By the age of 3, my mom had made sure that I knew the difference between Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s (slightly less sexy) David. By the age of 4, Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was my favorite painting. And by the age of 5, I knew that I would one day make it to Italy, and study Italian Renaissance art in the very cradle of the Renaissance movement. And so I diligently continued to study art and art history, with my mom’s help and on my own, in preparation for my grand future trip.
My first year of college, on a random afternoon on my way to lunch, I accidentally stumbled upon the Study Abroad Fair at the Memorial Student Center of Texas A&M University. And that’s where I met him: Paolo Barucchieri. In a thick Italian accent, he was passionately speaking about Santa Chiara Study Center, his Italian art and architecture program in Castiglion Fiorentino, a small village tucked deep in the Tuscan hillside. He had grown up in Florence, came from a family of art curators, and he himself would be our professore. I was sold. For the next 4 years, I worked hard, saved money, and put off medical school for a year to give myself the experience of my dreams. And that I did, under Paolo’s invaluable instruction. But little did I know that I would learn far more than just Italian Renaissance art history.
Our classes were on site, in museums and inside ancient Churches, and laced with amazing stories about Paolo’s life. He had such a simple, matter-of-fact way of completely blowing our minds. For example, as he walked us through Guiberti’s Gates of Paradise and into Florence’s great Baptistry, across from its famous Santa Maria dei Fiore cathedral, he would whip up an impromptu lecture on the scenes from the Last Judgement ornamenting the ceiling in intricate mosaic-work. Then he would conclude with: “We are standing on the very spot where Dante Alliguieri was baptized.” Moving on…
He taught us that Byzantine art is primitive and elementary, and that frescoes were the TV of ancient times. He taught us that Romanesque architecture was designed by instinct rather than by intellect, as evidenced by its disorganization and utter lack of uniformity. Then came Gothic architecture with its pointed arches, disengaging the vertical from the horizontal in an attempt to connect the celestial to the earthly, God to the people—an attempt to unify “the physeecal and the metaphyseecal.” His favorite line. Everything he taught was taught in terms of what was standing before us, and its transcending, ethereal meaning.
He took us to Palazzo Davanzati, a typical well-to-do 14th century medieval townhouse (a.k.a.: palace), where he pointed out the pelting holes on the ceiling, designed for the specific purpose of “dropping missiles on unwanted visitors.” This would transition him to the “back relief” technique with which the ceilings and walls were ornamented, a mergence of painitng and sculpture developed by Donatello. Then he would casually end with “I lived here for 6 years when I was a boy, because my parents tended to the palace’s art pieces. My brothers and I used to play hide and seek along these halls…” Amazing stories.
But my favorite of his stories he told us in Venice, in the Basilica di San Marco. When the Germans occupied Italy during World War II, the Italian art curators were commissioned with the task of protecting Italy’s art pieces. These were taken down from churches, palaces, and museums and hidden in the personal homes of hundreds of art curating families around Italy. Including Paolo’s. “Every night as a little boy I would got to sleep with this little jewel hidden in boxes under my bed…” he said, as he led us behind the altar inside San Marco’s. “One night, the Germans entered our house and woke us up, demanding to search our belongings. They pulled out the boxes under our bed and found it! But for some reason they didn’t take it. We put it away in its boxes and continued to protect it until the war was over.” He was speaking of the Pala d’Oro, a gigantic, solid gold, jewel-encrusted piece, universally recognized as the most exquisite example of Byzantine craftmanship in the world. He looked at it with a smile and said: “Hello, old friend.”
In this way he showed us Michelagelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgement, Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” and Da Vinci’s “Annunciation.” He took us to the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. Because of him I met Michelangelo’s three Pietas, and David. Because of him, I was able to give my parents a grand tour of Italy, and help my mom live out her lifelong dream of laying eyes on the works of her idols for the first time in her life. Because of him, I have cultivated knowledge and memories for a lifetime.
Paolo passed away this week. But while the physical is gone, the metaphysical will forever remain—through his teachings and through the lives he touched during his time here, and every time we share his stories.
From the bottom of my being, thank you, old friend.