In my experience, travelers fall into two camps: those who always assume they’ll be back, or act as if they do, and those who don’t. For those who assume that each visit is one off, the best experiences are no doubt especially vivid and intense.
I fall squarely into the other category. The odds that I will ever travel to Australia again are not great, yet when my family and I visited a decade ago, I noted which things might or might not warrant a closer look, as if the visit were simply a scouting trip.
Our attitudes toward travel surely have parallels elsewhere in our lives as well. I suspect that those of us who assume that we will be returning find it harder to say goodbye, and experience loss as a series of small, sad epiphanies rather than a single devastating blow.
It is especially sweet for those in my camp to find ourselves back in a special place we’ve imagined returning to. Yesterday morning, at the end of a three day stay in Florence for a conference on the Eurozone crisis, the vagaries of Italian opening hours gave me just enough time to visit two of my favorite places in Florence: San Marco, the museum in the monastery where Fra Angelico lived; and the Church of the Ognissanti, which has an enormous painting of the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher.
The Fra Angelico paintings in San Marco can only be seen in person there. Each small, white-washed, chapel-like cell on the second floor of the monastery has a single devotional fresco. In the annunciations [here is one
], Gabriel is as modest and abashed as Mary; Judas is half hidden—only his lead-colored halo giving him away—as the apostles listen to Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount [here
]. Even the crucifixions—the dominant motif—are almost unbearably elegant.
Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper takes up an entire wall of the convent adjoining the Church of the Ognissanti, and is only open Monday, Tuesday and Saturday mornings (for the happy reason that the church and convent are still actively used for worship). The Ghirlandaio fresco
is much more psychologically complex than Fra Angelico. Judas sits on one side of the long table facing Jesus and the other apostles, who interact in a multitude of attitudes: John evidently drowsy (no doubt he will be the first to fall asleep in Gethsemane), Peter with a thumb in the air and knife in his hand, others busily conversing or, in one case, brooding.
In The Stones of Florence, Mary McCarthy identifies both Fra Angelico and Ghirlandaio with the “Maytime” mode of Florentine painting, which she contrasts with the more severe, autumnal tendencies of Masaccio or Michelangelo. I'll admit that neither alone is altogether satisfying. Nor would the world be quite so rich if there were only one kind of traveler, those who think they'll be back, or those who accept that they're leaving.