I recently vacationed in Northern Italy, thereby establishing two personal firsts.
The trip not only marked my first time in Europe — previously, my only experience of foreign countries was short hops across the Canadian and Mexican borders — but also the first time I have ever been absent from my job for two consecutive weeks. I learned as much from the one as from the other.
Northern Italy, particularly Florence, is where Western culture first emerged from the Dark Ages and entered what we now call the Renaissance — a period of spiritual and intellectual awakening that is most vividly apparent in 15th-century art and architecture.
I won't ask you to sit through a travel log or subject you to a verbal version of my vacation slides, but the experience truly was unforgettable for all of the usual reasons. There is almost too much to see and to assimilate. For me, and I imagine for anyone with a grounding in the building trades, it was difficult to focus on the art because most of the paintings and sculpture were originally created for, and are currently on display in, some of the most remarkable buildings ever constructed.
Consider the cathedral in Florence (Santa Maria del Fiore). Commissioned in 1296, it was mostly complete by 1420, except for the huge dome or “cupola.” In fact, during the entire time that the cathedral was being constructed, the technology required to build the dome, once perfected by the Romans, was completely lost. The largest dome in Europe at the time, it is entirely self-supporting and was constructed without the use of any supporting framework. It is a mark of the intellectual confidence — some would say hubris — of the age that the architects nevertheless constructed the cathedral leaving a large octagonal opening fully expecting that by the time their work was finished, the solution would be found. It was, by Filippo Brunelleschi, who spent the last years of his life overseeing the dome's construction, which was completed in 1434. It took another 27 years to finish the “lantern” that sits atop the dome or “cupola” (quite a punch list).
I don't know what all the other tourists who climbed the 463 stone steps to the top of the cupola were thinking, but I kept coming back to craft. Yes, I was on vacation ostensibly to clear my mind of the business of building and remodeling. If that was my goal, I chose the wrong country to visit, because in Italy the reverence for craft is pervasive. This is not surprising in a town like Florence, where the locals included Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. But everyone — government, public and private institutions, businesses, and ordinary citizens — seems to understand the value of the arts and the building trades and actively support them, often by extraordinary means. How extraordinary? When a bridge over the Arno River designed by Michelangelo was destroyed by bombing in World War II, the Italians rebuilt it. Literally. They didn't recreate it or construct an exact replica. They dredged the river to recover the original materials, and re-laid the entire span, stone by stone.
I have written in the past that craftsmanship is taken for granted by today's customer, and that it's control of the customer experience that remodelers need to master to be successful. I stand behind those statements, but not exactly in the sense I originally meant them. Craftsmanship should be a given, but it should never be taken for granted. Process is important, but success is also measured by what we build and how long it lasts.