Love and Michelangelo

Ellis Shuman

I made my way up the wide corridor, ignoring the unfinished pieces of marble at the sides, although they were carved by the same talented sculptor whose work I had come to see, and stood in reverent silence when I reached the main hall. Towering above me, over the awestruck crowd and the smartphones snapping photo after social-media-worthy photo, was an enormous, lifelike statue. A stone figure caught in motion—skin and veins, muscles, hair, and genitals impossibly true to human form.

David. The Biblical boy, the future king, slingshot in hand, ready to leap from his pedestal to slay the giant Goliath and claim his place in history and mythology.

"Incredible, isn't he?" Gina said to me. If it wasn't for Gina, I wouldn't be here in Florence admiring Michelangelo's masterpiece.

Speechless, I pulled out my phone to try to capture, somehow, the magnificence of what I was seeing. Gina was right. David was so much more than a massive 17-foot-tall, 6-ton slab of Carraran white marble. How could I ever appreciate any other statue, any other work of art? My short meeting with David was all that I would ever need.

"Perfection," I whispered to Gina. She had been right all along.


Gina had been to Italy twice before and it had always been her dream to take me to Florence. "The sculpture, the paintings, the iconic Duomo. And Michelangelo's David, a realistic statue the likes of which you've never seen," she told me. I promised her that one day we'd go together to the historic Italian city.

Gina visited Italy for the first time as a teenager with her parents and even at that young age, the country enthralled her. In college, she studied art with a major in Italian Renaissance history. A few months before we were married, she took a summer culinary course in Rome.

"Rome is majestic, it's true, with the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, and the Pietà, of course, but Florence is everything you could imagine," she said. "Florence is art, history, religion, and culture. It is, without a doubt, my favorite city in the world."

A trip to Gina's beloved Italy and her cherished Florence remained a pipe dream when putting food on the table and keeping a roof over our heads was the priority. My portfolio of small clients at a growing financial firm kept me busy and left Gina at home to care for our three daughters.

Over the years, we took the girls to Disneyland and for leisurely summers on the seashore. We camped in the national parks, but the outdoors and nature were not things Gina appreciated. Her favorite vacations, she often reminded me, were those when we left our girls with their grandparents while the two of us took to the streets of Manhattan, catching the latest Broadway shows. For Gina, the highlights of these getaways were our visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I enjoyed going to the museum. I admired the joyous colors of Impressionism and I saw beauty in landscapes and realistic portraits, but for me, art was something you look at fleetingly without giving it much thought. Gina, on the other hand, found meaning in the work of the artists. She understood their use of depth and perspective, how they employed realism to make their paintings come to life. She noticed which of the major artists’ paintings had been signed, and those where there was uncertainty about attribution.

"As beautiful as this art is," Gina told me after a visit to the Met, "it pales in comparison to what we'll see in Florence."

Florence, host to the great artworks of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Da Vinci. It was Gina's dream to take me there, and I sincerely hoped we'd make her dream come true. One day.


The corridors of the Uffizi Galleries seemed endlessly long, and the busts of long-ago merchants and rulers at the sides didn't interest me. Visitors wandered back and forth, blocking doorways and limiting access to the popular paintings. Passage through the halls was slow and tiring, so unlike the organized pace of visitors in the Accademia Gallery, where I had seen the David.

"It's stuffy," I said aloud. "And slightly overheated." My eyes were watering, and I felt a tickle in my throat.

Gina was at my side, pulling me along. "Come on," she urged me. "Just ahead is something I want you to see."

The first painting she led me to I immediately recognized. 'The Birth of Venus'. Sandro Botticelli's composition depicted the ancient goddess arriving on land and standing, nude, atop a giant scallop shell. I had read that Botticelli painted on canvas, fairly unusual in the late fifteenth century, and that his paint was based on diluted egg yolk, something I found oddly amusing. For Gina, though, it was the symbolism of the painting that made it significant.

"The beauty of Venus, so pure and perfect, represents the rebirth of Western civilization after the turmoil of the Middle Ages," she explained. "Botticelli's Venus changed the way we perceive the female body, glorifying both its beauty and its sensuality."

All I could think about was egg yolk paint, but I didn't dare spoil Gina's enthusiastic explanations.

"There are two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi—'Annunciation' and 'Adoration of the Magi'—but the most important artwork here, in my opinion, is the 'Doni Tondo' by Michelangelo."

I didn't remember her ever mentioning that one.

"The 'Doni Tondo' is a painting depicting the Holy Family. It's a circular composition showing three figures—Baby Jesus being gently handed from St. Joseph to the Virgin Mary. It's unique because it is the only finished panel painting made by Michelangelo to survive, still in its original frame. He painted this piece, probably on commission for a Tuscan ruler, a few years before he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome."

Gina was so knowledgeable while I was unsophisticated and unworldly. Discussion of art history flew high over my head, despite my having done my best to study the Italian masters before this trip.

I continued from one Uffizi room to the next, ignoring the ancient sculptures and Middle Ages paintings; bypassing the roped-off rooms offering glimpses into a royal lifestyle from centuries before; not bothering to linger before the works of Titian, Caravaggio, and Raphael—Gina could expound about these artists for hours—until I stood with her before the 'Doni Tondo'.

To say that I was unimpressed was an understatement. The painting was small and simple, nothing at all like the decorative Sistine Chapel frescoes I had seen pictured in books and on television. The holy biblical figures were not at all true to life, in my uneducated opinion, so unlike the magnificent statue of David.

"Okay…" I said loudly, causing several visitors to look at me as if I had gone crazy.

"To fully appreciate his creativity, you need to see all of his work. His statues and paintings, his architectural plans for St. Peter's Basilica. There has never been an artist like him. Michelangelo's work will live on forever."

Live on forever. Gina knew so much.


Over the years, Gina became quite the Italophile. She enjoyed watching movies set in Rome, cooked pasta similar to what she had prepared during her culinary course, and picked up enough Italian for a basic conversation, which she unabashedly started whenever she encountered someone speaking the language. Occasionally, she'd greet me in the mornings with 'Buongiorno' and I'd respond by saying 'Ciao Bella'. Gina was virtually in love with everything Italian.

Our plans to travel to Italy kicked into high gear at last when our youngest daughter started high school. I took on the logistical planning of the trip—ordering flights, booking hotels, and forming itineraries, with Gina's memories of her previous trips guiding me to the must-see attractions. We'd stay in Florence for four days, we decided, take the train to Venice for a three-day stay, and then return to Florence before our flight home. Although we considered going to Rome as well, I couldn't afford the extra time away from work and we had a limited budget. Still, I added a surprise to our itinerary—a wine-tasting tour of Tuscany. I knew Gina would love this—she frequently raved about imported Chianti wine.

Ahead of our October trip, I researched both Florence and Venice. I read about their history, their rulers, and their basilicas. I labored through a 500-page biography of Michelangelo and learned that the sculptor and painter was also an accomplished architect and poet. I admired his creativity and accomplishments, but I as much as I studied to prepare for the trip, I could never match Gina's knowledge of Italian Renaissance art.

Visiting Italy would be a cultural learning adventure for me and Gina would serve as my personal art guide. I was really looking forward to the trip but then, life got in the way.

Two weeks before our flight, Gina received a worrisome diagnosis from her doctors. A small lump was removed from her left breast, and there were unforeseen complications.

"It's nothing," Gina said, dismissing her symptoms. But her doctors weren't so sure. They urged her to take more tests, and we needed to postpone our trip.

I canceled our flights and hotel bookings, uncertain whether I would get a full refund on my deposits. I canceled the reservation for the wine-tasting tour, which Gina didn't even know about. And I informed my boss I wouldn't be taking time off from work after all. At least not now.

Italy. That's where Gina wanted to take me and we'd go there, but not this year, I told myself. "Get some rest and you'll be back to your normal self in no time," I assured my wife.


"One last stop on the trail of Michelangelo," Gina said to me on the last morning in Florence. "Basilica di Santa Croce."

By this point I was pretty much churched out, but I was following Gina's guidance to sites she thought important to see. She continued to share the art of her favorite Italian city and I let her lead the way.

Located a short distance from the awe-inspiring Duomo, Santa Croce was the principal Franciscan church in Florence. As I entered the building, I sensed the differences between the two basilicas. There were no crowds here waiting in line to enter and, in fact, there was hardly anyone else in the expansive central nave. Access to the altars was unimpeded. I wasn't familiar with the names of the artists whose paintings hung on the walls, but they were not Santa Croce's main attraction.

Along the sides of the nave were tombs and funerary monuments, some in chapels by themselves, while others were set against the church walls. I approached one and read the name. Galileo Galilei. The famous astronomer, physicist, and engineer was a Florentine, I remembered from my studies. There were plaques honoring other famous Italians—Dante and Leonardo da Vinci among them—but these luminaries were buried elsewhere.

"Just a little further," Gina urged me. "Over there."

I approached a tomb located at the beginning of the right nave, across from the main door of the Basilica. The inscription was easy to read. Michelangelo Buonarroti. This was where Michelangelo had been laid to rest for eternity.

Three sculptures were perched on a wall below a rectangular stone coffin. Gina introduced them to me. "Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture," she said. The three figures appeared to be saddened by their role adorning the tomb, as if they were in mourning. Set above the coffin itself was a bust of the great Renaissance artist.

Here is what I knew about Michelangelo's death from the biography I had read long before this trip. He died three weeks short of his 89th birthday—it was unusual for people to live to such a ripe old age in the sixteenth century. Michelangelo sculpted in Rome almost until the day he died but hadn't returned to Florence in decades. After his death, he was interred here in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

"One last stop on the trail of Michelangelo," Gina had said, and here it was. I had seen the David and the unfinished Four Slave sculptures in the Accademia Gallery. I had viewed the small 'Doni Tondo' painting in the Uffizi Galleries. These had given me a brief introduction to the artist's works. I vowed right then and there to travel to Rome one day soon to see the Pietà and the Sistine Chapel. For me, the trail of Michelangelo was just beginning.

I turned to Gina to thank her for encouraging me all these years to follow her to Italy, but of course Gina wasn't there. Only my warm memories of my wife.

"Promise me you'll go to Florence," Gina said to me, a few weeks before she died, the cancer being too aggressive for her body to handle.

"How can I go without you?" I responded, gently touching her warm cheeks.

"Go, and I'll be there with you," she said.

And it was true. Despite my initial misgivings, and at the encouragement of my daughters, I embarked on a trip to Italy on my own. But I was never by myself, really. Everywhere I went, from seeing the David to walking through the crowded halls of the Uffizi, Gina was at my side. Her explanations were loud and clear in my mind, as if she was walking with me every step of the way.

I had made it to Gina's beloved Italy at last and now, a few months after her death, I understood her desire to take me to these sites more than ever. Like her, I fell under the spell of historic Florence, her 'favorite city in the world'. There was so much to see here; I had gotten just a taste of its wonders by visiting.

"Thank you, Gina," I said aloud, tears dripping down my cheeks as I stood before Michelangelo's tomb.

"Ready for Venice?" she asked me. "I have so much to show you there!"

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