Seven nights in Florence and a day in Padua

As I was saying the other day, this summer I had the opportunity to visit Florence. Florence, alongside Rome from two years ago, has always been one of those lifelong dreams, and I was very fortunate that this year I managed to make it a reality.

Walking into the Uffizi Gallery and facing Michelangelo’s Tondo just before the next room where I was flanked by Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to my right and La Primavera on the left were moments I have looked forward to since childhood (ok teenagehood). Also seeing the David up close and personal was a moment beyond anything I can describe. It was like meeting old pen-pals face to face and realizing they’re better than your wildest expectations.

Michelangelo's David in the flesh
Michelangelo’s David in the flesh

But I digress, the minutiae of my holiday aren’t the point here. Part of the reason I chose Florence this summer was the fact that it is close to Padua which is where a small part of Vampire Edifice is set. Padua University, in fact, is rumoured to be the second oldest university in Europe with an anatomy school that rivals none in prestige and history. It was home to several prominent figures like Galileo, Andreas Vesalius (father of modern Anatomy) and William Harvey, who discovered blood circulation, to name just a few. On a side note, in the hall of the forty I noticed a drawing of a man called Stephano Bathory (King of Poland) 1533-1586 who I am more than intrigued to research at some point for obvious reasons.

Padua University
Palazzo Del Bo

I can honestly say that the trip to PU was going to be as much of a highlight of the trip as the Medici Mausoleum or the David and at €5 for an hour tour I was very excited to make the three hour journey to Padua from Florence and back. Thanks are owed to my kindle and A Song of Ice and Fire for hours of entertainment.

Anyhoo, the first blow of the tour came in the fact that we were not allowed to take pictures of the rooms. Big bummer, ‘cause I’d planned a detailed blog post of the bloody thing. Secondly the tour guide lady was very economical with the details of the place. In fact, when she was asked a question about certain inscriptions on the walls she promised to come back to it later but never actually took the time.

The biggest bummer of all however came in the form of the Anatomy theatre, which I’d been looking forward to seeing all summer long, in anticipation of the trip. For those not in the know, an anatomy theatre is an inverse conical space, think upside down traffic cone, where students of anatomy would collect in order to watch the dissection of corpses in the name of science. PU’s Anatomy theatre was built in 1594 by Gerolamo d’ Acquapendente and was made world famous by some of the aforementioned historical personalities.

Were we allowed to see that? Oh no, that would’ve been too normal a thing to do on a specialist tour. Instead we were led in under it, picture the eye of the cone, and made to look up through the hole. Though there was a level of geeky coolness in the fact that this was the way the corpses got to see it, by way of practicality, it was next to useless. Atmospheric? Yes! Pointless? Also yes!

Whatever the case, though I was disappointed by the tour experience, I did love the location and of course the History of the place. What I did get to see and ask about satisfied my research needs for the book (I like to have visited the locations I write about wherever possible) and hey, I got to stand in the same rooms that Galileo and Harvey et al did almost five centuries ago. Can’t fault that.

On another note, whatever satisfaction I didn’t get from the tour at PU, I got in spades from the Museo La Specola in Florence itself. The museum holds one of the largest collections of wax anatomical aids from the 18th century and is an incredible sight for all lovers of medical history and the macabre.

Little Wax Massacre
Little Wax Massacre

The museum itself is not that well marketed and is home to series of other random exhibits which suddenly lead to the wax models in a slightly surreal shift of mood. It is an amazing place, with incredibly well-crafted pieces which marry the worlds of history, sculpture and medicine into an unforgettable experience. I know I sound a bit tourist guide-y but think of the fact that these models were sculpted from life (or death to be precise) in the days before refrigeration. Chew on that for a moment…

To my good fortune, due to its lack of promotion no doubt, there were only two families in the entire museum along with me, which gave the space an added air of sobriety. At times it felt as if the whole place was mine.

Flayed Man
Flayed Man

Can History be edited?

I’m sure you’ve all heard or read about the Ben Affleck “Finding your Roots” debacle that has dominated showbiz news before Bruce Jenner took over a couple of days ago. In case you haven’t here’s the long and short of it, Ben Affleck, bona fide Hollywood Royalty was invited to take part in Finding your Roots, a US TV programme much like Who Do You Think You Are?, which I could watch on repeat 24/7 even when The Walking Dead is on. Social and Family history is as real as it gets for me, a tangible connection to the past as well as everyone and everything that makes us who we are. That’s the whole point of it after all, discovering who we descend from.

As part of Affleck’s episode it was revealed that one of his distant relatives, a certain Benjamin Cole was a slave owner, and if several other websites are to be believed so were many more. As this revelation left “a bad taste” in his mouth according to his own statement, Mr. Affleck chose to have show’s producers edit the episode and pretend the slave owning Mr. Cole never existed. According to various news articles online, the ancestor in question was said to have owned a total of 25 slaves, a significant number for any one person in the 19th century, implying that the family was very well off. Hold onto that thought we’re going to need it later.

Despite the fact that as Mr. Affleck made sure to point out, Mr. Cole lived six generations ago, a move designed to impart distance between himself and his mega-grandad, our ancestors play a big part of how our family history is shaped in one way or another. Case in point, the small detail of the name “Benjamin” which has been important enough through the generations to be passed down to him.

Denying our family history is as nonsensical as implying we could have done something to prevent the negative aspects of it, but his attempts to hide it were probably made in an effort to avoid even a hint of racist accusations being made against him. Perhaps there are people out there who would’ve thought that since Ben Affleck had a slave owner in his family, some sort of racist feeling might have been passed down through the generations. This would not have been a problem however, AND it would have made for a much more impressive episode if the slave owning past was put in contrast to his mother’s ardent support of the civil rights movement in her youth. It would have been a much more powerful statement if they’d highlighted the point that five generations after owning slaves, the same line in the family came full circle and fought to abolish inequality.

Family have an effect on what and who we grow to be. The good things influence as positively just as the bad things can do either. The effects might be subtle or even imperceptible but they are there. We might not have the same beliefs and opinions as our distant relatives, heck I don’t share half my dad’s opinions and he singlehandedly raised me, so I would certainly not share them with an ancestor who was around c. 150 years ago, but I accept that somewhere in me is some minuscule part of the past, because we are products of the past, we are products of everything that came before us and it has helped shape both our negative and positive aspects. We can’t just embrace and celebrate the good aspects of our past, ignoring or pretending the bad ones never happened. We can’t edit history. It’s the first thing any secondary school History teacher will tell you. We learn History so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Whether we do repeat them is a topic for a whole other blog post however.

In a country where white police men shoot and kill black unarmed men on a daily basis, a condition clearly stemming from the black-white divide created by the slave trade and its aftermath, it is hypocritical and demeaning to wish to hide an instance of history where this occurred simply because it was your great-great-great-great granddad and your Hollywood persona does not fit with that profile. And, if you have the privilege of having that “leave a bad taste” in your mouth, many others do not.

One of the earlier episodes in the first series of the show featured Condoleezza Rice, Samuel L. Jackson and Ruth Simmons all of which had ancestors who were slaves, being as they are all African American. You can’t be African American and not have slavery feature in your family history. Did they have the option of neglecting to mention their slave ancestors? And that’s in the cases where their names are known of course; what about those of their European ancestors who had children with their slaves, most often by rape, in order to increase their “livestock?” The knowledge that your great great grandmother was somebody’s slave I’m sure leaves a “bad taste” in their mouths too, but they don’t even have the option of pretending that never happened or censoring it in order to feature more “interesting” ancestors.
In an episode featuring Harry Connick Junior we are told that one of his forefathers was a soldier in the Confederacy for 3 years, a fact which is clearly not pleasant for him but one which he takes well as can be expected and accepts as a fact of the times AND as part of his family history.

The place I am trying to get to in a very roundabout way is in fact this: When I first read the story about Ben Affleck the first thing that came to mind was this article about wealth and privilege in the UK. Though it is clearly not the same country, parallels can still be raised. The unspoken truth about all this remains that a person of wealthy descent (remember that point I told you to remember in the beginning?) maintains the privileges of his ancestry. Grandaddy Cole-Affleck was a wealthy man. The wealth was made on the back of a certain number of slaves. That wealth, privilege and education was passed down through the generations be it via a better standard of living, better opportunities, connections and all the ways that class and wealth proliferates through the ages. Like it or not the advantages of Mr. Affleck’s ancestors did benefit the generations that came after. Though I have no direct knowledge of the family’s history, even after the abolition of slavery no reparations were made. Slaves were sent on their way and the former owners went on exploiting the workforce in other more “legal” ways. He’s every right to be embarrassed, it’s only natural. What he doesn’t have a right to do is edit History. History is what it is, and it happened as it did. Shame on us if we at least don’t respect it enough to honour those that were injured by it and shame on us if we don’t learn from it.