Waking up on the morning of my final day in Florence I could not believe where the time had gone. While life slowed for my mom and I as we absorbed and assimilated ourselves into the relaxed beat of the city, unfortunately, time sped by without us. But I brushed the sadness aside, fueled by my previous day full of inspiration at the Museo Galileo. We saved the best for last in Florence – Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia and a 463 step harrowing climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome in the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo); two important creations and major sources of pride in Florence.
We were skeptical of what to expect from the sculpture of David, and our enthusiasm was quickly evaporating from the unforgiving sun while we waited in line. But when I rounded the corner and stood in the corridor with partially completed Michelangelo sculptures leading to David, who was softly shrouded in natural light from the skylight dome above, I gasped. Approaching his David, the sideline works represented a visual documentation of a remarkable process. In some, there were corners of the slab still visible. Looking at David, I wondered what the process was like for Michelangelo – what sort of thoughts, feelings, emotions, struggles, mental blocks, and triumphs did he experience? And when he finished the sculpture, was he proud? Or did he feel it could have been better? Now, it is wildly heralded as one of the most famous sculptures and highly respected and adored for the story it represents and its pure beauty – but in that moment, staring at his creation, what did he think?
Departing from David we travelled a few blocks from the Galleria in order to enter the dome of the Duomo. Prior to navigating the steep and tightly enclosed staircase of the cathedral dome, we crossed through the cathedral itself. My first thought upon entering was that it was a cathedral built for giants. There were no circular columns typical of previous buildings we had seen; rather, they were enormous angular shapes. The frescoes painted on the interior of the dome seemed to look down on us defiantly as the structure they rested on opposed gravity with such bravado. The vast amount of open space was overwhelming; the size of the cathedral was overwhelming (third largest church in the world); the structure inside was overwhelming; and needless to say, its exterior was also overwhelming. It seemed only fitting to have an overwhelming dome for the cathedral.
In order to choose an architect for the dome of the cathedral, a competition which consisted of architects being asked to balance eggs on marble was held. Filippo Brunelleschi won the competition in 1420 and began a 16 year construction process. He diligently worked to craft a structure that would draw crowds from all ends of the earth and captivate engineers for hundreds of years. He dared to shatter previously defined boundaries in the field. With every brick placed in the world’s largest brick dome ever constructed, Brunelleschi solidified his structure’s greatness and his talent, and while patiently monitoring the progress of the dome to ensure it would meet in the middle, he continued to shed the criticisms and doubts from skeptics.
My final day in Florence followed the history of a single person conquering a giant – whether physical or metaphorical. And with my head reeling from these thoughts of courage, I too stood up to my own giant – my paralyzing fear of heights. As I climbed the spiral steps with no handrails, uncomfortably confined on either side by smooth stones, I tried to envision myself in the 1400s as a worker for Brunelleschi arriving for a normal day’s work. As I carefully felt my way up the dark, narrow stairs I noticed large cracks stretching between the graffiti people left scattered along the path. Missing chunks of individual steps did not do much to provide comfort that I had made the right decision in this climb. When it seemed like I was lost in a dark maze of endless stairs, I spotted a blinding light above.
Taking very tentative steps, I eased myself up the stairs and immediately found something solid to glue myself to. Only when I felt certain my feet were planted firmly to the walkway could I finally begin to absorb the breathtaking beauty laid before me. I filled my lungs with the air 463 steps above the ground. I was literally standing and walking in the same steps as the brilliant designer. I could only imagine the triumphant pride he must have felt standing, looking out at the sprawling city below; knowing that no one had done what he had just completed.
Sitting atop the Duomo, I mulled over a thought that all great inventions and creations have a starting point. All the amazing ancient structures I had seen in Italy began with an imaginative idea and vision. The designers and scientists had to find a way to make their ideas into tangible reality despite walls of skepticism. Staring at a blank page of a thesis or dissertation, a slab of marble for a sculpture, an empty lot for a building, or a previously unsolved problem can seem a daunting task, but at one point, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Brunelleschi were all at the same beginning stage. It takes confidence to write that first word, make the first chip or sketch, and engage our minds, but without the first step, it is impossible to make the ordinary into something unforgettable. Every project we are a part of is a new opportunity to sharpen our skills and embrace our talents. The creative process is one of beauty that requires great perseverance and indefatigable will power.
Now, full of inspiration from a motivating and memorable trip through Italy, I have arrived in Paris and am optimistic for my first full day!