Final dinners and lunches, in these last weeks on this side of the pond. Last evening's was delicious, and included the blessing of the newly-renovated kitchen from which had come our luscious Italian meal -- Italian, that is, until we reached the end, which was a pie chock-full of New Jersey blueberries. Then it was coffee, which I don't often drink after dinner but in which I decided to indulge. That may be why I began writing this morning at 2:30 A.M.
Do you have a television? Q asked our hostess.
A television? Why on earth...? I groaned to myself, embarrassed.
They're going to show a helicopter ride over Rome, Florence and Naples, he said.
Oh, for heaven's sake. Men, I muttered to myself. But we all trooped into the den.
I soon stood corrected: it was a wonderful television program. We sailed over the seven hills, enjoying a view of the Eternal City human beings don't ordinarily see. We saw its surviving wall sections, whose unified defining of the ancient city you don't grasp from the ground. The top of the Pantheon. The winding Tiber, so surprisingly narrow for so famous a river. The symmetrical elegance of St. Peter's, the lush green of the gardens of the Villa Borghese. The Forum, all at once, yielding a total sense of the ancient civic center impossible to have just by walking through it.
And then out toward the green countryside. The Villa d'Este, with its many fountains and cascades, laid out as tidily as an oriental rug on the ground beneath us. Hadrian's Villa. And then the vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany, hemmed by rows of tall, slim cypress trees, and soon the winding Arno, another famous river.
Swooping over bridge after bridge after bridge, we heeled inward toward the city center. The helicopter explored Santa Croce, Santa Maria Maggiore, slyly circling their plain backs and sides so that we might come suddenly upon their brilliant inlaid green-and-white marble facades. Tiny people surveyed Florence from the very top of the Duomo's bell tower; we came close enough to its famous ribbed dome to admire the ornate fixtures at the apex. There was the Pitti Palace. There was was the San Lorenzo market, the streets around it filled with the umbrellaed stalls of hundreds of merchants.
That was just wonderful, everyone said. It was time to go home. Soon it will be time to walk again -- I do not think that we will fly -- among all those lovely things.
How beautiful the world is, both its natural splendors and the ones humankind has fashioned. It is a privilege to be here, to live amid such beauty, to share a species with those whose minds and hands could create such magnificence. The Renaissance, birthed in that place, was not right about everything -- its brand of humanism could be every bit as harsh as the medieval religiousness which preceded it. But its conviction that great beauty is worthy simply because it is beautiful, a conviction which ensured that we would remember Giotto, Bernini, Michelangelo, Piero, Raphael, but have trouble placing the popes and princes who commissioned their work: that was a gift to the ages.
The DVD Visions of Italy, the helicopter's-eye view of many Italian cities and countrysides, is available at http://astore.amazon.com/greveinchiant-20?_encoding=UTF8&node=19. It might also be airing on your local PBS channel sometime this week.