Friday, March 05, 2010

The Bridge

Fabio Borbottoni (1820-1901)
L' antica fortificazione di Ponte Vecchio circa 15 secolo The Ancient fortification of the Ponte Vecchio about the 15th century
Oil on canvas
Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze Collection

Print made by Jacques Callot
Capricci di varie figure di Iacopo Callot - The Florence set c.1617
Print on paper 53mm x 80mm
The British Museum, London
Side view of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with men bathing in the river; reclining nude figure in the foreground, on the left c.1617

Albumen print of The Ponte Vecchio (exterior view along bridge) in 19th Century

The Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno at its narrowest point

After being destroyed by a flood in 1117 it was reconstructed in stone but swept away again in 1333 except for two of its central piers

It was rebuilt in 1345. It is this new built bridge which St Catherine of Siena would have known

There have been many changes since then: in 1565 Cosimo I de Medici had Giorgio Vasari build the Vasari Corridor above it

The central image of St Catherine of Siena`s The Dialogue, is Jesus as “The Bridge.”

In The Dialogue, God exhorts the Soul to admire his Son, whom he has sent as a bridge that “stretches from heaven to earth, joining the earth of your humanity with the Greatness of the Godhead. This is what I mean when I say it stretches from heaven to earth – through my union with humanity.”(Catherine of Siena. Dialogue: 22. The Dialogue. Trans. Noffke, 59.)

In The Dialogue the bridge is Christ crucified, built to reach “from heaven to earth” so that we will not have to travel by way of a river which has become a way of death. There the river is sin, and the bridge the way to eternal salvation.

This bridge, says Catherine, “cannot be destroyed or stolen from anyone who wants to follow it, because it is solid and immovable and comes from ... the unchangeable one."

"When a person has experienced my consolation and my visitation within her in one way,” says God in The Dialogue, “and then that way ceases, she goes back along the road by which she had come, hoping to find the same thing again. But I do not always give in the same way, lest it seem as if I had nothing else to give. No, I give in many ways, as it pleases my goodness and according to the soul’s need. But in her foolishness she looks for my gift only in that one way, trying as it were to impose rules on the Holy Spirit. That is not the way to act. Instead, she should cross courageously along the bridge of the teaching of Christ crucified and there receive my gifts when, where, and as my goodness pleases to give them."

She envisages the individual’s Soul mounting and traversing this “Bridge,” as she describes the structure as horizontal and vertical. You climb up the Cross, like a ladder, yet you also cross over it, like a walkway, it because it has a “roof of mercy” and stone-sided walls of virtue. Before the advent of the Son, these walls did not exist to protect the spiritual traveller.

Noffke, in Catherine of Siena: Vision through a Distant Eye, 219. suggests that Catherine modelled her “Bridge” on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio, which she must have seen and crossed during her numerous sojourns from 1374 to 1378.

It is likely that she wrote this particular section of the book in Florence during her stay. While she begins to develop her Bridge theme in an earlier letter to Raimondo, it is only in the Dialogue “that the bridge is embellished with the roof, walls, and shops that ease the pilgrim’s way to God.”

There are, she reflected, two possible ways to get from one bank of the Arno to the other. One could attempt to cross through the water or one could go the way of the bridge. Either one held its difficulties

Catherine crossed the Ponte Vecchio for the last time in late July of 1378. She left Florence the moment she learned that what she had come to do was in fact being accomplished by others. In her own and others’ short-sighted perception she had failed.

A year and half later she was finishing her personal journey over the bridge of dying-into-life, still enveloped in a sense of inadequacy and failure but enveloped also in the truest knowledge she had ever had of who she was.

“Don’t be pained by what I tell you,” she wrote in her final letter to Raymond of Capua; “I don’t know what divine Goodness will do with me.”

She knew that somehow what she had done was worth preserving and propagating, and she entrusted others with that task.

But she was not, nor had she ever been, concerned about perpetuating her own existence.

She had no idea that the seeds of reform she had sown would bear fruit for decades, or that for centuries her vision would inspire others to the same passionate contemplation and contemplative passion she had lived and preached