The history of the Christmas carol is somewhat murky, but sources seem to agree that the first Christmas carols (as distinct from winter celebration songs, which are much older) emerged from Italy from around the second century onwards, and were always sung in Latin. Some early fragments of tunes or words survive (Veni Veni Emmanuel is a version of the Antiphons, which have been around since at least the eighth century), and of course we still sing some Christmas music in Latin, but from the thirteenth century onwards carols started to be sung in the language of the people. Tu scendi dalle stelle (usually translated as From Starry Skies Descending or From Starry Skies Thou Comest) dates from 1744, so it’s a baby compared to some Italian carols. There are versions by Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, among others, but I have gone for a simpler choral version.
I can’t remember why I decided to study art history at university, but I know exactly why I decided to do it at Essex. I can still visualise that line in the 1994 prospectus, glittering with romantic possibilities:
In the second year, as part of the Renaissance Art and Architecture module, students will make a ten-day study trip to Florence.
When I was seventeen the furthest I’d been from home was France, or possibly Wales. The prospect of a paid-for trip to Italy – to Florence – sounded impossibly, dazzlingly exciting. So I applied to Essex, and was invited in for an interview, in advance of which I removed a sling from my injured arm at my mother’s insistence (“if you go in wearing a sling, all they’ll remember about you is the sling”), and was eventually offered a place. I still didn’t quite believe I’d ever really make it to Florence (Florence!), but there was plenty to get excited about in the meantime.
The trip drew near. “Bring warm clothing”, read the set of instructions which we were all sent before Christmas. “Italy can be quite chilly in January.” “Bollocks”, I thought. “It’s Italy. Of course it’ll be hot.” I packed sun dresses and cardigans. We flew to Florence. It was freezing. We spent ten days freezing, drinking coffee and wine, visiting churches, eating pastries, sleeping for four hours a night, looking at art, falling in and out of love with each other and drinking more wine. I was nineteen and it was everything I had hoped for.
Back in Wivenhoe, we had bonded. We had told each other all our deepest secrets, made each other laugh and cry, and swapped all of our clothes. We wrote essays together and shared textbooks. The one book we each had our own copy of, because it was only £6.99 (I have it here, so I know) was Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, published in 1550; an extraordinarily personal and vital account of the lives of the people whose work we’d encountered in Florence, some of whom Vasari actually knew. As interesting for what it told us about Vasari as for what it revealed about its subjects, it was a book we all knew inside out. And our favourite story was the story of Donatello and the eggs. I’ll let Giorgio tell it himself:
[Donatello] made a crucifix over which he took extraordinary pains. When he had finished it, convinced that he had produced a very rare work, he asked his close friend, Filippo Brunelleschi, for his opinion. But Filippo, in view of what he had already been told by Donatello, was expecting to be shown something far better; and when he saw what it was he merely smiled to himself. At this Donatello begged him for the sake of their friendship to say what he thought of it. So Filippo, being always ready to oblige, answered that it seemed to him that Donatello had put on the cross the body of a peasant, not the body of Jesus Christ which was most delicate and in every part the most perfect human form ever created. Finding that instead of being praised, as he had hoped, he was being criticized, and more sharply than he could ever have imagined, Donatello retorted: “If it was as easy to make something as it is to criticize, my Christ would really look to you like Christ. So you get some wood and try to make one yourself.”
Without another word, Filippo returned home and secretly started work on a crucifix, determined to vindicate his own judgement by surpassing Donatello; and after several months he brought it to perfection. Then one morning he asked Donatello to have dinner with him, and Donatello accepted. On their way to Filippo’s house they came to the Old Market where Filippo bought a few things and gave them to Donatello, saying: “Take these home and wait for me. I shall be along in a moment.”
So Donatello went on ahead into the house, and going into the hall he saw, placed in a good light, Filippo’s crucifix. He paused to study it and found it so perfect that he was completely overwhelmed and dropped his hands in astonishment; whereupon his apron fell and the eggs, the cheeses, and the rest of the shopping tumbled to the floor and everything was broken into pieces. He was still standing there in amazement, looking as if he had lost his wits, when Filippo came up and said laughingly:
“What’s your design, Donatello? What are we going to eat now that you’ve broken anything?”
“Myself,” Donatello answered, “I’ve had my share for this morning. If you want yours, take it. But no more, please. Your job is making Christs and mine is making peasants.”
We loved this story. It had everything: friendship, conflict, local colour and domestic catastrophe. It made the artists seem human in a way that nothing we’d seen or read before had done. When exam time rolled around we made a pact: we would all try and get the story of Donatello and the eggs into one of our exam answers, somehow. It was a silly story and no doubt we’d all be marked down for including it where it wasn’t relevant, but we didn’t care. We were nineteen.
On the day of the exam, we were all slightly giggly. We entered the exam room. We started to feel nervous (I have an anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach right now, reliving it). We turned the papers over. The first question read:
What evidence is there for rivalry among Renaissance Florentine artists?
The room rippled with suppressed laughter as we all tried to avoid catching one another’s eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed an exam so much in my life.