We met Remigiusz Grzela, Polish writer, poet, dramatist and journalist, who came to visit the museum of San Marco. Mr Grzela spoke to us about his experience of Florence, the art of Fra Angelico and the motives which drew him to Italy.
Mr Grzela, why is it that you are visiting Florence?
I am here for work. I came to collect documents on a book that I am writing, dedicated to two important female journalists of my generation: Oriana Fallaci and Teresa Torańska. To speak of Oriana Fallaci, of course, it is also to speak of Florence. Certainly, it means to talk also of New York because of the last books she wrote, but Florence is the city where she was born and where she wanted to die. It was the place to which she returned from New York, so as to greet the world while looking upon the cupola of the Duomo.
I could not do otherwise than come to Florence to talk to people who have been witnesses to her life, but also to see those who witnessed her passing. That was the most intimate circle of people connected to her. Walking through this city I always think: surely Oriana Fallaci passed by here, definitely came here, drank coffee here, stopped here, looked at the Duomo, looked at all of these beautiful works upon which I now gaze. It is as if somewhere here she might still be present. But I also asked something of the people about what … maybe not what exactly do you think of Fallaci … but when they understood me as saying that I am here to write a book about her, I heard their reactions, and this is what they said to me: “she was a great thinker”. For me it was significant that a Florentine did not say “journalist” or “writer”, but said “a great thinker”. This says something about her, it also speaks of the relationship that the people had with her.
Walking through the streets of Florence I saw in every news stand Oriana’s book “Un uomo” (A Man, 1979) It was published by the Corriere della Sera, and her picture is there on the cover. Oriana is everywhere in Florence, that is my impression. Certainly, I came here to work on her, and that is my first interest … who knows, maybe if it was not for the Fallaci I would not have come … no, I would have come anyway! I have friends who consider Florence the most beautiful of Italian cities, friends who only come to Florence when they want to indulge in a little relaxation in the city.
It is in fact your first time in Florence, even so you already know Italy well. What have been your impressions of it?
Already from the station as soon as you get off the train, it seems to manifest itself as a place that is absolutely full of history, nothing is false. That I can easily deduce by comparing it with my city of origin, Warsaw. During World War II it was 80% destroyed. Whenever I am in a place where history is close at hand, it has an impact on me. Florence is also a city of art, a true and proper legend … its galleries, museums, the works in this city, but finding oneself truly in its ancient city centre generates a “lightning bolt impression”. You get to see the buildings that are still standing where they were built. You see how this city has changed, if only on the basis of the street numbers of the buildings. You see that is a city in evolution, but at the same time it continues to be a city of history. This makes a great impression on me as person who comes from a town that is below the ground, which is built on a cemetery, from which history emerges however at all times, but it is a story of a complicated and difficult past, because it is the history of a cemetery. Florence is art history. It is enough to just think of the “cupola” (dome), which compels one’s attention, it makes you realize that you are at the centre. Look at the Duomo, which at first glance seems to be a painting, then you get closer and you realize that it is made of stone, of many colours and that these colours are different types of stone … it is difficult to express myself … but it’s as though I have found myself in a postcard.
And what has been your impression of the Museo di San Marco?
Phenomenal! In first place, the architecture of the building, with a cloister that is experienced as being very welcoming, not only for tourists, but for all people. I saw a few who were resting on the walls, a man who had turned his face to the sun and was recharging … I don’t know … his energy. I have been to many museums, but here I gained a sense of peace. It may be the place, its history, the fact that it was a monastery, a place of peace, prayer, formation … philosophy, theology, study … this place seems steeped with a peace that is transmitted to the visitor.
Usually, to watch an exhibition dedicated to a single artist can be tiring, but when your colleague started talking and introducing the visit to the museum, he invited us to consider it not only a collection of works of art, but also a place in which people lived. He immediately altered the prospective of the visit: not only was it to a museum, but a place where monks, artists and other men had walked before us.
And then, there was the way in which your colleague was describing the paintings … he spoke with the whole of his body, he spoke from the heart, spoke of the history, but at the same time he spoke of today, commenting occasionally according to his personal taste. All this, immediately, made me feel closer to those works. Looking at the paintings of an artist and his workshop, you can observe, in some way, his soul. I saw this man, Fra Angelico, as someone who, like very few, is truly searching. As one who in art seeks perfection, but he also tries to “break through”, tries to go beyond some confine and to articulate his world in a new way. Suddenly, perhaps thanks also to the words of those who accompanied us, what we have just seen now appears to be decidedly contemporary.
Looking at the works of Fra Angelico, all of a sudden I see paintings before which contemporary graphic design can truly “bend over to tie its shoe laces”. Certainly they are excellent from a pictorial point of view, but they are above all the fruit of a man “who is seeking”. They tell a story, they are speak of fabled world and a few show forth aspects that are so contemporary that could become part of pop culture. It seems too little to say that it is an extraordinary picture and that it will always be. It is a painting thus “of seeking” that always arouse the greatest interest.
Clearly, I do not want to analyze the work of Angelico in depth. I did not know all of these works previously. Today I have seen them, in person, for the first time. Some I already knew from reproductions, but this collection is truly impressive. Angelico has a mind accustomed to untangling any situation: he paints, yes, holy images, but I must say that, in fact, I have not seen them just as “holy”. Rather, in these paintings, it is as if “the artist” continues to come forth, for example in the way he paints the light, or perhaps to not as well … in his way of filling the painting with details, but also, when it requires it, to simplify the subject. The monk cells are extraordinary, just look inside and you will discover the frescoes. It’s necessary to bend down a little, and this too is interesting. You are not looking at works put on display, not viewing them in complete comfort. You must lower your head a little and then elevate your gaze and observe the details. There was a time when our guide opened the little window of a cell, saying, “here, look through the window … look … you see the same background painted in this fresco”. Such details bind you even more to this place and you say to yourself: I find myself here, where all this actually happened. Nothing has changed … the world has not changed, people have not changed, perhaps some political issues have changed, clearly we are more advanced in terms of technology, and so forth … but maybe they were superior to us, since, even without this technology, they were able to paint works like this. Today this would have to be art generated by computer.
And then there is the fascination of walking on that floor that has been there for a few hundred years. Yes, the guide has told us that it is not the original one, but it still of its own period. You walk along those corridors from where you can imagine that the friars entered their cells and then you see that series of paintings which all appear to look the same but are not. Suddenly, it’s as if you should enter more deeply into the silence, because you seem to enter into someone else’s meditation, that is, in the attainment of absolute peace, of a prayer that is not necessarily a religious prayer, but of a prayer that is useful to everyone to help understand himself. Looking at the whole series of frescoes which are very similar, yet all different, you truly see the work of the human soul. This visit, somehow, pushed me to an inner silence. It gave me much pleasure and it opened my eyes. The narrative was fascinating and I think that it is only this kind of story, by one who speaks from the heart and loves what he relates, that really moves the visitor. Your colleague told us a little bit of the history, of Florentine history, of this artist and of that place, and this was definitely one of the most fascinating tours in which I took part.
Do you see a link between Fallaci to Angelico? If so, can these two people born in Florence be seen in some way as bound to this city, thus creating a bond between them?
Yes, I see hard work and perfection. Not the sort of perfection intended to bring about an excellent work, but the perfection that gives rise to a work which is of its time. I believe that both Oriana Fallaci and Fra Angelico created works totally unique in terms of quality, but also open in terms of thought. I do not know if this is a fragment of the soul of this city because I have been here for too short a time, but all those who have known Oriana Fallaci say that of her … I myself have been able to see her manuscripts, her notes. She worked with great accuracy of each sentence, on the rhythm, the music of her texts. Everything had to function like a Swiss watch. In the final analysis she was not obliged to do everything that way, and yet to each interview she devoted months of preparation, documentation, and she was right to do so, because it is all still relevant. She showed a fragment of reality, the world in which she lived, but we are fully able to identify ourselves in what she writes. It has been some years since her death, and her fame is still alive, or at least that is what I see now in Italy. I arrived and there was a movie on television dedicated to her, there was a book of photographs published by Rizzoli. Books come out which speak of her, from which I gain the impression that her myth endures. And those paintings … I do not know how legitimate this type of comparison might be, but if I were to speak of Fallaci and Angelico, I would say that what distinguishes them is the very perfection of their work.
Oriana Eugenia Lanzafame
transl. by Marcus Francis
To learn more:
Remigiusz Grzela blog