Not so very many years ago I spent a short time in Florence with a close friend of mine. It was our first time in the city and we had a jumble of images (which had lain a long time on the floor of our imagination) that we wanted to nail up more prominently in the front room of our consciousness. Dante had walked the streets of this city six hundred years ago, the Medici’s had ruled supreme, the classical had had its rebirth and the Renaissance spoke out from every street corner, piazza, palazzo, tower and Church.
For some reason I had always wanted to go to the Uffizzi, which turned out to be a disappointment. It was very dark, crowded and we were funnelled through in an untidy stream, past, I am certain, many stunning works of Art but none of which did we have the ability to stop and gaze at comfortably. It was all to like a chicken run, straining necks and clucking
The Boboli Gardens were more successful, even though they were on rather more of a steep gradient than I’d expected. We sat on the slope, I seem to recall, with the magnificence of the Duomo in the distance, pretending to be Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey writing their diaries on the grass, surrounded by stray cats. Or something like that.
In my ignorance I’d never before heard the name of the famous ‘Ponte Vecchio’ but it seemed somehow familiar, in all likelihood from having seen photographs of it in books and newspaper articles on Florence; as did many of the places we visited. I had perhaps the single most sublime moment of art appreciation that I’ve ever experienced the day we went to the Galleria dell’Accademia. I had not, I don’t think, even realised that Michangelo’s statue ‘David’ was housed in the gallery. However, when we finally got into the gallery after queueing for a long time, I saw it up ahead, from perhaps two or even three hundred metres (in memory at least it felt that far) away down the wide avenue of ‘great’ art on either side.
I can honestly say, even from that distance, it caught a hold of me and pulled me toward it, no less forcefully than if God had clutched my lapels and hoist me forwards. Even before I was twenty metres away my emotions were jangling. By the time I had circled it a couple of times I was in tears, quite literally overcome with awe and raw emotion. It was not an artwork I had particularly wanted to see, as I had once wanted to see the Mona Lisa (and been dreadfully disappointed) and I suppose it was familiar to me from countless reproductions.
No-one, I suppose I’m saying, primed me to think it was such a phenomenon. It just took a hold of me, smacked me between the eyes and utterly stunned me by its sheer animate beauty. I cannot explain, nor particularly care to, exactly, why I felt so overwhelmed. I just did.
It was a living embodiment, I now realise, of the human made divine; of the renaissance of man; the classical meeting the detailed anatomy of science, the lens of the modern sensibility combined with the mens of antiquity. My love of art has grown over the years but is still a magnificent feeling to find oneself suddenly (and surprisingly) so delighted and enlivened, touched as it were by the razor edge of art, its blade suddenly cutting through all the suffocating, emasculated, deathliness of everyday life.
So, when we walked back to our rather grand apartment, on the banks of the Arno, had our simple Italian food and a bottle of red each evening, we had plenty to talk of, and wonder at. Life was undoubtedly good, (even if it wasn’t always quite as good as this and possibly never would be again).
I had almost forgotten, until the other day, that we’d also taken a day trip to Siena. We, in all likelihood, after the journey from Florence, probably had little more than a few hours in the city itself and the only strong memory, I thought I had, was of the very distinctive slopes of the Piazza del Campo and a story we were told about, how they used to (and perhaps still did?) run a horse race around the piazza. This seemed highly improbable and certainly highly dangerous if true. But in a roundabout way I discovered that I did in fact remember more than this.
I have recently been reading a book which has lain on my shelves for many years untouched. I didn’t know the author (Frances Yates) and had only bought the book because it was a Routledge Classic and had Giordano Bruno in the title, in whom I had a passing interest at the time. Its full title is ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition’ which I suspect is not on most people’s ‘to read’ list.
The frontispiece of the book is a black and white reproduction of a part of the pavement inside Siena Cathedral. As I began reading the book I kept flicking back to the picture. It had a strange familiarity but I didn’t at first absorb the fact that it was a reproduction of some artwork located in a city I had once visited. I was gripped by this book from its opening pages (though be warned it is quite ‘heavy’, that is, ‘academic’ and its subject matter, literally, too esoteric for many readers I would think).
In the first few paragraphs Yates had made it clear to me that there was a third branch of the Renaissance (in addition to the Humanist and Religious aspects) that I was largely unaware of, and whose significance had not struck me before. As she piquantly says in her first line ‘The great forward movements of the Renaissance all derive their vigour, their emotional impulse, from looking backwards.’ A little further on she adds ‘Man’s history was not an evolution from primitive animal origins through ever growing complexity and progress; the past was always better than the present, and progress was revival, rebirth, renaissance of antiquity. The classical humanist recovered the literature and the monuments of classical antiquity with a sense of a return to the pure gold of a civilisation better and higher than his own. The religious reformer returned to the study of the Scriptures and the early Fathers with a sense of recovery of the pure gold of the Gospel, buried under later degenerations.’ Eloquently put and which chimed with my understanding of what the Renaissance was all about. Yates however, as I said, added a third pillar to the house of the Renaissance and this was Hermeticism.
I first came across the term ‘Hermetic’ in an intellectual sense and as a term, from lectures in the ‘History of Ideas’ at university (as opposed to something being ‘hermetically sealed’ which is how we probably all come across the term to begin with). However, although I knew it had a certainly potency, my understanding of its meaning was rather garbled, as I came across (and reinforced my nascent understanding of) the term, in the works of Post-Structuralists such as Foucault and Derrida. They tended to use the term to point to the ‘erasure’ of language, that is, the untouchability of meaning in language and the way in which by its very nature it is a sealed system that bends back on itself in impossible ways. Rather like a Mobius strip, one can never find its beginning, it is ‘hermetically’ closed and ultimately indefinable.
Anyway, Yates brought me back to the more prosaic, historical and straightforward meaning of the term i.e. as with for example, Sadism, the term is originally, simply derived from a person, in this case, the Magus called Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes Trismegistus and the ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ was the third strand of the Renaissance that I had overlooked and Hermes was the figure depicted in the frontispiece of the book, his image being part of the pavement floor in Siena Cathedral.
However, the fascinating thing, as Yates points out, is that whilst the two other strands of Renaissance thinking, the Humanist and the Religious reformer, were not mistaken as to the date of the ‘superior’ earlier period they drew inspiration from, ‘the returning movement of the Renaissance... [that sought to] return to a pure golden age of magic [i.e. Hermeticism], was based on a radical error in dating. The works which inspired the Renaissance Magus, and which he believed to be of profound antiquity, were really written in the second to third centuries A.D.’
Reading this, I suddenly realised, that I had seen this frontispiece image before. With growing interest, I looked up the image on the internet. Multiple examples, in colour, confirmed the inkling that I had, that I must have seen this image before. I then dug around, in my rather jumbled up books (I moved recently and my library is all over the place) and finally retrieved a copy of the guide to Siena Cathedral, which I’d all but forgotten I had. This made the case even more clearly, when from its covers slipped a floor plan of the cathedral with its floor mosaics represented. There at the entrance to the cathedral, in unmissable glory was Hermes Trismegistus. Looking at the guide, it began to come back to me that the cathedral itself is made up of striking black and white marble horizontal stripes, its pillars and façade, a kind of Hansel and Gretel candy construction. At the time I noted mostly the amazing pulpit carved from Carrara marble by Nicola Pisano. The floor was beautiful but one’s eyes are often driven upwards in a cathedral.
The fact that I undoubtedly had seen the image of Hermes Trismegistus before, came as a kind of minor personal revelation, not quite on the level of seeing Michangelo’s ‘David’ certainly but it nonetheless affected me quite deeply in an intellectual and emotional sense. I had seen this image in situ! I had not been struck by who was depicted in the image but definitely by the craftsmanship involved, as I had with the magnificent pulpit carved.
But this representation of Hermes Trismegistus, I realised, was extraordinary in another sense. Giordano Bruno had been burnt at the stake for believing in such things, for believing in the truths of Hermes Trismegistus and here was Hermes, depicted with (it seems) Moses no less, in the doorway of a cathedral!
As it turns out, in another way this was not so extra-ordinary, for as Yates points out, ‘The representation of Hermes Trismegistus in this Christian edifice, so prominently displayed near its entrance and giving him so lofty a spiritual position is not an isolated local phenomenon but a symbol of how the Italian Renaissance regarded him and a prophecy of what was to be his extraordinary career throughout Europe in the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century.’
It is amazing that such an error in dating (and belief that Hermes Trismegistus prophesized the future existence of Christianity and pre-dated it by hundreds if not thousands of years) had such an impact.
The byways and lost (and found) avenues of knowledge, like memory, have many kinks and bends in them. The early Christian Father Lactantius had helped to misdate Trismegistus and asserted he was a pre-Christian thinker. In one stroke making him sound both more prescient that he was (by intimating the coming of Christ) and in the eyes of the Renaissance giving him the shimmering allure of being an ‘ancient’. The ‘Corpus Hermeticum’ went on to fuel the flames of many a pyre (including Bruno’s) for centuries to come and, it could be argued, for some people, such esoteric thinking is still burning. One of Hermeticism’s more modern incarnations being in the writings and philosophy of The Golden Dawn of whom the poet WB Yeats was a famous member.
An added irony is that, in all likelihood, Trismegistus himself is largely a figment of imagination, a composite of different writers; who, as with the authors of, for instance, the New Testament, (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John,) were gradually created by and melded into singular voices from, the oral traditions and scattered writings of many people whose identities are now lost.
What this shows, is that what is important to human beings is the power of the idea, whether it be embodied in a near perfect art work or in the heart of an ancient treatise and this especially if it reflects who were in a legendary past and who we may wish to be in the mythical future.
If an idea is powerful enough it will create many architectures to maintain its existence, both figuratively and actually. On both a personal and a societal level, the architecture of the mind often holds such potent treasures, quietly, only waiting for a catalyst, the disturbed memory or a misdated manuscript, to release, from its vaults, their magical content.