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Florentine Frustration

The loneliness of the long-distance art lover

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By JOSHUA GELERNTER
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I live in Connecticut, and I don’t travel much outside of the Northeast corridor. But through a few strokes of luck, and some happy happenstance, I’ve been in Florence five times in the last seven years.

Costanza Bonarelli (ca. 1636)

Costanza Bonarelli (ca. 1636)

Florence is an art city; the city itself is art, and its museums are the best in the world. It has the most famous cathedral south of Chartres, as well as Botticelli’s best work, several important Leonardos, most of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, and an unparalleled collection of the great pre-Renaissance proto-prospective painters.

It also has Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s best bust, which is arguably his finest sculpture. Bernini was perhaps the greatest sculptor who ever lived—although he is more often listed as number two, behind Michelangelo—and he was a part-time bastard: His greatest bust is a racy portrait of his assistant Matteo Bonarelli’s wife, Costanza. While she and Bernini had an affair, Bernini carved the bust for his personal collection. It shows Costanza with her hair tousled and her blouse disheveled, open at the breast. She’s caught midsentence, with her eyes wide and her lips curving to speak. No other sculpture in the world looks so alive and so animated. 

Not long after carving it, Bernini found out that his paramour Costanza was also having an affair with his younger brother, Luigi. Bernini chased his brother through the streets of Rome, into St. Peter’s, and tried to beat him to death with an iron rod. Costanza’s punishment, in kind, was being visited by one of Bernini’s servants who, at his master’s behest, slashed her face with a razor. 

In the aftermath, a heartbroken Bernini couldn’t stand to look at his Costanza bust, so he sold it to the Medicis, which is how it ended up in Florence. Which is lucky, art historian Simon Schama points out, because Bernini might otherwise have smashed it to pieces. Now it lives in the Bargello Museum: “Costanza that once was,” Schama says, “and for us, always will be.”

Except that she won’t, because the room she’s kept in has been closed for six years.

Seven years ago, on my first journey to Florence, I found her hidden in a back room on the Bargello’s top floor. Five years ago, on my second trip, I found that her room was closed because the rooms between it and the stairway were being refloored. Four years ago, on my third trip, the flooring was ongoing, and last year, it was finished. But Costanza’s room was still closed, and none of the museum guards could tell me why.

A few weeks ago, I was again in Florence, and a guard found me yanking on the medieval wooden door to Costanza’s gallery, refusing to believe that after all this time the door could still be locked. He didn’t speak any English, but he was very friendly and very accommodating, and, after a conversation of hand gestures and a little French, he went off and found a key, unlocked the door, and let me in. When I was finished, I shook his hand, thanked him, and went away a happy man: The Costanza blockade had finally ended.

The next day, I went to look at her again. The gallery was locked, and my guard was nowhere to be found. I asked six other guards to let me in. All politely declined. I went to the administrators’ offices, trying to find out what was going on. They were empty. I tried the guards again, for information. That was a challenge. About half of the guards were either talking on their cell phones or sleeping, and the ones who were free spoke less and less English the less they felt like talking.

The only thing they could tell me for certain was that the room was closed and not scheduled for reopening. None knew why. One guessed that it might be because they don’t have enough guards, which would have been more plausible had more guards been awake. 

Here is my conclusion: Six years ago, a minor construction project was undertaken, requiring the Costanza room to be closed. Because the minor construction project was undertaken in postwar Italy, it took several years to complete. By the time the project was finished, no one at the museum could remember why the room had been closed. They don’t require a reason; it’s simply the status quo. And none of them seems to mind or care. 

Perhaps living in Florence anesthetizes one to art. The exception to all this, of course, was my hero-guard—but perhaps he was some sort of angelic apparition. I returned twice to the museum but couldn’t find him. My letters to the Bargello have gone unanswered. Next, I will be writing to Florence’s mayor. In the meantime, I have a new appreciation for the decline and fall of the Florentine Republic.

Joshua Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.  

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