It is, for me, the most peaceful place I could ever hope to find.
The Church of Santa Croce in the city of Florence, Italy is the final resting place of many of the giants of the Renaissance. Among those who lie beneath a variety of ornate marble tombs are Macchiavelli, Galileo, Dante, Rossini, Vasari, Ghiberti and, the Divine One himself, Michelangelo.
I stepped inside the church on my first visit to Italy when I was 14. It was then I first began to understand what it meant to be Italian. Walking in silence and staring up at these tributes to legends, I realized there was more to my history than what I learned living in a working class neighborhood of New York City and what little I had seen on TV or movie screens. We were not simply about thugs in sweats, pizza by the slice and World War II movies depicting us as cowards or traitors.
Through the years, I made an effort to learn about the country where I was conceived, where my roots are, where my mother was born and would die. With the films of Vittorio De Sica and stories told to me by my Grandma Maria, I knew our experience during the war was one of bravery and strife, struggle and grief, unsung heroes dying from hunger or enemy fire on the streets of cities they loved.
And while Hollywood continued to paint us with a gangster’s brush, convincing even many Italians of that fact, I knew it to be a tainted portrait. We had given the world the Renaissance and the great works that period produced. We had explored the realms of science through men of genius, from Da Vinci to Galileo. While Americans to this very day talk about creationism, in Renaissance Italy, intelligent men discussed and dissected the solar system, the number of planets and the path of evolution.
I have stood for hours in front of Michelangelo’s tomb, in awe of the man and the art he left behind. He was in his mid-20s when he completed the David; had never painted until commissioned to do the Sistine Chapel; and threw away finished works others would have labeled masterful but he deemed inferior.
Michelangelo’s work improved with each new sculpture and painting. He never listened to the shouts of the mob, but rather to voices of reason and thought. And he allowed their genius and his own to guide his very hand.
Today, his art speaks for him.
His works hang in many churches, though he himself was hardly religious. He is the point of pride for many a museum, though he often feuded and rebelled against his very patrons. And throughout his life, Michelangelo combated one primary foe: ignorance. He considered it man’s most dangerous enemy, one which could bring an entire country to its knees.
It is a lesson worth heeding, taught to us by the one of the greatest minds of any century.
It is as timeless today as it was on that morning when he first put chisel to a defective piece of marble and produced a work destined to outlive us all.