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Cathedrals & Redwoods

Florence, Italy, a city of about 370,000 residents, hosts more than two million visitors a year, and that figure must be a conservative one. Even in October, when it is supposed to rain at least 12 days during the month, the streets of the central core of the city are jammed with tourists. They come because they are told that this city is the "birthplace of the Renaissance."

They come to shop, this being one of Italy's premier fashion centers. They come to eat in trattorias, pizza and panini being the dominant street food. And, notably, they come to "do Florence", that is to say they have been here. Not surprisingly, most of the visitors spend their time inside three or four of the major churches, the Uffizi museum, and the Academy museum.

Guidebooks highlight itineraries based on "must sees." This is in part because a large number of visitors have only one day, having taken the two hour train from Rome. Other visitors can only spare "a couple of days" to see Florence. What a pity! Of course no one comes to Florence without visiting the Duomo, the Gothic cathedral begun in 1296 and completed in 1436. Today, it still dominates the city skyline. For almost six hundred years, the Duomo's dome, designed by Brunelleschi, was acknowledged as the largest brick dome ever constructed. Great, massive churches dominate the city. This is, after all, the world's major repository for works showing La Madonna col Bambino (Mother and Child) and the Annunciazione (The Announcement).

Every church, be it the Duomo Cathedral, Basilica Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, or Santo Spirito and Santa Maria della Carmine (across the Arno on the south bank), has is own unique flavor. There is not space here to list all the churches and museums that house Florentine's overwhelming inventory of religious images. Even the most ardent student of Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art cannot deny that his or her eyes blur over after viewing the 500th painting, fresco, sculpture, mosaic, and hand-copied illustrated manuscript. Florence has the distinction of being the premier patron of Christian religious art for well over 700 years, and it shows. But my purpose here is not to review such religious art. Rather, it is to try and provide some insight into how and why Florence has succeeded over time in developing a vibrant economy, way of life, and example for the world of what success looks like. Those of us living north of the gate can learn much from Florence's example.

What immediately strikes the visitor is how remarkably similar the climate is to Northern California. Florentine weather (and the province of Tuscany in general) feels like Northern California. Geographically, both are blessed with a moderate climate, what some call "Mediterranean." With fair weather for a good 9 months out of the year, both Tuscany and Northern California are blessed with a long growing season, ideal for wine grapes, olive trees, and farming generally. But, whereas both are known worldwide for fine wines, everything else about the two agricultural areas differs profoundly. Even though Tuscany produces about 57 million gallons a wine a year (not all at premium prices by the way), the province is also a net exporter of an eye-popping array of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and grains.

Tuscany is, in a word, self-sustaining when it comes to food production, and has achieved this in large part through small and medium size locally owned farming. Tuscany has found a healthy solution to feeding its own people at a reasonable price and exports fine foods to the world -- olives, wines, cheeses, world-class beef, lamb, spices, preserves, the list is almost endless. Where, one has to ask, did Northern California go wrong? Even though there is ample fertile land, Northern California does not produce enough basic food to feed our own population at a reasonable price and also provide healthy incomes through export. Premium wine vineyards so dominate the landscape that sustainable food production is simply not a priority.

While there are a number of "farmer's market" outlets and a number of independent farms, which are exemplary, they tend to serve the well-to-do with expensive goat cheese, honey, and a limited spectrum of fruits and vegetables. Compare such limited inventories with what the average Florentino has available simply by stepping out one's door six days a week. Available is all manner of local produce and basic foods. Local butcher shops, fish shops, pasta shops, corner fruit and vegetable stands, wine shops with $5 per two liter bottles of good table wine, are EVERYWHERE!

Compared to Costco or Walmart, food in Florence costs a bit more, but one also eats better, healthier, and with more gusto. Not to put too fine a point on it, Italians live about 4 years longer on average than do Americans. They, after all, have universal health care, at about 1/3 the price of service, and which is rated at the top when it comes to quality of outcome. This is in spite of 22% of its population smoking (compared to 13% in the U.S.) and 45% of people self-identifying themselves as overweight or obese. Americans, who rank 14th or below when it comes to health services, are supposed to be the ones on a fitness kick and who insist that they are indeed #1. Well, it just does not wash, does it?

All of this comment on how well the Italians are doing in comparison with what is happening in America should also be viewed in light of the fact that in 1945 Italy was a bombed-out country that had just lost a war. Its cities were in shambles, the transportation system was ruined, and the basic industries that sustain a modern economic system were non-existent (well, save for the Sicilian mafia).

Outside the apartment where we are staying is a sixty pound block of stone from the blown up Ponte Carraia, which spanned the Arno. That stone landed where we see it 70 years ago, almost to the day, when the Germans blew up the bridge as they retreated from the American Army's advance. That is literally the only sign of destruction we have found in Florence. From 1950 to today, Italy has become the 6th largest economy in the world.

When the French writer, Stendahl, visited Florence in 1817, he entered the Gothic Basilica of Santa Croce expecting to view famous religious paintings and such. However, upon entering this massive, hallowed space, he was struck with such awe at the sheer immensity and profound aura of the interior that he fainted away. For two hundred years, reports of people so overcome with emotion that they have had to be hospitalized number in the hundreds. While the vast majority of visitors to Florence do not experience such a profound sense of awe, no one departs feeling unmoved. Florence is indeed unique, and it is that uniqueness, of which the religious art is but a part, that stays in memory long after. In no small way, that sense of awe, reverence even, is what we, in Northern California, have at our doorstep each and every day.

All we need to do to feel that same profound sense of awe and profound majesty is to step into an old growth stand of redwoods. We do indeed have "cathedrals" to match anything Florence has to offer. Our "cathedrals" are not the works of man, nor should they be. But they are capable of providing the visitor with a unique experience hard to match anywhere else on the North American continent.

If indeed it is true that we have such a magnificent natural environment, why then is it so difficult to envision our economic and cultural environment as a healthy one? If Florence, as but one example from Italy, found the means to rebuild and prosper, after being bombed into submission a mere 70 years ago, how is it that Northern California, a land never invaded, let alone bombed, can't shake off the endemic malaise of economic stagnation, even decline? Like the Tuscany region, Northern California is equally capable of supporting a healthy, multifaceted local agricultural base, one not limited by premium wine producers. With the least bit of political will, our rivers could be returned to a healthy condition and the salmon fisheries restored. Small and medium sized businesses that give outlet to the impulse to provide goods of real quality could be promoted.

One thing that struck me as I walked the streets of Florence is just how many businesses are focused on restoration. Florentines have been at work improving their living space since it was founded by Sulla in 80 B.C. They understand that restoration is simply another word for investment. They busy themselves with the never-ending task of restoring what they have so that the world finds its way to their doorsteps. The essential difference, however, is that Florentines focus on preserving and restoring what is "man-made."

They have a refined market profile of the type of visitor interested in what has taken over a thousand years to build and produce. In so many ways, they provide and preserve those things in their environment capable of evincing in every visitor some hint of the Stendahl effect. Northern California should not, and cannot, imitate what Florence has. The natural environment is the fundamental, lasting treasure that Northern California has to show off to the world. Has there ever been a visitor to a redwood preserve or to the edge of the wave tossed shore of the Pacific ocean who has not felt that same sense of awe and wish to return? At the very heart of Florence, at the Mercato Nuova, sits a large bronze statue of Porcellino, a wild boar called the little pig. The visitor to Florence is encouraged to place a coin in Porcellino's open mouth. If it drops into a grill at its feet, the visitor is sure to return one day.

The visitor to Northern California need not search out a lone statue. Touching, embracing any old growth redwood will suffice.


  1. humbilly November 13, 2014

    Nice article, but, no way a redwood tree or grove can match the spectacle of the divinely inspired, man made treasures in Firenze. Only the deity can make a tree but the Duomo! Magnifico!

  2. Rick Weddle November 13, 2014

    I agree with Mr. Graham. However you view our world, as the six day project of His Onlyness, or a very long series of quite unlikely coincidences, once you stand in an old growth grove, you will be moved. One can’t know what ‘they’ had in mind when it began, but if this is how it worked out, ‘they’ had to be doing something right. And colossal architecture is truly impressive…that’s part of its job description…but it isn’t really alive in itself. Nor does it appear as a volunteer.

  3. Franklin Graham November 18, 2014

    I am encouraged by the comments about comparing redwoods and cathedrals. However, I do see a distinct difference in how each magnificent “cathedral” was created. Cathedrals in Firenze, or anywhere else for that matter, are indeed the creation of men, mortal men with a belief system that is founded on faith. The redwood groves, however, are the work of nature and did to require the faith of any religion to become what they are. That is why I believe nature has it ALL over man-made edifices and man-made belief systems. The pity is that we do not honor and preserve redwoods as we do man-made objects.
    Frank Graham

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