style by Giotto—was under way and might well have continued without interruption. But over the next hundred years it seemed that the progress of art in Florence stalled as the city underwent one catastrophe after another.

In 1304 the Ponte alla Carraia (then built of wood) collapsed from the weight of the crowd during a dramatic pageant depicting Hell on the river. The Florentines had tempted fate, it was said—there was surely a kind of vain mockery of divine justice in attempting to recreate the Inferno on the Arno—or perhaps they were being punished for one of their myriad vices. The most likely candidate in the opinion of many was sodomy, for which Florence enjoyed an international reputation, anal intercourse being known as “the Florentine vice” in French and simply Florenzen in German.

In subsequent years, fire followed famine and the standoff between the White and Black parties continued, punctuated by eruptions of violence. Alliances were formed and broken that brought the rest of Tuscany into play, control of Pisa, Lucca, and Siena changing hands with seasonal regularity. All these machinations, insurgencies, and intrigues would be studied and recorded in detail by Niccolò Machiavelli two centuries later. His interest in Florentine history was entirely political, but he halted his account long enough to note that “in 1333 the waters of the Arno had risen throughout Florence more than twelve braccia, and by its overflow had destroyed some of the bridges and many buildings.”

In fact the flood of November 4, 1333, was the greatest yet seen on the Arno, cresting, by Machiavelli’s estimation, twenty-four feet above normal. More detailed accounts report the four-day-long downpour; the thunder, lightning, and gales; then the scramble from rooftop to rooftop by means of planks and ladders as the torrent ran through the streets below; and the cries for divine mercy so loud and frequent that they drowned the thunder cracks and the seethe of water.

The death toll was said to exceed three thousand persons, and ten times as many animals. Certainly there was nothing to eat or even to drink. Every source of grain and therefore bread was spoiled or destroyed along with the mills in which it might have been ground. So too the pescaie—the rock dams on the Arno above and below the city where fish were caught—washed away together with the Trinità and Carraia bridges. Water reached the top of the high altar in the Duomo and up to the second story of Arnolfo’s recently completed Palazzo Vecchio. In the Oltrarno the palazzo of the Frescobaldi at the end of the Ponte Santa Trinità was devastated as were the humbler dwellings where Florence’s artisans and shopkeepers lived. Coursing westward into the San Frediano quarter, the flood breached and undermined recently constructed defensive walls designed to withstand entire armies.

As in other floods, the previously undeveloped area on the northeastern edge of the city was inundated most deeply. Now it was home to the new church of Santa Croce and its vast Franciscan establishment of cloisters, dormitories, and teaching facilities. The water struck here first, breaking through a three-hundred-foot section of city wall adjacent to the monastery and flooding in fifteen feet deep. The floor of the church had been built high above the surrounding street and piazza, and the altar still higher: the water crested just shy of the top. Cimabue’s cross hung overhead, untouched and unmoved.

A little upstream the ruined Ponte Vecchio had been reduced to a sluice, the sewer grate against which thousands of tons of debris from Falterona downward piled up. The ancient totemic statue of Mars had fallen into the Arno. Dante had spoken of the Mars legend in the Inferno, putting it into the mouth of one of the Florentine suicides that inhabit the seventh circle of Hell: “I was of the city that traded patrons / Mars for John the Baptist. On that account / Mars with his craft will make her grieve forever.” Unless his statue remained intact, those who built the city “would have done their work in vain.” And then the shade, seemingly in reference to his own suicide, but still seized by the Mars legend, adds Io fei giubetto a me de le mie case, “I made my house into my gallows.” And that, with its tangle of angular, cadaverous trees and jutting planks, was how the Ponte Vecchio must just then have appeared; that was what Florence—flouting Mars, flouting John the Baptist—had made of itself.

It would take 150,000 gold florins—an amount then equal to the entire economy of some of Florence’s neighbor states—to rebuild the city after the 1333 flood, but work began the following year, as did the construction of Giotto’s design for the Campanile of the Duomo. But alongside the restoration was the labor of understanding the reasons for the flood. The preachers and priests, of course, focused on human sin and divine retribution, but the lay intellectuals and writers of Florence took a broader approach, employing both pagan and Christian methodologies. Giovanni Villani noted the matrix of inauspicious astrological signs at the time of the flood before turning to the Old Testament to explore precedents ranging from the deluge to the destruction of Sodom. By providing examples of God’s previous behavior, these parallel cases might explain how and why he had visited calamity on Florence and, read subtly and assiduously, even have forecast it.

There were also individual witnesses and reports to be taken into account: some said there had been advance rumblings from the Gorga Nera or that villages upstream had been remiss in their usual petitions to San Cristoforo, the protector of river dwellers. And on the night of the flood a holy mystic living in his hermitage at Vallombrossa had seen a troop of demons mounted on horseback whom he overheard saying, “We’re going to submerge the city of Florence on account of its sins, if God permits us.” The hermit prayed and made the sign of the cross, but it was not enough to stop them.

So no matter how one approached the problem—by way of theological casuistry, biblical exegesis, signs and visions, or the revival of Greco-Roman knowledge and culture that would soon be known as the Renaissance—it came down to sin. It was evident to anyone with eyes to see that Florence was up to its neck in sin, and so the city being drowned was an apt Dantean punishment: in the poet’s Hell, the penalty not only fit the crime but imitated it. Florentines were known for their excessive interest in the exquisiteness of their clothes and cooking, their outsized civic and personal pride, and of course their fondness for anal intercourse, be it homosexual or heterosexual—unhappy wives had been known to denounce their husbands to the authorities for insisting upon it—but Florence stood out most of all for avarice and envy: lust for the florin, particularly someone else’s florins, together with their house, their furnishings, their good fortune, their beauty (and that of their spouses, children, and lovers), and their talent.

All this went without saying, but perhaps to underline the point, in December 1334 the Arno rose and flooded again, not to the level of 1333, but sufficiently to wash away the temporary spans erected prior to the rebuilding of the Carraia, Santa Trinità, and Vecchio bridges. Five months later an earthquake on Monte Falterona caused a landslide that descended down the mountain and into the Arno, bearing with it an enormous quantity of liquid the color of ashes from which masses of vipers emerged together with, locals said, a four-footed serpent the size of a dog. The debris, dark and noxious, rendered the water from the Arno undrinkable all the way to Pisa.

However, as Niccolò Machiavelli was able to note, politics returned to its normal modes within the next five years. Chafing under the rule imposed by the noble families from the other side of the Arno, the Frescobaldi joined the Bardi (the other chief aristocratic family of the Oltrarno and Giotto’s patrons in the Santa Croce chapel) in a conspiracy to overthrow the government on All Saints’ Day 1340. The plot was discovered and the head of the Frescobaldi family put to death. Florence would remain in political turmoil for the rest of the century even as a middle-class, upstart family named Medici emerged from obscurity.

Meanwhile, flood reconstruction continued. Taddeo Gaddi, who had been Giotto’s apprentice just as Giotto had been Cimabue’s, supervised the rebuilding of the Ponte Vecchio while simultaneously painting his masterwork frescoes The Last Supper and The Tree of Life in Santa Croce’s refectory. His teacher, dead eight years, was already becoming a mythic figure, not least in the work of the young poet Giovanni Boccaccio, whose father was an employee of the Bardi family. Boccaccio would make his own name with the Decameron, tales set amid a calamity that befell Florence in 1348. It destroyed no bridges, breached no walls, and left no trace of mud, only the collective reek, both in the present moment and in the memory, of sixty thousand bodies, two-thirds of the people of Florence, dead of plague in the course of six months.

There had never been so much prayer—pleas, supplications, and penance—in Florence, nor so much silence, save for the bells, tolling for upward of five hundred souls per day. The river flowed by, the dry-docked hulk of the unfinished Duomo and the half-built stump of Giotto’s Campanile loomed, and the pyres burned. In October the worst was over, and the praying could stop. It seemed, in any case, to have accomplished very little. Perhaps it had saved those who survived, left behind enough of the living to bury the dead.

There was a decline of religious faith thereafter in Florence, or at least a concomitant rise in fatalism, in the shrug of ceasing to seek consolations. Perhaps it fostered a skepticism that cleared the path for the Renaissance, but more largely a pall of self-loathing seemed to lie over the city. Filippo Villani, nephew of the chronicler of 1333, contrasted “the excellence of our forefathers amidst the ignominy of this present age.” But even their masterpieces and monuments were crumbling, infected by the plague of despair that beset the city: the Palazzo Vecchio “through its own weight is collapsing on itself and is falling apart with gaping cracks within and without, foretelling its own ruin”; the still unfinished Duomo “has developed a fissure and seems about to end in a hideous ruin.”

Mars, deposed from his place on the Ponte Vecchio, was free to go about the business of vendetta. And Christ, suspended above the altar in Santa Croce, hadn’t even been able to protect Francis’s monks from flood and plague in Francis’s own church. Their bones were heaped up like driftwood in the crypt beneath the refectory. In time the corrosive minerals and salts from their decay would leach upward into Gaddi’s frescoes and eat away the colors. No one should have been surprised that prayer availed nothing: on Cimabue’s cross, Christ’s eyes were not only averted but closed. He saw nothing, spoke nothing, and was deaf as well. Cimabue, like Francis, had meant to show Christ’s suffering and how he followed it deep into death in order to save us. But now it seemed he never came back, nor would we.

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One hundred and twenty years after Cimabue made his Crocifisso another poplar was felled, this one big enough to hew a whole body. It would be neither a Mars nor a Christ—no triumph here, or even pity or resignation—but a Magdalene, more dead than alive, as though pulled from the river half drowned. The sculptor was Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, called Donatello. In his twenties he’d been in Rome with Filippo Brunelleschi, and they’d measured and recorded the forms and dimensions of ancient buildings, which Brunelleschi would subsequently translate into a new architecture in Florence. They also dug up statues, or pieces of statues—feet, shards of legs and arms—and in them Donatello discovered something that the sculpture of Arnolfo di Cambio had begun to hint at: a palpable musculature, flesh laid on muscle over sinew and bone, limbs that might flex, tense, or go slack. And with that Donatello began to make Davids, Old Testament prophets, and Christian saints carved as Greeks and Romans might have carved them, sculpture that belonged to what would later be known as the Renaissance.

Donatello made his Maddalena in the last decade of his life, in 1454, and in many ways it was a throwback, a sculpture half medieval and half Renaissance, a pitiful soul inhabiting a heroic body, a St. Francis or Cimabue Christ in the form of a classical ruin. Mary Magdalene stood with her hands folded in supplication at the end of her decades of penance, her beauty turned cadaverous, clothed in the matted hanks of her once glorious red hair. Toothless and gaunt, her expression was the wrung-out rag of a gasp. She might have been a female Christ or Francis, for all intents dead except for the fact that she hasn’t quite yielded herself entirely to suffering, to universal pity. She’s still the particular Mary Magdalene to whom this particular trial has happened: there was still some vigor in the muscles of her arms, in the grip of her feet on their pedestal. She’d submitted herself to penance without quite surrendering her capacity for defiance. She was still this Mary, the individual with a unique history, character, and passion, the kind of person everyone was beginning to become in the Renaissance.

The Maddalena was installed against the southwest wall inside the Bapistry, under Cimabue’s mosaic, angled to the font at which Dante was christened. She remained there—wretched, immobile, slashing the room at eye-level with her gaze—for 512 years.

Across the piazza, the Duomo was completed a decade later, in 1463, topped by the dome of Donatello’s friend Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi, by now a man of many unfinished projects, had himself died almost two decades earlier. But time in Florence flowed at the pace of fossilization or erosion, punctuated by cataclysm, attendant on nothing, least of all men—not even Brunelleschi; he of the Duomo, the churches of Santo Spirito and San Lorenzo, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, and Palazzo Pitti; he whom people called Icarus on account of his audacity.

For example, Brunelleschi built and patented a massive barge called Badalone (“sea monster”) to haul marble up the Arno for the Duomo. It sank spectacularly on its first voyage in 1428. Two years later, when Florence was at war with the city of Lucca, he advanced a scheme to defeat the Lucchese by means of an artificially induced flood on a tributary of the Arno. In the event, Lucca’s army succeeded in breaking through the channel dug by Florence such that the water ran in the opposite of the direction intended and drove back the Florentines.

A boy like Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, born in a village just above the Arno in 1452, would have seen the wreck of the Badalone a little upstream, the beams and ribs pinned to the river bottom by tons of white marble, and he might even have heard of the abortive drowning of Lucca. But Leonardo was already possessed by the Arno, the river and its valley; the braid and curve of the watercourse; the whorls, eddies, bars, tangles, and snags; the bridges and ferries; the mills and weirs; the fish, the men, and the birds.

Leonardo would have Giotto’s intensity and acuity of vision but also Dante’s: Così, giù d’una ripa discoscesa, / travammo risonar quell’acqua tinta, / si che ‘n poc’ora avria l’orecchia offesa—“so down that steep bank the flood / of that dark painted water descending / thundered in our ears and almost stunned us.” He would paint dry riverbeds, chasms, valleys, and canyons without rivers, rivers without channels, flooded landscapes from which the water had withdrawn, but, still more, limitless deluges and inundations, water without shores.

Someone would have to write all this down, or rather to explain it—the city and the river; their mutual savagery—someone who was Leonardo’s equal in the medium of words and analysis, the parsing of Florence’s passions and wiles. Niccolò Machiavelli was born seventeen years after Leonardo, but they became contemporaries in history by way of the Medici ascendency that began with Cosimo de’ Medici’s return from exile in 1434. Leonardo would become Leonardo in the Medicis’ Florence—he would paint its women against savage Arnoscapes—and Machiavelli would become Machiavelli—diplomat, pundit, chronicler, flack, and oracle—in their employ. He possessed a capacious and highly attuned mind through which to sieve both the finer and grosser tendencies of his fellows: on the one hand, popolo universale di Firenze, sottile inteprete di tutte le cose(“a people universally known as subtle interpreters of every situation”); on the other, prodigies of cruelty who dealt with an anti-Medici conspirator by hanging him on a gibbet, interring the body in his family’s tomb, then exhuming it to drag it through the streets by the noose with which he was executed, at last heaving his corpse into the Arno, Dante’s ditch, so that he would know peace in neither soul nor body.

It was the time that would later be called the High Renaissance. In 1476 Leonardo painted his first masterpiece, his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. Soon after, he was denounced for sodomy, once in April and again in June. This was not an uncommon charge: among the family names that figured in the records of the Florence vice squad (the Ufficiali di Notte, or “Night Officers”) were Bardi, Frescobaldi, Machiavelli, and, indeed, Medici. Leonardo’s colleague Sandro Botticelli would be accused of the same charge once or twice in each successive decade. The notoriety of another painter, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, was such that he was given and worked under the sobriquet “Sodoma.”

Leonardo escaped the charges and, although guilty many times over, evaded punishment then and in the future. The belief that God’s distaste for sodomy might be expressed in floods and other disasters was still current, though presumably not in the minds of Leonardo and his fellows. But Leonardo, a man of many preoccupations—his next masterpieces, The Virgin of the RocksLady with an Ermine, and The Last Supper, were painted in fits and starts, asides to his other interests—was nonetheless especially preoccupied with cataclysms. Acknowledged today as an engineer and anatomist, he was also a hydrologist, albeit one less interested in stream flows and drainage than in cataclysms, water as scourge and tragedy, on the rampage in torrents, vortexes, and floods. Transpiration was too placid for his tastes: he favored the idea that water moved through underground chasms from the sea to the tops of mountains in a manner similar to the legendary Gorga Nera of Monte Falterona.

When the Medicis were deposed in 1494, Leonardo decamped for Milan and remained there while Florence fell under the spell of the Dominican demagogue Savonarola. He returned six years later, after the monk had been burned alive and, as was the custom, his ashes were dumped into the Arno, which would, Florentines hoped, convey them onward to Hell. In the interim Leonardo had painted The Last Supper, planned the abortive casting of a seventy-five-ton, two-story-tall bronze horse, and begun to put his thoughts on hydrology to paper, ultimately in a manuscript he called The Book of Water.

The contents were to include channels, pipes, dams, pumps, and even a metaphysics of water, the river as time-space continuum: “The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed and the first of that which is coming. Thus it is continuously in the present.” But it was the violence of unbound water that most fascinated Leonardo:

Amid all the causes of the destruction of human property, it seems to me that rivers hold the foremost place . . . Against the irreparable inundation caused by swollen proud rivers no resource of human foresight can prevail, for in a succession of raging and seething waves gnawing and tearing away high banks, growing turbid with the earth from plowed fields, destroying the houses therein and uprooting the tall trees, it carries these as its prey down to the sea which is its lair . . .

In The Book of Water these images are reduced to a thesaurus of chaos: “revolution, turning, submerging, rising, declination, elevation, caving, consuming, percussion, descent, impetuousness, retreating, crashing, rubbing, inundation, furrows, boiling, relapsing, springing, pouring, overturning, serpentine bends, murmurs, roars . . . , abysses, whirlpools, precipices, tumult, confusions, tempests . . .”

The mind of Leonardo, the engineer and lucid polymath, seemed almost to break down beneath this torrent of words, transfixed by his obsession as the flood bore down on him; undone in his attempt to grasp the eternal present of water in flow, water not just as disorder but annihilation. Nonetheless, Leonardo did not share his contemporaries’ near unanimous belief in the Mosaic deluge: surely, he asked, a deluge of such proportions must have swept fossil remains far downstream to the sea rather than deposit them in river valleys: and if there was indeed a worldwide flood in the first place, where did all that water go when it receded?

Leonardo returned to Florence in time for the moderate but, to him, impressive floods of November 1500, noting darkly that li monti sono disfacti dalle piogge e dalli fiumi, “the mountains have been unmade by the rain and rivers.” In a more dispassionate mood, he also posited that the cutting of the Casentine Forests was a major factor in flooding on the Arno, presaging the concepts of both deforestation and ecosystem that would be current four hundred years later.

The next four years marked the summit of Leonardo’s career as a hydrologist, his obsessions and paranoia harnessed to practical and scientific ends. He mapped not only the Arno but the other rivers of central Italy and drew up a study for a reclamation project incorporating both the Arno and the Tiber. In the midst of these projects, he painted the Mona Lisa, placing his subject against a background of the upper Arno in the vicinity of the Casentine. And, in late 1502, he met Niccolò Machiavelli.

Florence was just then engaged in one of its recurrent sieges of Pisa with the aim of taking control of its assets by starving it out of existence. In response Machiavelli and Leonardo together conceived a grand project with both strategic and hydrological benefits: the diversion of the Arno around Pisa and the straightening of its course by means of a channel. Florence would attain faster and surer access to the sea, floodwaters could be controlled and contained, and Pisa would die of several varieties of thirst. Leonardo drew up the plans in 1503, including what would today be called time-motion studies calculating how much earth a given number of men might dig per day. He also made preliminary sketches for an enormous excavating machine, which like so many of his inventions went unbuilt.

Work began the following year on the most pressing phase, that of diverting the river away from Pisa. Neither Leonardo nor Machiavelli was given a role in the actual work, which the government had put in what it regarded as surer hands. Two thousand laborers were put to work and more than seven thousand gold ducats spent but the result was no more than a few ditches that, in the mode of Brunelleschi’s Lucca project, were breached or ran backward. Florence would fight with Pisa for another five years and Leonardo’s larger scheme, the taming of the Arno, was summarily and permanently abandoned.

Failure succeeded failure. Machiavelli had used his influence to secure a commission for Leonardo to paint a magisterial fresco for the great council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio. But only the center section was ever completed and the same experimentation with oil colors that led to the deterioration of The Last Supper apparently spoiled this one too. By 1504 Leonardo’s masterpieces were now behind him, and his reputation was being eclipsed by the young Michelangelo Buonarroti, whose David was erected just outside the Palazzo Vecchio as Leonardo toiled fitfully on his fresco within.

Michelangelo’s habits of mind and soul—his obsessions—were a little like Leonardo’s: the tumid, agonized muscles and ligaments of his figures, barely contained by flesh, had a torrential force, a bursting forth akin to the unbounded chaos of a da Vinci inundation fantasy. Five years after the David, Michelangelo would create his own, the Universal Deluge of the Sistine Chapel.

That same year, 1510, Niccolò Machiavelli was denounced for sodomy with the blunt indictment that Nicolo di messer Bernardo Macchiavelli fotte la Lucretia vochata la Riccia nel culo, “Niccolò, son of Bernardo Machiavelli, fucked Lucretia, called Riccia, in the ass.” Still in possession of his diplomat’s skills, he avoided prosecution but was unable to re-ingratiate himself with the Medicis when they returned to power a year and a half later. He had performed extensive services for the republican government during their exile, an indiscretion they were disinclined to ignore. It was in the hopes of restoring himself to their favor that he wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, but to no avail.

Machiavelli lived on in his country house, still writing, still hoping he would be summoned back to the Palazzo Vecchio. That did not happen and, never a strapping figure to begin with, he grew scrawny, crabbed, and bitter. He wrote a play in which demons too malign for Satan decide to settle “in this city of yours [Florence]” where “we have taken over the government because here is shown confusion and pain greater than hell.” He wrote a friend, Francesco Guicciardini, that “for some time now I have never said what I believe nor ever believed what I said; and if I do sometimes tell the truth, I hide it behind so many lies that it is hard to find.”

He was not one for God or Francis or the cross. But he seemed to believe devoutly in Hell, or, in moments of equanimity, mere Fortune: “I liken her to one of those ruinous rivers that when they are enraged, wreck trees and buildings; they remove earth from this side, they put it on the other; everyone flees before them, everyone gives into their impetus, without in any way being able to block them.”

Leonardo fared better with the Medicis. One brother, Giuliano, ruled Florence and the other, Giovanni, had just been elected Pope Leo X. Leonardo became part of Giuliano’s entourage and was given Vatican commissions by Giovanni. But da Vinci, now sixty-three years old, was more dilatory and distractible than ever. His artistic output consisted in large part of exquisite, meticulous drawings of maelstroms, deluges, and floods, less figurative images than abstractions on endlessly curving lines and whorls, the fabric of creation fraying, unwinding into the merest of threads—vortexes, mandalas, and fractals—before vanishing entirely into the liquid black.

At this point, Leonardo was of no use to the Pope, the Medicis, or Florence. But François I, the king of France, wanted a genius at his court for the sheer sake of having one, and he happily took on Leonardo in 1516 for what would be the last three years of da Vinci’s life. François installed him in a house on a considerable river, the Loire, and left him to his own devices: more renderings of deluges on paper, more words recounting their motions and effects in his notebooks. The latter were in the mode of his Book of Water—strata deposited upon strata of descriptive nouns and adjectives—but were now joined by excruciatingly imagined scenes of the pain and suffering inflicted by floods: mothers weeping for the sodden, mud-matted corpses of their children; a lone bird flying desperately over the limitless water, finding nothing solid to alight upon but an island of entangled, floating corpses. And then, altogether nothing:


Darkness, wind, fortune of sea,

water’s deluge, fiery forests, rain,

lightnings of the sky, earthquakes and ruins of mountains,

leveling of cities.

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The story of the man who would tell all their stories was remarkably similar to Giotto’s. In 1519, the year of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, Luca Signorelli, the Florentine master painter, was passing through Arezzo, just below the great bend in the Arno. There he came upon a boy so prodigally gifted with a pencil that he recommended to the child’s parents that he be sent downriver to Florence to be apprenticed.

But here the biography, the life of the artist, diverges from the legend of Giotto. Giorgio Vasari was not a shepherd or even a country boy. His family were once potters and leatherworkers, but had come from Cortona to Arezzo two generations before and acquired property and status. So instead of being sent off to an apprenticeship, Giorgio continued to grammar school, memorizing long stretches of the Aeneid and developing a fluid writing style in both Latin and Italian. His teacher had Medici connections, and when Giorgio did leave Arezzo for Florence in 1524 at the age of thirteen it was to join the Medici heirs, Alessandro and Ippolito, and to continue studying for two hours a day under their tutor.

He did, however, find his way into the botteghe of the painter Andrea del Sarto and the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli. These were not inconsequential masters, but later in life Vasari would wish it a little otherwise and so rewrote his story to include being apprenticed to Michelangelo. Even if it had been true it would have been unlikely: Michelangelo, a hermit to his obsessions—Dante, bodies wrenched and anguished, tireless labor, and stone—did not have much use or time for apprentices. Vasari also claimed that in April 1527, during an anti-Medici riot in the Piazza della Signoria, he recovered and saved the broken arm of the David, which had been fractured in the melee. Perhaps it even happened, or something like it: what a life Giorgio might make for himself.

Four years later, his schoolmates Ippolito and Alessandro were respectively archbishop and duke of Florence, and Vasari formally entered the service of the Medici court, producing paintings, frescoes, and interior decorations. He was now extraordinarily well connected, assiduous in acquiring friends, and flush with commissions, although in the manner of the small-town burghers who begat him, he never ceased to strive as though he were one painting away from ruin.

Perhaps he was wise not to be complacent. In 1537 Alessandro de’ Medici was assassinated and replaced by a cousin, Cosimo. Vasari did not have much to fear in this development—it was an internal matter in the Medici family business—but he decided to withdraw from the courts of Florence and Rome for a time, not simply to Arezzo but into the Casentine, the country of Francis’s wounds and the Arno headwaters.

He went on retreat, not with the friars in the tangle of the La Verna woods, but among the monks at Camaldoli who managed their forest as a kind of deeply shaded park, less wilderness than architecture. It was a congenial place, created by God, refined by man, and Vasari would in future years make a retreat here each summer. He had visitors—his friend Bindo Altoviti came up from Rome to requisition large timbers for the construction of St. Peter’s—but of Camaldoli he would mainly say Quivi il silentio sta con quella muta loquella sua, “Here lives silence with its mute eloquence.” But art and the great artists were inescapable: in one of the cells, he was shown a small painted crucifix on a gold background “with Giotto’s name written upon it in his own hand.”

Vasari underwent no great personal or spiritual transformation but simply withdrew into himself, and thereby withdrew from himself a little, retreating for a while from the life he was forever building up before anything—disaster, time, other people—could tear it down, the exhausting, incessant fashioning and fabrication of his own biography.

Except for the month each year he spent with the Camaldolese monks, he was in continuous motion, shuttling between commissions in Florence, Rome, Venice, and Bologna as well as villas and religious establishments in between. It struck him around 1542 that he was a man of at least some means and ought to appear to be so. He bought himself a house in his hometown in Arezzo, remaking it in his own image, or the image he was busy becoming. He began by decorating its grandest room with murals on the theme of fame and the artist. Whether this represented vanity or aspiration cannot be said. He was transfixed by the classical virtues—labor, fortitude, justice, plenty, and liberality—and surely, after all, one ought to be ambitious in pursuing them.

In Rome, he tracked down Michelangelo, his idol, and dogged if not quite befriended him: Giorgio felt their intimacy even if Michelangelo did not, saw that this genius was no less than the reincarnation of Dante, and wondered how he might pay him his due beyond mere imitation. Then, dining at the court of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in Rome, someone tossed out the idea that Vasari might write a book about the great artists, showing how the masters of the Greek and Roman world had been reborn in the masters of the present age and recent past; how after a thousand years of barbarism and stagnation, art had been resurrected on the banks of the Arno.

Vasari seized on the idea. He saw he might work not just in the tradition of the Florentine chroniclers such as Villani, but of the ancient masters like Plutarch and in particular Pliny and his Natural History. It would be an epic about beauty and fame but also a genesis of the world that Vasari inhabited and devoted himself to. The book would begin with Cimabue and end, of course, with Michelangelo.

The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors from Cimabue to Our Times took five years to write. Vasari, as always, had numerous other projects under way, and some could scarcely be refused. In October 1546 the Farnese Pope, Paul III, asked him to make a large panel painting for the convent Paul’s niece, Faustina di Vitello Vitelli, Contessa di Pitigliano, was about to enter as a novice. The subject was to be the Last Supper. The finished painting measured a substantial length of just under twenty feet by eight and a half feet tall. It was completed in two months, a speed doubtless made possible by the employment of apprentices and subcontractors in the preparation of its five connecting panels. As opposed to the meticulous preparation of tavola, canvas, and ground practiced by Cimabue and his generation, the paint was applied straight onto the gessoed wood. Vasari was done with it in time for it to be installed for Faustina’s—now Sister Porzia—first Christmas in her new home, the Convento delle Murate in Florence.

The panels were mounted in the refectory, where the painting surely caused a stir among the nuns. Its scale might have seemed even larger than its considerable actual dimensions because of Vasari’s composition. He placed Christ and the disciples around an oval table, behind which we see not a wall or a window but an elevated balustrade, also oval in form, from which several figures overlook the diners like spectators in an amphitheater. It’s the instant of Jesus’ revelation that one of the disciples will betray him. Peter recoils, stunned, and John has seemingly fainted into his master’s arms. The other disciples eye one another or confer in disbelief. Judas, seated a little distance from the others and at an oblique angle to Jesus, has averted his eyes from his victim and turns toward us, his arms akimbo, his right leg contorted in the manner of Michelangelo.

It’s an electrifying moment rendered without much electricity, delivered without the pity of Giotto two hundred years earlier or the shock of Caravaggio a half century later. The colors were muted and the expansive, stately setting was more akin to Raphael’s School of Athens than to the modest, claustrophobic upper room suggested by the New Testament. The mood was almost languorous: for the inscription above Christ’s head, Vasari chose the placid “Do this in memory of me” rather than the more urgent “This is my body.” Vasari was nothing if not a Renaissance man, both classical and Christian, as drawn to virtue as to charity. He portrayed the moment in an almost stoic mode, Christ more noble than suffering, his passion rendered dispassionately.

It was a long way from the Casentine La Verna of Francis to this place, Vasari’s arena in which the onlookers at the balustrade mirror us, an audience rather than witnesses. It’s a stage, this arena, and we are less sharers in Jesus’ desolation—God taking on betrayal and suffering with us and for us—than spectators of a great man at a great moment in history. Vasari has created—has seen and made us see—not the Last Supper but a painting of it, a monument called The Last Supper.

It was not a failure. It was not substantially better or worse than Vasari’s other paintings, and it had something to say about the distance Florentines had come from the thirteenth century—from Cimabue to Michelangelo—and perhaps that Giorgio himself had come from Arezzo. He too wanted to be a great man, the kind of man who might be memorialized in oils or stone.


In the new year of 1547 Vasari stayed in Florence and worked on The Lives of the Artists into the spring and summer. Then, on August 13, the city was struck by its worst flood since 1333, remarkable for both the speed in which the water crested and for occurring in high summer rather than autumn. It surged into the Piazza Santa Croce and dumped what one chronicler called “infinite” timber, carcasses, and debris right up the steps of the church to the great doors and higher. The Ponte Vecchio was slammed and plugged by a thicket of olive and fig trees. In Vasari’s own neighborhood the water was almost sixteen feet deep. He may have been away in Arezzo or on his annual retreat with the Camaldoli monks, surrounded by the notes and manuscripts for his book.

When the waters retreated—the mire, fermenting in the August sun, was remarkably noxious—the speculations, suspicions, and recriminations poured in. In contrast to the theological explanations put forward two centuries earlier, contemporary Florentines turned to reason and natural science, economics, and politics. To many, deforestation in the Casentine now seemed an obvious culprit, but this did not much satisfy Florence’s appetite for conspiracy and backbiting. More compelling was the rumor that the Ricasoli family, who had extensive landholdings upstream, had secretly built a gargantuan dam and breached it at the height of the rains, thereby wiping out their neighbors whose property they would now be able to buy up on the cheap.

Vasari meanwhile flourished. He finished and published his Lives in 1550 to great acclaim. That same year, another old patron, Giovanni Maria del Monte, was elected Pope Julius III, and steered a series of Vatican commissions his way. And, finally, Vasari married, less out of desire than on the advice of higher-ups in papal and Medici circles: it befitted a man of stature to have a wife. Roman women were imputed to tend to adultery and ought to be avoided; those of Arezzo were too rustic and poor; but one from Florence, say, the daughter of a good merchant family, would be compliant and rich. Giorgio nevertheless chose a girl from Arezzo, Niccolosa Bacci, but bargained hard on the dowry, settling for a healthy eight hundred florins. The marriage would be childless.

Three years later, Pope Julius III died, but shortly afterward Vasari formally entered the service of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici at an annual salary of three hundred ducats. The Medicis, who had taken over the Pitti Palace in the Oltrarno as their residence, were completely refurnishing the Palazzo Vecchio as their seat of government. They put Giorgio in overall charge as architect, interior designer, and painter of murals and frescoes depicting the Medici in a range of heroic postures.

Vasari was in the midst of these labors when, in 1557, another late summer flood struck, at least as large or larger than that of ten years before. As then, it descended with tremendous velocity, carrying away the Ponte Santa Trinità and two of the five arches of the Ponte alla Carraia. This time the water not only submerged the piazza and steps of Santa Croce, but swept inside. A block to the west on Borgo Santa Croce was the house Giorgio and his wife had rented only three months before. The ground floor, used as a stable, was inundated, but the living quarters upstairs were unaffected. Vasari might have taken counsel from Michelangelo—more talented and here also shrewder than him—who advised his family to avoid Santa Croce real estate: “the cellars flood every winter, so think it over and be well advised.”

But it could be said that Vasari profited from the disaster: what had been an extensive building program by the Medici became, after the flood, a full-scale urban renewal project. The tax records office had been severely damaged and Vasari was given the task of constructing a new depository. Then, a year later, the Medici decided that the area between the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio should be razed and the grounds occupied by a massive government complex called the Uffizi, “the offices.” Vasari was made both architect and builder, and to complete the project the Medici had him then construct an above-ground enclosed arcade (known today as the Corridoio Vasariano), connecting the new buildings all the way to the Pitti Palace by way of the Ponte Vecchio.

But Vasari would always think of himself as a painter. In 1561 he was given the chance to do something great, an enormous fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio commemorating the Battle of Marciano at which Florence had decisively defeated Pisa in 1509. However, the wall Giorgio was to paint was already occupied by another fresco, Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari of 1505, perhaps the most magnificent of da Vinci’s many unfinished works. It would have to be either torn from the wall and removed or overpainted. Vasari went ahead, with which method and with what reluctance we cannot say. He rendered his own battle scene as a bloodless massacre, throats being cut, pikes thrusting, horses rearing, but with little of the energy he envied in Michelangelo or even much conviction, and certainly none of the stunningly unified chaos Leonardo’s original was said to possess. Unlike Leonardo, Giorgio finished his painting and in the far distance of the background, among the copycat ranks of infantrymen, this most conventional of painters strangely and inexplicably wrote cerca trova—“seek and find”—in tiny letters.

By way of thanks for this and other services, Duke Cosimo bought Vasari the house he had been renting in Santa Croce. He filled the walls with murals: allegories of the foundation of the various arts, portraits of the great artists he had praised in the Lives, and a vast work called The Painter’s Studio or Zeusi and the Beautiful Maidens. These frescoes were the last works he would paint with his own hand. It was as though he was not simply reflecting his own interests and vocation, but mirroring them back upon himself in his home, encasing himself inside his own monument. Over the fireplace he frescoed a bust of himself—a painting of a memorial sculpture, a replica of a replica—surmounted by the face of Michelangelo. To either side of the two of them, the master and his most avid disciple, he placed portraits of Cimabue and Leonardo.

All this while he had been at work on a second, revised edition of the Lives. Vasari’s painting often had a certain secondhand quality—motifs and content appropriated from an imagined classical past, style from the artists he worshipped—but in the Lives he was not content merely to pass on previously recorded legends and anecdotes. He delved into and employed primary sources—letters, journals, and public records—in a way that anticipated the methods of modern history writers. His aim remained the adulation of the artists he loved and the glorification of Florence as the cradle of the revival of art, but he grounded most of his enthusiasms and prejudices in the particulars of facts and evidence. He had invented the field we call art history, but still more he was a tremendous storyteller, the lives of his great men always in forward motion, pressing onward to their destinies.

For his second edition Vasari added new material (particularly about Michelangelo), but he also deepened his exploration of his original subjects, visiting, for example, Assisi to examine Cimabue’s frescoes. He also inserted himself into the second edition, citing his own work for the Vatican and the Medicis. What he had to say about himself is neither especially humble nor grandiose, but his treatment of his Medici patrons was a little fulsome. He credits the family with bringing Masaccio back to Florence to paint the frescoes that would launch the second phase of the Renaissance in the 1420s. They were also supposed to have persuaded Luca Della Robbia to start making ceramics. Neither of these stories were true.

Vasari’s tendency was to praise rather than to blame or gossip, although he opined that Botticelli died miserably on account of his “bestiality.” But he attracted enemies and rivals. Benvenuto Cellini began his own autobiography while under house arrest for sodomy and portrayed Vasari as “Giorgetto Vassellario”—“little Georgie the Vassal”—a flunky for the Medicis and a scabby liar compulsively scratching himself with grubby, jagged fingernails. For his part Vasari praised Cellini’s work in the Lives and described him, not inaccurately, as “courageous, proud, lively, very prompt, and very terrible.” A friend of Vasari’s could only wonder at his restraint: “To put that pig of a Benvenuto into your book shows how gentle and tolerant you are.”

On February 11, 1564, Michelangelo died in Rome. His corpse was sent to Florence, addressed to Giorgio Vasari. It remained for some days in the courtyard of Vasari’s house in Borgo Santa Croce. Before burial on March 12, the coffin was opened and it was said the body showed no sign of decay or corruption, as was thought to be true of saints.

Giorgio supervised and designed the memorial service (into whose planning Cellini had tried to insinuate himself, but he was rebuffed). The preparations took him until July to complete and resulted less in a requiem than a civic spectacular. Then he set to work erecting Michelangelo’s tomb in Santa Croce. In fact, Cosimo de’ Medici put him in charge of renovating the entire church, which had been in poor condition since the flood of 1557. But Vasari’s plans extended far beyond mere repair or restoration. Rather, Santa Croce, the longstanding burial place of choice for Florentines of note, would be transformed into a gallery of great men, like Giorgio’s Lives in three dimensions. The church of Francis and Cimabue would become a memorial temple worthy of Michelangelo.

It would also be, insofar as Vasari could manage it, stripped down and bulked up in the manner and spirit of Michelangelo, manifesting nobility in place of tenderness and frailty, muscular exaltation and endurance in place of suffering. It would, of course, remain a church: Vasari still held the world of the Camaldoli in high regard and in the Lives he had said “that true religion ought to be placed by men above all other things and that the praise of any person must be kept within bounds.” But there was a Medici on the ducal throne in Florence and another on the throne of St. Peter in Rome, refashioning the city of Florence in the first case and the whole Roman Catholic church—in response to the Protestant reformation north of the Alps—in the second. These were persons whose appetite for praise and making their mark upon the world was formidable.

Over the next four years Vasari’s energies would be consumed in the remodeling of churches from Santa Croce to the little church of Pieve in his hometown of Arezzo, of which he proudly remarked, “It may now be said to have been called back to life from the dead.” Sometimes old art had to make way for new, even art by masters Vasari had valorized in the Lives. Thus Masaccio’s Trinità in the church of Santa Maria Novella—much praised in the book—was covered over by a Madonna of the Rosary painted by none other than Giorgio himself. Times change and things change with them: revising the Lives, Vasari went to Milan to see da Vinci’s Last Supper and found it already macchia abbagliata—“obscured by decay”—scarcely sixty years after it was painted.

Masaccio’s Trinità, however, seemed to have been in perfectly good condition, so it was probably replaced for other reasons, perhaps because the rosary had become the preeminent devotion of the Counterreformation; and perhaps also because Vasari could not quite bring himself to refuse the commission. He was apparently not a vain or arrogant man but he was, by his own admission, a weak-willed one. What happened at Santa Croce is just as difficult to explain. In the early stages of his remodeling project Vasari decided—or acquiesced in the decision—to replace Cimabue’s cross over the altar with a ciborio (an outsized tabernacle in which to house the consecrated Eucharistic bread) designed by himself. The installation of a ciborio reflected, like the rosary, another Counterreformation development: devotion to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Vasari’s was a gilded cylindrical cupola, a Renaissance temple at the head of Santa Croce’s forum of tombs of great men. Cimabue’s Crucifix—the sign of Francis’s love for his wretched, plangent savior; of the tender and humane vision Cimabue bequeathed to Giotto and successors—was removed to the refectory, where it would remain for the next four centuries.

Three years after the installation of the ciborio in 1569, Vasari received the greatest commission of his career, the frescoing of the inside of Brunelleschi’s dome above the high altar of Florence’s Duomo. But perhaps his heart—what he loved and wanted to see most—remained more with the still-unfinished tomb of Michelangelo in Santa Croce. He saw neither project completed, but Michelangelo himself might have told Giorgio that in the grand scheme of things it was beside the point: in his old age Michelangelo had called sculpture “a grave danger to the soul,” regretting that he had made “an idol of art.”

Vasari understood this, at least at times: “I know that our art is wholly imitation, firstly of nature, and then, because of itself it cannot rise so high, of the works of the best masters.” So Giorgio had devoted his life to making copies of copies, to an idol. Perhaps what was truly real lived at the head of the river, with Francis and Camaldoli. But Vasari was weak, too eager to please great men to become a great man himself, never mind a saint like Michelangelo: “I am as I can, not as I ought to be, and that comes from my being too much at the will of others.”

In The Lives of the Artists he had explained how the Renaissance had come about so convincingly that the explanation would stand through four centuries. But why did it happen in Florence? He had thought about that too:

In Florence, more than anywhere else, men came to be perfect in all the arts, and especially in the art of painting, because the people of this city are spurred on by three things. For one thing, they were motivated by the constant criticism expressed by many people . . . who always judge them more on the basis of the good and the beautiful than with regard to their creator. Secondly, anyone wishing to live there must be industrious, which means nothing less than continually exerting one’s mind and judgment, being sharp and ready in one’s affairs, and, finally, knowing how to make money . . . The third and perhaps no less powerful motivation is a thirst for glory and honor . . . Indeed, this thirst often compels them to desire their own greatness to such an extent that, if they are not kind or wise by nature, they turn out to be malicious, ungrateful, and unappreciative of the benefits they received. It is certainly true that when a man has learned all he needs to learn in Florence . . . he must leave and sell the excellence of his works and the reputation of the city in other places . . . For Florence does to her artists what time does to its own creations: after creating them, it destroys them and consumes them little by little.

That was true enough for Leonardo, Masaccio, then Cimabue at Giorgio’s half-unwitting hands, and eventually for Vasari himself, who would be remembered for the writer he became rather than the painter he wanted to be. Fame, like brushstrokes and pigment, gets obscured, overpainted, or carelessly or uncomprehendingly restored. Vasari’s Last Supper would be restored twice over, once in 1593 and again in 1718, varnished with beverone—the hocus-pocus concoctions formulated by misguided restorers—that did more harm than good. It would wait in the Murate convent for its own appointment with destiny, with Napoleon, the greatest of great men, when it would be consigned to the same backwater at Santa Croce to which Vasari had consigned Cimabue’s Crucifix. This is why men need the cross, Cimabue could have told him: because even the best of them, those of the most eminent lives, little by little consume other men, other lives. They need something—someone wounded and forgiving—to whom to confess “I am as I can, not as I ought to be.”

Here is it where it ends, in the delta of the grave.

The corpse of Vasari, dead in 1574, returned upriver on the Arno to Arezzo where he would be considered a great man, if not a genius.

Vasari’s tomb of Michelangelo was finished a year later. More great men would find their way to Santa Croce, not all of them artists. Galileo Galilei, dead in 1642, was interred directly opposite Michelangelo. For all the pope’s attempts to muzzle him, Galileo had been a man of considerable influence in Florence, and in addition to his astronomy took an interest in the Arno and its penchant for overrunning its banks. There’d been a serious flood in 1621 and a truly spectacular inundation in 1589, and once again various plans to channel, dam, or divert the river had been put forward. One of these—proposed by the engineer Alessandro Bartolotti in 1630—was quashed by Galileo, but the following year another project received his support and was approved by the Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici. But that plan, too, was never carried out, at least in part on account of Galileo’s condemnation by the Church.

One hundred years passed, their course fragmented by serious floods in 1646, 1676 and 1677, 1687 and 1688, 1705, and 1715, and a major deluge in 1740. Three years earlier the last of Vasari’s great patrons, the Medicis, also died, and the dukedom of Tuscany was transferred to the dukes of Lorraine. The Lorraines were modernizers and promoters of Enlightenment and the cult of reason. The Medici art collections were donated to the state and the Uffizi converted to a public museum in 1769. Medici-era laws were rescinded, among them bans on forest-cutting in the Casentine. And eight years later Niccolò Machiavelli at last got his due.

Machiavelli had died in 1527 and had been buried in the family chapel in Santa Croce. But two decades later the chapel was taken over by a confraternity, and Niccolò’s name, or at least his bones, was obscured. But in 1787, at the duke’s behest, Innocenzo Spinazzi carved a grand tomb for Machiavelli crowned not by any religious figure, not even a cross, but an allegorical goddess of politics.

They were all here together now, the great men in their tombs, even Dante, who (although he was, like Leonardo, buried elsewhere in exile) in 1818 had a monument of his own on the south wall, halfway between Michelangelo and Machiavelli, as well as a statue in the piazza in front of the church.

Firenze was ready to be reborn as Florence; the city of art was ready to be born. In 1854, like so much else, Vasari’s ciborio was dismantled and would be interred in the largest tomb of all, oblivion, “the great sea”—as Florentines liked to call it—into which all things are finally emptied.

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