We ran the stairs 2 at a time with only 10 minutes and basically no idea where we were going.
I haven't been back since, but I remember the long shallow stairs and red carpeting and turning left and right like idiots - sort of laughing and sort of angry. In and out of rooms, we tried to be respectful but kept looking at the map and our watches.
And then, there they were. Side by side, just like us.
You know when you're seeing something that you're going to remember forever.
Quick back story: Several of us went to Italy in 1999 for about 2 weeks to explore the galleries, consume the chianti, and people-watch in the land of pasta, leather, Vespas, Bernini and the Medici family. [My apologies for the clichés. This isn't a blog about being culturally solvent.] We couldn't manage a summer abroad, all of us being between the ages of 26 and 32 with full time jobs, but 12 days allowed us to move at a fairly measured pace. We were in Rome for 3 days. The Sistine Chapel & Vatican City, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Villa Borghese, etc. Basically, we wandered with purpose the way tourists do, "Hoovering" gelato and taking photos of vistas and minutiae before heading north by train to Umbria to tour the Tuscan region. We were going to plant ourselves in Florence, consume what was there and take day trips to Siena, Pisa and elsewhere.
We stayed in Florence for 4 days and had an agenda that was fairly leisurely. Planned, but leisurely. We mapped each day, climbed inside Brunelleschi's dome and even stopped mid-climb to chat about how cool it was to be inside something that took so long to accomplish (started in 1296 and completed in 1436) and so much innovation to create. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore took patience, manpower, enormous amounts of money and imagination, say nothing of math skills.
We saw the David in the Academia Gallery. (Not sharing a photo. You ALL know David.) One morning, I got up early to wander alone to the Church of Santa Croce, where Dante is buried. Outside there were student-artists holding pencils out and up in some exercise in perspective that I knew just enough about to appreciate before entering the church. Giotto's frescos..... eating street food ..... time by myself. It was sacred and liberating and heady.
We'd sort of gotten used to the easy Italian pace next to our own need to see everything, especially as a group with different agendas and sleeping habits. Our last afternoon we planned to visit the Uffizi and wander what is one of the more storied galleries in Italy. Only 2 of us wanted to go (the others were museum'd out and chose Peroni), but when we got to the doors and ticket office, we were told they'd be closing in 15 minutes. The Italians have a charming way of saying "We're Done" whenever they want.
My companion and I wanted to see Botticelli's Birth of Venus and La Primavera, so we just agreed to find those and took off at a run with our map - dodging others and twisting in and out of rooms as everyone else was making their way to the exits.
"The Gallery is CLOSING in 10 minutes" was repeated over and over again in Italian and English.
HOW DO YOU JUST DECIDE TO CLOSE WHEN WE WERE PLANNING TO SPEND HOURS HERE?
Don't you know people save their money, board several flights and then trains to see what you guys take for granted??
We were leaving the following day for Bologna, so this was it.
Maybe I was angry because I felt short-changed or I was filled with adrenaline because the clock was not on our side, or indignant that we'd planned based on their timetables, but when we turned into the room where Botticelli's two most famous paintings were hanging side by side, I teared up. And so did my pal.
They were bigger than I expected and the colors were more intense. I just stood there looking from one to the other. The ginger-haired goddess of love in her half shell and the multiple versions of the ginger-haired goddess inviting us to watch spring become.
It was only later that I thought about my art history classes in high school and college and how to decode the subject matter of paintings -- and my mom teaching me about the Renaissance, the Medici family, reading John Ruskin, etc.
In those short 6-8 minutes, it was just me and those 2 paintings, those 2 stories and my intersection with them.
It sounds like teen reverie, but this is true: a public space that has hosted everyone from Vasari to my mom, Michelangelo to heads of state, college students and bewildered tourists - and is filled with art, hundreds of years of history and a sense of connection with the people, painter and place will bring you to tears because that space has something to say. At least it did to me.
You know when you're standing in front of something that you're going to remember forever.
I have several favorite stories from that trip: about architecture, about fumbling with the language, the Catholic iconography, the golden light, the Ducati factory in Bologna, cab drivers who knew Bon Jovi and the canals, squid ink pasta and Peggy Guggenheim's place in Venice. But this is the story I tell the most.
The story about my potential disappointment at having to race through an enormous gallery and then finding myself in tears, holding hands with my friend. That moment when I got my 5 minutes of reverence and awe for Botticelli. Me and Venus. Me and the elements of Spring. Me in Italy. It was the standing there, far from home and family and my uninspiring job, in front of two of the largest and loveliest pieces of art I'd ever seen, that was oddly centering and completely grounding. It felt so specific and tender and personal. I put a pin in that moment and it's still there, 17 years later.
When I see the photos that inspired the design of Ebenezer Chapel and think about what the architect, engineers and developers are willing to do to complete it, I also like thinking about the people who will enter those granite walls beneath the earth. What will those walls say to them and what will people hear and feel? What will lift their spirits or bring them down to earth or both? Will they be overwhelmed at being just a self in front of something so sacred and timeless, they way I was in that museum? What will they tell others about their experience ... and what will be their particular story of why it mattered so much that they got to be there in that moment?
VC Leeper is a full-time writer, media/brand developer and traveler - sometimes with her passport - sometimes from her favorite reading spots. Her faith in God and the magic of good movies is unshakeable. @WordsBiz