Dying for our sins, and for Italian food

Like many Catholic countries, Italy is crawling with crucifixes, and Florence, where I’ve been for four days so far, is inescapably swept up in the cross craze. The objects, often beautiful pieces of art, are bloody, baroque, humdrum and horrific — a whole cross-section. 

Jesus died on the cross and we know that wasn’t pleasant. Naked, nailed, speared, bleeding, suffocating … you get the picture.

I do too. But what I don’t get is the exuberant, even perverse glorification of Christ’s grisly death. I sort of understand the symbolic power of it all — God willed it — yet wonder why people wear one of history’s worst torture devices around their necks. (And I wonder why so many heavy metal bands are morbidly obsessed with them. Dude!)

Speaking of bodily torment, today I stumbled on the rabidly popular sandwich stand All’Antico Vinaio — the kind of place with lines out the door — where I had been hoping to go but had no idea where it was. Pure kismet. This was after I took in a sprawling and mind-altering M.C. Escher (he sounds like a Dutch rapper) exhibit at the Museum of the Innocents, whose name has guilt written all over it. I didn’t know Pink Floyd was so into Escher, but it makes almost comical sense.

I couldn’t read the big menu board at the sandwich place — Italian and all — but I finally settled on the Firenze for seven euros, or just over seven bucks. The baseball mitt-sized meal consists of six heart attacks worth of salami, creamed parmesan and sun-dried tomatoes, stuffed between thinly sliced focaccia. It was fantastic, popping with flavor, and totally unfinishable. The pigeons had a frenzied feast.

The night’s meal is typically the highlight of the day and must be meticulously researched. For dinner I went to an old-school trattoria — defined as an “Italian restaurant serving simple food” — that ratings aggregates go gaga for. Even Michelin backs this joint. It was fine, but mostly wound up being overrated by dint of its noble, been-there-forever history. The giant glass of house wine was a plus at a meager four euros. I maybe eat one or two steaks a year and I ordered a sirloin (Florence is famous for superior steaks) and a seven-euro salad that was actually a few floppy, naked leaves worth about 15 cents. 

The steak was solid, but it dawned on me: As yummy as they are, steaks are like pancakes — they get boring about half-way through. I was glad I didn’t get a true “Florentine” steak that so many diners got and chewed on for like an hour. Those meats are the size of the cut from the opening credits of “The Flintstones,” a slab so big it tips over Fred Flintstone’s car.

As far as Florentine greatest hits, the other day I visited the awesome 17-foot-tall marble nudist David, by Michelangelo. I didn’t mention it before, but here’s a peek (it’s almost obligatory, isn’t it?):

Curiosity killed the Catholic

I’m always on the lookout for a little religious illumination, be it the rattling Scientology documentary “Going Clear” to actually inviting a pair of Mormon elders to my home for an eye-crossing lesson in radical historical revisionism. (They were very nice young men, for the record, natty in ties and pressed white shirts. A wee deluded.)

Right now I’m returning to some tried-and-true texts: the four Gospels and Acts in the New Testament, along with “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E.P. Sanders.

This hidebound agnostic isn’t going reborn, hasn’t “found” anything and anyway isn’t searching for religious enlightenment, a Damascus moment. I’m a minor history buff (literally: it was my college minor) and armchair theologian, which means I sit in an armchair and read about religion with skepticism and a giant cigar.

The cigar’s a jape, but I’m fascinated by ideas of mass worship, divinity, mysticism and the spread of religion through the ages. Seeking “truth” isn’t the object — I don’t believe it resides in a religious text — but merely intellectual stimulation.

(And I have gotten out of the armchair: I was raised Catholic — baptized, Sunday school, weekly Mass, teenage apostasy, the works. In 2000 I made a solo trip to Israel to, among other things, get immersed in monotheism firsthand. It altered none of my thinking on the matter, except to solidify preconceptions about faith and fanaticism.)

Curiosity killed the Catholic. The more religion I ingest, the warier I become. I thirst for facts, historical actualities, not myths or homilies or inspired conjecture. I want the relative power of knowledge, not the affirmation of faith.

What strikes me is how, outside of the academy, intellectual ballast is so often at odds with religion. Example: A good friend in college prided herself on her devout Christianity, chided me for everyday blasphemies, went to church weekly and praised Christ. But she never read the Bible and everything she knew about the religion was received wisdom, blind faith from the church and her parents. Once, when I described to her what Jesus probably looked like, she said, and I quote, “Didn’t he have those beautiful blue eyes?” Yes, and a brushed swoop of sandy-blond hair.

face-of-Jesus
Would the real Jesus please stand up?

Maybe Jesus did look like Barry Manilow. But I care more about a historically accurate account of what he said and did. I especially want to know how he turned water into wine, a miracle that could save me bundles at Liquor Locker. No one seems to have a complete grasp on the actual Jesus. Even the Catholic Bible I’m reading is strewn with footnotes that cast troubling shadows over the “gospel truth.” Despite my reading, I’m still a grappling student. I’ll get back to you when the heavens crack open.